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The Vacation Vacuum
Rating: (5.0) (52 Votes)

Dahab, Egypt
March 26th, 2005

Pros: Enjoyed mammoth plates of shish kabob
Cons: None

Dahab is Egyptian flypaper. Practically everyone I've met these past several days has admitted that they came here intending to stay but a short while and now they've been stuck here, “one week”, “a month”, six months. The town also teems with expats from Russia to America and exudes an international air. Its virtual nothingness and sanitary global homogeny is exactly what I normally try to avoid in my journeys. “Nothing” however has come at just the right time and now I'm wallowing in it.

For the past several days I've done virtually nothing. I've lounged on sofas by the beach overlooking the Gulf of Arabia and enjoyed mammoth plates of shish kabob and tall glasses of warm coconut tapioca. I've gone from restaurant to restaurant, putting my feet up and writing all day long and I've been loving it. I had initially considered staying here but a day or so en route to Cairo but almost a week later and I can barely conjure enough strength to book a bus ticket.

This has been a much appreciated vacation within the journey and I'm thrilled that there is nothing to see here besides the coast of Saudi Arabia on the shoreline while I splay myself out on cushions and drink doll-sized cups of viscous coffee. To best describe the sort of town Dahab is I'd probably say it's a cross between Mykonos and South Beach but with a more laid-back feel. There is everything a traveler needs here and far too much of what they don't need. About the only culture to be found here comes from the radio and even that takes a backseat to western pop music. I'll be starved for adventure and culture later but right now I'm only starved for more cheap Middle Eastern food and a bit of sunshine.

I’ll wake up and escape in a couple of days. If you'll excuse me I have a favourite table in the shade on the seashore that's calling my name for a plate of kofta, pita and hummus and a little glass of anise tea.

Cheers next mount Sinai,

And be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning unto Mount Sinai, and present thyself there to me in the top of the mount.

And no man shall come up with thee, neither let any man be seen throughout all the mount; neither let the flocks nor herds feed before that mount.

And he hewed two tablets of stone like unto the first; and Moses rose up early in the morning, and went up unto Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. [Exodus 34:2-4]

…And it came to pass, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with them. [Exodus 34:29]

I asked everyone who'd climbed Mount Sinai for the sunrise if it was worth it. I was hoping for a negative response. Call me crazy but climbing a mountain shortly after midnight in the freezing cold is not exactly appealing. “It’s freezing up there – seriously, it actually snows up there” they said. “Try to get some sleep before you leave Dahab or you can sleep in the van on the way up.” they said. “The first couple of hours aren’t that hard but the last hour is difficult – even the camels can’t walk up that part.” they said. "You'll need to rent a blanket once you've reached the summit or you'll freeze to death." they said. "You can't wear those sandals you'll get yourself killed in those!" they said. "Be careful on the way down -- that's the dangerous part," they said. "But is it really worth it?" I asked. The response was unanimous. "Yes" they said.

I nodded in and out of consciousness during the two hour drive in the cramped van to the base of Mount Sinai. It was around 1:30 in the morning when we pulled up in front of the admissions booth. With heavy lids I crawled out and got in line shivering. We were still quite a distance from the actual path and I stood shaking watching the other busloads of people pull up in the darkness. The sight of children and the elderly sitting warmly in the tourist buses while their guides purchased their tickets bolstered my optimism as to the difficulty level. Then it dawned on me, Moses was 80 when he climbed the Mount – how hard can it be?

I befriended a Mexican guy next to me on the ride there and as is the silent code of solo travelers’ ethics in situations like these, we stayed together the entire journey. A Mexican? Yes, a real live and very pleasant Mexican named Arturo. The first Mexican I’ve ever met in any of my journeys. It was shaping up to be a night of many firsts; I’d also never climbed a mountain in the dark before.

Under the light of the full moon we began our assent past camel caravans and up boulder strewn trails. Lunar brilliance rendered our flashlights superfluous for long stretches through the cobalt night. Turning a corner up a wide path, the roar of a dromedary would echo. Deep accented voices were hacking muffled conversation and slowly the image comes into focus. From the shadows silhouetted by Orion and lit by the moon crouched camels draped in tassel-fringed carpets. Turbaned Bedouins in their long flowing robes sat sipping tea from tiny cups next to their beasts of burden. Further up a kerosene lantern hung outside a shack carving light into the etched faces of the men who call Mount Sinai home. I paused for a cup of tea and watched as a woman, her veil flowing ascended a narrowing bend clinging to a camel’s hump.

The shadows grew thick as we climbed further up. The chill dissipated with exertion momentarily and in the darkest narrowing gloom the breeze ceased. I took out my flashlight and scanned the path as a caravan of camels passed. We looked down a chasm at a stream of tiny torches slowly flowing upwards, their twinkling illumination mimicking the constellations above. I sat for a moment and marveled at the serene nocturnal splendor. The images unfolding were as if from the flipping pages of an illustrated biblical epic.

Hours passed and the path began to twist and turn sharply and the incline grew steeper. The air thinned and the temperatures plummeted. We were now only climbing in the shadows of the mountain. We came upon the amber glow of a Bedouin shack selling warm drinks and renting blankets. It was last stop before the summit and now would begin the most arduous part of the trek. It was a little past four in the morning and we’d plenty of time before sunrise so we huddled in the rug-covered walls by the gas heater with small cups of strong coffee. Outside tribesmen hawked the rental of blankets and people were dismounting their transport for the last forty minutes of the climb.

We began the final ascent. A guide presented himself and offered me his arm. I took it around a difficult corner and then insisted that I’d be fine. He didn’t release me and though I knew I’d have to tip him later I felt safer with his help. We continued. He rushed me along at such a dizzying pace that I had to several times sit to catch my breath. Now the path had become precipitous rock steps, many of which shifted underfoot. Ahead Arturo would call out to be wary of a certain patch that spelled danger and I in turn would warn the people behind me. I heard more than a few gasps slice through the pitch of night, some of which were my own.

And then we saw the little structure with an iron cross outlined by the moon clinging to the jagged apex. Invigorated to see the end we sped up and found a crevasse between two boulders threw our blankets down and crawled in-between. We wrapped ourselves up and leaning against one side we faced eastward. We were at the highest point on Mount Sinai and it was impossible for anyone to block our vista.

I looked down to the side of the mount illuminated by the moon and were it not for the lights that steadily trickled up far below it’d have been impossible to decipher the passageway. I looked ahead and saw only a smudge of a white cloud glowing and a thousand stars flickering. Behind me the Egyptian moon shone its blinding pallor. I inhaled deeply and let the moment envelop me; I am on top of Mount Sinai.

The burnished horizon slowly melted away the cerulean sky and very patiently it came like bubbling honey and then for a second seemed to retreat. Now it rose. Its golden glow pouring across the skyline and warming the mount. It was greeted by a smattering of applause and deep sighs. Some prayed, others sang and everyone jockeyed for the right shot.

We began our descent down the other side of the mountain where monks had carved over three thousand irregular steps. We did it without a break past ponds and streams and archways and spectacular vistas. Going down was proving more difficult than the actual ascent as the pressure in my right knee was weakening my stride and my calves were tightening. A few times I slipped slightly on the sand-covered rocks but caught myself and catching my breath rolled my eyes and sighed in relief. I’d only eaten a candy bar and drank gallons of caffeine and was famished but seeing the monastery at the base hours later propelled me faster.

Saint Katherine’s Monastery (she of the wheel) was founded in the fourth century and was built around what is professed to be the actual burning bush in which God spoke to Moses. Now God’s leafy conduit is a sacred pilgrimage site for the faithful. In the cracks of the stone receptacle, the religious wrote their prayers and folding them slipped them in the void.

Doe-eyed I stood in silence and gazed at the verdant shrub and felt something wash over me. Staring with glazed eyes, and mouth agape I leaned against a stone wall blinded by the hot morning sun. I watched as people placed their palms at the base and wept, the aged knelt on the stones with arms outstretched to the heavens muttering their prayers. That’s when I felt it like a twist in my gut. And I said to myself…

By God, if I don't get something to eat quick I'm gonna kill somebody!

Happy Easter!