When pilgrims traveled by foot, it took them eight days to get from Cairo to Mount Sinai. It took us only a few hours, but we did begin to feel like some of our journey was a penance.
We had arrived at the Cairo airport in the evening (K and I from Istanbul, K’s brother, who I think I’ll call “Red Bull,”* from the U.S.—Prairie Dog had gone on to explore other parts of Turkey with some friends, so we joined up with our new male “chaperone” in Egypt). We successfully negotiated our first taxi of the trip and set out for our hotel.
Riding in a taxi in Cairo requires a sense of humor. There are traffic lanes, but, as in many countries, they’re rather irrelevant. More important is your car’s horn, which gets employed frequently—not in an impatient or rude way like in the U.S., but in a more informative “I’m letting you know I’m over here” sort of way. One of our later drivers, describing Cairo traffic, made weaving, crossing-over motions with his hands and said, “Is easy.” And there is a kind of flow to it, once you get used to it. I still had my moments, though, of cringing in the back seat of the taxi and squeaking, “Don’t hit those donkeys! Please don’t hit the donkeys!”
And then there was the moment when our driver was about to get on a highway and saw that the traffic was backed-up, standing still. Almost in unison, he and a couple of cars ahead of him started driving backward up the ramp, honking to let the people behind us know he was coming. The people behind us then had to back up as well. All these cars, driving backwards on a major road. To our tired brains, it was one of the more surreal experiences of our lives.
We did get safely to our hotel that night and safely back to the airport the next morning. From Cairo, we took a short, one-hour flight to Sharm El-Sheikh, a resort town on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula—which, more relevant to our purposes, is the closest airport to Mount Sinai. It’s still a good three-hour drive from Sharm El-Sheikh to Mount Sinai, and we were worried about finding a taxi driver who would be willing to take us all the way there (and to drive all the way back again afterwards).
In fact, we were so focused on finding a driver that we neglected to re-load our supply of water, which by this time had dwindled to about a third of one water bottle between the three of us. Not so smart when you’re going to set out through miles and miles of desert in an un-air-conditioned car with a chain-smoking driver.
So we found a driver who agreed to take us to Mount Sinai, and we set off merrily on our way. However, about fifteen minutes into our journey, the driver saw a man he knew by the side of the road and pulled over. Then our driver got out and the stranger sat down behind the wheel. Our former driver patted the new guy on the shoulder, assured us with the words “Good driver,” and walked off. We checked to make sure that our new driver was giving us the same price as the old one, which he was, so though we were a bit confused, we tried to settle back in our seats and enjoy the scenery.
One of the first things I saw along the road was a dead camel. Not a good sign.
I was a bit jumpy at every checkpoint (and there were many along the way), simply because I’m not accustomed to handing over my passport to un-uniformed strangers while uniformed men with machine guns look on. I knew the checkpoints were there for the safety of tourists like us, since there have been several bombings on the Sinai Peninsula in recent years, but it was still unnerving.
We did arrive at Sinai eventually, though we had trouble convincing our driver that there really was a guesthouse at the monastery (St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, the oldest continuing monastery in the world), and that we were indeed staying at it. He kept trying to drop us off at various small hotels in the village of St. Catherine, a couple of miles away. Even the villagers didn’t seem to be aware that the monastery had lodging for guests, which was not exactly comforting.
Our driver had to drop us off at the checkpoint closest to the monastery, beyond which taxis couldn’t go. This checkpoint was more complicated than all the others, because the guards went through all the contents of each of our suitcases. The official made me open my shrink-wrapped-sealed box of Turkish Delight, which I’d bought as a gift for Porpoise. I don’t know what he thought it was.
After we cleared security, we trudged up a dusty hill, dragging our suitcases behind us in the camel dung that covered the road. It must have only been a ten-minute walk, but it felt like more. Nevertheless, at the end, we discovered that there was indeed a monastery guesthouse, that they had our reservations, and that they would feed us breakfast and supper every day. After our journey through the desert, let me tell you, it felt like miraculous providence. Manna. Water from the rock. Whatever.
While we were at St. Catherine’s, K and I read to each other from Lost in Wonder, the Esther de Waal book I’ve mentioned before on The Ottery. As I’ve said before, de Waal’s books always seem to have sentences or passages that resonate with my life in eerie ways. We certainly found much applicable to our travels. Though I didn’t read it until after we’d left Sinai, one poem from the book encapsulates much of the spiritual angle or our journey (even though the poem is about Abraham, not Moses). The poem’s by Bonnie Thurston, and here it is:
He was seventy-five years old
and God’s first word to him
I think of Abram
when my plans go awry,
pries my fingers loose
from the grasping illusion
of control over life.
‘Go,’ God said to Abram,
giving no address,
disclosing no destination.
Taking an unruly family,
trusting God to show the way,
On that wild journey,
he, too, had fingers pried loose,
heard Sarai laugh, learned
the blessing comes
in the going
and the letting go.
* I’ve christened K’s brother “Red Bull” for his resemblance to another character in the animated movie The Last Unicorn. Also, most mornings he wasn’t exactly chipper and looked in need of a highly caffeinated energy drink.
2 comments September 17th, 2006