Last week I traveled with some friends to Dahab, a city on the Sinai Peninsula situated right on the coast of Aqaba. Its a small, resort town with restaurants overlooking the water.
Dahab at night
Good thing I left my camel at home.
That week practically every study abroad student traveled somewhere. Wednesday was the 6th of October, the day when Egypt regained the Sinai Peninsula from Israel. Egyptians are extremely proud of this day and there are roads and bridges named in its memory. Since we do not have class on Tuesday and the weekend begins on Friday, everyone planned on skipping Thursday and making it into a five day holiday. All my classes on Thursday ended up being canceled so I did not have to worry about missing class.
The bus ride there took about nine hours. There were about five or so checkpoints that the bus went through. Officials are supposed to look at our passports at these points, however, my bus driver had a good relationship with them. Often, they would only check a few in the front and then let us all through. Not once was mine checked. I was really relieved, since I did not have my passport with me because my student visa was still being processed. I just brought a copy of it with me since I heard that was normally enough, especially for Americans, but still, I could not be entirely sure.
We were lucky to have made it through the check points so smoothly. One of my friends who came to Dahab later said that they were stuck at a checkpoint for about forty five minutes. Everyone had to exit the bus and all of their belongings were looked into. Was that really necessary? Probably not. But while all the points seems just like a show put on by the government to display is presence, the government has some practical reasons for them. For instance, they are used to prevent people from smuggling things like weapons, prevent future bombings in the Sinai from occurring, and keeping politicians (i.e. President Mubarak) safe when they travel through the Sinai. Yet, the sporadic enforcement of the checkpoints and the corruption present in Egypt makes me doubt how effective these points are at creating a safer environment.
It was nice to finally arrive in Dahab and soon it began to feel like summer break. We hung out at restaurants on the coast, swam, snorkeled, shopped, and went on excursions. Most of the restaurants had Bedouin style seating. This means that there are no chairs, just a long pad next to a very short table and lots of pillows. We could lounge there for hours, drinking tea or smoking sheesha (a water pipe). Bedouin girls would come up to us occasionally, trying to sell us jewelry and string bracelets that their mom’s had made. I would practice my Arabic with them and with the waiters.
One night we arranged a trip to hike up Mt.Sinai (جبل موسى) at night and watch the sunrise from the top. We left about Dahab about midnight and started the climb at around 3am. Our group was guided by a Bedouin. I chatted with him for a bit in the beginning. We talked about our families, my studies, and his life. It was rather difficult because the Arabic he spoke sounds quite different from what I am used to and he would use words that I could not understand. His knowledge of the mountain was impressive. He knew exactly where he was going even thought he did not have a light to guide him. We were walking in almost total darkness the entire time. Only two or three people in our group had decided to bring flashlights so I could barely make out the ground, which was strewn with rocks and stones of all sizes. Normally this was okay, but once I walked right into a boulder that came up to mid-calf. the next moment I was sprawled on top of it. My giant water bottle broke, leaking everywhere.The guide offered to help me up and everyone wanted to make sure I was okay. I was and soon we were all laughing about it. The hike up took about three hours. We had to dodge camels and prayed for good footing. The climb was absolutely beautiful. The stars gleamed brightly in the sky and the milky way was a vague band across the sky. The surrounding mountains made impressive silhouettes, silently engulfing us. Finally, just as it was beginning to get light, we reached the stairs of repentance. A monk had wanted to repent for his sins, so he handcrafted stone steps and made a stairway to the top of the mount. They were roughly hewn and steep. Once I reached them, I knew that we were getting near the top. I wanted to go faster, as the sky was getting brighter and brighter. It was exhausting. My breath was heavy and ragged, my heart thumping wildly. It was as if I had been running a mile. People were scattered all along the stairway, sitting or standing, trying to gain their strength and catch their breathe. I always expected that the next bend would take me to the top, but they didn’t. The sky began to display ribbons of color, soft and rich. I had reached the end of the stairs. Sitting down on a ridge, I watched the sky glow brighter. When I regained more energy, I made the final, short ascent to the small church that sits at the very top. People from all over the world were congregated there. I drifted through the crowd, Spanish, Romanian, Korean, and Arabic words swirling around me. I made my way to a stone wall, joining other waiting people. A huge, orange sphere emerged from the distant horizon. As it gained height, it acquired three layers of color, a rich orange on top, a bright orange in the middle, and a hot yellow on the bottom. People were singing hymns, praying, or silently watching in wonder as the sun washed the world anew. After a time, people began to disperse and begin the long descent back down. Walking down, I could see the steps clearly. I could not believe that I had managed to scale them in the dark. I rejoined my group at a predesignated meeting site partially down the mountain and we finished the descent together. The climb down hurt my knees, partially because one was bruised from when I fell, but mainly because it was so steps were so steep.
Church on Mt.Sinai
Sunrise on Mt.Sinai
Welcoming the Sun
The final part of our Mt.Sinai trip entailed a visit to St. Catherine’s Monastery. I got to see a descendant of the burning bush inside her walls. As a joke, the monks had put a fire extinguisher nearby. My friend and I did not stay long since we were exhausted, so we went to find a place to wait for the bus. When the bus came at 10am, it had a bad wheel.That had to get fixed. Everyone was grumpy, but there was nothing we could do except try to sleep.
Descendent of the Burning Bush
The next few days passed in a relaxed manner. One day I decided to do some shopping. Most of the shopkeepers are huge flirts. One of them was telling me that he had not smiled nor laughed for a week until I came along and that I had good blood/spirit. He preceded to ask me if I were single and liked Egyptian men…But apart from that topic, somehow we began discussing economics. The price of vegetables has skyrocketed. For example, tomatoes used to only be at most LE 7 ($1.23) for a kilo but within a short period of time they went all the way up to LE 12 ($2.11) for a kilo, almost double. This is hurting the average Egyptian greatly as their meager budgets cannot handle these high prices. According to prime minister Ahmed Nazif, the government will be “adopting policies and procedures designed to protect low-income families from the current bout of inflation.” Keeping food prices down is very important for Egypt’s stability. In April 2008, there were riots in the streets over high food prices, resulting in violent clashes between the government and the people. Life is very tough for people here. “The official minimum wage per month of LE35 ($6.25) hasn’t changed since 1984…and 40 per cent of Egypt’s population lives well below the international poverty line, according to recent statistics by the Egyptian Investment Authority (EIA).” What I can make in less than an hour in the States, an Egyptian needs to put in a month. In Dahab I would spend LE 35 on single meal…how is it possible to feed a family for a month with that? As if that is not bad enough, according to one of my professors, right when people get hired, they are often made to sign a paper that will release them work. Thus, their employer can date it and sign it whenever they want. Many do not have job security because of this. Also many work in the informal sector, which is not stable as well.
Since Dahab is a tourist town, everyone is pretty well off, however, the Bedouins were a reminder of the wealth gap. One night I went on a camel ride up the side of a nearby mountain. A young Bedouin boy, perhaps seven years old, was leading my friend’s camel. He was barefoot for the entire three hours of our journey over sand, rocks, stones, and streets. I asked him is he was a student and he said no. He will probably grow up leading tourists on camel trips around the area like his father. There is nothing wrong with leading a Bedouin lifestyle and leading tourists, but they better be paid a fair wage for their work and given the opportunity to pursue their ideal lifestyle.
Returning to Cairo and to my normal life, whatever that means, was difficult. Our bus back was late by three hours so we did not arrive to the dorms until four in the morning. I had to wake up two and a half hours later to get ready for school, break out of my vacation mentality, and readjust to the hectic Cairo life.