2005 -- Biking and Exploring Egypt
Sinai Peninsula

June 9-- St Katherine's Monastery -- Climbing Mt. Sinai

St. Katherine's Monastery is located in a narrow valley at the base of Mt. Sinai, where tradition says Moses climbed to speak with God during the Exodus, and returned with the Ten Commandments.  Today, the monastery is a huge tourist attraction.  Many people come to climb Mt. Sinai and watch the sunrise from the summit, which can get extremely crowded, not only with tourists who begin hiking up or riding up on camels at 1 am., but also with the ubiquitous vendors selling food, jewelry and religious trinkets.

Our plan is to avoid the masses by hiking in the afternoon to arrive at the summit for sunset rather than sunrise.  We spend the morning visiting the monastery and hiking in the valley and the early afternoon at the nearby village in an internet cafe, where the connection is so slow the simplest task requires five or six interminable attempts to complete.

At four pm, in the heat of the day, we begin our climb.  Rather than taking the regular trail we plan a contemplative hike up the 3750 steps of repentance, built by a 4th century monk. After searching a sea of boulders we finally locate the trail.  I ask Tass what she is thinking about and she quips she is "sorry we couldn't find the trail." The stairs are dramatic and the hike is wonderfully peaceful.

I have been reading The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg, one of my all time favorite theologians. As we hike I share with Tass passages from the book, which was written for people who feel marginalized by Christian doctrine. These are doctrines that have evolved during the last few hundred years, and have often been interpreted to justify exclusivenss, along with a narrow and ridgid interpretation of the Bible and Christian life.  In place of this "earlier paradigm" (that he shows is not based on original Christian texts, but largely on unnecessary defensive reactions toward science since the 17th century) Borg masterfully lays out the framework of the "emerging paradigm," less dogmatic and legalistic, and more open and inclusive view of Christianity emphasizing love, foregiveness and social justice.  Borg sees sacred writing as being rich with metaphor.  Instead of being "less than factual," he views metaphor as "more than literal."  His views echo what I have always felt, intuitively, about Christianity  It is empowering to see everything backed up with so much scholarship.  Borg's books are so good I often read them two or three times.

We don't see another person hiking up the steps.  On top we watch the sunset with a "small" group of 15 people who arrive via the regular trail.  The sunset is nice, but not as good as the the hike up.

June 10-11 -- Desert By Camel -- Bedouin -- Cell Phones and iPods -- My Response to 9/11

A last second change of plans. This is our final chance to do an overnight camel trip.  To do so we have to give up the last two days we had reserved for cycling in Sinai.  But we will get plenty of cycling in Greece and Turkey.  We opt for camels.

Our lodge owner starts calling a Bedouin friend on his cell phone at 7 am to set up the trip.  At 8 am he tells us "camel broken."  Apparently all the camels are all loose in the desert and it will take too long to round them up for us to start today.  He begins calling a different guide.  At 9 am he tells us "camel fixed."  We throw our gear in the back of a truck and drive off to rendevous with the guide.  His camp is 40 km away and by the time we arrive the camels are loaded and ready to go, after the mandatory round of mint tea, of course.  We drink tea in the shade under a lean-to made of recycled white cement sacks tied to wires and poles.

Imir, our guide, ties our gear onto the camels. We climb aboard, the camels grunt dramtically, and we hang on tight while they rise up off their haunches. Off we go.  The pace is moderate, and we amble along on our "ships of the desert."  We stop often for tea, brewed over small brush wood and camel dung fires, hanging out in the shade of rocks or bushes.  We had wanted and expected more serious mileage.  Once we drop our Lawrance of Arabia forced march mindset, we relax and begin to enjoy the peaceful nature of the journey.  Imir often sings as we travel.  During a break I show him my iPod.  He is fascinated with the Arab music I have recorded.

Imir asks "Your cell phone what?" and it takes a moment to realise he wants to know the brand name.  He is stunned that we don't have it with us, and why it would not work here.  The Bedouins are fascinated with cell phones, and carry them everywhere.  When no one is calling they just listen to the various ringing tones, many of which are set to Christmas carols (which of course they do not know, they just like the tunes).

During one tea break we sit high on a cliff under a shaded rocky overhang (the temperature is "only" 96 degrees) with a beautiful desert vista.  Imir builds yet another fire for mint tea.  Tass asks how I think this trip compares to our last big biking journey through southern Africa.  I tell her it is like comparing apples to oranges.  Seeing all the animals in the African national parks was perhaps our most "fun" journey.  This trip has been amazing, but in a very different way.  I feel like I was called to do this trip.  After 9/11 I felt I had to come here, that now more than ever bridges need to be built between the US and the Muslim world.  This trip is my own personal response to 9/11.

June 12 -- Egyptian Buses -- Veiled Women

At the bus stop for the 6 am Cairo bus we meet a couple from Ecuador traveling with their two children.  They own a small hotel in Banos.  Tass tells them Banos is one of our favoirite towns in Ecuador.  "We stayed in a great hotel there 10 years ago," Tass says, "I will always remember the name, Plantas y Blanco (Plants and White)."  Their faces light up in astonishment.  "That is our hotel!" they cry out in ecstatically.  They can't believe we remember it in detail, the herbal steam bath, the view from the roof terrace cafe, and the giant pancakes with fresh cane syrup.  But after three weeks bicycling in the Amazon Basin such luxuries made quite an impression on us!

On the bus the speakers blare out a shouting, non-stop Muslim sermon delivered without pauses for breath.  The tone sounds so angry, it is unsettling.  |I hope the iman is not screaming about death to all infidels.  Then I think of the tone some fundamentalist Christian preachers use.  If you didn't know what they were saying, just listening to the tone could give a similar impression, like they were instigating a lynch mob. 

We have experienced a variety of Egyptian bus entertainment, from Japanese gangster videos to Egyptian soap operas featuring tons of fighting over women, along with the worst acting you can imagine.  The strangest, on the Qena bus, supposedly the most conservative area of Egypt where foreigners are never to wear shorts or tank tops, we watched hours of extremely suggestive and racey Egyptian music videos, each filled with half naked dancers and singers ala MTV.  Yet all the women on the bus were totally covered up, all with head scarves, many with veils over their faces and even black gloves covering their hands. Very surreal.

The status of women has been such a difficult issue for us here.  The scarves seem excessively puritanical.  The veils more unsettling, especially when watching women trying to move around and negotiat curbs or stairs.  Each movement is totally compromised.  When they eat they furtively lift the veils just enough to quickly wolf down three or four bites, then drop the veil while they chew.  The black gloves seem so excessive, that even a woman's hands must be covered.

While on our camel trip Tass' tooth began to bother her again.  She packed it with clove oil from our first aid kit, which helped some.  Back in Cairo she has no choice but to start another course of antibiotics.  She is so stoic.  I would be whining big time.

June 13 Cairo -- More Pyramids -- Final Tidbits
Hail six taxis until we find a driver who is the right price, then head out for a final whirlwind pyramid tour.  Return to the Sphinx to make photos in better morning light.  Then to Saqqara to see the step pyramid, the first of all the pyramids.  Then to Dashur to see the bent pyramid, the bottom was built so steeply the base began to buckle, so the top angle was changed to allow construction to be completed.  And then to the Red pyramid, built from the base up with the same angle as the top of the bent pyramid, it was the first true pyramid built in Egypt.
Return to Cairo and the Khan Kahlili bazaar, which we can't get enough of, then back to our hotel to pack up the bikes and gear.  Finish at 10 pm and head out for a late supper.  Cairo is just coming to life.  The sidewalks are absolutely jam-packed with pedestrians, entire families with very little kids, are out window shopping.  We laugh thinking of friends at home at 10 pm saying "hey, lets load up the kids and head to town to shop a few hours"--on a school night.  Many clothing stores are filled with scimpy western attire, yet all the women gawking on the sidewalks are conservatively dressed.  Yet Tass reports glimpses of trendy jeans and stylish shoes under the folds of their robes.
We crawl into bed at 11:15 pm, and get up barely an hour later to catch a taxi to the airport for our night flight to Athens.  We feel very sad to be leaving Cairo.  We could easily spend another week in the city.
Some final Egypt thoughts:
Many people have been asking how I send out my journals.  I write my thoughts in a notebook, usually a few days at a time.  When I get a chance, I type them up at an internet cafe.  Many have dreadfully slow connections.  All the keyboards have Arabic characters, with little English letters in the corners.  Hit a wrong button and everything goes Arabic.  Because hotmail will only send out 50 or less group emails I have to send out each installment twice, to two different groups.  I can only send a few installment before our hotmail shuts down for 24 hours to make sure I am not a spammer.  I often have emails typed and ready to go but can't get them out.
I mentioned how everyone stays up late.  The flip side is most everyone sleeps in.  Finding an early morning cup of coffee or restaraunt for breakfast before 9 am is extremely difficult. Most shops don't open until 10 or 11 am.
In both Egypt and Jordan a man can legally have four wives (not as many as parts of Utah, but still a formidable number).  Because of the cost of maintaining multiple households, such complex arrangements are increasingly rare.  Most men laugh and shake their heads when asked if they have more than one wife.  "Too much work!" they tell us.  Tass always asks how many husbands a woman can have.  "Well of course only one." 
We wanted to send a box home from Luxor, but were told the mail was extremely unreliable.  We joke how we spent months researching the lightest backpacking tent, and then carry souvenirs plus unusual rocks collected in the White Desert for nearly a month around Egypt.
The Statue of Liberty was originally created to be placed in Egypt, representing Egypt carrying the Light of Asia to the west.  The Egyptian man who was going to pay for the statue decided at the last minute that it was to expensive, and it was sent to the US instead, where it became Lady Liberty.
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