2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image of burning bushes.
3. Thou shalt not make The Call in vain.
4. Remember the coming meal, to keep it delicious.
5. Honour thy father and thy mother.
6. Thou shalt not freeze.
7. Thou shalt not cocoon with another man’s wife.
8. Thou shalt not steal unguarded cheesecake.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy reader.
10. Thou shalt not covet other people’s jackets.
We stopped in at a bakery to get snacks for the bus ride. There were cakes and cookies, pastries and chocolates, but I was drawn to the more unusual items: plate-shaped bars of nuts stuck together with honey, packages of dried fruit mixed with coconut, pistachios and honey (we referred to the latter as “Coconut Danger”-it was dangerously good!), a hard, round disk made of gram lentils and a sweet, banana flavored white candy. We went to a fast food falafel house around the corner for a delicious, dirt cheap breakfast- each sandwich cost one Egyptian pound, a little less than twenty cents.
We attempted to hire a single taxi to the bus station, there only being five of us (six, if you count the driver) but the taxi man adamantly refused to believe that we could all fit. “FOUR of you in the back seat? Is that humanly possible?” his face seemed to say, as we balked at his refusal. We weren’t even at standard capacity! There would only be one in the passenger’s seat, and we hadn’t even suggested he share the driver’s seat. But he wouldn’t be worn down, so eventually we hailed another taxi and bounced around the two taxis like tennis balls.
The trouble with traveling with an odd number of people is that it is more difficult to divide, although you’ll always have a majority in a vote. Someone is usually left over when you’re an odd number. Two double rooms and a single, two pairs of seats on the bus and one left over. This time, I was left over. I grew up being last, with a name like Wolfe, and although I was in Egypt with two V’s, close is no cigar. W is still last. The moment I sat down in my seat, I felt intensely uncomfortable. I was in a row behind my friends, seated next to an Egyptian man whose mother obviously hadn’t taught him not to stare. The men in the seats around us laughed and teased him in Arabic, and I must have been visibly uneasy because Elizabeth offered to switch with me. Grateful, I sat down next to Renee, realizing for the first time just how uncommon it was to see women in public in Egypt. Apart from the five of us, there was only one other woman on the bus, an Arab woman who was harassed and ogled the entire ride because she was traveling without a husband or other male relative. In the entire Greyhound-size bus, there were only six people with two X chromosomes.
Unfortunately for Elizabeth, I had felt uncomfortable next to the Egyptian man for a very good reason. For the first several hours of the bus ride the man’s hormones had him wiggling in his seat like a middle school boy with a crush on his teacher and a math book covering his lap. Finally we stopped in a dusty town about an hour past the tunnel where the road plunges beneath the Suez canal, where there was a convenience store and stands selling pretzels and skewers of meat in the parking lot, and a toilet stall where the man could relieve himself of the excitement built up by sitting next to a white woman.
The landscape we passed through was enthralling in its desolation. Once we got out of the greater Cairo area, the gray tarmac road cut a straight line through the sands and the world was simplicity: flat tan desert, pale blue sky with cotton clouds too lazy to bind themselves tightly together; they hung wispy over the dark hills in the distance. We turned south once we were on the peninsula, and the sand turned golden in the afternoon light. Infrequently, we passed small collections of dusty concrete buildings and huts, small outposts that someone calls home. We turned east again, leaving the sand behind as the sun drew near the horizon. This world was brown and we were small, making our way through high mountains of rock, speckled with holes and caves, nooks and crannies that would allow someone to disappear off the face of the earth.
We pulled into St. Catherine after dark, and immediately I began to shiver, unprotected in the cold mountain air. We found a restaurant a short ways away. We sat with warm tea, thankful to be sheltered from the wind, at least, and before long our table was laden with plates of warm pita, sliced vegetables, hummus drizzled with olive oil, fragrant rice, and steaming bowls of spiced lentil soup and one with chicken, which came accompanied by the neighborhood cat twining around our heels and meowing for her share. We may have been tired, we may have been cold, but everything was delicious, and there was a lot of it for not a lot of money.
As we were settling the bill, a tall, thin man in cream pants and knee length shirt with a checked red and white headwrap approached us, speaking a mix of English and Arabic. We recognized the name of our hotel, and after repeating it a few times, we figured out that he was offering us a ride, apparently for free. Hussein had deep lines in his face and kind eyes, and assured us we would be able to climb the mountain for the sunrise, no problems.
We arrived at the hotel to relieved looks from the owner, who had sent Hussein to look for us when we hadn’t shown up immediately after the bus passed through. He showed us to our room, which had three single beds and an attached bathroom with a flush toilet and ice cold running water. No one took a shower. We plugged in the space heater which sent a gradually enlarging circle of warmth out into the room. The hotel owner knocked on our door with a tray of shot glasses and a teapot of Turkish coffee, which we poured into metal water bottles and kept near the heater for “morning”. Shortly after eight o’clock we cocooned together under the rough wool blankets cuddling two to a bed, greedy for whatever warmth we could find.
The alarm shocked us into groggy wakefulness at 1.30 in the morning. We left the comfort of our cocoons and struggled into every item of clothing we had as we burned our tongues on the scalding coffee. The harsh winter air rushed in as we filed out the door into the night. St. Catherine was quiet as we walked down the highway, lit with the orange glow of streetlamps. We turned north, onto a stony track leading away from the lights of town. Before us in the dark we could see the mountains: darker patches in the night that blocked the stars from view.
After a few minutes we came to an open area lit with lamps and hundreds of people milling about. Used to Ugandan lines, we made our way to the building where we registered and paid for the mandatory guide that would lead us up the mountain. Ashraf suggested we start the climb immediately, to avoid the worst of the crowd and to ensure that we got spots at the top for the sunrise. There were thousands of people climbing Mount Sinai that night, and there wasn’t space for everyone at the summit.
Ashraf gave us two options, the Steps of Penitence, a steep path made up of 3750 steps carved out of the rock by monks, or the Camel Path. The Steps take less time but are more challenging. We chose the winding Camel Path which snakes its way up to the summit at a less challenging angle.
There were already long lines of pilgrims making their way carefully over the stony ground, and we passed dozens of camels and guides on the side of the road, offering an easier journey. We walked at a steady pace, fending off the cold with movement. Our feet were accustomed to finding their way in the dark from so many moonless nights in Africa. The path was rough as we made our way around slower travelers and camels burdened with the elderly, the overweight, and the lazy. The sky was scattered with diamonds, but literally. The cold air was clear and the night was vividly black and the stars shone bright, luminous, and I understood how you could think this place holy. The path steepened, and a near-full moon rose to light our way.
We didn’t speak much. We focused our energy on putting one foot in front of the other and balancing the hot and cold. My feet were tingling with cold, my legs cold but bearable. My torso was uncomfortably warm and a few drops of sweat made their way down my spine. My fingers weren’t too bad if I kept them in my pockets. The cold gave me a headache, so I wrapped my head in the Ethiopian Airlines blanket I had taken from the plane, but then I felt beads of sweat forming at my temples.
After a while, we stopped at one of the teahouses that populate the switchbacks on the path. The view was amazing. In the cold clear glow of the moon, I could see the long train of camels and pilgrims falling away from me down the side of the mountain. The stars pricked the sky like tears, and a warm yellow glow came from the teahouse, where Bedouin men served plastic cups of sweet tea for 5 E£ ($1) each, and off-brand Cup Noodles for 20 E£ ($4). We weren’t willing to pay that much yet, so we just sat for a few minutes out of the wind, enjoying the warmth and the soft rhythm of Arabic words.
Back on the path, some of the charm of the journey had worn off. The path was smaller and steeper, so camels that were waiting for someone to tire and hire a ride the rest of the way now blocked part of the path, and patches of camels already saddled with riders moved slowly, taking up the rest of the path. We wanted to move quickly to keep warm, but had to break through these pockets of camels every few minutes. My feet were really starting to hurt with the cold, and I tried to wiggle my toes as I climbed to keep the blood flowing.
We stopped at Elijah’s Hollow, also known as the Seven Elders of Israel, a natural amphitheater where the Camel Path ends and pilgrims have no choice but to climb the last 750 Steps of Penitence. It was still dark, without a hint of dawn on the horizon, so we crowded into another teahouse for a few minutes out of the wind, which was stronger this high up and bit at our skin through our clothing. Disney characters-Tweety Bird, the Tazmanian Devil, Daffy Duck and their many friends-populated the sheet that served as a ceiling in the teahouse. We shared a few cups of overpriced tea, and headed back into the night to repent.
The steps were uneven and slippery; our flashlights revealed frost and ice. Before long, I started to see patches of a powdery white substance on the rocks to the sides of the Steps. I stopped and reached my hand out. Although my fingers were already near-frozen, I registered a biting coldness. Reluctantly, I accepted that this was snow. We were in Egypt, and there was snow on the ground, and that was probably why I could no longer feel my toes. Surely this was a penance.
We reached the last resting place, our faces red and stinging in the cold. It was time to pay outrageously: 40 E£ for two dirty, rough wool blankets that had probably been used by a thousand different pilgrims and never been washed. As we waited for the first hint of grey pre-dawn light, I removed my shoes to massage some warmth back into my toes. My fingers hadn’t fared much better, so Charlene, who hates feet, made a supreme sacrifice and assessed the damage. Luckily, my feet didn't feel as cold to the touch as I’d expected. Take that, frostbite!
After half an hour of huddling together under the blankets, the first hint of dawn could be seen on the horizon, and we prepared ourselves to climb the last 100 Steps to the top of Gabal Musa. There were hundreds of pilgrims climbing slowly up the narrow Steps, and we lost track of each other in the crowd. I made it to the top and claimed a spot on a brown rise of rock next to the chapel. Gradually the grey receded to reveal red and orange tones on the horizon, and layers of mountain cast in shades of brown falling away at my feet. I watched in awe as the sky erupted in ever more beautiful layers of light and color, and revealed the landscape around me, which took my breath in its stark beauty. We were surrounded by layered, hard rock mountains in every direction, the brown tones lightly dusted with pure white snow. The sunrise played over the mountains, leaving some in shadow and others lit by the new day. I was humbled.
A small patch of clouds turned golden among the orange and red and pink and I felt the people around me holding their breath as the sun made its first appearance, rising slowly into the comfort of the golden cloud before breaking free and bathing the whole world in its brilliant light. The land around me turned from a cold brown to a red-orange lit from within as hymns rose into the heavens from the chapel. Each of us was experiencing something very different. I was quiet in my appreciation of the beauty found in this place. Many people prayed to Allah, or God, under their breath; some shouted scripture at this place where Moses, Musa, received the Ten Commandments from God. I took one last look around, the mountains already turned tan in the light of day, and climbed down the first 100 Steps of Penitence to find my friends.
We reconvened at the teahouse, where we gathered as much warmth as we could from the blankets before returning them and starting the climb down. It went much faster in the light and relative warmth, and the promise of something delicious to put in our stomachs urged us on. We lost track of Ashraf as we descended, weaving in and out, passing people from every corner of the world. There were Nigerians in full complet, making me ache for West Africa. There were Japanese tourists in skinny jeans, leather stiletto-heeled boots, and faux-fur lined coats, making me laugh at the absurdity. There were overweight Americans in matching tour-company jackets making the trek up as the masses climbed down, making me wonder why they were so late to the game.
Halfway down the Steps, Renee and I were alone, having lost the others. Suddenly, over the din of dozens of different languages being spoken simultaneously, we heard The Call. The Call originated on Banda Island during the 4th of July 2010 weekend. There was a latrine we dubbed the “Throne Room” as it was as large as an African hut, round, with windows on all sides, and completely empty except for a concrete toilet bowl emptying into a pit below. The irony of a large round building empty except for a toilet seat and a small wicker table holding German fashion magazines was exacerbated by the heavy, dark-wood, ornately carved (with fish!) door that if closed completely caused a slab of wood to fall into place outside, effectively locking the door from the outside leaving the occupant trapped. Over the weekend more than a few of us fell victim to the Throne Room (I’m happy to say I escaped this tragedy) but the girl who shat her pants on the boat was not so lucky. Trapped, she decided to call out to Renee and Elizabeth, who were playing volleyball on the beach and had seen her pass on her way to the Throne Room.
Renee and Elizabeth, meanwhile still playing volleyball on the beach, heard the strange call of a bird in the woods. They kept playing, and the bird kept calling. Elizabeth, laughing, commented how funny it would be if the girl who shat her pants on the boat had gotten herself locked in the Throne Room. After another few bird calls, they realized that it wasn’t a bird at all, but rather calls of “HELP! Renee! Elizabeth! I’m stuck in the Throne Room!”
Since then, we periodically break out The Call. Instantly recognizable and a great tool to find your friends, when I heard this on the slopes of Gabal Musa, I instinctively stopped walking, swung round, and returned with my own Call, scanning the crowd for our friends. Elizabeth, who made the call, was with Ashley, but Charlene was alone between the two groups. A couple directly in front of her also heard The Call and spotted Elizabeth and I communicating across the distance. The woman asked her husband, “why are they wailing?” His response: “maybe they like to wail!” If only they knew.
We descended through a stark terrain unlike any I’d ever seen before, harsh and desolate and beautiful. Brown hues contrasting against each other were set against a blue sky. The effect was the definition of brilliant.
It took us just over an hour to return to St. Catherine’s monastery, where we bid Ashraf farewell and wandered amid the camels and threadbare children hawking geodes and books in unlikely languages (Korean?!), waiting for the monastery to open. We took pictures outside under an olive tree, where Hussein appeared once again to give us a ride. He agreed to wait for us to tour the monastery, and tipped us off as to which door to wait in front of, resulting in us being first in line when they unlocked the wooden door.
We walked quickly through the rooms, taking it in quickly, as our stomachs were aching to be fed. We stopped for a moment at a crowd of people pressed against a fence, pointing their cameras straight into the sun. I snapped a picture of my own, not quite understanding what was so amazing about the stone wall with a bush growing at the top. My picture is mostly blinding white from the sun, but hey… any of you got a picture of the Burning Bush?
You heard correctly. Turns out the Burning Bush is no longer on fire. In fact, its not even in the same place. It was transplanted several yards away to a courtyard of the monastery, and its original spot was covered by a chapel dedicated to the Annunciation, with a silver star marking where the roots of the bush had come out of the ground. This is the location it was in when I snapped my photo, not the actual scene of the blaze.
Hussein was patiently waiting outside the monastery, and insisted on a detour to his favorite restaurant in St. Catherine’s when we mentioned we were famished. Restaurant Shahrazad was crawling with locals, so we knew it was going to be good. Hussein cleared us a table and in the time it took us to sit down, we had plates laden with fresh pita bread, bite-sized falafel and pieces of fried eggplant, hummus drizzled with olive oil, and pickled vegetables.
We returned to the hotel to pack our things and ask about transport to Dahab, our next stop. Hussein had suggested we utilize his services and hire him to take us directly, but we didn’t want to hire an entire van if we could catch public transport for an even cheaper fare. Elizabeth struck out on her own to find out about buses while the rest of us returned to our cocoons. She returned some time later with a travel buddy and the fact that it was almost impossible to get out of St. Catherine’s without hiring a car. We found Hussein (the first time these roles had been switched; he’d always found US) and agreed on a price.
The landscape between St. Catherine and Dahab was mesmerizing in its variation. Each new rise and fall in the landscape was more beautiful than the last. We moved from the craggy brown mountains of central Sinai to yellowed plains with burnt red hills rising from their midst. The plains made way for ochre sands; next came low, tan hills bleeding into ecru sands and an occasional splash of green brush. Grey fields of stone backed by dark hills, pockmarked with erosion holes. Now the sands were fine café au lait dunes, heavy on the cream.