In America, there is a generally understood concept of “night.” I am no scientist, but I understand it as the part of our 24-hour cycle when the sun goes down. It is a time often spent at home in the presence of one’s family, followed by hours and hours of sleep. My previously understood definition of the word has all but ceased to exist since my arrival in Egypt — darkness and sleeping do not go hand in hand.
Take our departure for the Sinai Peninsula Wednesday night. It makes perfect sense to drive through the night, since the bus ride is roughly eight hours, but it also means that Wednesday night (and the beginning of our trip) was effectively sleepless. There were, I believe, twenty-two of us in a glorified van.
After a night of driving through what looked like the moon, we arrived in the beach city of Dahab in the Sinai Peninsula. For those of you familiar with the area, it is a bit like Sharm el Sheikh, but much cheaper and less developed. People walk around in swimsuits everywhere. After being in conservative Cairo, the sight of a European butt in a thong was quite startling.
Unfortunately, our first experience in the famous beach city was with the hotel that lost our reservation. Because it was Eid, the end of Ramadan, everyone was traveling and everything was booked, especially for a group as large as ours! So we ended up at what can only be considered a “camp” run by a Californian sketchball hippie named “Dakini” (pronounced like bikini with a “d”). She had stray animals all over the place but considered them her pets. Rooms were $15 US a night, or $5 US without air conditioning. The toilets and showers didn’t work because she was having “water problems.”
After Sally (my roommate) and I had to sneak into a random hotel to shower, we decided that no way José were we going to be trapped in such a hovel, so we set off down the beach in search of something with reliable indoor plumbing.
And find a better place we did! We ended up staying at a nice hotel, breakfast included, for $8 US a night. It was in the bunk room with strangers, but it had its own private beach, a toilet that flushed, and (moderately) clean showers. Sounds good to me!
From then until our hike up Mount Sinai Friday night, we did nothing but swim, eat at the innumerable GORGEOUS beachfront restaurants, and go out at night. The water was incredible, like an entirely new aquatic world. We weren’t able to scuba dive because our hike was right in the middle of our trip (apparently you can’t scuba and go to extreme elevations back-to-back?), but I have no doubt that I will be back.
This is what you get when you order caprese in Egypt, by the way:
One of the coolest things about Dahab is its location — you look right across the water at Saudi Arabia. We watched the sun set over the tyrannical country daily. It was beautiful. We heard a story about a man who windsurfed across the water and was met at the Saudi beach by twelve armed guards, then thrown in Saudi prison and eventually extradited to Egypt. Yikes!
I was talking to a Saudi friend of mine, who hates going back, and she said: “Yes, it is not illegal for you to go to Saudi Arabia, but if you windsurfed over you would be in a swimsuit? Yes, that would be the problem.”
Moving on! Climbing Mount Sinai in the middle of Friday night to see the sunrise. As a reminder, we were on a bus all of Wednesday night and slept maybe three hours Thursday night, on top of swimming in the sun all day. Oddly it was Dakini, who by now had a British accent, who arranged for a Bedouin friend of hers to take us up the mountain for $26 US. I was skeptical, but it worked out surprisingly well!
Her guy (“Hussein,” he told us his name was, “but not like Saddam — normal Hussein”) did drive with the windows down for the entire two hours — it was so loud and windy, I would expect it to feel the same in the middle of a tornado — but we arrived safely and in one piece. The group that ended up going with Dakini’s man numbered about ten of us, and aside from the four of us girls, the other six boys were all WestPoint studs. Incredibly fit and competitive. I thought I was going to die.
It was one o’clock in the morning when we began the hike. There was no light whatsoever aside from the two miniscule flashlights and a fortuitous cell phone. Instead of taking it at a “pilgrimage” pace, like the thousands of others attempting the hike at the same time, we began at what was (for me) the pace of a slow run, passing every single Asian tourist group we saw, dancing on the rocks to get around them without falling off the side of the cliff. It became much easier when one of the boys took my backpack and our Bedouin leader told us that there was a hut that sold Snickers coming up in the next couple of minutes (Egyptian minutes — 30 real minutes). I don’t think I would have made it without such primitive inspiration. I was praying the entire time that God would help me think of Moses and not my lungs.
The entire hike kind of feels like a weird dream now, because it all happened in the middle of the night. By 5 o’clock in the morning we had neared the top, after 700 something steps leading to the summit. There were men that smelled like camels selling “mattresses” (a.k.a. pieces of cotton two inches thick covered with a cloth that smelled like the most bestial animal imaginable), and blankets (also beastly smelling, and also likely covered with fleas). But we all got one of each, knowing that the sun wouldn’t rise for another hour and a half and it’s known to be rigidly cold at the top.
Yes, that’s me laying on one of those mats, clutching a Snickers bar:
When we arrived, our leader took us to the roof of a low edifice where we would have a perfect view of the sunrise, and we waited. Freezing, we waited. I fell asleep. We waited. The entire experience was one I’m glad I did, but I’ve determined that I have a hard time appreciating hiking because it’s harder for me to appreciate beauty while in physical pain.
But eventually the sun rose, and it was biblically beautiful. We all took time to admire it, snapping pictures that capture only a fraction of the beauty.
It didn’t take long for the exodus down the mountain to begin but, thanks to my iPod and a renewed burst of energy, I kept up with the group the whole way down. I only stopped for this over-excited photo with a camel:
We saw the “burning bush” at St. Catherine’s monastery, which is as much the burning bush as the rock at Delphi is the belly button of the earth, and then repeated the tornado ride home.
Another day on the beach followed, and then Dakini organized a farewell dinner for the group. Sally and I had no interest — you could get a sumptuous feast for the same price anywhere else on the bay and not be trapped in a flea-infested enclave, so we told the crew to call us when they were done. Obviously, we napped. We went to sleep at 10 p.m., thinking that they would be done by 11, so when we woke up at 3 a.m., thinking we missed their call, we were amused to see that they had actually just called. Apparently Dakini didn’t feed them until 1am, and they had just gone out!
We all met up at a dance club called Mojito around 3:30 a.m., danced until 5:30, laid on the beach until 6:00, and then went to bed until 8:30, when we had to get up for our bus back to Cairo.
Dahab is a sleepless city of both relaxation and energy, and a city that I highly recommend visiting. However, rest up me hearties, yo ho, before you go, because you won’t get any once you’re there.
Author’s note: I wrote the post above in 2010, when I studied abroad at The American University in Cairo for a semester.