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Egyptian dispatches: CAIRO | LUXOR | SINAI | OASES

DISPATCH: Sinai, Egypt
March 21, 1997

A ten-hour train ride from Cairo to Luxor seems an auspicious chunk of time for this third dispatch, even though it comes on the heels of a sleepless overnight bus trip from Sharm to Cairo. I like this captive travel time, imagination being the major source of diversion, coupled with the luxury of time to think.

Sharm el Sheikh and Naama Bay were once (a mere six years ago, I hear) primitive and pristine coastlines which scalloped between the sky-scraping mountains of the Sinai and the throbbing underwater world of the Red Sea. Now they seem more like fresh wounds: shrapnel of rebar, scabs of concrete, antibodies of construction workers radiating out from the relatively healed, all-white beachside resorts of development's first phase. By year's end the number of hotel rooms will have doubled to 12,000, luring swarms of well-oiled Italians and reef-kicking Germans to this most un-Egyptian wedge of ancient earth. I'm glad I snuck in here when I did.

After a Biblical forty days and forty nights, I emerge from the Sinai with a few more photons of light glimmering around the ragged edges of my consciousness; unavoidable, I think, in a place as elemental and elegantly polarized as this: barren and starkly beautiful mountains, teeming and poly-chromed sea life.

That first week was indeed work: I loitered in the new office of Marhaba Tours, answering erratic phones, devouring books on the Sinai, and mingling with my multi-lingual co-workers. To celebrate and bless this first branch of his year-old Cairo tour company, Mamdouh reverently slit the throat of a young goat in traditional fashion and distributed the meat to the poorer folks in the neighborhood. Handprints of warm vermilion blood were carefully pressed on clean office windows and shiny new bus fenders. This could be a popular ritual in Berkeley, don't you think? Yes, I took photos.

After this, my adventuring began. I had a sunset camel ride and dinner in the desert with Bedouin boys and French tourists. Went snorkeling off a gaff-rigged schooner in places called Near Garden and Ras Bob, and saw Napoleon fish, eagle rays, puffer fish, and a huge school of flashing silver jack. Spent a solo night out in Wadi Mandar under a blanket of stars and a goat-wool Bedouin tent. During my two-hour full-moon stroll into the next valley, I stumbled upon a complete camel skeleton, and after a few awestruck photos, walked off with his gleaming white skull under my arm. The desert djinn did not visit that night.

Then I did some traveling... Dahab is the Bedouin word for 'gold' and appropriately describes the sandy beach of this hippie-haven on the Sinai coast, palm-treed and dread-locked. Vintage Hendrix competes for decibel superiority with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sting in the restaurants that line the beach; even though the food is good and cheap, it's painful to linger too long. I was shark bait during my stay there, so skipped the snorkeling, but my hotel room was Moorish-arched and right on the beach; the chop and roll of incessant waves provided great white noise for my reading/writing.

On the way to St. Catherine's Monastery after a few days, the arrested motion of jagged Sinai peaks echoed the restless profile of the sea. That first afternoon, I climbed the Stairway of Repentance, 3700 steps to the peak of Moses Mountain, where god painted a copper and turquoise sunset that indeed lit the mountains on fire. Since it was dark on the trip down, I opted for a camel: instead of watching for the rocks under my feet I was given two hours of star-gazing at a ceiling so thick with points of light, there was almost no sky to be seen. My Bedouin guides sang softly ahead of me and I was transported across more than just space and time, I was out of my mind with joy.

The next day, the idea to climb again presented itself, this time mit laptop. I packed lunch, Powerbar, water and Toshiba, and walked up the camel track as if it were the yellow brick road, all switchbacks and glowing granite: I was off to see the wizard. At the summit, I channeled god, the universe and Moses through my keyboard and they said to keep writing. So be it and so I am. Al hamdulilah.

The Monastery opened the following day and the monks invited me to the noon mass. Their Greek Orthodox service was similar enough to my childhood Latin mass that I stood in line for communion with the few Greek pilgrims in attendance, excited to be re-visiting this ritual of my youth. That is, until I stood in front of the silver-bearded priest who asked me in low tones if I was Greek Orthodox. "No, Father: Catholic." My chin crumbled as I was led away by a sweet nun who consoled my incredibly emotional disappointment: she took me to a chair at the back of the church where I sobbed for a very long time. Afterwards, we talked for hours about faith, her religion, my paradigm, and god. We met later for vespers; I had to get back on the horse. The monks were all very sweet and Sister Maria Magdalena and I later visited with the senior Father for my apologies and his kind advice: more prayer.

Back in Sharm, it was high time for my scuba check-dive. Ahmed, my instructor, has a full head of sprouting rasta braids, looking for all like an earthbound anemone; once in the water, the clown fish were even confused. Though fifteen years have passed since my initial certification, I felt oddly at home breathing compressed air sixty feet below the surface, as long as I didn't really think about what I was doing. During one subsequent dive, Ahmed guided my hand down to pet a huge moray eel, as diaphanous and insubstantial as silk chiffon. His mouth gaped open, showing off a fist full of barbed teeth; the other divers wouldn't touch him. Looked like he was smiling, to me.

Overhead, Ahmed pointed out a lone barracuda, hanging like a sparkling chef's saber, motionless, silver and sharp. His mouth was open as well, but he was not smiling: we stayed low and swam away. I discovered a turkey fish, one of most flagrantly designed and decorated specimens in the sea, spotted, poisonous fins as delicate as feathers angling out from its body every which way, who confidently stared me in the eye as fascination set in. Ahmed had to drag me away.

I will return to Sharm in May for more of this diving: he has promised me sharks (Mother: breathe...) and maybe a wreck dive. It's just too weird and transcendent a thing not to do more of, and my fictional character loves it, so I must do the research. She's quite demanding, this nameless schizophrenic wench...

Completely off the subject, but free, was a one-day trip to Petra in neighboring Jordan. No amount of color photographs or vivid prose had prepared me for the experience of this rose-colored rock-cut ancient city. I rode a majestic Arabian stallion, for fifteen minutes or so, to the entrance of the narrow Siq Gorge, which rises up hundreds of feet on either side, all pink and gray limestone studded with the emerald leaves of tenacious plants. After a mile of undulating passage, the architectural details of the Treasure of the Pharaoh grow in one's vision through a slit in the two walls, a revelation of columns, pediments, statues and niches, all pink and cut directly into the face of the mountain. I wandered through this expansive city of tombs and temples for three hours as through a rainbow, the colors of the rocks changing with every step, sedimentary ribbons of time carved by the Nabateans 2000 years ago. A too-brief peek, deserving a much longer gaze: I will return here sometime as well.

Now, a week in Luxor, a week in Cairo, then I set out with a friend from CAL, Jamba, into the Western Desert. We'll spend a month doing Alexandria, Siwa Oasis, then a loop of four other oases back down to Luxor. I will hunt Bedouin silver jewelry, billion year old rocks, bubbling sulphur springs and desert silence.

Egyptian dispatches: CAIRO | LUXOR | SINAI | OASES

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