Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sleepless in Sinai

As you may have guessed from the title, I didn't sleep at all in Sinai. That means I was awake from 9 AM Thursday until 5 AM Sunday. For a pretty surreal weekend, losing my mind due to sleep deprivation didn't help. It all seemed like a crazy dream: there were wild packs of dogs, the sun was constantly going up and down, suddenly I was underwater... Let me start at the beginning.

The grand total of people going on the trip was 34, which is insane. We rented two minibuses, and all met at campus to get picked up. The trip was organized by this guy named Rob, which was good in the sense that it saved me from having to do any work or worry about any of the details, but was bad in the sense that everyone practically worshipped him all weekend. It got to the point where people were completely thrown off when five of us decided to go snorkeling - gasp! - without Rob! He's actually a really nice guy, and I knew that going into it, but I could tell he was going to be a bit anal about the whole thing, since he had gotten it into his head that he was responsible for all our actions all weekend. And who wouldn't want to screw with that?

Anyway, we split in half and boarded our buses. Rob hooked up his closest friends with the bigger, nicer bus, while 14 of us were on the smaller, crappier one. I actually enjoyed our bus size, because it made all 14 of us pretty great friends by the end of the ride. Mostly because we went through many near-death experiences together. Our driver was absolutely insane. He rarely slowed below warp speed, not even on sharp turns. At one point, we could actually feel the left wheels lift off the ground as we rounded a curve, and we started to drift off the road. It was pretty terrifying, and as much as we screamed at him to slow down, he didn't let his foot off the gas a bit. Even though we were going 100 miles an hour the whole way, he managed to make what should have been a six-hour bus ride into an eight-hour ride. He made sure to stop for ten minutes out of every half hour to have several cigarettes. It was pretty torturous. At one stop, we stopped near an intersection, one of the roads having a sign that said, "Foreigners not allowed past this point." Everyone started taking pictures of it, and the driver came over and yelled at us. Someone asked what was down that road, and he said Israel was about 50 meters away, and not to go down that road because there were landmines all around it. Awesome! Aside from the sheer length of the drive, it was pretty fun, and the desert was absolutely beautiful in the middle of the night. You would not believe how many stars you can see when it is literally pitch black - there weren't any lights for miles and miles.

We beat the other bus to Dahab, of course, so at the hotel we were asked to sit down and wait for our rooms to be ready. Now, we're only paying less than 8 US dollars a night for this place, so I wasn't expecting much. But, boy, what 8 dollars gets you! We were seated in their restaurant, which is directly on the beach, and instead of chairs the ground is just covered in comfortable pillows, true Arabian-style. We were given free tea, and after the excruciating bus ride, laying there next to the beach was perfect. I couldn't have been happier.

Finally, Rob & Co. arrived. Now, there weren't enough rooms at the hotel for all of us, but there were two hotels directly adjacent that would be taking the leftovers. We all immediately wanted this hotel, though, because how could it get any better? So we had worked out with the manager before bus two arrived that we would get the rooms at this hotel instead of Rob's group. Of course, Rob showed up, said, "Hell no!" and essentially kicked all of us out in favor of his bus. I loudly booed him, and he singled me out and said, "Danny, do you and two people want to be in the hotel right next door?" Oh my Rob, I got personally recognized by the man himself! Too flabbergasted to speak, I just nodded yes, feeling like the man of the hour.

Turns out he's craftier than I give him credit for. You see, there are three hotels directly in a row - The Penguin, which is the main one we were at; the Sea View, which is even nicer than the Penguin; and sandwiched in between the two is the Jasmine. The Jasmine has four rooms, all of which combined are smaller than the restaurant downstairs. The Jasmine is primarily a restaurant, of course. So Beckett, Brian and I were a little miffed. Especially because we only had two tiny beds, our toilet had someone else's unflushed crap in it (because the toilet was unable to flush) and our "shower" was just an ancient saltwater spout in the middle of the bathroom, with no curtain or anything to stop the water from going anywhere.

There was no way we were going to sleep in that room. And since it was already past 3 AM when everyone was finally going to bed, the three of us went back to the Penguin's restaurant and laid on the pillows to await the sunrise. The hotel was overrun with a pack of stray dogs, and after seeing the staff throwing rocks at them to get them to leave, I of course felt bad, so I pet one on the head, barely using even my fingertips to avoid getting all sorts of diseases. This tiny bit of attention endeared the dog to me instantly, and it collapsed right in my lap to go to sleep. Brian was horrified, claiming I was going to get AIDS and Rob knows what else, but it was too adorable to ignore, so I had to keep petting it, in spite of its open sores and horrible stench. All of the sudden, the greatest little puppy bounded up, and before I knew it, I had five dogs all around me. By this point, Brian was twenty feet away. I just sat with my pack of dogs and watched the sun rise, which was the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen (for the next twenty-four hours, at least). The particular stretch of Red Sea Dahab is on is only a couple miles wide, so we could see straight across into Saudi Arabia as the sun rose behind the Saudi mountains. It was incredible.

For the rest of the day, we rented snorkeling gear and tried out a beach down the coast a bit. The snorkeling there was pretty terrible, but we heard about this place called Blue Hole that we could pay 25 pounds to go snorkeling at, so we jumped at it. There were five of us who climbed into this Jeep for a wild ride through the desert. We passed a huge amount of camels, most of them being led by kids. It was very strange. We got to Blue Hole in one piece, and jumped into the sea. Now, I've been snorkeling in many beautiful places - the Caribbean, Hawaii, the GreatAt 1 Barrier Reef - but I don't know if I've ever seen anything like this. There was so much activity down there, and it was completely beautiful. Too bad the sea was packed with Italians, who all seemed unable to swim, instead grabbing onto us and pushing us down in an attempt to stay above the water. But it was still fun. We finished before noon, and faced with the prospect of nothing to do until 10 PM that night when we would be leaving for Mt. Sinai, we just went back to the restaurant and lounged around literally all day. It was ridiculous thinking that as we were laying in luxury on the Red Sea, eating crab and looking at Saudi Arabia, our friends back home were sitting in class. How is what we're doing right now fair? I pondered it for a second, but then just ordered some more mango juice and continued the crossword puzzle Megan and I were working on.

At 10:30, the group boarded two buses and set off for Mt. Sinai. It's about a two-hour drive, which means we made it in three hours. And since we boarded the buses around 10:30 but didn't leave until midnight, it was already 3 AM and we were pressed for time, if we wanted to reach the peak before sunrise. So we started to climb!

Have you ever tried to climb a mountain in the middle of the night with one flashlight for 20 people? It's really hard. Most of us opted for the harder, more vertical path rather than the longer, gentler slope congested with ancient Russians and camels. Turns out our way was smarter, because Emily took the easy path and gouged her knee enough to need stitches. Which, of course, she didn't get because we were on a freaking mountain in the desert. The climb was so beautiful - there were billions of stars above, and shooting stars practically every second. There's a monastery at the bottom of the mountain that has the supposedly real Burning Bush, and at 3:45 AM, we were high enough to look straight down at all the little monastery lights right as the monks were waking up. Their bells and chants echoed all the way up to us, and it was beautiful.

The climb went on for nearly three hours, and we actually had to scramble up the last little bit, since it was already pretty light out. The top was absolutely packed with tourists, but we found a nice spot and settled in to watch the magic. It was a stunning sight, and I really don't think I'll see anything close to it in quite a long time. The pictures really don't do it justice.

After sitting at the top for an hour or two, we returned to the bottom the same way we came up, which was a thousand times easier in the daylight. Rather than going into the monastery like most people, we laid in the van and rested, since we were completely exhausted by this point. Rob had arranged it so we wouldn't leave until 8 PM Saturday night, even though Sundays are school days here, so people had 7 AM classes the next day. We talked him into moving it up to 6, which meant we would actually be leaving at 8 anyway. We lounged around again all day because everyone was completely wiped out.

We re-boarded our buses that night, and set off (with a different driver, fortunately) back for Cairo. This time, it took nearly ten hours to get back. The driver stopped almost twice as much as the previous driver, much to our chagrin. The word for "let's go" in Arabic is "yalla", so every time he stopped for a smoke break, we'd all scream out the window, "Fucking yalla!" Even though we were exhausted and cranky and just wanted to get into our beds back home, we were still having a hilarious time. It kind of sucked being with such a large group, but I really did have a great time with these people. We got back around 4 in the morning, and I finally got back and into bed at 5 AM, just as the sun was coming up - my third sunrise in a row.

From Thursday until Sunday, it felt like one really long, really productive day. In that one day, I had witnessed two spectacular sunrises, snorkled, climbed a mountain, and sat on buses for almost 24 total hours. What a busy 60-hour day.

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