Thursday, July 15, 2004

I climbed Mt. Sinai and all god gave me was this lousy blister

So, I didn’t see any hammerheads. Unfortunately the word got out that they were there and every diver in the region was looking for them. The hammerheads headed for quieter waters. But I stayed on in Dahab for a few more days anyway, diving and sitting in the sun. Until one fateful morning where I woke up and inadvertently thought of growing out my armpit hair. I sat bolt upright in bed. I had Dahab hippie disease. I had to get moving ASAP or I would be wearing hemp before the week was out. I hurriedly said goodbye to the crew I had been hanging with. They nodded and took another drag from the sheesha pipe. I booked myself on the 11pm bus heading for Mount Sinai.

I arrived at the monastery of St. Catherine’s at 2 am, and started hiking to the top of Mt. Sinai, with a few hundred of my best pilgrim friends. I arrived at the top around 4:30 am, and began waiting the 2 hours to sunrise. It was freezing on top so I rented a blanket from one of the Bedouins to keep from freezing to death. I believe the previous owner was a camel. Anyway, in order to make my cold sleep deprived self even more miserable, god deemed that the Koreans in front of me and the Spaniards behind me should start a hymns-off, singing as loudly as possible to drown out the other. It sounded like 100s of cats fighting. And I had hiked up with this dippy-hippy girl from Colorado. She made Woodstock look like the annual Schwab share holders meeting. I thought repeatedly about setting her on fire.

The sun came up eventually and I was suitably touched by the spirituality of the occasion. Then I hiked back down the mountain to the monastery. It was pretty non descript except for the burning bush. Okay, not THE burning bush, but a 1600 year old bush grown from a branch of THE burning bush. It didn’t have anything of interest too say though.

Since I didn’t want to risk going back to Dahab and relapsing into Dahab hippie disease, I got dropped off at a police check point in the middle of the desert, heading to the port town of Nuweiba. I was a little hesitant to try this little move, but it worked out. As soon as the bus let me off, the guards started shouting at the driver that he couldn’t do that. The driver took off. The guys looked at me like lifelong bachelors look at a newborn baby. I smiled. They set the guy with the M16 to “wave” down the next vehicle to take me to the port. And off I went.

The bus dropped me off in the middle of no where, but there were two other backpackers who knew there way around and got me through the dance of buying a ticket and immigration. They were the first two Syrians I met in the Middle East, and they bought me a Coke and told the customs guy to stop looking at me funny. The ferry itself was a breeze and I landed in Aqaba, Jordon. I spent the night there and then headed out to the desert.

I had booked a day/night tour on the ferry and soon found myself dashing across the sands in the back of a pickup truck. The tour was arranged by this Ozzie guy who generally had the appearance of someone running from the law, and my two fellow tour takers where some chick named Melissa-did-I-mention-I-was-a-diplomat and this absolutely insane Taiwanese chick that just keeps showing up. She drives me nuts so I keep trying to get away from her. What are you doing tomorrow? Oh, I thought I would spend the morning painting my toenails, then go to Libya. You? And she backpacks with a rolling suitcase that is constantly getting stuck places, stairs, doors, sand, etc. (As your mental picture of me wandering around the Middle East progresses, every one in a while, stick the picture of a small Asian woman trying to extricate her luggage from some strange place in the background.)

The tour was basically a tour of Lawrence of Arabia’s old haunts. He seems to have slept under every rock in the desert. There were some pretty neat sandstone formations though, left over from the time when the place was an ocean. It was fun to scramble up the rocks. You can get pretty high and see, um, more rocks? and sand? I spent that night at a Bedouin camp. This basically involved sleeping in a tent made of Persian rugs and drinking a potentially lethal amount of mint tea. The stars were incredible though.

After being dragged out of my tent to watch yet another bloody sunrise, we headed off to Petra. Petra. For the history buffs out there, it is the 1st century BC capital of the Nabateans trading kingdom. For the religious nuts, it was the ancient home of the Edomites, which made an extreme tactical error by blowing off Moses on his way out of the desert. For the rest of us, it was the temple at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the one where he goes to get the grail. In any event, it is a rose colored sandstone city carved out of the rock. And really damned cool. You walk down this narrow crack in the mountains for a mile or so to emerge out on the 35 meter high ornate treasury building, carved straight into the side of a sheer cliff, you know, the one Indy rode the horse through. I spent the afternoon hiking around the place with an Australian couple I met on the way in. We climbed to the Place of the High Sacrifice, which was, as advertised, high, in the heat of the day. This turned out to be rather ill advised, and we were exhausted when we finally got to the top. Luckily there was a little bit of a breeze and the walk down was easier. Heading down the cliff, we passed the Lion Fountain (long since fallen into disrepair), the Garden Tomb (some nice columns but more impressive for the stunning rock it was set into), the Tomb of the Roman Soldier (huge, must have been compensating for something) and the Feast Hall (the only building in Petra carved on the inside.) The most impressive part of the experience though was the rock. Layers of rock hardened over thousands of years into birthday cake swirls of orange, red, white, yellow and dark shades. Top notch. We began following the path back into the center, when a fatal error was made, I was put in charge of directions. With my keen nose on the job, I promptly led us into a dry creek bed and we ended up scrambling a good way off course. We eventually made our way back to the main gate and called it a day. I even sprung the 50¢ for a horse to give a lift back the 2 km to the parking lot.

This morning I woke up again at the crack of dawn to see Petra in the early morning light. I decided to climb up to the Monastery, a building high in the surrounding hills. I made it part of the way before I decided it was hot and I didn’t like this game anymore. Just then a nice man appeared, dressed in the red and white checked scarf made popular by Yassar Arafat, and full Desert Storm combat fatigues, to sell me a ride up on his donkey. How could I say no? So I climbed on the back of this little black donkey (don’t worry, I got a picture) and off we went. The difficulty is that the whole way was a steep flight of ancient steps. I think my donkey was the new guy because he stumbled a lot. This was enough to send at least my thoughts careening over the sheer cliffs on each side.

After my donkey adventures, I walked around a bit more, checking out some old Byzantine mosaics and a couple cliff tombs. The Byzantine Cathedral had kind of a Murphy’s Law sort of existence. Finished in 550 AD, a fire tore through it in 600. What remained was flattened by an earthquake a few years later. And Muhammad arrived on the scene not too long after to kick the ashes around a little bit. The bits of mosaic that remained were nice though. I also hit a couple assorted royal tombs and temples, but I was maxing out. The problem I saw with carving your whole city out of sandstone, is that over the centuries it melts. So by the end of the morning, it looked to me like the whole city was melting in the heat. I decided it was best to call it a day.

I grabbed the afternoon bus to Amman, the highlight of which was getting off at the “Amman East, Saudi Border, Iraqi Border” exit. Don’t take the wrong ramp man, please don’t take the wrong ramp.

And now I am here. I am headed for the Dead Sea tomorrow to see if I’ll float.

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