A little note before you read further... I sat down to write a blog entry because it's been about a week since I last wrote and I've been wanting to keep friends and family up to date. As you can imagine, traveling everyday in this part of the world, days start to take on different meaning, and by the time a week is up, it feels like a lifetime has passed. Scenes are different. Smells are different. You're either really tired the moment you sit down to write, or rushed, or overwhelmed and unable to process everything you're experiencing. It is simply intense, everyday it's intense in every possible way and the task of putting it into words seems utterly exhausting on top of it all. So there is that to keep in mind as you read.
For an update: We are now in Cairo and have been here for two days. It is an indescribably intense and insufferably hot place. After two days of hectic adjustments from all night travels, we found ourselves in Islamic Cairo this evening. This scene is going to have to be for another post, I haven't yet been able to process what I saw today and thus cannot really write about it (there is definitely a several day lag between your initial experience and when you are able to begin to take in). In short Islamic Cairo is a mix of amazing Medieval architecture, dirty crowded alleyways, never ending shuks (bazaars) with men desperately trying to get you into their stores, all accented by the occasional call to prayer serenading from atop minarets dotting every corner of the narrow sky. We wandered through Islamic Cairo until we arrived at the Mausoleum Al-Ghouli for a free Sufi Whirling Dervish performance. It was incredible and I plan to write about it very soon. However, as I came back to the hostel this evening and sat down to write a post, the following is what came out. I thought about editing, possibly cutting it and keeping it for my own personal writings and writing a more "practical" update filled with the "what's" and the "where's" and the "when's". But I decided instead just to leave it. It is genuine and thus accurate. I hope you enjoy and catch a glimpse into what this experience has been like thus far. I thank you for reading and will try with greater effort to put these experiences and thoughts into words to share with those interested in reading them...
'So, it's been a week. And what a week. After arriving in Dahab for a few days of re-coup, several friends and myself headed out for a sunrise hike of Mt. Sinai. As we drove through the midnight desert, pitch black darkness brought out equally bright stars. We took turns leaning our heads out the large side van windows, holding on to the luggage rack as we dangled in awe under the canopy of stars. From horizon to horizon a bright white dusty band connected the two skies. Our own galaxy smiling back at us. We all lay in amazement. Thinking about this moment. Just a moment. And yet, there are innumerable moments. But in this moment, there was such depth, such magnificence, experience simply overflowed, as if a gallon were poured into a cup.
As our two hour ride under a starry night sky came to an end, we were greeted with tour buses on all sides, coming from all countries, all faiths & all ages. Devout and curious alike, lines of tourists began making their way in droves with guides leading, modern torches lit, towards the "camel path", a slight incline ramp wrapping around the mountain were many prefer the camel's labor to their own, culminating in a 700 foot mountainside stairway. A 1 am hike with tons of youth church groups. So much for serenity.
Then we met our guide. Quite and kind. Before we set off on our hike we mention to our guide that we'd like to take the "Steps of Repentance", a travel book recommendation I read about. He look surprised. He repeated our statement to us in the form of a question. I answered, "Yes please." He nodded and we walked on, veering to the right and breaking away from the lot. We begin climbing a much steeper incline... alone. 3000 steps carved out by 5th Century Orthodox monks living at St. Katherine's Monastery, nestled at the base of the mountain, built around what is believed to be the "burning bush" of the Exodus story, where twelve monks still reside today, a site we were privileged to take in after our descent six hours later. Following the sandals of Massud, our soft spoken guide, the five of us climbed straight up the side of Mt. Sinai for almost two hours. Complete silence. Complete solitude. Complete awe. There simply aren't words. So I won't try. But I can offer a picture. Boulders as big as time is old. The Milky Way pouring out of the jagged shadowy mountain horizon, reaching across the entire night sky, like a starry rainbow. Thighs that burned with repentance and knees that tightened like rubber-bands. And silence. Active silence.
As we reached the top there were several other groups, the 'fast' camel path walkers. Our serenity was being chipped away. During the final ascent we were pretty well mixed in with several other groups, flashlights intertwined like strings of dots connecting the top to where we found ourselves. Once we reached the top and groups began to congregate, our guide asked us if we wanted to be "with lots of other people" or "alone". That was literally his question. When we quickly opted for the latter, he took us 'his' way, down some very narrow, very ancient stairs, and over several large boulders, away from the crowd out onto a rock ledge just big enough for the five of us, jetting out far enough to the north for an unobstructed view of the east. I'm sure our dreams would have come far short.
We all huddled together, wrapped in blankets (3 am on top of a desert mountain) and we laid together in awe, of the hike we just experienced and the stars we were now laying under. In awe of the the life that we are each living. That we have each been given. Given has never been more clear. I was actively trying to experience, as much as I was able, knowing that with every breath something was absolutely escaping me. I was, by definition, overwhelmed. Left in a state of complete, thoughtless awe. Laying, side by side with friends I did not know three weeks ago but now cannot imagine not knowing in the future, under the brightest night sky I've ever seen, waiting for sunrise to reach Sinai.
A brief cold restless hour and a half and the east began to grow brighter and brighter. As the mountaintop began to stir with the whispers and clamors of excited pilgrims, we rose to greet this day, on top of Mt. Sinai. After several minutes of anticipation, the sun pierced the horizon and rose steady, sweeping over the majestic barren desert mountain range between us. Celebration. We greeted the day in ways most fitting of ourselves, with hugs and cheers, pictures and laughs. But there were other people on the mountain as well. And they were greeting this day in ways most fitting for their lives. I was first struck by the cries and wails of the Nigerian Evangelicalists, wrapped in all white robes, lamenting with melodies I simply cannot produce but yet recognize deep within myself. I climbed up from our privileged place of solitude and found clusters of people embracing this morning on Sinai. As I looked to my right there were Nigerians, dressed like angels, lining the walls at the edge the cliff, getting as close to the sun as is humanly possible on this mountain. I looked to my left and saw three people huddled together in a sitting circle, hands held, bibles in lap. A father, his daughter (maybe 17), and a woman in her mid-thirties appearing to have a platonic relationship with both. They were gathered in a small circle, hand in hand, each taking turns praying, each with precise intention and emphasis. The man began to pray in a muffled quiet while the background echoed with the cries of the Nigerians releasing their souls atop this 'holy' ground. As he prayed his face clinched, his hands doing the same, a feeling instantly shared by his daughter and their relative, and tears began to stream down his cheeks as his prayer grew more vehement. They appeared to be either in mourning or desperation. As I tried to take in this scene, the depth of meaning for everyone involved, the different expressions of "holiness", a Japanese tourist family walked by me, smiling cordially, quite amused by all the antics. I thought, "This is either the epicenter. Or a vortex."
Also amused by the Nigerians were the several "mountain boys" who make their living off renting you blankets, thin mats, selling you coffee, candy or sweatshirts on top of the mountain. Sitting with several of their buddies, smoking cigarettes while on break before having to lead everyone back down the mountain again, they sit and enjoy the Nigerian Evangelicals wailing and singing, hallelujahs rising sharply out of African cadence. And here I stand. In the middle of all these people, taking one step to the left and one step to the right, admiring and trying to understand the pronounced diversity huddled around the top of this single mountain, a mountain among countless other mountains, surrounded by several taller mountains. But this is a 'holy' mountain. And as I stood on this "holy" mountain, limp camera in hand, I felt overwhelmed and slightly out of place, yet at the same time feeling there was never a better moment to connect. So I walked back down to where my friends had remained, passing them by as one did yoga, another meditating while two others slept, and I walked out onto a ledge on the other side of the mountain. Isolated and hovering over vast space below. There I sat, silence wrapping itself around every existent thing. Here I offered what I had to offer. Celebrated what I had to celebrate. And mourned what I had to mourn. And it was here that I felt connected. Connected with myself. This moment. And this life.'