Travel Tales: Camel Riding up Mt. Sinai
When it comes to getting me to buy something in a developing country, salesmen have it easy: invoke Western guilt. Remind me of how much money I have in comparison to the guys selling beaded bracelets on the beach or the family living in a house made of tin plates, and I will buy just about anything.
The salesman trying to sell me a camel ride up Mount Sinai knew he had me. All he said was "For you, $15 is nothing", and he was right. My average bar tab or all the receipts from Target that clutter up my wallet said as much. It wasn't actually the money that had stopped me from accepting his first 12 offers. I just enjoyed walking. And riding a camel is an awkward experience, more akin to riding a mechanical bull that doesn't spin than riding a horse. But guilt won out and I rode the camel.
For those, who like me, are a little delinquent in Biblical studies: Mount Sinai is where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Worshipers have made pilgrimages up the mountain to watch the sunrise for centuries; now it's a popular thing for tourists to do as well. You leave in the late evening, long after the sun has set, and arrive at the top of the mountain around 4 a.m., drinking tea until the sun rises.
Regardless of your religious beliefs, it's hard not to feel the historic weight of the place.
At night though, it's just dark. I bobbed along on my camel, with the salesman next to me guiding the camel, my friend behind me riding her camel, and our Bedouin tour guide somewhere in the vicinity. Other than the pops of light from flashlights sprinkled up and down the path, I couldn't see more than 10 feet around me. Instead, I focused on the sound of hundreds of human feet and dozens of camel hooves shuffling along dirt trails and the low hum conversation.
The conversation dulled as the night wore on and the temperature dropped. The camels take you to a tea house about three quarters of the way up the mountain; after that you're on your own climbing the 750 stone steps that take you to the summit.
The stone steps were obviously carved by hand. Some were nearly two feet high and required a childlike attempt at balance, but many were only six inches tall making it relatively easy to climb all 750. The hard part came at the top: the wait. For an hour we sat in a tent at the top of the summit drinking tea, shivering and dropping in and out of sleep.
Finally, the sky began to lighten so we headed up the last couple steps to watch the sunrise. As the sky turned pink, it illuminated a landscape suitable for an action flick set in Mars. I don't know if it was the importance of the location, the quality of the sunset and the corresponding landscape, or simply the fact that I'm not usually awake for the sunrise so I don't have a lot of compare it to, but it was one of the most incredible sunrises I've ever seen.
The combined fatigue from a lack of sleep and the exertion of the climb make the trek back down arduous. The trip ended with a tour of St. Catherine's Monastery and a glimpse of the alleged burning bush (which is enormous), but I was done. I had gotten what I had come for.
I'm not a particularly conservative traveler; in fact, I stopped reading the State Department's travel advisories after reading Nicaragua's and realizing it hadn't been updated since the 1980s. (According to the State Department's report, American travelers are likely to get kidnapped and returned to the U.S. in 14 tiny pieces. In reality, it's one of the safest countries in Central America.)
That said, I wouldn't recommend going to Egypt right now. It's simply too volatile, and the Sinai Peninsula is in a precarious position bordering the Gaza Strip. It was obviously a wonderful experience and one I would encourage most to experience, but I'd recommend waiting a few years, when the country is hopefully more settled.