Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Chronicles of a Baby Boomer - Sinai



Around May-ish 1976, I finished my year at School in Israel. Going home soon, but not immediately. I had some time. I heard about a nine day camping trip into the Sinai desert. Our guide was a doctoral candidate named Ora Lipschitz. She was working on her dissertation and had been for most of her life, like most scholars. So she ran tours to the Sinai to teach young foolhardy scholars the secrets of millennia of various people who lived, invaded, were destroyed, conquered, or passed through there.

Sign me up.

We rode in a jeep. Well, a jeep on steroids. It was more like an open air bus and sat about forty people, with supplies for forty for nine days on top. Think of one of those jeeps they use at Disney's Animal Kingdom for the Jungle Safari, only serious. Very serious.

We gathered at the jeep in Jerusalem. They suggested that if any of us smoked we should bring extra cigarettes as people tended to smoke more on these trips. I opted to quit smoking instead. One less hassle. So we were off. Nine days off the weed was surprisingly tolerable.

We drove south, through the Negev to Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea. This is a part of the Jordan Rift Valley that includes the depression of the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan river, and the Dead Sea continuing on as a cleft in the eastern part of Africa and further south to the Olduvai Gorge, Humanity's home. We went down the west side of the gulf and stopped for a rest and some swimming. The waters of the gulf are particularly beautiful. The sea floor was once an inland sea, the water evaporated leaving a layer of salt behind. When the sea reclaimed that stretch of valley, the salinity remained higher than the rest of the ocean. Not as high as the Dead Sea, but more than average. So the water is crystal.

We swam in the gulf. I remember the beautiful coral and deep, deep clefts just off the shore. The inland mountains come down to the shore and continue their dive down into the salty water. So I dove down, ten, twenty, thirty feet around massive rock formations and looked up at the blue blaze of day through the clear salt water, and paused, and then popped back up to the surface.

Beautiful.

We turned inland, into the Sinai proper. The Sanai peninsula is a big rock sticking off the bottom of where Europe, Asia, and Africa come together. Like I said, there's a kind of ripple running along side of it called the Jordan Rift Valley. We were now traveling to the west of that ripple. We turned off civilized roads and entered the Sinai on it's own terms. That meant traveling up the wadis, the river systems that remember the few times it rains here. Wadis criss cross the peninsula like the canals of Mars. Our driver stopped the Jeep and let some air out of the tires. Softer, balloon like tires were better in sand. We floated more than drove up the rivers of sand.

Our regiment was simple. We drove. We stopped for the night. We divided up into teams, one prepared dinner, one cleaned up, the rest relaxed until their turn. Our toilet was the blind spot in front of the jeep. Our tent the stars.

The jeep had a movable platform welded outside of the passenger door specially for Ora. She could lower it, get out, and address us like a mobile professor at a fly by night college. We learned about the Sanai, the vast history, geology, topology, climate and why that is important to understanding. We learned about the springs here and there where water trickles out of the rock and runs down the wadi in this place that only gets four inches of rain a year. The air is so dry we were encouraged to eat biscuits and drink water constantly lest we dehydrate without even noticing.

And the nights. We camped along side the wadi. The sky might be clear, but there could be rain further up the mountain. Rain that could accumulate and turn into a torrent in the lowlands. The desert is fickle. We just camped on the sand. Toilets were designated girls, left. Guys right. Go as far as you want, bury your poop, and burn the toilet paper. The Bedouin used smooth stones. Whatever works.

Food was bread and cold cuts and anchovy paste in a toothpaste tube. Under the stars it was a feast. So were the stars. The sky, so far from Gaza or Cairo, was electric. You could hear the stars, almost. Or at least believe that a mad prophet could. Out here dreams end and visions begin. I could believe in a burning bush and tablets of unearthly wisdom. At night you looked up into eternity and looked down into a sea of glittering sand, each grain catching and casting off the light of the heavens as if to say, As above, so below. Now I understood.

We stopped in various places. Hiked along swept sand punctuated by thrusts of volcanic rock, more hard and impervious than the sandstone rock that quickly degrades into its namesake. The black or purple lava rock thrusts proud above the ruin of lesser stone. And the colors. The rock seemed to play with color. Blue, black, grey, yellow, green, brown, red. In one place the volcanic rock had been squeezed up between marshy sand, upon a time. That made it form tubes as it squirted upward, tubes that froze and now, as the softer sandstone disintegrated, left an odd pipe organ effect. I expected music of the spheres. And the ancient winds blew over the marshy sand, rolling up balls of wet sand which cemented into little balls. They littered the ground like cave men's marbles. The place was called Tuvia's Forest.

We went to some pre historic graffiti. The Proto Sinaitic Script. This is the precursor to all mideastern, European, and Cyrillic alphabets and is chipped in some rocks in the desert. I respect the written word, but I also know that the written language comes in all forms from pictograms to hieroglyphs to phonemic representations to codes bums leave outside easy targets. This was the mother of a large percentage of human writing. I was sick that day and stayed on the jeep, instead. I was bummed. So I rested from what was basically dehydration because I failed to eat enough crackers and drink enough water. I wasn't quite 'desert ready' yet. Not yet.

Another day, another wonder. Some shale formations were patterned with deep cuts and channels like a child drawing circles in soft mud, then frozen by time's relentless progress. We hiked through the formations then back to the jeep. We were getting used to the regimen. Exploring during the day, resting and eating by evening and sleeping under the stars by night.

And further up the mountain we went.

One day the terrain got decidedly different. The mountains were shorter and the ground more fertile. Water ran along side the wadi. The Sanai peninsula has a curious feature. Imagine a mound of clay that is piled up to a peak in the middle. Now imagine that mound had been cut off horizontally a short distance from the top and a slice of some water proof material layered there, the top piece replaced. That's the Sanai. There is an impervious layer of rock part way down from the top that makes kind of a bowl underneath the rest. This lets water accumulate there and makes human habitation, fruit trees, and olives possible. It's an oasis.

Suddenly we saw trees, tents, pedestrians in black Bedouin robes, and communities. Albeit small communities. We were nearing the top.

At which top is the traditional location of Mt. Sanai. St. Catherine's Monastery sits at its base. We camped there and visited the monastery. It was old, predating the Crusades, the Prophet, and the spread of Christianity beyond the Roman Empire. Justinian I founded it and it is the oldest Christian monastery on earth. A chapel commemorates the burning bush where one man, content to be a shepherd and a husband, was compelled into the service of God. Poor man.

We got up before sunrise. A quick breakfast and our packs aback, we set off. Around the fortress like monastery and on up the mount. It took about two hours to reach the summit, where we found a chapel and a view. It was spectacular and not at the same time. Spectacular in that there were hundreds of peaks all around us as far as we could see. But also, our peak did not look that much different than the rest. The highest, true, but pretty much the same. It was as if someone wanted to hide this peak so he built thousands of similar mountains around it. Clever.

And still beautiful. We arrived in time to see the sunrise. Our god, Helos, met us on the mountain of revelation. Glorious.

And down we came. The monastery is cramped. There is little real estate to support monastics so space is rationed. When a monk dies he is buried in a small plot of land for a year. Then he is dug up, the desert having performed the funerary rites, and his bones arranged in a separate building, commingled with his peers from before.

I don't remember a lot of my trip. I wasn't as diligent at keeping travel logs as I am now. We drove down the west side of the peninsula and north along the border of Egypt, before the Sanai was given back. It was still Israeli then. They told us a story of the Six Day War. Israel had built a huge berm of sand against the Egyptians along the Gulf of Suez. It was supposed to keep the Egyptian army out. But they were clever, they who built the pyramids. They floated their navy ships in the gulf and used water cannons to wash away the berm! And in flooded the army.

To no effect, ultimately. Israel won for various reasons, tactical and lucky, as all wars are won. Still. It was an admirable stroke on the part of the Egyptians.

Driving north toward the Mediterranean we encountered a sand storm. A smudge of air choked with powdered silicon oozed towards us. We were warned. The very air seemed heavy and nervous. I was wearing an Arab keffiyeh, which is a napkin worn over the head with a rope around the temples. You've seen them. They are the best head gear for desert living. I pulled the skirt over my forehead down and tucked it under my glasses and took the two folds hanging by my shoulders and wrapped them across my face and under the bottom of my glasses over my nose and mouth. My head was completely encased in a protective screen against the sand. I had no difficulty seeing in the storm. I was of the Bedouin folk. Finally.

We made our way back to Eilat, eventually. We pulled into a service station and poured out of the jeep to get soda, coffee, petrol, and cigarettes, whatever. Our driver pumped our tires back up. Time for roads and traffic laws again. Time to be back to what we were. Before. Our home. We had no idea what we looked like. To us, we were just us. As always. Across from us was a tour bus destined for St. Catherine's. It was air conditioned, comfortable, and out of place.

Only we were the ones out of place. We were the desert people. The ragged ones. The sand rats. And the sand had been pure and clean and unforgiving but that was OK because we were less forgiving of ourselves, too. Now, we were the scourge of the desert entering the city with its filth and its overflowing trash and its rancor and real rats and its smells and tour busses full of tourists. We suddenly understood what it meant to look at civilization from without. The tour bus full of tourists looking at us ragged travelers from the desert made us start. We looked back at them, curiously.

They took our pictures.

Curious.

I'm not so sure I'm home.

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