Friday, February 08, 2008

Fahad, Dr. Ali, St. Katherine's

The ride to St. Katherine's is quite beautiful for the first half of the trip because it paralells the Red Sea. The trip took three hours, and there were police checkpoints every thirty miles. At every one, the soldiers wanted to see my passport. The desert was stunning with rugged red mountains reaching up from the sand floor. That was all. No people, no animals. Just the mountains, the sand, and the sound of Hamad's diesel engine. We saw maybe 50 vehicles during the trip, many of them trucks or buses.

On my arrival I agreed that he could drive me to Sharm the next morning, and walked into the monastery. The walls surrounding it are really a fortress against all the invaders over the hundreds and hundreds of years the monks persisted in staying regardless of the conqueror. Both Mohammad and Napolean gave the monks a pass during their occupation of the Sinai so that they could continue to stay there.

At 2pm, I prepared to walk up the 2200+ meter mountain . I'd purchased a flashlight since my descent would be in the dark.And asked directions figuring it couldn't be that hard. After listening carefully to what sounded like complex instructions, I decided I didn't want to spend the night on the mountain because I was lost. So, I asked a local bedouin if he could find me a guide.

Enter Fahad, a tall, slender bedouin with dark, soft eyes and the surest feet I've ever seen. We started up the side of the mountain and I realized he spoke almost no English. He was 35 years old and had a wife and young daughter.

We went straight up for almost three hours to get to the top of Mount Sinai. Along the way, there was a group of Japanese that had decided to take a camel ride for part of the trek. But my favorite was the Kuwaiti family of six who hiked a good bit of the time with Fahad and me. The father, Dr. Ali, was a professor of geology, and at least two of his grown daughter who were climbing as well, were engineers. A family friend answered every question I could have had about the red granite of the mountains--preCambrian, he said--extreme temperatures below that keep pushing the mountains farther up. All that at 1700 meters!

Sunset was bright and clear, no clouds, and we could see for easily 100 miles.About 30 people were at the summit with me. Some were resting, some were taking endless pictures of this powerful, desolate landscape, and some were singing hymns.

Darkness fell fast. I grabbed my flashlight, and we began the descent. The first third was fine, although it was easy to slide on the rock and sand mixture. The light was faint as the batteries dimmed. The black, moonless sky filled up with stars: Orion, The Dippers. Fahad knew them all. He'd been climbing this mountain for 20 years. He would walk ahead of me without the flashlight. He never missed a single step.

It took over two hours to get to the monastery, and the last section was very rocky and dangerous with outcroppings that made the going slow. Fahad linked arms with me to keep me steady. We walked past tea/ coffee huts and I realized that the bedouins who were selling the tea to hikers, also lived in these huts 1000 or 1500 meters in the sky. Across the way, I could see a fire in a cave on the side of the mountain. Fahad said it was one of the monks who stayed up there praying and fasting.

The night was cold when we reached the entryway. I thanked Fahad, gave him an apple for the way home, along with his asking price for the guiding, and a tip. He shied away from letting me take a picture of him.

Something about that climb will always bond me to that stranger who took such care of me that night. It wasn't the words we spoke. If anything, it was the power of the silence both on our part, and the silence of the desert mountain.

I knew then that it was worth the trouble, worth the worry, worth the risk.

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