E-Travels With E.Trules.....the great sinai, Middle East,Scandinavia, SE Asia, Malaysia, Travelogues

« the great sinai »

june 2 - 6, 1999

finally. this is the place i've been hearing about since arriving in israel almost a month ago. everyone, absolutely everyone, says "go to sinai." they say "the best” israelis go to sinai. the holy no-man's land wrestled over by egypt and israel for millennia. the home of the bedouin. the vacation play land of israel. the place to meet women. the place to kick back and chill. to forget about time and civilization. the best diving in the world. the price paid by israel to egypt for peace.

now there are two ways to go to sinai - the way - with money, and, the way - without. the first way, i'm told, is to fly straight to its southernmost point, sharm el-sheik, right at the tip of the peninsula, where the gulf of suez on the east joins with the gulf of aqaba on the west and both spill into the infamous red sea. now although this is one step more exotic and adventurous than merely going to eilat, the southernmost vacation play land of israel, it is also far too similar and familiar. both towns are developed. hotels, high rises, casinos, package tours, junkets, entertainment extravaganzas. the mideastern equivalent to las vegas or miami beach. definitely not my style.

the other way - without megabucks - i'm told - is to stay simply - on the beach, in one of the abundant bedouin camps. five bucks a night. surf, sand, night, sky. definitely - my style.

so -- here i am at the jerusalem bus station. i've bought a new fanny pack, some serious sun block, and a groovy new sun shield (NY Yankees blue baseball cap). i'm on the non-stop, five hour “egged” bus (the israeli greyhound) to eilat. through the negev. hot. dry. parched. empty. soon i'm dumped with all the other eager vacationers at the depot. somehow i'm supposed to get myself to the border, walk across from eilat to taba, take a taxi south along the coast of the red sea, and pick out a cool, personalized bedouin camp to bliss out at. however, my jerusalem friend, anthony, has told me that it might be a good idea to go to the egyptian consulate in eilat to get a visa first -- just in case i want to go further into egypt (cairo, alexandria), without returning to israel. so i do. finding a cab, which charges me as much as possible for a one minute ride, i also find i am the only customer at the consulate. it's two minutes before noon and time for the customary two hour lunch siesta (or whatever the egyptian equivalent is called).

i beg, whine, and cajole the bored, uniformed official to grant me a visa before lunch, and he does - curtly - giving me an armful of tourist literature for the entire country - in german and french - "sorry, no more english". fine. i decide to walk back to the bus station, but after about thirty seconds in the oppressive heat, i hail another cab (mercedes only), this time asking him to take me directly to the border crossing. i discover they charge you for leaving israel, that there are about five different check points, and that each asks you for the same documentation, over and over again. but finally - i am in sinai. the sinai desert of my ancestors - moses, the burning bush, let my people go. coooool. no, hot. very. i walk about half a mile with my backpack and borrowed sleeping bag to the taba cab station. well, station might be a little refined for this sand lot with a few black-sheeted bedouin tents, some tourist trinket stands, and no customers. it seems i've missed the last group taxi. i can go by myself for an exorbitant fare, or i can wait. so, being totally committed to the way - without (money) - i wait. about an hour. there are about ten bedouin cab drivers - and me. they offer me some nana tea. i accept. a pirate cabbie pulls up and offers me a bargain trip. the others curse him out and shew him off. i wait. there are flies.

finally two more israeli tourists drag themselves over to the stand, and then an older, sun-baked man from turkey, then two more women from belgium. we are now six, enough for the mercenary egyptian cabbies to release one of their chariots of fire. of course, we get the one without the air conditioner. but not more than an hour later, after a multi-lingual ride along the gleaming red Sea, i am the first out of the cab, finding myself in the bedouin camp of “ras es-shatan” -- head of the devil. now i have a list of bedouin camps, all from reliable israeli sources, so my plan is to start at the most northerly one and work myself south - from terabin to big duna to little duna to the fabled alternative mecca of sinai, dahab.

so here i am in my little "chousha", a primitive bamboo hut in the sand, about forty feet from the red sea. i'm lying on a long, eighteen inch wide foam cushion (my bed) thrown over a multi-colored striped cotton rug. i'm shaded from the intense sun by the bamboo/wicker canopy of my hut's front "porch", and i'm entering "sinai time". "bedouin time" -- where, if you can, you simply slow down enough to enjoy the rhythm of the desert. i say "if you can" because i've already seen some - who can't. they're either on their carnivorous cell phones, trying to make the connection back to tel aviv or jerusalem, or breaking out in sweat, tears, or anxiety behavioral disorders - with the concept of having nothing to do.

me? i'm trying to slow down -- and just be here. i've brought my two israel sages to read, agnon and oz, but i'm -- distracted -- obsessed with meeting women. there's a sad-eyed, luscious painter from tel aviv in the chousha next to me. she's 30, terribly attractive in her azure 2-piece bikini, amazingly reading my main man, henry miller, and -- completely disinterested in me. she's come here for solitude. a little tea or wine, even a little herb, but that's all she wants. i call her iris of the desert. on the other side, is leora of the city. chic, voluptuous, short hair, sharp features, she wants to become a trance/house/trip-hop dj in tel aviv. she's also come - for solitude.

ok, i get the picture. this camp is small, friendly, safe, and intimate - without the intimacy, so to speak. the dark-skinned, kaffia-headed bedouin staff are super sweet, modest, accommodating, and shrewd. they are in no hurry. they smile like sphinxes. the food is simple and delicious, the sun is hot, and there is nothing to do. except sit, read, swim, eat, sun, snorkel, sit, eat, swim, read, etc. a rhythm that becomes seductive -- hypnotizing -- and transcendent after a few days. sex? who needs it? the red sea is what's brought us here. and the enormous desert behind us.

the snorkeling and diving here are supposed to be perhaps the best in the world, and - i have no reason to contest the claim. the water is bathtub-warm and bright azure blue (like iris' suit) - with dark patches of reef all along the coast. put on a mask - and the patches come alive - with giant fan-like and brain-like coral formations - greens, violets, crimsons - wreathing/floating - alive with the ebb and flow of the gentle tide. the sea water is salty enough to keep you afloat (even without flippers), but not painfully salty like the sulphurous dead sea. swimming along with almost no effort at all, the blazing sun warming your back, the neon-painted fish dazzle and delight. sun yellow fins, bright purple tails, pastel blues, greens, all of creation's colors, they disappear and dip into the coral reefs, like hungry scavengers, like dancing nymphs, like slippery eels. what magic, what enchantment, what glory in these underwater galaxies. we two-leggeds know so little about the infinite aqueous universe. each time i enter, i am lost in its grandeur. i float, swim, paddle for hours, trying to become one - with the rhythm, beauty, and inhabitants of the Sea.

tonight has finally caught up with my imagination - the way i thought the desert experience would be in the mideast. after a perfect day in the sun's heat, and a simple meal in the central communal bedouin tent, i have invited my new friends back to my chousha. we are sitting and lying around in the sand on our mismatched foam cushions, watching the huge orange moon rise over the gulf of aqaba. there are showers of stars in the sky, the low moon's reflection dancing off the water to the oriental sounds of an egyptian oud and a turkish finger drum. we are taking our turns around a sweet-smelling narghila water pipe, and i am thinking that almost all of my physical and aesthetic needs are being taken care of. there is good company, wonderful music, and i am experiencing a grateful and rare feeling of contentment. as the moon rises higher and whiter in the sky, i realize that this is one of spalding gray's (the curmudgeonly monologist) elusive "perfect moments". still there is no sex or the intimacy that comes with it, but hey, it's a far car from the commercial, trendy shantipi festival, and for a paid-for vacation (as opposed to living your daily life), this is the real thing.

the next morning i buy a few trinkets and gifts for my two young nieces. it's hard to refuse when a progression of veiled bedouin women in heavy black dresses come around to your chousha displaying their handmade wares. i choose the woman who comes by with her three young daughters. they are not yet veiled, but in their flirtatious, yet cunning eyes, you can already see the women they will become. i manage to get them to take some photos with me -- after i buy two hand-woven wristlets, an ankle bracelet for myself, and two white cotton dresses for amanda and marcella. quid pro quo, purchase for photos. at least, they will be a lot easier to carry than mike leaf’s three foot papier mache of bob dylan.

i'm excited. it's late afternoon and i've organized an over-night camel trip into the desert. organized? well, yes. there are no package tours here at ras es-Shatan, but i did meet a local camel driver at one of our late night "hootenannies". he is cool adnan, a young handsome bedouin in his early twenties who has been educated in the west and speaks perfect english. yet he has chosen to come back to sinai to live with his people - at least for now. after hearing that he can arrange a thirty six hour caravan into the desert, we come to terms and choose a night. if i can round up four more folks, he will provide five camels, full supplies including two days of food, and a bedouin guide for each camel.

so i've done it. i've solicited two young israeli guys on vacation from the army, and a couple from amsterdam, an italian acupuncturist and his brazilian massage therapist girlfriend. the guys seem a bit rigid and military, but the international couple are agreeable and seem like fun. anyway, i've had to walk and hitchhike two miles down the road to adnan's own camp to find him and confirm our arrangements. it seems there's an ornery territorial and pride thing going on between adnan and our camp owner, mohammed. i've got caught in the middle of a camel tour war, and adnan's been banished from our camp by mohammed, who is trying to force us on a very old and beautiful looking camel driver who unfortunately doesn't speak a word of english. but since i want to find out about the culture by asking endless questions, going with the old guy seems futile, just a bumpy way to sleep further out in the desert. no, cool adnan's my man.

so it's now dark again. our five camels are "parked" about three miles into the sinai canyon into which they've led us. the hairy beasts are sitting/kneeling/sleeping, making a variety of cacophonous grunting/farting/sleeping noises under an otherwise noiseless, starlit night. the ride here has been - yes, bumpy. i think i've been squeezed into a camel saddle about half the size i need. there has been no room for me to sit frontward without instant genital pain, so i've tried the more "comfortable" bedouin style, sitting three quarters sideways, both legs draping over to the right of the camel. it might have looked more comfortable, but my ass is absolutely killing me - and we've gone only about two miles.

our group is a little disappointed with our quick dismount, but my ass is relieved. we've made camp in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and adnan and his four camel drivers (actually they've walked as we've ridden) seem to make life and comfort out of thin air. no tools - just found sticks, rocks, shrubs, stones, a zippo lighter and some inexpensive supplies - and we have a roaring fire, an odd macaroni and canned tuna casserole, a ten blanket sleeping spread, bottled water enough for tea and cocoa, song, music, good company, a magnificent desert sky, and even a little local herb for a nightcap. we are suddenly part of an entire sub-culture still living in the pre-"civilized" desert. speaking arabic, living off the periphery of a now omnipresent tourist industry, this crew of adnan's is a people without borders, politics, or even (according to adnan) religion. watching them simply be themselves, laughing, smiling, and doing what has to be done with the land, the food, the camels, is just beautiful to me. of course, others would say "primitive", "backwards", at best "charming", but to me, ever the romantic, i think it is sensational, natural, immediate, honest, bare, demanding, and pragmatic. this is the way people lived in this desert for thousands of years - nomadic, respectful, dependent, and cooperative with the land.

the next day we are up at dawn. the sky gray, the air dry and already too warm, the crew is packing up our gear, loading down our beasts of burden with hundreds of pounds of blankets, food, water, and even our used trash. i learn to relieve myself in the middle of the desert (no mean feat) and how to make a camel both sit and run. the first command is a throaty obscenity, pushing air at the unwilling beast, sounding like you are getting ready to spit, "Chhhhh, chhhhhhh!" the second is a sloppy intake of air, sounding like you are slurping a plateful of pasta out of a dog bowl with no hands. sorry, there is no way to spell this one. i decide that the first two things i will teach my students back at the university of southern california when i return in the fall are -- how to make a camel sit and how to make a camel run.

we have tea again, a few bread sticks, and off we go - into the land moses, joshua, and the escaped-from-egypt/crossed-the-parted-red-sea jews -wandered for forty years. it is beautiful and harsh. rocky red granite hills, sharp peaks, rough terrain, life-devouring sun, merciful shade. sometimes we walk through narrow and steep canyons that the camels can not pass. the drivers take them off in an opposite direction, only to have them mysteriously reappear half an hour later, supplying us with the precious liquid that we ration so carefully. never before have i appreciated a swallow of water as much as today.

it is now midday and the sun is at its peak. it is the ruler of the sinai. every half an hour or so we "pull off the road" into a spot of shade, fighting the ruler's constant encroachment. adnan and his mates seem like they have a string attached between them and the sun, and tracking its course across the incandescent sky, they anticipate every angle of shade a cliff can provide. we are now at a real live oasis (i don't think it's a mirage!). however, although there are actual clusters of raggedy green palm and fig trees, at this time of year, full summer, the oasis is more like a small, stingy mud puddle with an infinitesimal trickle of water, than the abundant, refreshing childhood picture i have in my mind. nevertheless, here we are in the middle of the sinai desert at an OASIS, watching adnan mix a combination of flour, salt, and water into sticky mounds of dough with his strong, practiced hands. it's as if our camels have been carrying these magical, life-sustaining substances in carefully wrapped plastic bags for centuries, and now adnan is stretching, flouring, and pounding the mounds into big pizza-size round sheets and laying them on what looks to be a thousand year old blackened desert pan. another quick fire later, out of scattered twigs and a zippo, and we are eating - fresh made pita. it's amazingly delicious. i feel like he's done it again, made life out of - thin air.

now we all know the price we've paid for modern civilization - with its comforts, conveniences, computers, electronics, instant transportation, its global economy. but here in the desert, you become acutely and viscerally aware of, not only how we have lost touch with nature and her elements - fire, air, earth, water - but how we've lost touch with ourselves. with the very things that used to make us human - using our hands to eat, to make things, being reliant on our families and neighbors, attuning our lives to the cycles of the day, to the seasons, to the climate. now others things make us so - our materialism, technology, our corporate greed. no longer are we dependent on the beauty or usage of the full moon, the changing tides, the rising and setting of the sun. no, today most of us urban homeboys live in the world of twenty-four hour electric lights and entirely controlled weather conditions -- with digital monitors, faxes, and ubiquitous cell phones in front of our eyes, ears, and noses -- instead of our fellow human beings. we live with an absurdly and simultaneously arrogant and ignorant disrespect for both our fellow man and our mother nature. we are the proud victims of our own post industrial and technological revolutions.

of course, i also know the other side - that we are now - infinitely more comfortable, more knowledgeable, more philosophically evolved, more politically correct. women's and gay rights, better care of the environment, debating the fairness of world-wide minimum wages...but i say, we've paid a very high price. the price of our humanity, our simplicity, our sense of power and awe of the universe. of its magic and wrath. the price of community, our dependence on one another, the price of our - Soul.

we return from our thirty-six hour detour from civilization, and i know all this. mcdonald’s, microsoft, and disney -- the holy trinity in service to the american god-empire -- a crime, a conundrum, an anathema! screw 'em all, i say. i've been to the sinai -- and i also have -- a very large and painful water blister on my ass.

pictures were collected from various file pages on the web.
If anyone objects or would like a credit, please contact Rebop