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Published: December 17th 2009
I am miserably behind in my travel updates at this point but, before catching up on my two months in Israel, I thought I'd conquer the more manageable task of relating a two day trip to Sinai. (After all, I wouldn't want to fall another few days behind😊 The Israel National Trail, the 600+ mile hike that I did across Israel, ends in Eilat, a city on the southernmost tip of the country on the Red Sea. The area is very popular for snorkeling, diving and other beach-related activities. In other words, there wasn't a whole lot there for me to do and it was particularly tough as I ran out of reading material (oh, the travails of traveling!) For non-water people, however, (like my grandfather who used to say he liked everything about the water except getting wet), there is a great underwater observatory that allows you to walk under schools of fish via tunnels and rooms about 30 feet under water. The aquarium/observatory also included an oceanarium ride for which I mistakenly bought a ticket. You seat belt yourself into seats that move with the movie. Unfortunately, the show was about a young man going out on boat excursions tracking a whale. Okay, I'm at this place because I don't like going in or onto the water, which includes boat rides, so being in a simulated boat ride wasn't a highlight of the visit for me, but I managed to walk out without wobbling when it was over.
I did actually go to a beach one day - the Dolphin Reserve beach. As its name suggests, there are about a dozen dolphins living (and now enclosed) in the water surrounding the beach. The dolphins used to be allowed to roam free and come back when they chose, but apparently there were too many negative interactions with the locals and they are now enclosed. You don't have to snorkel to see them, although its an option, as you can see them playing from the beach or by walking out/sitting on a long floating promenade that has been constructed, to which they come right up, as that is where they are fed/played with by the staff. It was fun, but by 11 a.m., I was sure it was 4 and time to go - as the afternoon dragged on I confirmed that, at least without a better book, I'm not too good at sitting on the beach.
While in Eilat I stayed at the Shelter Hostel, which was started by a couple, now in their 60s, who did the Israel National Trail several years ago and give one free night to anyone finishing the trail. The Shelter turned out to be a Christian organization that holds weekly services, for area Christians and Messianic Jews, and daily bible studies. The folks who work/volunteer there also do a lot of community service with the many Sudanese refugees in the area (there are many in Eilat as they come into Israel from the nearby Egyptian border). While I wasn't surprised to experience Buddhist and Hindu traditions in Nepal and that region, I did find it a little amusing that I had an opportunity to observe Christian practices while in Israel of all places. I'm not expecting to have many Jewish experiences when I travel to Jordan and Egypt, but you never know.
Anyhow, the volunteers at the Shelter were a really nice group of people with whom I enjoyed spending time and one was planning a trip to Sinai with several friends who are at a bible school in Jerusalem. I decided to go along with them and the owner of the hostel, John, drove us the 14 km to the Israeli/Egyptian border on a Friday morning. (Happily, he turned down the Christian-themed music that usually blares from his radio so that we weren't marked for "extra" inspection right off the bat.) Traveling into Egypt from this point was actually pretty easy, as it is a common route, and in fact you don't need a full visa if you stay only in the Sinai area. Once we were in Egypt, we set about trying to find transportation to Saint Katherine, the town in which Mount Sinai is located. We lucked out and found a mini-van, a very comfortable vehicle that could have held up to 10 people, that we originally hired to take us just to Saint Katherine. When the driver learned that we were in no hurry, since we were planning to climb the mountain the next day, he stopped at about half a dozen places along the 3 hour drive, to show us interesting inscriptions on rock outcroppings, local herbs, viewpoints and most fun, a Bedouin village where we were served tea and pita made in front of us. The women in the village also showed us their handmade jewelery, which, at $1-4 a piece, we enjoyed buying as a thank you for the hospitality. In several places our driver also showed us the local water systems, which are important given that the area through which we were driving was primarily rocky, and occasionally sandy, desert. (Interestingly, once you cross from Israel into Egypt, the large amount of development along the coast drops off dramatically, and ports and military facilities are replaced largely with beach huts and an occasional hotel.) Some of the most complex well systems were developed by Israel during the period when it controlled the Sinai (these include large wells driven extremely deep, attached to nearby shallower water pools from which trucks can pump water into their tanks and then deliver it to local wells/tanks for the ultimate users). At some point during the day we arranged that our driver would become our personal guide for our whole stay, which he basically arranged completely for us. If anyone is ever traveling to Sinai, contact Said Abu Mubark (telephone 002-0163009139); because he has a van, the prices are probably lower the larger the group, but his prices were very reasonable, he suggested good places to stay and things to do and was very knowledgeable (and accommodating of our wishes and whims).
When we reached the town of Saint Katherine, Said took us to a local restaurant for lunch. Ordering was simple, we all looked at what he got and asked for the same. After the meal, we had a driving tour of the old and new town, which includes on one side of the road apartment buildings where the Egyptians live and on the other small stone houses where the Bedouin live. According to one Bedouin that we met, there is some tension between the groups because the Bedouins were friendly with the Israelis when Israel controlled the Sinai. We stayed at a basic, but nice, lodge that night (apparently the only people there) but found it difficult to sleep as we went to bed around 8 p.m. and it was quite cold. We got up at 1:30 in the morning so that we could drive over at 2 to the path to lead us up Mount Sinai (the rest of the group wanted to walk up for sunrise - I'd seen enough sunrises on the Israel trail that I would have preferred to sleep in and walk in the daylight, but oh well). Most people walk up the mountain starting at the Saint Katherine monastery, but it is a very crowded path. Said suggested, and we agreed, to use an alternative path, one which we are not sure tourists are supposed to use as we didn't see anyone else on the trail other than a few locals on donkeys or camels. We went up with a local guide, (you are required to use a guide on the mountain, which ended up being a good thing as the path had several splits and we weren't even sure for which mountain we were aiming), who also showed us sites along the way, including the rock that supposedly gushed water when struck by Moses. Because it was an almost full moon, we were able to do most of the walk by moonlight, which was quite nice. Originally, I had planned to stop and wait for the group if my knee hurt too much, but after hearing coyotes or wolfs or something similar howling nearby, I figured there was no way I was waiting by myself! Fortunately, the walk up was not very difficult. At the end of the walk, we met up with the main path to go up the 750 stone steps to the top; along this section of the trail are several tea houses which give a few minutes respite from the cold. And it was cold. But, finally, the sun came up we headed back down. (Clearly, I didn't find the sunrise at the top particularly moving, but the views on the way ly were good.)
After the hike, we drove back the way we had come the previous day to Alexandria Beach, a collection of beach huts about 30 km from the border at Taba. Here, for $5 a night, you are given a mattress and blankets in a reed hut, with mosquito net (turned out to be quite important) and can order meals from the on-site kitchen and be served right on the beach. Because it was off-season, we had the place almost completely to ourselves, and were given many rounds of complimentary free tea and a fire in the communal tent during the evening. Other than the mosquitoes at night (sadly, the netting was not sufficient protection) it was a lovely place to stay and relax and I enjoyed the day on the beach after finding a good book in one of the structures on the beach (unfortunately, it was missing the last few chapters, I don't yet know who did it, or why - but I'll find it some day!) Our brief sojourn ended on Sunday when Said came back in the afternoon to drive us to the border.
Several of the folks I was travelling with were worried about getting new visas for Israel, concerned that they might run into lots of questioning, etc., but I had had such an easy time coming in at Tel Aviv that I was expecting no problems. I went up to the first counter on the Israeli side with two other people - we handed over our passports and the guard looked up at us and said, "Mary, Steven and - whats your name?" Upon hearing my answer, he called over a second official and they consulted for several minutes. They then proceeded to ask me the name of most of my relatives, and the meaning of my name, but upon finding that my name seemed to be an aberration from "acceptable" names, decided to let me proceed to next round of questioning. I did finally get my stamp and returned to Eilat, where, in the next 36 hours, Mary (the volunteer from the Shelter) and I watched 3 movies and consumed large amounts of chocolate and cookies. Can't let my couch-potato skills get rusty!
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