07 August 2010

Sinai- I'd go back in a heartbeat

Following up with my quick blurb about hiking up Mount Katherine, I want to specifically mention Sinai. The peninsula is quite different from the rest of Egypt. Unlike the Nile-based culture, Sinai is home to the Bedouins, and offers completely different geology and climate. I felt silly bringing long sleeves until I put them all on once I got to Sinai. The cool winds brought temperatures down to the 60s at night... in summer.

Saint Katherine's protectorate is a small village build up around the economy of tourists coming to climb Mount Sinai. Despite the famous biblical landmark, tourism hasn't made St. Katherine into a bustling place. Most tourists arrive in the evening, climb up over night, watch the sunrise, come down to visit the St. Catherine monastery, then hop back on the bus to be back on the beach by lunch. It was so common that locals welcomed the few travelers who stay longer with open arms and a health dollop of  warmth.

I went without much of an idea where to stay. I braced myself for a camp-style stay, packing accordingly. I was, instead, given a heavy pitch to stay at the newly opened guesthouse. I didn't let on the fact that the minute they said the room with its private bathroom is available that I was already sold. I'm fine with sleeping in sleeping bags or under the star. But I'm spoilt to the point that I now will always prefer clean plumbing options.

Since I had a spare afternoon before my hike, the local sheik's son took me around the area as he made his neighborly drop-in route. He was well-known and well-acquainted. If someone wasn't related to him, he was a good friend. I found myself bundled into the same welcomes my guide received, invited to sit down in each of the camps for a cup of tea and some fresh local apricots.

That recognition came to use the following day on our return from the hike up Mount Katherine. We passed the same camp and family orchard on our way back to the protectorate. The owner, recognising me, waved us over for tea. Exhausted and dehydrated, I was happy to accept. He, it turns out, was having a family reunion. His sons and grandsons from town were at the camp, playing games and chatting. Despite the women sitting back away from the center where the males crowded, the matriarch came forward to shake my hand. One of the sons brought me into the middle of the male circle, drawing me into conversation with his surprising fluent English.

The family lamented my short stay, mentioning the next time I come back to Sinai, I should stay a week. The local families open up their homes to visitors who want to experience the Bedouin lifestyle. The lifestyle I found so appealing in its open friendliness. While they maintain a very conservative culture with distinct dominance of male roles, they treated me, a long female, with nothing but courtesy and graciousness.

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