Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Nuweiba, Egypt

Friends: For three nights in the Sinai I've scrounged to find a strip of sandy gravel for my tent and sleeping pad in this rocky, rugged terrain. I was happy for the rocks last night though, as I needed to line the inner perimeter of my tent with the biggest rocks I could find to keep the fierce and swirling wind from sending my tent into the Red Sea. The wind was so strong it caught the two panniers, one front and one back, that I'd left on my bike, blowing it over onto the tent. The non-stop flapping of the tent's rain fly was so noisy I didn't hear the crash. When I awoke at one point to full consciousness and discovered the handlebars poking into the side of the tent near my head I thought the tent poles had finally snapped, something I feared at any moment as one gust outdid another. It was the most severe test these poles had ever been subjected to.

The flapping was so loud and distracting, I contemplated removing the rain fly and letting the
wind blow through the mosquito mesh of the tent, but then I would have been imperiled of being smothered by sand. Even with the fly blocking the netting, a fine layer of sand was penetrating the tent and covering all my gear. I could feel it gathering on my face. As inhospitable as the Sinai can be, there is a striking beauty to its stark and desolate landscape, rugged mountains on one side and the winding coastline of many quiet coves on the other.

The landscape was even more dramatic when the road turned inland after 40 miles. It rose sharply out of Nuweiba, climbing to 2,800 feet in eight miles. After ten miles on this plateau I had the choice of continuing down the coast to the traveler's resort of Daba or heading inland to the 7,000' high Mt. Sinai, where Moses transcribed the Ten Commandments. It was 55 miles away, a little further than I had time for, since I had to double back, but I chose to head for the highlands for at least a glimpse of that high peak. After 15 miles of more climbing and winding around gargantuan, spectacular pinkish rock formations unique to this region, I decided to turn back.

It was closing in on noon and I had not passed a restaurant all day. I had been counting on a service station/cafe at the intersection, but all that was there was a police checkpoint. They told me there was no food or water until I came to St. Katherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai, 55 miles away. That wasn't entirely true, as there were a handful of Bedouin hovels offering tea and soft drinks. I stopped at one just as a place to escape the sun and headwinds and hoping to get some food. The woman kept wanting to sell me water. When she finally understood I wanted some food she nodded yes and went off for some twigs to light a fire. I had no idea what I might get. Half an hour later she placed before me a couple of freshly baked pitas and a bowl full of chopped up tomatoes. While she prepared the meal her barefoot five-year old daughter snuggled up against me intently staring as I read a book seated on a couch of carpets.

As enticing as Mt. Sinai and the monastery were, the winds and climbing would have required four to five hours of riding time to cover the remaining 40 miles, almost until dark, on minimal food and drink. If I had truly been determined to go all that way I could have accepted the offer of a van driver who stopped alongside me earlier in the day when I was on the long steep climb from the coast offering to drive me there for 100 Egyptian pounds, or $20. Not even an offer of a free ride would have been enough to entice me to being cooped up in a suffocating van isolating me from such spectacular terrain that I could so easily be out in and enjoying on my own terms.

There is hardly a sprig of vegetation to be seen anywhere in these parts. Just a couple minutes after crossing into Egypt I came upon a quartet of camels foraging in a dumpster in the town of Taba. I saw the similar site of a lone camel with his head poking into a garbage can a day later, also at dusk, on the outskirts of Nuweiba.

For 40 miles from the border to Nuweiba the coast was lined with a variety of resorts, some grandiose with casinos, including the Hilton that was bombed a few years ago, and simple clusters of small cabanas for the budget set with names like Escapeland, Paradise and The Getaway. Most were closed though, as it is the off season, just patrolled by watch dogs.
They won't open for another month or so and then plane loads of Germans, Italians and Russians will pack the beaches.

Its good biking weather with the temperature in the 60s, though it feels much warmer sitting in the sun out of the wind. With the sun beating down relentlessly on the Red Sea, its waters are pleasantly warm. I've taken advantage of it several times. The water is clear and known for its snorkeling and diving. One had to wade a considerable distance before it deepens. Jordan is on the other side of this bay of a sea, not that distant. It seems perfectly plausible that it could be parted, though I wouldn't want to try.

I was tempted to take a ferry from Nuweiba to Jordan and save myself from having to double back to Eilat to cross into Jordan, but I missed the one ferry a day I could have taken my bike on. Bypassing Israel would have saved me the $20 exit fee Israel imposes for crossing into Egypt and Jordan. All Egypt demanded was a ten dollar toll a couple miles past the border.

I had my best meal of the trip at a two table locals cafe in Nuweiba. Two of its walls behind the
counter were plastered with the front pages of yellowing newspapers celebrating Saddam Hussein. The cook let me sample several items before adding them to the falafel he prepared me. Nor would he let me peel the hard-boiled egg I had as an appetizer. He swirled it between the palms of his hands crumbling away the shell. I was treated to similar hospitality at the local grocery store. The owner shared half an orange with me. People regularly go out of their way
to have a word with me, many hoping to avail me of their services. Several have tried to talk me out of going to Jordan, but that is next up.

Later, George

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