27 July 2009

Sharm el-Sheik

Last weekend we went to St. Katherine’s Monastery (the oldest monastery in the world) and Sharm el-Sheikh, which boasts some of the most beautiful beaches and coral reefs in the world. It was very touristy, and to be honest I experienced culture shock while I was there—not from Egypt, but from the Europeans. Suffice it to say Europeans are definitely much more comfortable with showing their bodies than Americans are, not to mention Egyptians. The crown jewel of my experiences with naked Europeans on the beach was when a woman in a string bikini began breastfeeding her completely naked toddler in the hotel’s swimming pool. They were happy.

St. Katherine’s Monastery was built at the foot of Mount Sinai, which is supposedly the same mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Naturally, we decided to climb the mountain to watch the sun set over the Sinai. Now to those of you who have never hiked up a mountain, let me tell you that it’s very tiring, sometimes dangerous, and definitely worth it. I was acutely aware of how OUT of shape I am the entire way (and yes, I rested frequently), but after about 3 hours of trudging up, we finally found ourselves at the top. The scene was breathtaking and serene. Someone had built a chapel at the top, and there were a few places to relax and enjoy the sunset, which was beautiful.

The downside to climbing a mountain to see the sunset is that you have to climb down in the dark, which is exactly what we did. At first it wasn’t too bad since the twilight guided our steps, but after a while night settled in. We found ourselves clinging to each other and using our cell phones as flashlights as we stumbled down the path. As we neared the bottom of the mountain we noticed there were many camels around us—just when we began to suspect what had happened, we heard a frantic Egyptian man calling to us; it was so dark that we had accidently stumbled into a camel pen!!! The man called to us to help guide us out of his barnyard. On the plus side, there was no light pollution, and I’ve never seen so many stars in the sky. Seeing the heavens completely opened like that was even more moving than watching the sunset on God’s mountain.

In Sharm, we spent an entire day on a yacht on the Red Sea, which was fabulous. They took us snorkeling to some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world. It was my first time snorkeling, and I got to see hundreds of brightly-colored fish, coral, eels, a squid, and what looked like a blue stingray with yellow spots. We swam in three different locations, and they fed us delicious food on the boat. We also had fun jumping off of the boat into the crystal-clear water. Some people dived off of the top canopy, which was probably a three-story dive. I just jumped off of the top deck, which was around two-stories, and that was amazing. I remember thinking on the way down, oh, shit; this is much higher than I thought! *SPLASH!*

Otherwise, honestly, there’s not much more to say about Sharm. It’s the “Cancun of the Arab world,” so everything is touristy and built up as a resort. While of course I enjoyed it for especially the latter reason, there’s only so much you can say about a trip that was spent mostly drinking cocktails and laying on the beach. As I mentioned before, it did help me understand the Egyptian tourism industry and how the “West” interacts (or doesn’t interact) with the “East,” but otherwise I’m not sure I understand why my program took us there. I hardly spoke any Arabic, and I had only minimal interactions with Egyptians since our program had arranged and scheduled every minute of our trip. On the whole though, I enjoyed my time and if nothing else I would recommend snorkeling in the Red Sea—that definitely falls into the top-five coolest things I’ve done in my life. And as icing on the cake, I didn’t get sunburned!

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