Since the end of the last blog post by my friend Silas, we’ve explored Egypt further. Since Anafora, we’ve spent a lot of time traveling out and about, flying from Cairo to Luxor and spending two days there with picturesque scenery along the Nile visible right from our hotel room windows and rooftop. Our guide, Samer, took us to explore several historical locations around Luxor – Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple, the Valley of Kings, and the local bazaar, to name a few.
After flying back to Cairo, we also had the opportunity to travel (once again, led by Samer) down to St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, some several hours’ bus drive where we crossed the Suez Canal into the Sinai peninsula (and from Africa to Asia). Touring the museum there was a fascinating experience, as well – many Christian icons, fine artwork, and old books, all of which were several centuries old, a few well over a thousand years old, which highlights the deep and rich history of the monastery in addition to Christianity itself.
One of the highlights of this week (and the trip to date) was our climb up Mount Sinai on the 23rd; not quite just a walk in the park, with a trail about 2.5 miles long with 750 steps at the end to the peak. It covers a total elevation change of 2,200 feet (with the peak itself being roughly 2.2km, or 7,500 feet, above sea level), but the sunset view at the peak was well worth the hike, in addition to Linford going on at length with several excellent words on Exodus (our assigned Bible reading at the time) and our hiking experience.
The day after our climb up Mount Sinai was a much more relaxed day (in the morning at least) where we drove from St. Catherine to Taba, a small town on the Egyptian side of the Egypt-Israel border, to cross through the very southern tip of Israel over to Aqaba on the Jordanian side, where we stayed the night. Clearing border security in Israel was a very time-consuming affair, but eventually we got across to Jordan, where we ended up waiting some more for our guides and bus. Our Jordanian guides, Mahmoud and Mahdi, gave us a quick tour around Aqaba in the bus before dropping us off at our hotel with a free evening and morning to spend at our leisure. Everyone in our group took the time to get out and explore Aqaba a bit before and after dinner, as well as a few more taking the opportunity to go take a dip in the Red Sea on the following morning. After lunch on our own (for me, falafel and shawarma), we left Aqaba to head out to Wadi Rum about an hour away.
Wadi Rum may well top Mount Sinai as a new highlight of this week. It is a fantastically fun national park in the Jordanian desert with enormous sandstone outcroppings, pick-up trucks carrying 6 people apiece (rather bumpily) in the back throughout the desert, tons of climbing opportunities as well as locations with old Arabic carvings in the stone and other pieces of Jordanian history. We stayed the night there at an eco-lodge with some Bedouins, providing a great dinner of roasted beef and chicken along with bread, hummus, vegetables, and myriad dips, and some wonderful black tea flavored with sage and sugar. Following dinner was an opportunity for excellent stargazing; Wadi Rum is far away from nearly any and all light pollution (sans the few camps out there) and had a beautiful night sky with hundreds if not thousands of stars visible.
Our physical travels are only one part of the entire cross-cultural experience; our own experiences definitely make up another big part of it, with the incredible hospitality of our guides and hosts, the great food we have every day, the many cats and dogs (and sometimes goats and donkeys and camels) we encounter usually every day on this trip. Getting to know more about the land and the customs is also another big part – we’ve on several occasions ended up peppering our guides with questions about the local area as well as the wider countries to learn more about local religions and geopolitics. As we travel through the Middle East, we’re also becoming much more closer as a group – where many of us didn’t know each other very well at the start, we now are largely getting to know each other and befriend one another, which has led to many new and interesting discussions in our free time while travelling or hiking. And naturally, there’s the aspect of physically walking the Biblical story, as well as reading it while we go along the same path, and experiencing the natural world and the creation of God everywhere we go and in everyone we meet.
Going back to the last post by Silas, a few of his sentiments merit echoing: it certainly feels far longer than just a week since then, and we certainly are still experiencing the themes of cultural diversity, linguistic discovery, and religious differences. The impact of them has somewhat lessened since our first week as we become a little more used to traveling and staying here in the Middle East with their own customs and traditions, but they’re still there in the back of our heads and make excellent food for thought and fodder for discussion.
It’s still an incredible cross-cultural experience thus far, with all of us adapting quickly to any culture shock we may have experienced. We look forward to the coming several months here and elsewhere, and hope our families and friends will continue to support us here as well as keep us updated of what goes on back at home.