Monday, April 20, 2009

Egyptian Adventures [Part II]

I'm currently back in SF, CA right now but need to do some serious catching up on backlogged posting. So we're going to continue in Egypt and work our way through Turkey and some road tripping in the USofA.

When we last left off in Egypt, I had just eaten about 4 lbs of chicken at a Bedouin get together, and woke up the next day to go see St. Catherine's Monastery, proclaimed to be the oldest still inhabited monastery in the world. It is also said to be the sight of Moses' flammable plant, with the monastery being built around it's location and the mountain where he delivered the ten commandments about a two or three hour hike away [Mt. Sinai or Mt. Mousa]. The monastery is nestled in the bottom of a valley surrounded by tall rocky mountain ranges and protected from the harsh winds. The landscape around it was stunning, though the actual collection of building themselves were hard to get a feel for due to the massive amount of tourists pouring off of giant charter buses. As soon as you get inside you were swept along in a sea of fanny packs and bad khaki safari hats. Whizzed by priceless paintings and artifacts only to be spat out the opposite end. After I got over my initial claustrophobia gained from tightly packed spaces, I continued onward with the goal of hiking up Mt. Sinai. Luckily for me only of the bravest of the brave air conditioned travelers dare to climb up the hot three hour hike up to the top. Those that do usually take the camel path up riding the spitting four legged beasts. I approached the base of the mountain trail to find a German couple [Leo and Ruth as I was to find out later] argueing with two Egyptian policemen who would not let them pass. They said you have to have a guide in order to go up the mountain, which we thought to be just a way to gouge more money out of tourists looking to climb said rock. Apparently though, they really do require you to have a guide, as there are numorous paths up to the top with no signs marking which is the right way to go. We ended up jumping on with a group of four french women touting ski poles and a nice Bedouin guide that led the way.

On the way up the long and dusty path are small outposts for snacks and drinks ran by Bedouin. Everything has to be brought up to supply them and like good capitalists, the prices inch up the closer and closer you get to the top. The plan of the small shelters is usually always a "U" shape, with the open end of the "U" facing north. The walls are thickly stacked rocks from the surrounding mountain with minimal mortar used, just enough to keep down the often harsh winds, especially during the pre-dawn and post-sunset pilgrimages. Above, the roof is made out of light palm beams and even lighter palm fronds. The front open side is then enclosed again with wooden shelves that also serve as a sun baffle, blocking and bouncing any stray rays that manage to get past the small overhang. After seeing many of the Bedouin structures inhabited in Egypt, you can usually break down the materials into two categories: "Very Heavy" and "Extremely Light". Many of the walls end up being exceedingly thick stone structures, able to block a majority of the wind without teetering, serving as a thermal mass to absorb much of the sun's heat, and having the ability to recess shelves and other items into their deep cavities. In distinct contrast, the roofs and screens all tend to be very delicate, dappling the harsh light, yet still allowing breezes to slip by. Mostly made out of reeds or palm, every once in a while a lightweight steel under-structure is also applied. I made it up to the top of the mountain without too much trouble, though there it was interesting to see old English women shelling out ten pound notes to young egyptian boys to help them get up the last quarter mile of steep steps. After saying "adieu" to my french company and guide, I hustled back down the other way to get up Mt. Sinai, the aptly named Siket Sayidna Musa, or "steps of penitence" that took me only about an hour, but going at an admitted too fast of a pace.

For the next few days I had on my agenda to go visit some Gra Safah "old houses", an ecolodge even deeper in the desert, and a hike in the "high mountain region". To accomplish all of this, it was necessary to get a Bedouin guide to show me where everything was located and make sure I don't end up a bleached pile of bones out in the sand somewhere. That night at the place I was staying, the appropriately named "Bedouin Camp", I went to meet with the local Sheikh of the Jabaliya tribe, Sheikh Mousa. A sheikh is a tribal leader that is looked to for guidance and leadership for all of the members of his tribe, and is an extremely good person to get to know, as I was come to find out later. We sat down with a map with visible north arrow and pointed at different dots for a while till we both seemed satisfied that we knew what we were talking about. Then I figured out through Sheikh Mousa's limited English that he would have a guide come by that night in order to discuss price for the trip and finalize plans. After I had dinner sitting out on the mats with low tables, my future guide popped his head around and introduced himself as Badri. We sat down and drank tea while we talked about what would be possible to do, and when to hike versus drive [tea is always present and they say if you get above ten cups a day then you can start to worry]. There was some confusion at one point and I asked Badri if we could look at a map inside and go over exactly where we were going to visit. We ambled inside and Badri scratched his head when looking at the map, turning it this way and that. Eventually it devolved into him pointing at a location and asking me what it said, then pointing to another and repeating again and again. After it became painfully obvious the Badri could not locate our current position on the map, much less where we were heading I started to get a little freaked out. But as it turns out, many of the Bedouin guides have no need for maps, they are raised around the desert their whole life and know all of the paths and markings by sight, not from our preconceived top-down-north-south-east-west ideal. In fact, Nashwa told me that most Bedouins don't even use the cardinal points to give directions, its usually just broken down into "up" versus "down", meaning which way on the mountain you are heading.

Badri and I had come to an agreement, so the next day himself and his cousin Hoder picked me up in Hoder's old 1981 Datsun to head out into the great white unknown [or at least to me]. On the way to El-Karm Ecolodge [where we were staying for the night] Hoder leans over and tells Badri we have to make a stop first. At a seemingly invisible turnoff point Hoder pulls the car off of the bumpy dirt road to an even bumpier sandy road and drives down a few hills. He is in charge of one of the water wells/gardens that the Bedouin have maintained at hidden locations for hundreds of years in order to make sure they always have enough water and food to survive. Since the modernization of much of Egypt, these gardens are disappearing more and more, but some such as Hoder still upkeep them for the valuable resources they provide. We walked past some Bedouin scarecrows, complete with head scarves, lording over a small vegetable garden. Behind the silent sentinels was a hole open to the sky, carved out of the hard earth about 15 feet deep. Badri and Hoder grabbed a leaky bucket with a rope attached and Mobil Gas container and proceeded to haul load after load of water up into the black gas container. After it was filled up to the desired level we walked over to a shallow concrete basin about 20 feet away that had a spliced black plastic tube sitting in its small confines. As Hober started twisting the pipe open, Badri began pouring little by little of the precious liquid into the bowl, and picking out large pieces of twigs or rock that might get caught in the tubing. After Hober started a water vacuum by holding his thumb on one end, he told me it was going down to the garden where we entered. The irrigation ritual has to be done every day when they have not had much rain, as the well is too low to bring water by itself. We sat watching the glistening water in the summer sun until all that they had hauled up had been drained into the jet black piping. Walking back, I could see the now, though I had not seen it at all before. It was right below the surface to protect it from UV rays, occasionally held down by rocks gathered from the surrounding areas.

Next stop, El Karm Eco-lodge to meet Sheikh Gamil, put our small packs down, and of course, have more tea. After everyone had said hello and caught up with friends and family members [many of the Bedouin are related in one way or another, for instance, Hoder's father was working as a cook at the camp currently] we headed back out to see some of the Gra Safah before the sun set. Gra Safah translates to "old house" in English and are stone structures made with incredibly skill and barely any bonder to speak of. The ruins are clustered together to form a small outcropping, with maybe 25 to 30 structures altogether. They all lie on the Eastern side of the nearby mountain range, being protected from fierce western winds and sun with most all of the openings to get inside facing north, probably covered by wooden doors or cloth that has long since rotted away. The roof now is open to the sky, but originally would have been covered most likely by reeds and valuable scraps of wood that had been grown in one of the protected valleys further up. Besides the one main opening to enter, all of the structures are punctured by numerous ultra small holes to let in light, the keyword here being "numerous" instead of large. The tiny voids are put low on side and high on the other, allowing wind to blow through and drive the hot air up and out and providing a minimal amount of light in besides the doorway. The construction technique behind the stone wall is elementary but incredibly sophisticated in the same breath. The ancient builders started with the heaviest stones to make up their base, and gradually got smaller and lighter as they proceeded upwards. The idea being that even large men would not be able to lift the heavier blocks up very high. Seemingly simple, but then I think back to the way many buildings are currently built, with an overwhelming uniformity in their material as it goes up. The same steel section sometimes used all the way up many stories for presumed ease of use and unwillingness to differentiate between materials and the way they are put together. Some of the Gra Safah are clustered even closer together, sharing walls and possibly made for multiple families to occupy concurrently. One of the dwellings I stumbled upon might have been for a tribal leader, as the construction was even more painstaking, and large thin slabs of stone had been inserted into the wall to become shelves on the inside. At other points in the same structure the stones had been removed and a lintel place above, creating many nooks in a gridded pattern for even more storage. Once the sun started getting more and more sleepy we decided to head back to camp for the night and taste Hoder's father's cooking.

El Karm Ecolodge is a small outcropping of buildings designed by a still yet to be determined French architect in 2002 [I asked everyone I could and checked websites and all I can say with certainty is that he/she is in fact french]. The Ecolodge is run by Sheikh Gamil and can sleep about 16 people at any one time, though they are currently in the process of building several more structures to expand. They have waterless composting toilets and solar hot water heaters and no electricity in the whole camp. As soon as the sun goes down all you can make out are fleeting shadows gliding by with headlamps to light their way to the candlelit bathrooms. In the main dining space, instead of having a few large windows, cues were taken from the surrounding ancient houses, with many more smaller openings creating a seemingly random pattern of light and shadow. Most all of the interiors are kept as cool and dark as possible, with transitional shaded spaces serving most of the activities during the day and into the dusk. Though it worked well in the dining spaces, many of the rooms had trouble getting any light at all with the same philosophy, though ideally you would really only be in there sleeping after a long day of hiking and exploring I would guess.

Thoughts on Traveling #12 : Never needlessly offend anyone in Egypt. There is a very high probability that they will later end up being your sole guide taking you up a dangerous mountain. And call you out on it. And then you'll feel like an idiot.


Moushira said...

Hey! The architect who built El-Karm is a half Egyptian, half French man called: Olivier Sednaoui. He is the same guy who worked on the construction of the visitor center in Katerina.
P.S: When are you coming back? ha..!!:D

luke w perry said...

yo taylor. great to catch up on your blog. looks like you had an amazing time in good to follow your travels. brings back some memories for me...where are you now?