We left on the first day of the Eid holiday on the eleven o’clock bus from Turgoman Station in downtown Cairo. Somewhat surprisingly, the eight hour bus ride to the town of Saint Catherine at the foot of Mt. Sinai wasn’t bad (Greyhound could learn something from East Delta, seriously). We only passed through two checkpoints . For some strange reason the policemen who board the buses to check passports aren’t uniformed, they’re just casually dressed in t-shirts and jeans equipped with waist holsters. Once we got to St. Catherine, we checked into our hostel, run by the fabulous Sheikh Mousa, and collapsed on Bedouin-style floor cushions where we were eventually fed one of the best meals I’ve had in weeks.

We were planning to find a ride to the Monastery of St. Catherine that night to start our climb up Mt. Sinai, but Sheikh Mousa had a better idea: he told us of a little-traveled, easy path that led up the back of Mt. Sinai and eventually joined up with the traditional pilgrimage route of the Stairs of Repentance. The little traveled route involved an hour and a half hike into the Wadi (Valley) behind the mountain before another hour and half climb up to the summit.

Now, Sheikh Mousa’s route might have been easy for someone in peak physical condition, but I am a clumsy asthmatic currently diagnosed with bronchitis who has reduced lung capacity and a bum knee who also happens to be semi-afraid of heights and very afraid of unstable staircases.

So of course it makes sense that on my vacation I decide to climb a 7,497 foot mountain whose summit can only be reached by climbing up 1,000 rough hewn slabs that can be loosely called stairs in the dark.

Admittedly, I did not know that Mt. Sinai was a real mountain. In my head I was picturing a large hill, kind of like the Appalachian mountains I can see from my bedroom window at home way off in the distance. We did no research, figuring that old religious pilgrims climb Mt. Sinai all the time with no problems. Well, yeah, but they ride camels up the hard part. Moses must have been in pretty good shape himself to climb the mountain with no staircase.

We set off, after two hours of not-quite-sleep, at 12:30 A.M., hiking through a narrow valley under a sky littered with more stars than I’ve ever seen in my entire life. We gained elevation steadily and the pace was blistering. I kept up for the first hour and a half until the air started to thin out, at which point I started panting and luckily, at that point Kelly decided she needed to slow down too. We made it to the top around 3 A.M. The air was thin and freezing and we rented blankets as we hunkered down waiting for the sun to rise. Religious pilgrims were conducting services in various languages and as the first tinges of light hit the horizon monks started chanting in one of the most beautiful and complicated harmonies I’ve ever heard.

Watching the sun rise over Mount Sinai made the climb (and the yet-to-come terrifyingly awful descent) worth the pain. We stayed until the sun was completely up and the sunlight beautifully hit the surrounding peaks before climbing down the Steps of Repentance.

The Steps of Repentance were carved by the monks at the Monastery of St. Catherine and 4,000 of them lead directly from the Monastery to the top of the mountain. At times they plummet straight down. We started descending at 5:30 A.M. and finally reached the blessed monastery at 9:00 A.M. By going down the stairs in daylight I could actually see how high we were and that freaked me out just a little, not to mention the fact that the stairs were…not really stairs. They were just a rock path going down. I made it all the way thanks to Tommy and Kelly who dealt with my neurotic fears and went slowly enough that my bum knee wouldn’t get worse.

At the monastery we got to see the Burning Bush and all of the priceless iconography and religious artwork that was produced at St. Catherine over the centuries. We even went inside the chapel that was built by Justinian.

We made it back to Sheikh Mousa’s in time to arrange a taxi ride to the Egyptian border crossing of Taba. For twenty dollars a person we went hurtling through the Sinai Desert—our driver would roll through checkpoints, say “three Americans” and we’d be waved onward. We made it to the border where we had to get out of Egypt before heading into Israel…and here’s where the fun times really began.

My visa was issued by the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, DC in English. It clearly states that it can be used any time within a six month time period, that once in Egypt it is valid for one month, and any time within that one month travel outside Egypt was possible because my tourist visa was multiple entry. The border guards collected our three passports and easily spent half an hour trying to decipher exactly what our visas meant (mine was very expired, Kelly’s had a few extra days on it, and Tommy was successful at extending his original visa.)

If anyone should have had problems at the Egyptian border, it was me. But they luckily misinterpreted my visa as meaning that at any time within the six month period, I could enter Egypt again and get an entirely new month of tourist residency despite the fact that I had overstayed my original tourist visa. Kelly and Tommy both had to buy re-entry visas but we eventually got through.

We got into Israel with very little hassle, except for when they asked us how long we planned to stay in Israel. I don’t think they get many kids who say “30 minutes.” We grabbed a cab (which had leather seats! English language radio set to Adele! A meter!) and drove across Israel in a matter of minutes.

We then had to pay a departure tax equivalent to spending a dollar a minute for the time we spent in Israel. We made it into Jordan without major issues, and hired another taxi to drive us to our hostel in Wadi Musa.

If you were keeping track: in exactly 24 hours I climbed up and down Mt. Sinai, explored a monastery, drove across the Sinai desert, crossed two international borders , made it through four border posts, and drove across another desert in Jordan.

And that was just the beginning of our whirlwind.

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