I should preface our trip to Sinai by saying that it isn’t the best of times to be crossing the Egyptian border, especially by foot, and especially by way of Israel. It wasn’t until we checked our email upon returning to Israel that we heard of the tragic soccer riot in Cairo, and the kidnapping of two tourists in St. Catherine’s about an hour away, both of which took place while we were in Sinai. (As they say, out of sight, out of mind.) The decision to go to Sinai was spontaneous, and Spencer, a fellow American, was convincing enough that it was a harmless place – what’s the worst that could happen?
Well, upon crossing the border from Eilat to Taba, we were expecting the worst. A cabbie trailed behind us for the one kilometer walk from the Taba border to the bus station, insisting in his high pitched, restless tone that we had missed the last bus to Nuweiba, our destination. He was right. That’s when we started getting accosted by cabbies who were at each others necks to get our business. None of this seemed safe to say the least – five guys in turbans and half their teeth arguing with each other in Arabic. One by one they conceded until two men stood before us, lowering the price by five Egyptian pounds every time we agreed. The price went from 100 pounds per person to 75 total before one cabbie remained, guiding us to his van. (The same friendly fellow that followed us from the border.) But the real scare didn’t come until we paid the border tax another kilometer down the road. Our turbaned friend pulled over, turned around and said “120 pounds,” to which we futilely argued that we had already agreed on a price, and he showed us the door. So we got out, heads hanging at the prospect that Egypt wasn’t meant to be. But then, on our walk back to the border, the same two cabbies caught up with us and began the same ritual, so we called it at 100 pounds and started again for Nuweiba.
The fun didn’t stop there as we held on for dear life, booking it 140km/hr with the Sinai mountains to our right and the Red Sea to the left. Driving on the wrong side of the road, honking the whole way down (which apparently is a friendly “hello” to your fellow drivers in this small Arab community), we were awe-struck by the view while praying this guy doesn’t make a wrong turn into stone or sea. And to boot, if you reached for a seatbelt, all they say is “this is Sinai, no seatbelts here.” NASCAR scouts should definitely look into Egyptian cabbies – they could be the future of the industry.
An hour later we arrived at Sababa Camp, but as Stu pointed out, none of us had smiled for the past two hours. When we walked up to meet the camp ambassador, Saleh Wahid (“One”), and looked across the water at the sunset over the Arabian mountains, that all changed. We were finally there.
The camp is a bohemian paradise run by Bedouins, who are some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met – and many wearing red turbans no less! (Saleh, the ambassador to westerners passing through the camp, compromised by wearing a red Yankees cap to bridge the cultural gap.) Sababa was exactly what we needed after two weeks of constant motion, a couple days to rest in hammocks beneath palm huts, smoke some shisha/nargila/hookah (we learn a new word for this every week), snorkel over shallow the corals of the Red Sea and stare off into the mystical mountain ranges in not so far off Saudi Arabia. Oh yea, and the tea. Bedouins make the best tea I’ve ever had – they really know their herbs and spices.
Bedouins are a nomadic people, desert-dwellers with an uncompromising honor code. Along the Egyptian coastline there were several abandoned towns, five-story concrete buildings without a single person inhabiting them. The Bedouins prefer to be as removed from westernization as possible, often times constructing huts adjacent to the security these concrete fixtures, allowing themselves only to survive on that which they built with their own hands. In fact, in principle they don’t use concrete at all – everything in Sababa Camp was built out of palm wood, frond, stones and hand-weaved tapestries. But the paradox of their alienation is that they rely on western travelers passing through as a primary means of sustaining their lifestyle.
So when Paul, Stu and I arrived in this place far removed from anything we have seen before, they greeted us with open arms. And what’s more, Saleh Wahid – who has lived in Miami and Brooklyn on and off for the past 25 years – repeatedly tried to get us to stay for days, weeks, months. “What’s your rush?” he would ask. The men working at Sababa were relatively simple, and all very young at heart. They were perfectly content with the leisurely lives they lead, spending their days alone on the beach, or accommodating their guests in any way they could. Hospitality is a huge part of the Bedouin culture, and we certainly experienced that first hand – it almost seemed altruistic, especially given the cost of everything. Paradise does have a price… And it’s about $20 a day.
Needless to say, we met some very interesting characters at Sababa Camp. Saleh Wahid was the most worldly and well-versed of the bunch, and spoke fluent English (albeit lethargically, as with everything else, he felt no rush to finish his sentences). On our first night there was no one else staying at the camp, so the Bedouins invited us to sit with them at their fire. We brought over our shisha, removed our shoes and took a load off. They made tea and roasted sweet potatoes on the fire coals as we spoke with Saleh about the States, the bustling culture and how you cannot find anything like this in America, despite there being such an ideal of freedom. We talked about our dinner, how the chicken was raised just across the street for 6 months, and made for a delicious, filling meal; while Americans always seek more – plumper, juicier, better – and poultry is engineered to grow 3 times the size in 3 weeks, genetically altered and bred without feet. He spoke of America as having no sense of community, a culture that raises you to believe you have infinite possibilities in life, that the entire country is yours to inhabit. It doesn’t matter who your neighbor is, because you can choose all the who’s, what’s, where’s, and when’s in life.
At first he seemed well adjusted to the west, having built up a restaurant in Miami and managing another in NYC. But the more he spoke negatively of capitalism, the more it seemed he had something to prove. Maybe he just wanted us to stay longer, maybe he was lonely, maybe he was less adjusted than we gave him credit for. In any case, he was leading an easy lifestyle, and it takes some balls to leave a business behind to do that.
We spoke primarily to Saleh Wahid because, well, none of the other Bedouins really spoke English. But my favorite of the bunch was Saleh’s childhood friend, also named Saleh. (Coincidence? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. I’ll refer to him as Saleh Itnen, “Two,” going forward.) Saleh Itnen is a butcher by trade, and though we never saw him with a knife in hand, he had slaughtered the chicken that was our dinner just hours earlier. We met him that first night by the fire, though he kept mostly to himself, constantly in need of keeping his hands busy – whether it was tending to the fire, poking at the sweet potatoes, maneuvering the tea pot on the coals, smoking, or wandering around the camp, Saleh Itnen bounced around like a caged bird.
Every so often he would mutter something in Arabic to Saleh Wahid with a grin on his face. Like an older brother, Wahid would shake his head and deem if it was worth even relaying the message on to us. But at one point Itnen mentioned “sheesh beesh” which is the middle eastern name for backgammon (literally translated in Turkish as “six five,” a solid roll in the game). At that point I repeated “shesh besh?” challenged him to a game, and the language barrier was broken.
Saleh Itnen, a fifty year old man, acted as though he was fifteen. Blind as a bat, he could barely see the board, let alone the numbers on the dice. Luckily, he could understand English numbers, so I’d tell him his roll – “six four” – and he would repeat back to me: “seeex forrrr.” his moves were so deliberate, he was able to see the board faster than I could register the numbers I had just told him. But while his prowess at sheshbesh was that of a seasoned vet, his patience was that of a hyperactive child. I would roll, look at the board for 3 seconds, and he’d start shaking, twiddling his fingers, pointing at pieces. A couple of times I would make a move and he’d tut, pick my pieces up and make a different move, asking “why not thees!?” And funny enough, he was right every time. I lost 3 straight games to him – gammoned once, backgammoned in another. Best player I’ve ever had the privilege of losing to.
After the game he invited me down to the beach, saying it was time to say goodnight to Mr. Sea. So we went down to the ocean, listened to the tide splash against the rocky shore, and out of the silence he said something that was beautiful in its simplicity. It was the most English he spoke all three days, and putting his finger behind his ear, this is what he said:
“Every morning, every night, I say hello to Mr. Sea. ‘Hello Mr. Sea!’ Mr. Sea speaks. He tells me things but I cannot understand him. He understands me. He listens. ‘Goodnight Mr. Sea!’ Until tomorrow.”
You could chalk it up as terrible English, or something your five-year old nephew might say, but this is who he was – a simple man with no wife and no kids, who has found deep solace in living by the water. The next day he walked along the beach for two hours picking up artifacts from the seashore, then arranged them as a graveyard on the beach, taking a step back every few minutes to appreciate his ephemeral work of art. As if he’s always lived in the present – never looking forward or back – he seemed grateful for what was directly in front of him, but didn’t take the time to reflect on the bigger picture. Then again, he was always smiling, and some might say that’s the most important thing.
We also met some funny Brits passing through the camp. Di and Roo – a married couple from Northern England – had spent the past two weeks “vacationing” in Palestine (interesting choice, no?). Di was the more outgoing of the two, though Roo was also very funny. Both possessed a childlike wonder and a desire to see things off the beaten path. And like most Brits, their intellect (perceived or actual) shone through their accents.
Di had long dreads with various laniards seamlessly woven in. She even bought one off of a brother and sister walking along the beach selling bracelets. But as she began tying it into her hair, the Bedouin girl grabbed her arm. “No! It’s for here,” pointing to her wrist. Di said “it can be for this too” and the girl – first perplexed, then fascinated once Di added it to the collection in her hair – smiled at the freedom with which she turned a bracelet into something altogether different. The girl had places to be, bracelets to sell farther down the beach, and her little brother was growing impatient. But she didn’t want to leave, completely enamored by Di’s creativity. As the little boy tied up their nomadic bead shop, signaling their departure, his sister reached into her pocket and handed Di a bracelet that was not for sale, a token of her gratitude. And as they walked away, in that moment, I wished the little girl had Facebook, but just like that, a beautiful friendship had come and gone.