Swaying to the lollop of the camel’s stride, again awe and wonder expand in my chest, joy-full to bursting.
I am in Egypt.
Riding a camel.
About to hike Sinai by moonlight.
And sleep under the stars.
How is this my life?!
Forty-five minutes later it was time to dismount, which was no small feat–camels kneel by bending their front knees first which can send you careening forward in the saddle if you’re not expecting it. Most of the men in the group, and not a few women, swore this would be their first and last time riding one these gangly, mangy, snaggle-toothed beasts.
“We’re not into ‘square-inch’ here,” George reminds us. He had hoped to take us up to St. Catherine, as he has with other groups, but for reasons that were never quite clear, “God didn’t give us Catherine, but this will be good.” (That part was a modified version of his favorite mantra, repeated throughout the trip: “We’ll see what God gives.” I’ve repeated it a thousand times since I’ve been home.) The square-inch part I appreciate. Truth is, we don’t know exactly which peak is the biblical Sinai. St. Catherine is a monastery established in 565AD that marks a potential spot. Another is Jebel Musa, the “Mountain of Moses” which is apparently now a tourist destination full of souvenir shops. The purpose of this hike, and much of the rest of the trip, was not to say, “I’ve been to the exact spot…” but instead to be given eyes to see a clearer picture. This is what the Sinai mountain range looks like, this is the type of terrain trekked by Moses and the Israelites of the Exodus.
Our eyes adjust to the darkness as the sun sets behind the saw toothed ridges, and a full silver moon illuminates our ascent. We hike for hours, my stomach growling as we near the top. Down one last sheet of steep stone we tuck into a Bedouin camp for the night, where dinner preparations over the open campfire are well underway. We slurp hot soup and tea, then receive a portion of rice and some sort of what was maybe a curry? I don’t remember, I was too hungry to care.
Full and sleepy, I pull on all the layers I’d tied to my pack. I’m always paranoid of being too cold, and the temperature had dropped considerably with the elevation and hours. A friend, Katie, and I grab a couple thin mats and thick, rough camel blankets (I’d discover at some point during the night mine was full of sand) and choose a spot near the experienced backpackers, mooching off what we assume is their strategic placement. I pop a melatonin for good measure.
My eyes open sometime in the dark, still covered by my knit beanie. Pushing it up my forehead, I am met with a spectacular swath of stars. Glimmering, swimming across my field of vision in every direction. Smiling, I slip back into sleep.
Day breaks over the red rocks and I sputter sand, sneezing and snorting into my tissues. Giggling over my apologies for apparently having snored all night. Laughing hard, doubled over as all of us girls try to use the “ladies’ room” which was “cut by the hand of God.” I can see how wilderness life pushes people together. You can’t help but bond as you share tips for best practices to not pee on your boots–or worse.
We hike up a bit higher to watch the rest of the sunrise over the terra cotta cliffs. Our devotional time begins, as it does every morning of the trip, with reciting the Shema, first in Hebrew then in English. George teaches about the meaning of aliyah, the Hebrew root of my name, Aleah. It means “to ascend.” Aliyah is a pilgrimage word and it’s always uphill. The ascent works our legs and our lungs as we live and breathe to a heavy Yah-weh rhythm. His teaching lines up with my experience.
As dreamy as the morning has been, as the whole trip has been thus far, I’m still not quite sure why I’m here. I’m glutted with gratitude, but, and I know this is silly, but I’m looking for a sign. Surely Sinai would have been a great time to give it to me. It worked for Moses. I’m hoping for a burning bush, some divinely heavy-handed hint as to how all this comes together for me. Not just the why-I’m-here-on-Sinai, but the ontological why am I here on this planet?! These opportunities that stalk me start feeling selfish. I sense I’m on the edge of something new and I’m afraid. As we know, fear is my catch-all emotion.
Did God’s people wonder along the same paths? As they followed the pillars of cloud and fire, did they question their course? Not just grumble, as I am also prone to do, but try to peer through the cloud, past the brilliance for a glimpse of the Promised Land? “I think there’s something about the evil one who wants to give us stuff before we’re ready,” George had told us on the first day. It’s folly to be given something early if you aren’t mature enough for it to be useful. In God’s timing is wisdom.
Little did I know then, I was about to walk into a lesson that would change my view of the Promised Land forever.
This post is second in a series highlighting some touch points from my recent trip with Under the Fig Tree Ministries. “Out of Egypt” is the first post, and I guess I’ll have to commit to writing at least one more since I haven’t actually succeeded in getting us out of Egypt yet!