Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux
Across the line and still alive
Rajan yli ja yhä hengissä
Sinai 2000 

If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in the weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture.
-- Ray Bradbury, "More Than One Way to Burn a Book"
The following travel log is quite a bit more personal that most of my other travel writing.  I usually travel to open my eyes, see new places, do new things, and meet new people -- this time I mostly wanted to get away, use the physical distance and disorientation of travel to put some emotional distance between myself and the turmoil of December 1999.  The rest of the context you'll have to work out for yourself, I expect that the trip itself will remain comprehensible even without it.

If you're offended by frank verbal imagery...  you probably already got a heart attack from the picture above.  Deal with it, or leave.

Mon 3.1.2000 12:29
Aboard bus 394 (Eilat express), Central Bus Station, Tel Aviv, Israel

Möbius stairsI sat on the guest room bed at my parents' house, my mind an emotional blank, thinking: "Do I really want to leave?  Wouldn't it be easier to stay, to forget, to do nothing?"

And the answer is that yes, of course, it would be.  But then, quite uninvited, a few strains from a Macy Gray song popped into my head:

 Precisely correct.  So I did.

My father drove me down to Tel Aviv, jhno's kwno playing in the background, the gentle rhythms and memories of time suspended during incense-scented candle-lit nights clashing weirdly with the heat, hazy sunlight, palm trees and traffic congestion of a large Mediterranean city at midday.

I felt a fleeting but almost overwhelming urge to hold onto a woman and feel her fingers gently caress my back, tell me that Everything is All Right.

I step out of the car into the chaos of the world's largest bus station and the melancholy feeling evaporates.  I check the schedules -- I'm in luck, less than 30 minutes until the next direct express to Eilat -- buy a ticket, locate my platform on floor 6, grab a shwarma, pack my stuff in the hold, jostle in line (the muzzle of a soldier's assault rifle pokes my stomach and for a moment I feel the presence of Death), find my seat and settle down with a sigh.  A 5-hour trip awaits.

To the right are 2 Russians, talking loudly and continuously in their own language.

Next to me: An older Israeli man boards at Be'er Sheva, gruffly speaking Hebrew in a gravelly voice to an acquaintance sitting in the next row, somehow reminding me of the people of Sicily.

Later: An Ethiopian Jew in kippa and an IDF uniform, sunken red eyes with black skin draped tightly over his skull.  Silent.  He gets off in the middle of the desert along with a pudgy Russian soldier.  Finally, an uncommunicative American with a brown ponytail, on his way to the beaches of Eilat.

Behind me, a couple holds a long series of animated conversations with their cellphones.

Past Be'er Sheva, irrigated green fields give way to the wilderness of the Negev Desert. The curves of its hills are like unshaven cheeks, evenly spaced black bushes bristling in the sand. Next to the road the power lines are marked with large once-flourescent balls, plopping past the window like a long chain of blood-stained steel balls being slowly pulled out of a dry, dust-colored vagina.

After Dimona the descent below sea level starts and vegetation becomes even more sparse. By the time the bus reaches the edge of the Dead Sea, there is no life at all left, just a wrinkled and pitted face scorched by the sun for years on end.

The bus trundles on, past my 4-hour pain threshold. Night falls and I shift wearily in my seat. The lights of Aqaba on the other side of the Jordan River slowly blink into view, and after a twist in the road the hotel ziggurats of Eilat appear. I locate the hostel relatively painlessly, but get (and currently am) stuck waiting for someone to show up with the key.

Mon 3.1.2000 20:55
North Beach, Eilat, Israel

Aqua Sport Divers Lodge, EilatI popped into the nearby Co-op supermarket to buy essentials (oranges, dark chocolate, bananas, mm!), bought a falafel on the way back and got to the hostel just in time to catch the effusively apologetic caretaker, who gave me the key to a spartan but clean 4-bed dorm occupied solely by moi, with private shower/WC. With free transport and entrance to Coral Beach thrown in, $21 for B&B is starting to sound almost bearable. I devoured my dinner and then vegetated on the tiny bed (no guests indeed, if you did manage to fit a 2nd person with you, the flimsy plywood would probably collapse).

I came here to get away, but instead I'm assailed by a host of entirely familiar feelings! Until today, there was too much time, but now that I'm on the road again there's too little of it. If I wish to complete my planned Eilat-Dahab-St. Catherine's itinerary I will have to allocate precisely two days to each, much of that wasted on getting from point A to point B. Sigh.

Eilat itself is almost too familiar after two previous visits, the scene is as plastic as ever with tourists (including plenty of blonde Finns) romping through the shopping malls. I can't even join in the feeding frenzy myself, as everything will be cheaper in Egypt and the souq-y little beachfront bazaar of stalls here complete with snatches of Arabic pop just beckons me towards the Real Thing. Something in my schedule will have to give...

Tue 4.1.2000 10:37
Aqua Sport Dive Club, Coral Beach, Eilat, Israel
I hadn't expected those chills to be quite so literal. It was raining as the van pulled up, and at the dive center I had to put on a sweater. Everything was mildly chaotic (as a Web story I'd read had warned) but everybody was quite affable, including my fellow divers Peter (from Greenland!) and Paul from Wales.

I signed up for the 11 and 14 o'clock dives, and spent an hour snorkeling about Coral Beach -- which would've been more pleasant had the sun been out! Cantos Gregorianos playing in the background and the ghostly outlines of Jordanian mountains on the other side of the bay completed the unreal scene.

The dives were less than spectacular, largely (but not entirely) due to weighting problems.

A rather humbling experience in all, I may have managed to make it back alive but my body still has a lot to learn about doing it with grace. But now that the foundations are in place for some truly kick-ass dives in Egypt...

Diving gear dryingI arrived at the hostel, swapped batteries on my digicam (which has been acting up lately) but ran back out too late to catch the beautiful sunset, and then collapsed in bed.  I did have the foresight to set the alarm for 19:00, stopping me from vegetating until morning.

Interlude: I ended up at Underground Pub for dinner, picking their (hideous) spagetti and (less hideous) beer precisely because they're the kind of stuff I expect to have great difficulty finding in Egypt. [Ed: Egypt, yes. Dahab, no.] Still, it came as a surprise when the pretty blond waitress grinned and plopped down two half-liter mugs of ale -- then I realized that this was the 2-for-1 deal she'd mentioned, so each mug ended up costing a royal 4.50 shekels (~$1) each.

So now I sit outside Eilat's funny little central park, looking at the cloudless night sky and feeling rather drunk: not my head, just my body, which seems to be operating normally according to an extensive set of previous programming. The disconcerting part is that it seems to be doing so on its own, even these letters appearing in my notebook before I can consciously order my hand to write them. Not entirely pleasant.

Everything aside from the reality of Being Here Now seems irrelevant, like figments of my imagination, fantasies and nightmares that never really happened. I'm off to bed.

Wed 5.1.2000 13:35
Star of Dahab camp, Dahab, Egypt

The beach at Star of DahabThis is the life! Lying on a reclining chair with the waves of the Red Sea lapping the beach a meter away from me, the sun shining down from a clear sky, my stomach full of hummus and bread, about to go snorkel among the coral reefs...

Border tax slip...not that it didn't take some work to get here. I woke up at 7 (which wasn't even particularly difficult as I'd gone to bed at 22 -- I can hear those of you who know me gasping in disbelief) and hauled myself to the border, where I was subjected to the usual hassles. No problems. Unfortunately, I missed the morning bus to Dahab -- it leaves at a ridiculous 7:30 now! -- and the negotiations for a taxi were a bit tiresome. I took it in stride, whereas some others in our little amorphous group of people headed in the same direction (3 South Africans, 2 Germans, 2 Israelis and 2 English) seemed to take the haggling over price as a personal insult... soon enough I was £40 poorer (still expensive, but only twice the bus's £20) and on the road through the stark mountains of the Sinai, the turquoise waters of the Red Sea glistening in the sunlight to the left.

And now Faudel's "Tellement je t'aime" (original Arabic version, of course) is playing in the background as I write! Upon entering water the first 50 meters or so out are flat rock, only about half a meter deep, but then the reef suddenly drops off another 50 meters downward; corals, sponges, and all positively infested with tropical fish... floating above all that emptiness is an awesome and slightly scary sensation.

Bus schedules and service taxi availability permitting, I'll hang around Dahab (well, the former Bedouin village of Assalah, to be precise) for the next few days -- tomorrow is again dive day! maybe even a camel safari? -- and then attempt to tackle St. Catherine on Friday, staying overnight and looping through Dahab on the way back. I think. I'll worry about it later... the sun is starting to set and soon I'll have to start thinking about eating something and putting on some more clothes. Maybe I should forget the monks and just wallow here... I love this place!

Thu 6.1.2000 9:14
St. Catherine's Monastery, Mt. Sinai, Egypt


Thu 6.1.2000 16:01
Star of Dahab camp, Dahab, Egypt


shisha/plan change

Yours truly & JanAfter another one of those unusual late-afternoon naps I joined my German roommates Jan and Alex for a puff of the shisha, the ubiquitous Arabic water pipe also known as a nargila. I generally do not indulge in inhaling burning plant material into my lungs, but this time I had to make an exception. The atmosphere was simply so chill-out: lying on carpets and pillows at the beach, ambient trance and jazz from the cafe next door mixing with the sound of the waves, the bubbling of the pipe with its elaborate filling rituals as the tube was ceremonially passed around... the apricot tobacco wasn't half bad and the water filter made it easy on my untrained lungs. I think I'll have to buy one of these contraptions if I have money left over!

Samir, one of the camp staff, joined us for a puff and told us about a chance to visit St. Catherine's and climb Mt. Sinai overnight, the taxi there and back costing a quite reasonable £30. Of course, I'd already made other plans, so I did the logical thing and changed them, deciding to tackle Mt. Sinai with Jan that very night.


Ad for 'Friends'Eventually we became a mite peckish and decided to go get a bite to eat. Strolling about the beachfront past dozens of almost-identical little restaurants, I contemplated that life was just about perfect, except... and then we ran into Alex and Jan's colleagues from their art school in Jerusalem, the curly-haired Emily from England and the improbably named Scarlett from Holland. They joined us for the meal, but -- despite exuberant service by our friend Aswaan International (his claim to fame being an appearance on a British TV show) -- the food was a notch below par and I excused myself early to catch some sorely needed Z's before departure.

night drive

11 PM and the taxi rolled around, by which time I'd worked myself into a state of paranoia about the probability of having gotten food poisoning from that undercooked chicken. As the fully packed (9 person) servees lurched on its way, my imaginary fears started to translate themselves into reality, and despite a preventative Postafen I started to feel distinctly carsick. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to open the window a crack, and the resulting blast of cold air dug into my head like a blade of ice, effectively lobotomizing my nausea. I realized that there I was, speeding on empty desert highways at 160 km/h, my life in the hands of a suicidal Bedouin cabbie -- and grinned. It felt good to be alive. Mountains passed the car on both sides like gray ghosts and millions of stars twinkled in the sky, far away from the lights of civilization. The driver played an eclectic mix of old pop, ranging from U2's "One" to Tracy Chapman.

start of climb

Richard atop Mt. SinaiWe were unceremoniously dumped at the foot of the monastery, where everybody quickly realized that it was damn cold. I put on all of my clothes (no less than 4 layers) and started trudging. We soon enough located the aptly named 3000 Steps of Repentance, the more difficult of the two paths to the summit, but due to the nearly total darkness and the total lack of signposting we decided not to waste time looking for the other, easier Camel Trail. 1, 2, 3, stomp, stomp, stomp... Jan, who'd borrowed my flashlight, quickly took the lead and vanished up the mountain while I fell in with Richard, an affable New Zealander slowly working his way towards London.

After an hour or so into the climb the view behind us was simply superb, the outlines of the steep valley wreathed in fog, the lights of the monastery and the town of al-Milga casting a tiny bit of orange light into the scene. And above all the stars, the countless stars... rarely have I seen such a spellbinding vision, I spent half an hour in contemplation and sorely regretted not being able to take a picture.

A wiser person than I would have stayed there.  The monks in the monastery evidently did.


Huddled masses yearning to be freeThe slog must go on, so upward we trudged, slowly, painfully. We reached Elijah's Hollow around 3:30 and stopped for a cuppa, only to be told that sunrise wouldn't be until 6:15. Huddled in a poor excuse for a teahouse, we chatted with some Aussie girls for a while, until the cold forced us to shut up and conserve heat. I even pulled out my Emergency Reflector Blanket, basically an oversized piece of tinfoil, but even wrapped in it that hour of shivering was still the coldest of my life -- and this coming from a native of Finland and a veteran of the night climb to Mt. Fuji, mind you!

sunrise anticlimax

SunriseAround 5:30 we set off on the final 30-minute leg, which was tolerable as energy expenditure compensated for heat depletion. The summit was typical, consisting of bare rock with a church balanced precariously on one edge -- although the snow and ice covering everything was not exactly what I expected to find in Egypt! It only snows once a year on average, and Tuesday's rain in Eilat fell as snow here.

Up top a crowd had gathered and the sky was slowly lighting up in the east -- but no glowing disk in sight, thanks to a strategically placed dense bank of clouds. Only near 7 did the sun finally poke up, after which everybody heaved a collective sigh of relief (along with blasphemous mutterings about Moses being a bloody idiot for coming up with this idea) and started down for warmer altitudes.

slog down

Firm believers in the Latin motto illegitimus non carborundum (don't let the bastards grind you down), Richard and I one-upped Moses in the form of the 5 New Commandments. Some of these gems of profound wisdom are too powerful for the uninitiated, but here are a few:

  1. Thou shalt not climb holy mountains at night in the winter.
  2. Yea, and thou shalt not be smug.
  3. sanitized for your protection
  4. sanitized for your protection
  5. Thou shalt not eat the yellow snow.
After this bit of divine inspiration we settled down to purely mechanical stomping down, this time along the easier (and much duller) Camel Trail. My mind was a context-free random association generator, the only thing I recall from those 2 hours of somnambulism is running through a standard sequence of poses for a nude photo shoot in my head, with approximately the same level and type of interest as I used to avoid stepping into camel dung.


Mountain, monastery, camelBut eventually we were back down at the monastery itself. As I had expected, although it took quite a while to confirm this, the monastery was closed for Orthodox Christmas and the hostel wanted £10 for an egg, a slice of bread with fig jam and a tea bag. I munched on the last of my chocolate instead.  I didn't care, it was still so cold that I spent most of my energy trying to avoid hypothermia. A Japanese tour group showed up and acted the way only Japanese tour groups can act.

We boarded the taxi at 10 and dozed the ~150 km back to Dahab. I took a sorely-needed shower and collapsed in bed at 12, sleeping for the best 3 hours of the day.

By now I'm sure you'll be astonished to find out that I'm tired. Most muscles in my body ache when moved, I'm covered in bruises, my hands have been shredded by coral (from the rocks stuffed in my BC vest for extra weight), my feet have been beaten to a yielding pulp, I'm a little cold and mildly stoned from too many rounds of apricot shisha. Jazz is playing in the background and there's an intermittent cold breeze from the sea.

I feel quietly ecstatic.

Thu 6.1.2000 23:41
Restaurant "Friends", Dahab, Egypt

Friends at nightAnother lazy and culinaristically sub-spectacular dinner at a cheapo beachfront restaurant with Jan and Alex (the girls having excused themselves).  No matter, today the cosmic randomness generator dialed up Sidsel, a 26-year-old nurse from Denmark, who ended up at our table through a complex series of coincidences.  Ever the smooth artiste, Jan the architect used his drawing skills to immortalize her in a quick sketch, but to little effect.  I was occupied by writing postcards and when the conversation turned my way I merely acknowledged her presence with a grin.  I wasn't really in the mood, but I decided to give it a shot and soon enough -- somewhat to my own surprise -- within minutes of her initial puzzlement at never having met a Finnish traveler before, I had her pinned to a corner with my steady gaze and disturbing discourses on esoteric philosophy.  Although she was most definitely a worthy opponent, with dark eyes and a devilish grin.

"You know what?  You like control, don't you?"

Indeed.  Alas, just when things were getting interesting, she rescued herself by suggesting a game of backgammon.  After demolishing me, she was soon kidnapped by a far more able player, and I went to sleep off the residual tiredness from the Sinai excursion.

Fri 7.1.2000 10:18
Star of Dahab camp, Dahab, Egypt
Only stars above us
Time flowing slowly
Along a river conscience
'Till dawn has passed us
-- Electric Skychurch, "River Conscience", Knowoneness
Star of Dahab beachfrontI slept late (slept! late! both for the first time on this trip!), took a shower and ambled to the beach to eat breakfast.  The wind is blowing from the north, I'm lying on soft carpets in a little shack open on all other three sides.  A squadron of superintelligent assault flies explores my prone corpse, skillfully avoiding my feeble attempts to squash them, and never biting or doing anything to really annoy me.  The pitter-patter of tiny insect feet is a small price to pay...
Fri 7.1.2000 10:18
Nesima diving center, Dahab, Egypt

Sidsel, not at her bestSidsel left her jacket at the restaurant, so I'd returned it to her camp, along with a note suggesting a lunch date.  I was mildly surprised to find her at Friends at 12 as promised, and now that we've exchanged addresses, I may actually see her someday in the future when I get to Copenhagen again (about once a year has been the average so far), or if she (for some bizarre reason) comes to Finland.  And, of course, at dinner tonight.  Dum de dum...

I'd expected the dive to go well, and it did.  I'm starting to grok the technique, now I can even pay attention to the scenery.  And, once again, I'm about to leave again now that I've gotten to speed... <sigh>  Ah well, still time for one more dive if I feel like it.  Nesima is a truly excellent operation, both professional and personal at the same time, without charging any more than other dive centers in Dahab.  Definitely the best outfit I've dived with so far, I certainly hope to be back!

Fri 7.1.2000 20:47
Star of Dahab camp, Dahab, Egypt
The sound of waves crashing down, to the accompaniment of goa trance.  Writing by candlelight, on a pile of pillows and carpets, alone at the beach -- and on purpose.

Dahab.  What a weird little warp in space-time.  Whenever I see that funny word "Egypt" here, my mind recoils a bit: this isn't Egypt, a land of ancient history and squalid poverty, this is Dahab, a hippie mecca where everything is ludicrously cheap for the tourists and ludicrously expensive for the locals!  People, most definitely including me, come here to sit and soak in the sun, the sand, the food, the smoke, the sex, the instant but trivial friendships...   an endless little ego-trip, the Me floating around disconnected from the strictures and hassles of Modern Life.

Why did I just write that?

A part of me wants to stay here forever, just like in the first chapter: "Wouldn't it be easier to stay, to forget, to do nothing?"  And for me, just me, me personally, it's entirely possible: a quick calculation indicates that my current savings would allow me a moderate lifestyle here for an easy 5 years or so. Tempting.  Here there is no past beyond yesterday, no future beyond tonight, even the cast of characters is ever-changing.

But no.  My own past and future await, back in Israel, back in Finland.  This trip is drawing to a close, but it's not over yet: time for one last shisha, one last hot lemon, one last night...  one last life.

Sat 8.1.2000 16:51
Central Bus Station, Eilat, Israel
Bus ticket
Whee*!  Another 5 hours of excruciating boredom and I'll be home!

* This being an ironical "Whee!" in the sense that no, I'm not really going to enjoy this ride; although it's also serious in the sense that I am, in a way, looking forward to doing nothing for a (long) while after a very hectic morning.  I'm slightly...  wistful?...  that this trip will soon be over, but also looking forward to at least some parts of resuming Real Life.

It seems that all (younger) Israeli women have curly hair, large breasts and excessive makeup.  Where were all the Arab women in Dahab?  Not just hidden behind the hijab, they simply seemed not to exist at all...

Maybe I should adopt Antoine's approach and dictate on the run into a cassette recorder instead of writing afterward, it would reduce the discontinuities of this flow and preserve more of those all-important small details...

So.  I woke up, rather reluctantly, at 7:30 and headed to the dive club, for...

...all in all a pretty good job in somewhat demanding conditions.  And again, when looking at other divers underwater, I felt the sheer weirdness of swimming about underwater like a fish...  I need to get one of those transparent 6-pane Mares ESA masks and reduce the interface between Me and the Outside a little more.

Note the traffic sign and its locationI eventually get back to the camp at 11:10 only to find that Jan and Alex have left with the 11:00 taxi, although they were supposed to wait for me.  I pack up, conjure up another bijou taxi through Samir and go pick up the similarly stranded Emily and Scarlett from their camp at the other end of Dahab.  Scarlett is sick, evidently with something worse than ordinary Pharaoh's Revenge, and when the taxi driver starts the standard "not enough people yet, but maybe if you pay 10 pounds more..." routine Emily snaps, verbally beating the driver into a fuming state of submission.  The driver (incongrously named Hani, and a previous acquaintance from the St. Catherine's trip) mutters to himself in Arabic for a while, then explains that he's tired because he'd just gotten back from another overnight trip and hasn't slept much.  In pops yet another Tracy Chapman tape, and he expertly rolls a joint and smokes it while still driving.  Eyebrows are raised, but we tactically refrain from commenting and, as expected, his driving and attitude mellow down somewhat and actually improve.

In the middle of the desert, up on a plateau, is a little tea stand operated by a few Sudanese guys.  The driver goes for a cup of coffee and talks with the owners.  Scarlett is lying on the back seat, looking at us with a sickly grin.  Emily and I look around the desolate landscape and shiver.  It's cold.

Emily at the terminalThe ride ends.  Emily storms off, I stay behind to shake Hani's hand and offer a sincere shukran.  The border is, much to my surprise, a breeze to cross, aside from the inevitable hassle over my steel-capped boots that always trigger the metal detector.  After running into Jan and Alex along the way, waiting for the same bus to Eilat, we arrive at Eilat Central in no time flat, before 4 PM.  And I had a reservation for the 1 AM night bus!  The same person I bought the ticket from, a heavy-set fellow with massive gray sideburns, changes my reservation to the next bus (in one hour) without so much as a grunt.

But then comes the biggest disappointment of the trip: it being Shabbat, Israel's best falafel joint (at the Birdwatching Centre, near the terminal on the other side of HaTemarim St.) was closed!  I contented myself with a schnitzel sandwich from a competitor, made a quick phone call, and said my goodbyes to the Dahab crew.  Then I climbed into my bus and wrote the "Whee!" that started this entry.

What now?  I rarely pay any attention to my fellow passengers on public transport, but Egged buses always seem to collect a cast of characters.  In front of me, a young couple -- the guy with an elf's pointed ears and green eyes set in a sunburned face and a mass of yellow-tipped black curls like a clown's wig, which he strokes compulsively; the girl with large eyes set in a flat, freckled face, vaguely reminding me of a girl I knew a long, long time ago on a different continent -- giggle and kiss passionately for hours on end, occasionally whispering Hebrew endearments full of raspy throat consonants to each other.  In the blue night lighting of the bus they look like junkies in an Amsterdam sex show, desperating clutching each other to get their fix.  At the back of the bus, a large group of Arabic-speaking youths clap and sing songs despite loud shushing from other passengers.

And behind me someone is quite content to just chew gum.


Things that make you go boomAnd that, really, was it.  I arrived at my parents' house later that night, spent the next few days lazing about with a mild cold, getting up only to do a brief tour of the Golan Heights (pictures only).

Observations recorded on the last page of my diary:

On the way to the airport on Wednesday, a man runs across a busy highway and, with a grin, scoops up the corpse of a dog with his shovel.

I sit at an airport café and watch a pair of identical twins walk past.  One is beautiful, with dark almond eyes, neck-length glossy brown hair, and has a boyfriend in tow.  The other is even dressed in the same way and has the same features, except that her head looks tiny: with a start, I realize that her jaw is crushed inward and upward.

In the plane I sit next to a pair of grannies who need to go to the toilet every few minutes.  I channel my annoyance into writing grammatically incorrect and anatomically impossible obscenities in Japanese into my diary.

Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport uses a large billboard, in English, to tell me:

Transit information employees work happily because they have state of the art tools.
Damn!  Where can I get some?

Then the three weeks were over and I was back in Finland.

Sunset over the Mediterranean
A point? A conclusion?
This is reality we're dealing with, there is none!
Life goes on as it always has, getting weirder all the time...