The Nausea: Seeking Refuge

I knew I was looking for something, but I didn’t know what. I had decided to hike Gabal Mousa (Mount Moses aka Mount Sinai) alone, with a Bedouin mountain guide, several months before I finally went in the beginning of November, 2020. In October 2020 I had to first renew my tourist visa in order to be able to travel within Egypt. Following that, I began doing my research.

I knew I wouldn’t go with a group due to my anxiety, and because I was hoping for it to be a more personal, thought-provoking experiencing. It was.

I definitely over-prepared for this hike. I’ve only done about 3 or so hikes in my life, two of them barely counted (one in Edinburgh city and one I had a migraine and had to stop halfway), and so I was incredibly nervous for this one. Living in Cairo, where it doesn’t go below 10 degrees in winter, all my coldest winter clothes are in Shanghai, China, in the house that I grew up in. I also didn’t have hiking gear. After skirting off to multiple trips to sports stores around Cairo, I finally got everything I needed.

I was staying in Dahab, a city two hours away from the mountain, notorious for its diving and the Blue Hole. The city where Gabal Moussa is located in is called Saint Catherine’s, but it was already quite cold when I went in the beginning of November, around 4-15 degrees each day.

I had a contact for a mountain guide recommended to me from a friend, who was a Bedouin who did mountain hikes for individuals and groups alike. His name was Mousa (the name Muslims gave to Moses), which I thought was rather fitting, given the name and history of the mountain, which is where Moses talked to God and is said to have received the 10 commandments.

I had over-prepared and agonised over every detail of this hike, but the one thing I did not account for were my migraines. I suffer from chronic migraines since I was 16 or so. When they’re bad, I begin to feel nauseous, and can vomit if I have no medication. That evening, I had planned to sleep from 6-10PM, to get some hours in, before getting ready to be picked up by Mousa and drive to the mountain. Of course, with the pre-hike adrenaline, I slept about 2 hours or less. On top of that, I was dehydrated from spending the day in the sun in Dahab. Looking back, it wasn’t surprising I got a migraine.The migraine began around 7PM. I immediately took one of my pills. 95% of the time they work for me. The 5% it doesn’t, I take another a few hours later and it works.

Mousa came to pick me up from Dahab at 10.30PM with his friend Mohamed, who was also a Bedouin, and we sailed through the mountains to Saint Catherine’s. Dahab was rather warm, in the lower 20’s, but as we drove onward, the windows slowly felt more and more cold, as I tentatively pressed my fingers on them, and I gradually put on more and more layers in the backseat of the car. The moon was particularly bright that day, like God’s flashlight, and the world was His stage. Nothing would go unseen. I watched the black mountain shapes go past us in the car, as their Khaliji music lulled in the background.

At around 12:30AM, a bit after midnight, we arrived at the foot of the mountain. Many hooded figures came to greet me – all in large cloaks. I peered up at them from the inside of the car, excited and terrified. They reminded me of cloaked figures from Lord of the Rings. There were about 10-15 of them, huddled and hunched under their cloaks, some holding hot cups of tea. They were individual guides for any travelers that needed them.

In the car, I still had the migraine, and I began to feel nauseous, so I took a second pill and ate a protein bar in preparation for the hike. However, the Nausea persisted. I looked up the moon and wondered why, of all days, I was having such a bad migraine this day, that wasn’t going away even with the pills, and coupled with nausea (which didn’t occur most of the time for me in recent years).

At the foot of the mountain, I informed Mousa rather anxiously that I felt very sick and wasn’t sure what to do. He looked at me and asked if perhaps hot water and lemon would help. I said it might. There was a small “shop” – really a wooden ledge on a wall with a hot water faucet tank, some plastic cups, some boxes of tea, and – miraculously – lemons. I sipped the water and lemon slowly. Granted, it was incredibly sour, and I sipped it while showing this on my face.

I was surprised that the Nausea seemed to have left me alone once I had finished it. And like that, we began the hike. I had brought a hiking flashlight that one straps to their head – although I held it in my hand due to embarrassment – just to put it away fairly quickly as I realised that the moon lit up the ground for us to walk perfectly well. The moon and stars guided us, the mountains cocooned us, and welcomed us. Every now and then a camel would saunter by us, slowly and grandly, majestically, always accompanied by a Bedouin walking steadily in front, holding on to their reins.

Before a few minutes had passed, the Nausea returned. This nausea, it turned out, was to accompany me for this journey and be the defining point of the hike. I kept on hiking, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, as much as I could, before I’d have to sit down as the Nausea took over. Each time I sat on a rock, the Nausea lulled and dissipated, but as I stood up and began to put one foot in front of another again, it returned.

I felt disappointment, anger – at the situation, at myself. I perceived it to be a sign of weakness. Mousa walked alongside me, and after a couple hours helped me carry my backpack on his chest, with his own backpack on his back, and offered me his arm to lean on. I asked him to tell me stories about the Bedouins, about his tribe, and he did.

As we walked and I fought the Nausea, breathing heavily – the type of laboured breath that precedes vomiting more so than from hiking – he told me a folk story of the Bedouins. He told me, a long time ago – this doesn’t really happen now anymore, he said – if a Bedouin man wants to ask a Bedouin woman to marry him and he sees her with cattle or such from afar, he would place his foot on a large rock, and with another rock, carve out the outline of his foot onto the rock. That way, when she sees that rock, she would know that he wants to marry her, and if she accepted it, she would do the same with her foot next to his on the same large rock. Once they married, they would carve a circle around both of the outlines of their feet on that rock to signify their unity.

There were several lodges on the way up. Each time I rested, it was a cost-benefit analysis for me – stop, and lose body heat rapidly, but no longer feel nauseous – or keep on walking to no longer feel cold, but feel nauseous? As a result, we didn’t pause much at each lodge, nor each time we sat, but I kept on sitting down rather frequently on rocks that lined the hiking path.

At one point, when I looked up, I noticed a perfect circle around the moon – quite far from it, it seemed – bright and white. I was stunned. As a city girl, I’d never seen anything like it before. I asked Mousa what it was – he said he didn’t know the name for it but he had seen it before. It looked like a dragon’s eye. It was a perfect circle surrounding the moon. I later found out it was a moon halo – a rare phenomenon which Aristotle wrote about. It forms in a perfect 22 degrees around the moon due to the moonlight that is refracted in millions of ice particles in the atmosphere.

The lodges were really wooden shacks, with a few Bedouins inside, huddled in many layers of blankets – they must stay like that day after day – it must be very hard for them, I remember thinking. At each lodge, were some tourists who were resting, each huddled, quiet, cold, miserable. Usually the ones who couldn’t continue anymore. There you could have hot tea or coffee or just water, or purchase some very simple snacks. Each lodge was adjourned by bright white hanging lightbulbs which pierced my eyes and angered my migraines, so I couldn’t stay for more than a few minutes at each one.

In one such lodge, three women were huddled together, sharing blankets and rugs. One of them, a very elderly lady, was falling asleep in a rug-like cloak. I was a little worried for her, but she was well taken care of by the other girls and the Bedouins. The Bedouin taking care of that lodge was lying down covered by his rugs on one of the ledges. We all sat there silently, recovering, slowly losing body heat, when another Bedouin came in. I was shocked to see he was wearing sandals! It was 5 degrees at that point. He didn’t seem cold at all.

How versatile the human body is – someone like me, who was wearing 2 pairs of socks and when sitting down rapidly lost heat in my feet and hands first and hiking shoes, with sensitive, non-calloused skin, versus someone like him, who’s skin wouldn’t even feel the same as mine, and who can withstand the cold with bare feet at 5 degrees and not feel it.

By that point, a few hours in, the Nausea was progressively getting worse. I was having to stop and sit down more and more frequently, my breath becoming more laboured with every step. I felt like I couldn’t continue much longer. We were so close, Mousa told me. We were almost at the 750 steps, which was the last part, although the hardest part – harder than the hike we had done so far.

Right as he told me this, we saw a dark lodge – no pain-inducing lights, no people sitting there, no noise, dark and abandoned. I sat on the ledge outside and leaned forward, breathing very loudly by this point. Suddenly, I felt like I was finally going to vomit.

I stumbled around the back of the lodge, as far as I could, before collapsing and eliminating the poison that had been wanting to be emitted from my body for the entire journey thus far. I leaned, with my right hand on a rock on the ground, squatting, my body convulsing.

I knew, then, in that moment, that I wouldn’t be able to go up the entire way. I felt colder almost immediately after, much weaker, and – above all – psychologically I felt the impact of the dehydration due to vomiting on my body in terms of my body temperature and energy – particularly after a 5 hour hike in the cold mountain.

Seeing I was feeling utterly defeated, Mousa told me, gently, that I shouldn’t push myself, and that we could watch the sunrise from where we were, as we were already quite high up. Life doesn’t work the way you plan it to.

Miraculously, there were rugs inside the abandoned lodge, which seemed like no one had been in for months. I was incredibly cold by that point, as we hadn’t been moving for awhile now, and feeling very weak that I couldn’t even think much. All I could think about was how I was going to survive the cold until the sun came up. My feet were slowly becoming numb. I couldn’t wait to feel the sun warm up our small part of the planet and feel the sun’s warmth on my cheeks.

We rested outside the lodge, waiting for the sunrise. The first glimpse was a calming blue that lit up the sky from the previous black. Suddenly feeling energised, I sat up and got excited. We moved from the lodge to the edge of the mountain, finding a perfect spot facing the mountain, and set up the rugs there. The first colours of the sun filled the sky with a brilliant orange-red. I felt as though I was witnessing the beginning of the earth, leaving the womb of the universe into its own.

Slowly the colours in the sky changed, spoiling us, and all of the minuscule human beings in that mountain. I could hear nothing for miles. It felt, for a moment, as though there was only the sun, the sky, the painted vibrant colours, the mountain, and me.

Looking back after, I realised I was quite lucky to get a “private” sunrise – the top would have been populated with tourists who preferred the sounds of their violently loud pop music playing arrogantly for all around them to hear, rather than the more subtle sounds of nature.

Mousa suggested I sleep for 15 minutes to get some rest, and I immediately agreed. Cocooned between two rugs, I laid my head on my hiking backpack, pulling my beanie down to cover my nose and the rug up to the tip of my nose, and just like that, with the sun kissing me gently through the beanie, I fell instantly into a deep sleep. I slept like that, exhausted, overwhelmed, joyful, ecstatic, parallel to the sun in the heavens. As the alarm went off, the sound jarring against the peaceful symphony of nature, I wondered, briefly, what Moses said to God.

At about 8 AM, we began our hike down. I had tentatively eaten a banana and a small amount of water after the sunrise for fear of vomiting again but also knowing my body needed sustenance. The hike down was infinitely easier, although by that point my legs were shaking – we made it down in 2 hours with only 2 short rests.

Without the heavy laboured breath induced by nausea, I was able to talk more freely and enjoy the hike down, and in particular – the views. It seemed as though, at some point in the night, someone had taken us and placed us on an entirely different mountain from the one we went up during the night.

At the bottom, Mousa’s friend Mohamed was waiting for us, ready to greet us. It was a relief to see a familiar face- albeit one that I had only known from the day before. We drove into Saint Catherine’s into a small “restaurant” – which was really just a man who could make some very simple eggs and tea, coffee, etc., with 4 or 5 tables and stools placed around. We changed into our “normal day” clothes, and I felt the effect of the mountain dripping off of me slowly.

As I was moving towards a table to claim it, so did a tall girl with stark red hair. I apologised and motioned for her to take it. She said, “no, let’s both sit here!”

Not knowing what to do, I perched on the edge of the stool, and smiled at her. She smiled back.

“So, what are you doing in Saint Catherine’s?” she asked. That was all it took for me to completely open up to her and spill out the story of the last few hours. She was very kind and told me I had completed the hike, even to the point of physical exertion where I vomited. I warned her of the cold and the physical challenge that Mount Moses presented. She laughed and told me she didn’t have many winter clothes, as she had originally decided to take a 1 week trip to Dahab and had now been there for 1 month. Her and her friends had come into Saint Catherine’s that night and were to hike the mountain that night.

Soon enough, Mousa and his friend came and joined us. After we all ate balady (local/Egyptian) bread and eggs with some cucumbers and tomatoes with our allotted teas and coffees, we said goodbye to her and headed back to the car for our drive back to Dahab.

The mountains that I saw looming over us as we drove back looked familiar to me from the night before, smiling down at me (proudly?) in the broad light of day. At one point, as the mountains began to disappear, I felt a strange pang in my heart when I realised that I was leaving the mountains behind, for God knows how long. I slept in the back, exhausted but happy. When I woke up, I saw the sea in the distance and the hubbub of Dahab nearing.

This time, I felt a panicky feeling in my gut as I realised I was entering another city, or town, filled with people – the pure opposite of nature. Having been brought up as a city girl and living in Cairo, a city with 24 million people and the most densely populated city in the Arab world, I felt a sudden fear and sadness for what I knew would come – many moments of nostalgia for those mountains.

I bid Mousa and Mohamed a heartfelt goodbye, saying bye to Mohamed in my broken Arabic, and went up to the Airbnb I was staying in. As I closed the door behind me, almost before the door had closed, my body was consumed by uncontrollable sobbing, as I felt my face contort up in a horrible way and fat, ugly tears roll miserably my cheeks.

I collapsed on the floor, just like that, and cried my heart out. I hadn’t cried like that in awhile. I was afraid and shocked at how I was crying – I didn’t know why, nor was there one particular reason. It was a combination of everything – the exhaustion, being overwhelmed, the relief of this hike that was lifted off of my shoulders that I had been planning and preparing for months, the question of “so what now?” loomed over me, the memories and warmth I received from that journey, a gut-wrenching sadness that it was over, and also a feeling of incredible loneliness, all in the same split second.

People have always asked me why I am in Egypt, what brought me here – I am welcomed with a look of curiosity as people ask me here and abroad why I chose to live in Egypt, to which I always struggled to find an answer to. The answer is complicated and multidimensional, but in that moment, the answer came to me simply – I was seeking refuge.

Refuge away from the hubbub of modernity and individualism, the many headed monster that had almost completely consumed cities in developed countries, and refuge towards the feeling of authenticity, inspirational interactions, love, and community, that is everywhere I look in Egypt.

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