“This is your driver, Ahmed, and your camel, Rambo,” Emen, our Egyptian trip leader announced to me, gesturing toward a moth-eaten camel with yarn balls and doum pods bobbing from his unblinking face. Ahmed wore an impassive expression that was close to a scowl as he motioned brusquely for me to get astride the kneeling beast. Once in the “saddle,” a fancy word for Rambo’s filthy blanket with its very small knob to grasp, I held on for dear life, my mouth dry and my knees weak, as Rambo rose to his full height.
We hadn’t moved yet. “No! I can’t go!” I cried. “Please let me down!” It seemed that the others in the group had easily mounted their camels, chatting with affable drivers, and were posing for photos. Ahmed paid no attention to my cries of alarm. As Rambo lurched forward, my mouth formed a silent scream of protest.
In nearly-100-degree heat we slowly ascended a steep hill of rocky, sandy desert, headed for St. Simeon’s, a third-century Christian monastery where the desert abbas had lived, meditated, and offered hospitality to weary travelers, whatever their faith. My wooden saddle knob was slimy with sweat. I knew I’d never make it to St. Simeon’s. Every few minutes Rambo would step down into a hole of soft sand, almost tossing me over his head, then climb back up, nearly throwing me off behind.
“If I ever get down from this camel, I will never, never ride one again,” I promised myself. The monastery had long ago been a safe haven for pilgrims. Would I ever reach it?
Finally, after what seemed like hours, we approached the sandstone walls of St. Simeon’s. Ali, a gentle reenactment monk in a soft gray galabeya, called out, “Merhaba!
Welcome!” Ahmed signaled curtly, and Rambo abruptly knelt in the sand, nearly throwing me flat on my face. My heart leaped into my mouth. Ahmed’s lip curled in disgust.
Then I was, miraculously, standing on solid ground and following Ali and the others through a wide wooden door into the shaded courtyard. “Here are your beds,” Ali announced genially, pointing to long rock ledges with stones for pillows. “Here’s where you’ll wash up and use the bathroom, and over there we’ll build a fire, bake bread, and cook our food. He pantomimed each activity to make sure we felt comfortable in our new surroundings.
Outside Ahmed and Rambo waited with the other drivers and camels. One look at them and I knew! I could not abandon the peace and calm that I now felt. I would WALK down the mountain and preserve the tranquil feeling I had gained at St. Simeon’s. I tipped the scowling Ahmed, patted Rambo’s nose, and bid them a not-so-fond goodbye.