It’s merely a fine line which separates divine inspiration from a serious mental illness. If Mohammed, Jesus, Buddha, or Moses were alive today and telling stories about their special spiritual powers, they’d be given a diagnosis from the DSM IV, be prescribed some medication, and probably be committed to a supervised care facility. Thankfully, I personally have no such special spiritual powers. I just like to smoke weed in really awesome places and philosophize about this amazingly beautiful universe in which I live.
It’s shortly after I come down from Mount Sinai, that the dark mood descends upon me. It’s certainly not a severe depression or anything like that. Just some unfocused anxiety. An inner sensation that something bad is about to happen. Perhaps it’s karmic payback for spoofing on the Ten Commandments. Or maybe my biorhythms are on a downward flow. I don’t really know. I only hope it doesn’t last long.
My original plan was to head immediately to Jordan after the mountain because I’m running short on time. Yeah, I know, it seems crazy for a guy who takes four month vacations to complain about a shortage of time. But the fact of the matter is, I am meeting Ms. B. in Istanbul on the 20th of February, it’s already the third and there are a whole lot of things I want to do in Jordan. Nevertheless, I hesitate. For reasons I can’t explain, I feel strangely compelled to stay in Egypt a few more days… Perhaps, I just need some serious beach relaxation time. I’ve been going and going; visiting ruins, hiking and doing stuff non-stop ever since the moment I arrived in Istanbul a month and a half ago. Dahab was good for snorkeling and fun to hang out in but it wasn’t exactly the laid back world of sand and sun that I was envisioning. The ferry for Jordan leaves from the town of Nuweiba. The guidebook mentions a few hippie beach places in a suburb of Nuweiba called Tarabin. Maybe I will go there for a day or two and recharge my batteries.
The driver of the local “Bedouin bus” from Al Migla is a very nice guy. When he drops the other passengers off at the ferry dock and I surprise him by staying on the bus, he asks me where I want to go. I say “Tarabin” and he takes me alone the extra ten miles or so to get there and he charges me no more money. When I get off the bus, I find myself at the beginning of a dirt road or track that follows the coast and is lined with guesthouses and camps. Really, it’s very much like Dahab only more rundown and shabby looking. The very first place I see looks promising. There’s a nice big sand beach on a curvy bay looking out towards clear blue waters. The sign on the gate advertises beach huts for fifty pounds and up. “Perfect,” I think to myself, “this might be just what I’m looking for.” So I go inside the gate to check it out.
I’m greeted by a friendly young man but I make the mistake of admitting that I’m American before I look at the huts. Like many places in the world, most Egyptians think that the word American is a synonym for rich person. And since everything is negotiable in Egypt, the young man proceeds to play the negotiation game on me. First, he shows me the 50 pound hut. It’s an absolute shithole; it’s way in the back near the toilets and the road and it’s barely big enough for a bed to fit inside. This is absolutely ridiculous because there are about 50 huts in the camp and only four guests. With plenty of options to choose from, why on earth show me the worst hut in the whole damn place? Next he shows me the 80 pound hut. It’s better but still not good. At least it’s away from the toilets and road, but it’s located in the middle of the compound and it’s only slightly larger than the bed it contains. Compared to the prices I’ve paid throughout Egypt in the past month, it’s definitely not worth 80 pounds (13 bucks). Finally, he shows me the 120 pound hut and it’s perfect. It’s in the front row, facing the water, close enough to toss a stone in the sea. It’s big and round and even has a table and chair out front. Nevertheless, 120 pounds (20 bucks) for a hut with no inside bathroom or shower is an absurd price for these parts. I refuse to be ripped off and this is the first camp I’ve looked at so I say “no thanks” and head on down the road.
I spend the next two hours in a very frustrating search for a place to stay. Nothing is quite right. The prices range from 50 to 100 pounds. The cheap ones are real bad and the more expensive ones are more like hotel rooms than beach accommodation. I finally settle on a decent very clean room with inside bathroom, hot water and even television. I take it because the guy who shows it to me is super nice and at only 70 pounds for such a room it’s a very good deal. But it’s on a courtyard rather than the beach. It’s not exactly what I want. Oh well, I guess I will stay for just a day and catch the ferry to Jordan tomorrow.
After I drop my bags, I go for a long walk along the beach and shoreline. It’s a very surreal and somewhat disconcerting afternoon. And I thought Dahab seemed empty and abandoned. Compared to Nuweiba and Tarabin, Dahab was bustling. How many completely empty guesthouses and camps do I see? I feel like I’m wandering in T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland. I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floor of deep and silent seas. There’s no tourists anywhere and many of the establishments look like they have been hit by a hurricane. Collapsed huts are half buried in wind blown sand. Piles of detritus and garbage clutter the landscape. The entire coastline seems caught in a slow motion disaster. A few locals do occasionally appear amid the nothingness like refugees from the apocalypse. Thankfully though, they are not at all like the stereotypical characters you see in the bad day-after movies on late night television. They are not zombie monsters waiting to feed upon my innocent foreign flesh. Instead, they are very nice with offers of places to stay, cups of tea, or simple shakes of the hand and words of welcome. On the one hand, their kindness warms my heart, but it also seems to feed my inner lurking anxiety. Why does it feel like this is the end of the world?
It’s late in the afternoon when I find myself walking on the beach past the very first camp I looked at with the perfect but overpriced beach hut. All of a sudden, the guy from the morning comes running across the beach waving and shouting. “Hello my friend! Hello my friend! Hello my friend! How are you? Did you find a place?”
I turn to talk with him. “Yes,” I say. “I found a place. A nice room with inside bathroom and shower for 70 pounds.”
“So you don’t want to stay with us,” he says. “You want room with inside shower?”
“I could care less about the shower. I wanted to stay in that hut.” I point with my finger at the perfect hut. “You just charge too much”
“Money funny,” he says, “not important. You American. Why you care about money?”
“You’re right,” I say, “money is funny. But I don’t have a lot. I’m traveling a long time.”
“Okay,” he says, “you can have that hut for 70 pounds. We want you to stay here with us.”
“Great,” I say, “now you tell me. Why didn’t you say so this morning? I’ve already paid for the room at the other place.”
“No problem,” he says, “tonight you can have the hut for free. We want you to stay here. You are supposed to stay here. Go get your stuff now and you only pay 70 a night beginning tomorrow.”
I’m not sure exactly what he means by saying I am supposed to stay here. But a strange tingly sensation runs down my spinal chord. Is it possible that I was searching for this exact spot and didn’t know it? One way or another, he is serious with his offer. Like I said, they only have 3 other guests in 50 huts. They’ll do anything for customers. So I take him up on it. I go back to the courtyard room, say goodbye to the super nice guy there and move myself to the absolutely perfect little beach hut on the shore of the Red Sea. I almost feel like it is my destiny to be here.
The sun is setting by the time I move into my beach paradise. I want to be happy there but still, I can’t seem to shake the lurking unexplained anxiety. Perhaps the problem is simple loneliness. I’ve had no contact with Ms. B. or anyone from home since Dahab. There’s no wifi here on the beach and its a half hour walk to the city center to get a connection. After dinner in the camp restaurant,I decide to make the journey. A little contact with the home front will relieve this unexplainable anxiety and then I will be able to enjoy this magical place. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out that way.
I have a bad history of receiving really shitty news by email while traveling in far away places. Compared to other such experiences, this one is really not so bad but it is enough to burden my soul. It starts with a rejection letter from a literary agent in New York. My epic novel is complete and I’m planning to self publish it but I sent it off to a few agents before this trip thinking I might get lucky and strike it big. I don’t really expect the mainstream to accept my masterpiece because the underlying political perspective is rather extreme by closed minded American standards. Nevertheless, this particular rejection letter is inappropriately sarcastic and that’s annoying. Oh well, I trash the email and open the stats page on my blog. Oh shit, very few people have been reading my stories. Again, no big deal. I write my stories primarily for my own amusement. I’m well aware that they are way too long for the short attention spans of the average Internet surfer. If I just posted photos and videos, I’d probably be really popular. But I don’t want to do that so I’m not. Oh well, perhaps my long winded radical rambles will be appreciated by future readers. I close the blog page and open the e-mail from Ms. B. OH SHIT!
A suicide bomber has hit the U.S. embassy in Ankara, Turkey. Additionally, they found the body of the American woman who went missing in Istanbul last week. Apparently, she was hit over the head with a rock and then stabbed to death. The online comments about these two events are obscenely anti-Muslim. The double whammy of terrible, tragic news has Ms. B. second guessing her plan to come meet me in Istanbul in a few weeks. Indeed, the instantaneous shock upon first reading about it and my unspecified anxiety even has me second guessing whether she should fly over and meet me in such a dangerous place. Thankfully though, Ms. B. is online now so I can Skype her for a person to person conversation.
The truth is, Ms. B. and I don’t really have to worry or concern ourselves about Muslim attacks on US embassies, consulates and military installations because we have no intention of spending any time at such places. The reality is, for the last 50 years or so, the US and their close ally Israel have been killing Muslims like mosquitoes. The ratio is something like ten to one. For every dead American or Israeli killed by a “terrorist”, there’s been 10 Muslims killed by the US or Israel. It’s not surprising at all that the Muslims occassionally fight back. Actually, it’s a little surprising that they don’t fight back more. Indeed, traveling around this region pretty much everyone I meet thinks the US government and military are evil because of their various invasions, occupations, assassinations and drone strikes. Nevertheless, no one I meet blames American citizens personally for the evil. No doubt, if we were here as embassy officials or as military personnel with uniforms and guns, we would have a lot to fear. But as unarmed travelers curious to learn about the region and its culture, the Muslims will treat us as honored guests. Yeah sure, there’s always the remote possibility of a psychotic madman, but psychotic madmen shoot up movie theaters, shopping malls and kindergartens in the states as well. We could also get struck by lightening or hit by a car but those unlikely possibilities don’t frighten us away from traveling.
As for the unfortunate woman who was tragically killed in Istanbul, it is very very unlikely that that particular incident had anything at all to do with Islam or the ongoing battle between the Western World and Islam. Istanbul is a big city with ten million people. Occassionally, bad things happen to good people in big cities. People are sometimes attacked and killed in NY, Washington, Chicago, LA and every big city in the world. It’s a horrible truth but it doesn’t prevent us from visiting such places. Accidents happen, psychos happen, lightening strikes and everyone does eventually die. Ms. B. and I will be careful. But we will not let exaggerated fear prevent us from visiting Istanbul. So, after a lengthy discussion, rationality prevails over media hysteria and we agree to go ahead with our planned meeting in Istanbul.
When my Internet session is over, I have a long walk back to my beach hut in the dark. The way is confusing, I get lost twice and my irrational fear resurfaces. On three occasions, I pass small groups of young local men walking the nighttime streets. Am I crazy? All alone on a dark street in a Muslim country? No, I’m not crazy. This is a small town (about as big as my hometown of Oneonta) and the people I meet are fellow humans enjoying an evening stroll. They greet me with smiles and hellos and give me directions back to Tarabin. The real world is nothing like the scary one they show you in the media.
My first night in the beach hut is a very unpleasant one. I can’t sleep because my brain is swirling with confusion. I’m angry at my country for the war it wages on innocent people. I’m angry at the media for the psychotic lying image it shows of a beautiful and interesting culture. I want to tell the world the truth. I want my friends and family and fellow citizens to see beyond the bullshit. But what if I’m wrong? What if my personal experience is an anomaly. What if this region really is psychotically dangerous? What if I just convinced my love Ms. B. to come join me in hell? What if something bad happens when she gets here? My gut, my heart and my soul tell me I did the right thing. We are going to have a wonderful glorious time together exploring and learning about this fascinating culture and place. But what if my instincts are wrong and the bullshit evil propaganda of the war machine is correct?
I awake the next morning to sunshine and blue sky on a beautiful empty beach. After breakfast, I ask the young guy at the camp about marijuana.
“No problem,” he says, “how much you want?”
“Not a lot,” I say, “just 50 pounds worth (8 bucks). And don’t overcharge me like you tried to do for the room.”
“Don’t worry,” he says, “you are my friend. I will take good care of you.”
An hour later, he comes by my hut with a huge quantity of weed. If this is what you can get for fifty pounds, then I have definitely been overcharged for the past several weeks. It must be an ounce. More than I could smoke in a month. It’s not good stuff. There’s lots of stems and seeds. But that’s okay. As strange as it seems, I kind of prefer shitty weed as long as there’s plenty of it. I spend the day smoking joints, lying in the sun and swimming in the sea. I try to let go of yesterday’s frustration. It really is a beautiful universe if you ignore the propaganda. I have an amazing cheap dinner of grilled calamari and go to bed early. The following morning, the miracle happens.
It’s really hard to describe these experiences without sounding silly. But I will attempt to do so anyway. I awake at dawn, crawl from my hut and walk towards the shoreline. I sit down on a small pile of sand by the water’s edge, cross my legs like a Buddha, light up a joint and wait for the sun to rise. The joint is about half gone when the first glimmer of sun peaks over the red mountains on the opposite shoreline. Then, all of a sudden… WHAMMO! I am struck by a jolt of pure energy. It feels like the force of universal love (but maybe it’s just my over active imagination combining with the marijuana). One way or another, it becomes absolutely clear that the place I am sitting is some kind of special sacred spot. No shit, no kidding, no lie! The curve of the red mountains on the shoreline opposite me meets up perfectly with the curve of the red mountains behind me. By some strange unbelievable coincidence, this place I have chosen to sit is smack dab dead center in the middle of a perfect giant circle of mountains. Additionally, the curve of the shoreline is half of a smaller circle inside the bigger one and I can visualize the other half out there in the glittering water. The round sun rising above the mountain starts all the circles spinning. I’m sitting at the center of the spiral and the mystery of the universe is revealed to me.
No, I don’t talk to God. I’m not crazy. The clear thought that arises in my brain comes from somewhere but it’s not the disembodied voice of a supernatural being giving me special instructions. It’s a universal truth available for anyone to discover. It’s not a commandment or a law or a rule or a regulation. It’s nothing but a suggestion. But if you listen to the suggestion and do your best to implement it, your existence on this planet will be much more fulfilling.
Just try to be NICE.
“What do you mean? Be nice?” I say. “That’s kind of vague. Be nice to who? Muslims? Christians? Jews? Buddhists? Hindus? Republicans? Democrats? Liberals? Conservatives?”
Be NICE to everyone and every thing. No matter what... Appreciate the gift of life on earth and try to be nice to all the other life forms that share the earth with you.
“All right,” I say, “I’ll do the best I can.” I rise from my seat in the sand, run forward through the rippling waves and plunge my body into the sparkling waters of the Red Sea. How good is this life?