I was in Peru when I received the message that I’d been dreading: my father had passed away. He died in September 2021, losing his battle with COVID-19 in the Philippines after a week of hospitalization.
I could not say goodbye to him in person. Like most people, I knew the risk and difficulty of seeing loved ones affected by COVID-19. Before the pandemic, visiting a dying loved one would have been natural and logical, but due to ongoing travel restrictions, the Philippines was still banning foreigners from entering the country.
Hospitals, by law, prohibited family members from seeing their loved ones in person, even just one more time before they passed away. The pandemic came with roadblocks that limited our ability to provide emotional support to our loved ones. During my father’s last days, we had to resort to virtual chats and video calls to see each other. At that time, the inability to say goodbye became the unprecedented norm.
The death of loved ones from coronavirus is a perplexing notion. When a loved one tests positive for COVID-19, it comes with a new type of isolation. It becomes part of their experience as much as it is a part of their loved ones’ lives. It also changed how we grieve our loved ones when they leave us.
The grief that I felt transcended the loss of my father. It also involved the loss of my identity as, for the first time, I didn’t have a parent to define who I was and shape my life decisions.
Grief and the Outdoors
Being an avid hiker and founder of a mountain trekking company, Equity Global Treks(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre), it made sense for me to be in the mountains while grieving. At the time of my father’s passing, I was lucky enough to be in the Andes mountains in Peru, where I had been based for the past three years to run my media site, Brown Gal Trekker,(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) and human rights organization, The Porter Voice Collective(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre), in support of my mission to create equity and inclusion in tourism and outdoor industries.
It gave me a bit of comfort to access the mountains outside my door, yet it wasn’t enough for me to fully comprehend my father’s unexpected passing or overcome the sense of isolation and loss that I felt.
The pandemic left many of us dealing with prolonged isolation, following the rules by distancing ourselves from our family and friends. Adding the loss of my father to that predicament exacerbated the level of isolation that I was facing. I needed to lessen my aloneness to ease the burden that I felt brought forth by this recent loss.
Recognizing that, I recalled my mother’s passing in 2017 and how much healing I received from trekking in the mountains of Sierra Nevada in the U.S., Ladakh and Sikkim in India, and Bhutan. I knew that recovery this time would also require the same amount of time outdoors, if not more.
The pandemic had caused so much mental fatigue that I needed to regain some control over my life and the ability to travel again.
Losing my father, combined with the sense of isolation from the pandemic, made me lose sight of who I was. By all means, I needed to find my way to the person I’ve become and walking for weeks was the only way to initiate the path to self-discovery.
I was ready to face whatever unpredictability and challenges would come my way for the sake of healing and my mental health.
Trekking the Sinai Trail with the Bedouins
As a social entrepreneur running a mountain trekking company, I’m always searching for mountain trails that aren’t plagued by over-tourism and are ideally led by local or indigenous communities. The Sinai Trail came to mind for these reasons.
The Sinai Trail is Egypt’s first long-distance trail, opened to tourists in 2015. It is a community project managed and operated by the Bedouins who traditionally occupy the Sinai Peninsula. The Bedouins have their own distinct culture and traditions that persist to this day amidst the influence of modernity and technology. Their involvement in tourism in the Sinai region has grown in recent decades, allowing outsiders like myself to gain an understanding of Bedouin life.
The Sinai Trail, divided into four sections, is 550 kilometers long and takes 54 days to complete. At the moment, eight Bedouin tribes manage and work on the trail: Tarabin, Muzeina, Jebeleya, Awlad Said, Gararsha, Sawalha, Hamada and Alegat.
Hikers can join fixed group departures to hike any of the four sections of the Sinai Trail in the spring and autumn through the Sinai Trail organization(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre). The treks offered are fully supported and consist of a team of Bedouin guides, assistant guides and camel drivers. Hikers only walk with a daypack making the trek manageable for experienced hikers.
In my case, along with two other thru-hikers, I completed half of the trail—two sections—starting north in Ras Shetan and finishing in the village of St. Katherine.
Along the way, we joined two different hiking groups, one for the first 13 days and another for the remaining 11. Altogether, I hiked with people from the U.S., Europe and Egypt.
One would think that the Sinai desert, or any desert for that matter, affords hikers merely a repetitive desert scape. My experience proved that notion wrong. From start to finish, the trail displayed varied landscapes and sceneries, with most of it requiring hikers to walk on sand and rocky terrain. Although some parts required scrambling over boulders, we didn’t need technical climbing skills to trek it.
Hikers on the Sinai Trail walk through colorful canyons and green oases along the way as the trail takes you to different wadis (valleys) and jebel (mountain ranges) of varying heights, with the peak of Mount Katherine as the highest point of the trek at 8,668 feet.
The Sinai Trail has many highlights, including its sand dunes, which I found to be highly memorable since I usually trek in alpine terrain. No matter which part of the trail we were on, the scenery every second of the way never failed to impress.
One day I’d find myself in awe of the mountain views atop a peak, and the next day I’d find myself in sand dunes that cover the entire landscape as far as your eyes can see. And the canyons? They varied in colors, shapes and textures. None resembled any of the others, as if each canyon had its unique story to tell. Along the way, these vivid images of nature replaced the story of loss in my head with one of optimism and hope.
The beauty of Sinai got even more impressive at night as we were accompanied by some of the most eye-catching starry nights, with colorful skies at sunset as the opening act. This display of natural beauty took me back to my father’s rural hometown, located north of Manila, Philippines, where skies were dotted with stars after heavy rainfalls during the typhoon season.
At night, our group gathered around a cozy campfire while eating bread, called Farasheeh, that was cooked in an open fire by our Bedouin hosts, garden salad cultivated from the local village nearby, and grilled chicken or goat meat with potatoes cooked over a fire inside a dug-out oven beneath the ground. After dinner, our hosts shared stories from their past, how Bedouin life has evolved over the years as they face the challenges of modernity, and their vision for the future.
The Sinai desert came with its own set of surprises. I never imagined a desert experience filled with so much life—and I’m not just talking about the people. There were medicinal plants each day to discover. Our camels walked past us most days and accompanied us into the evenings as they communed in their designated space in the camp. At night, we were privy to their cries and silly antics.
Every so often, we met villagers who built their gardens and mountain homes in the middle of nowhere, most of which serve as accommodations for tourists passing through. And, of course, the wells and swimming holes we saw along the way always signified life, for the water that came out of them either cooled us down during hot walks in the desert or hydrated our weary bodies.
Seeing this much life on the trail nurtured what I lacked in myself due to the recent loss. It reinvigorated my desire to live life to the fullest and live in the moment with the animals, people and nature surrounding me each day on the trail.
Like the Bedouins, we began to see drinking tea as the way of life in the desert. It signified an ancient ritual. I drank religiously, not for the mere purpose of nourishment but to experience the joy of connecting with other people in the group. If there was anything I needed to offset the pain I felt about losing my father, it was by sharing stories with fellow hikers and our Bedouin hosts during teatime that I regained some sense of my authentic self.
There were talks about the pandemic that morphed into discussions of our shared experiences with isolation and loneliness, while some even shared stories of losing loved ones to COVID-19. Though the topic wasn’t one I would readily bring up, hearing others’ struggles with loss and isolation provided me with much-needed comfort. These moments convinced me that, somehow, I was on the path to healing, even if this only served as the start.
The Path to Healing, Beyond the Sinai Trail
After 24 days on the Sinai Trail, I realized that healing is never simple or easy. In the “new normal” that I experienced around the time of my father’s passing, grieving was even more complicated because of the pressure to isolate ourselves to maintain our health and safety. The pandemic created an unwanted conundrum: the choice between being with my father and isolating myself.
Ironically, the moments of aloneness on the Sinai Trail helped me process my father’s death. There were days when I found myself enveloped in complete silence, like when we routinely napped after lunch during the hottest time of the day, or when I found myself hiking alone away from the group at certain times.
These moments of silence allowed my mind to revisit the unanswered questions and unresolved issues with my father. On two occasions, we also experienced severe thunderstorms that prevented us from hiking further. We waited for the storm to pass for an entire day, resorting to our own devices to keep our minds preoccupied until we could walk again.
As time went on, I learned to deliberately steer my mind toward the happier moments I had with my father. I began to appreciate the support that my father had given me all his life and the best qualities he had as a parent. I also slowly learned to forgive my father for any misgivings he inflicted towards the end while also forgiving myself, especially for the guilt I felt for not being there for him on the day of his passing. In this heaven I was in—the Sinai Desert—I found myself on a journey of redemption.
Two-thirds into our trek, on top of a peak that we climbed to view the sunset over our camp, I finally regained the peace I had lost over the past few months. While watching the sun dip below the mountain range in front of us, the sky lit up in a fiery orange glow. Then a voice in my head whispered, “Don’t worry. He’s okay.” At that moment, I knew everything would be alright, no matter how confusing and disturbing it was to not see my father before he died.
The 24-day trek on the Sinai Trail allowed me to explore the nuances I faced with losing my father and the isolation that the pandemic has brought to my life. Being with others on this trail reminded me of the universality of loss, pain and unwanted life changes. But more importantly, it reminded me of the universality of healing, and that we are all on a journey to find our way home, seemingly by ourselves, but in many ways together.
The pandemic created a "new normal" for the hiking community.
Depending on how the pandemic has affected you personally, you may have a sense of loss in one form or another—from losing your freedom to travel to losing a loved one. No story of loss is insignificant.
In many ways, this has changed the hiking experience during COVID tremendously. Even now, conversations differ from those I’d had with people in the pre-pandemic times. It’s been far from the usual discussions where fellow hikers compare travel notes of where they’ve been the past year because many, if not all of us, have been unable to travel due to the pandemic.
For most of the hikers in my group, the Sinai Trail trek was the first trip they had taken since the pandemic started. Hence, absent the usual travel stories, the conversations were different overall. There was an unspoken understanding of how delicate human life can be and how one’s health and well-being should come as a priority above all else.
For the Bedouins, the pandemic revealed how volatile the tourism industry could get when a crisis ensues; therefore, exploring multiple income streams became critical. The pandemic led to economic losses that pushed many Bedouins to move from the mountains to urban areas for the sake of finding employment, thus changing the way of life for many Bedouins, which in turn led to a loss of identity and home—one that’s intricately connected to the Sinai desert.
For our Bedouin hosts, returning to the Sinai Trail for the first time after about two years of hiatus was a turning point as they hope for tourism in the region to return fully.
During this trek, it became self-evident that pandemic fatigue was real as conversations often touched on wanting to go back to normalcy, even if we’ll never go back to how life used to be before the pandemic.
Everyone’s approach to this new normal varies from indifference to anxiety. Consequently, many are learning to value and appreciate the healing effect of hiking and being in nature more than ever. In our group, being outdoors and hiking the Sinai Trail was the ultimate escape, freeing us from constantly hearing about the pandemic. It was what we needed to console parts of ourselves that were hurting or lost in the complexities of life in COVID times.
It goes to show that there’s at least one constant in our lives that we can always rely upon: the outdoors. I’m grateful to nature for giving me the guidance and strength to find my way toward the better days ahead, no matter what challenges this so-called new normal brings.