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I was sitting in the heat crying. A holiday to Egypt was supposed to be an answer, but it illustrated the added difficulties of removing me from a shit situation I knew to a shit situation where I felt more displaced. We'd spent a fortune since we came here, casualties of our British reserve and the reluctance to haggle. The locals were smiling, kind and accommodating, but for every complimentary scarab beetle bead and every gratis cup of over-sweetened tea there was a growing sense of being fleeced. Nonetheless, my excess baggage was growing, jewelry, sheesha, perfume -- a growing list of stuff to fit into my overstuffed cottage in draughty Scotland. Who was I trying to kid? Filling my disquiet with new possessions was a vain attempt to fill the void where my comfort levels were once bobbing.

The hotel was lovely, as clean as my mother's house, and that's quite a thing. Hoards of deferential staff, all men, tended to my every need without so much as glancing at my sunburned cleavage. I doubt it would have turned their heads anyway, for the hotel was chock-a-block with foreign totty, all far better placed than I to steal away the resolve of a devout man. There was barely an English voice, a welcome alteration from past holidays -- no raucous laughter, no karaoke, no British bulldog shorts, and no complaints about the shortcomings of the local culinary delights. Instead, I was surrounded by the unintelligible strains of Polish and Russian, and while their conversation was a mystery to me, I knew that they understood every word I uttered. The population in our marbled prison was mostly 20-something couples, muscled gods, size-zero goddesses, immaculately turned out, tweezed, coifed, and poured into their tiny bikinis, their skins tanning effortlessly into a uniform golden brown.

I was a fat Scottish lass who sweated and swam without my sunglasses on. I was odd. I felt odd. I felt ugly. Unlike them, my stretch-marked baggy belly remained testament to the huge baby I'd had ten years ago, a boy whose present-day guise nagged for my attention in spite of my glowering mood. Regardless of my attempts to reassure myself that these people were somehow less worthy because of their perceived shallowness, I couldn't manage to convince myself. I rankled with self-loathing at my envy for their pretty, plastic world and the way I allowed it to eat me -- a woman who takes pride in her ability not to give a damn what others do, feel, think.

On the first day, I had a massage, which was blissful. A wiry young man with fingers stronger than expected ground his way into my tension-knotted muscles and cracked a xylophone melody from my backbone. When he left me to lie a while before turning me to tackle the expanse of my front, I fell asleep, and I almost punched him with surprise when he tried to turn me over. My skin was a mottled hue of sunset vermilion, with white/blue blotches -- Scottish skin abroad -- and it hurt to have him grind his knuckles in, but in a good way.

The primary draw of Egypt was the Red Sea, which was abundant with fish, and in contrast to the North Sea, clear enough and warm enough to see the fish and avoid hypothermia. But the first day passed, and then the second, and I still knew nothing of Egypt but the airport and the hotel. My self-esteem had plummeted, my skin ached with burn and bites, I felt the first prickle of thrush starting, and my husband and kid had become good cop, bad cop.

So in a fit of childlike pique, I took to my bed, drew the cover up over my head, took four Valiums, and slept, escaping to drug torpor. It solved nothing. It didn't make me more settled. I didn't feel less like a worn whale, and it didn't make my kid stop whining for me to buy overpriced snacks from smiling Egyptians. It didn't make me tan better or manage the heat like a native. It wasn't going to solve the dilemmas I had left behind, the constant quest I felt to make life mean something, to somehow make things matter. It didn't fix my marriage. My job was still overpaid misery; my kid was still behaving badly because I'd wrenched him from the security of life as he knew it. As panaceas go, this was a mistake. And, final indignity, Christmas loomed large, and against my better judgment, I found myself trying to get ahead by buying presents from shyster vendors.

With the Valium still in my system, slowing me, numbing my emotions, I walked in isolation around the hotel, to parts rarely visited. A view of the foothills of the Sinai lay before me, misty and beautiful into the distance. As the raging sun set into a serene landscape, my soul stilled at last.

Peace is rare. My life is a battle with emotions I can barely contain, a search for meaning I cannot seem to resolve. I live in a pointless world with empty aims; its transparency and frivolity make it hard for me to walk on.

Just briefly, perhaps when my head realizes it has tested me too hard, I am afforded the chance to be humbled, to glimpse oases in the desert of life.

And the Sinai did as it always has. As it always will. And I watched.


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