“Hosni, you haven’t called for more than a week, is everything ok?”
So ran the humour daubed on Cairene walls in early February 2011, days after the seemingly immovable feature of the Egyptian political landscape, Hosni Mubarak, had fled to a bolt-hole in Sharm El Sheikh (before being detained for questioning on allegations of corruption, which immediately brought about his rushed hospitalisation. Nothing quite like having to account for upwards of 35 Billion Dollars, allegedly stolen from the Egyptian people, to unsettle the heart beat of an ageing former president).
To be honest, we may have been somewhat rash in our spur of the moment decision to deviate off course and re-route through the Middle East from Cairo to Tehran, rather than opt for the “safer” option of sliding through the diagonal of Turkey (NW-SE). The Arab Spring would surely still allow for the passage of two discreet cyclists, or so we thought.
Our second ever blog, which we are still trying to locate as it has apparently been wiped, spoke of our excitement at setting out from the deserted and desolate flat that we had packed up in London and heading for the places where history was being forged as we typed. We were thinking of Egypt. From our empty flat we were thinking of the swell of people-power surging through the streets of Cairo that had hours before removed Mubarak from office. Events that even those who had attended the crucible of Tahrir Square moments before Mubarak’s slinking away into the shadows, could barely dream possible and scarcely believe true even when they had happened.
But what of our cycling? Well, while Thessaloniki had its fair share of ridiculous drivers, nothing could quite prepare us for the experience of cycling through the mulching dust and thundering pollution of Cairo. This is what happens when you wedge 20-30 million people between the Nile Delta and the desert. We had to try it. To work out if we were up to it. Wisely, we sailed out to Giza and the monumentally magical Pyramids, 15km from our central Cairo accommodation. An email from Francesca from a wifi connection on a beach in Greece just days before to an old friend, Nina, from bygone times in Kazakhstan, ignited days of kind hospitality and the chance to meet, not just a few, but literally dozens of truly wonderful Egyptians. Sailing out to Giza, ah yes. Sailing is quite possible at 5:45am as the mighty city, the biggest in Africa, begins to wake with just a few souls out on the streets ramping up for the day ahead with heavy caffeine doses. Too early for the ticket office, but we can be patient, if it’s required.
We pedalled around the pyramids unburdened by weighty bags and flittered as light as butterflies. We were impressed. Really, really impressed. 4500 years old and with a mathematical beauty that so appeals. We were in the presence of greatness. We could not, however, contain our laughter when a corpulent Brit with camera equipment from another galaxy waddled past us laden with food, snorting,
“I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Where’s the “wow factor”?”.
By late morning, the time eventually came to return. Sweet Mary, Mother of Jesus – those quiet streets and dusty 6am highways (a mere 11 lines ago) had converted into a swarming, humming, vibrating, squashed, swaying mass of human activity (almost all gasoline-fuelled). Our lungs blackened. Rapidly. The 40-minute outward journey metamorphosised into a quasi-Lawrence of Arabia epic of 3 hours. We entered Nina’s flat completely smeared with the city, knowing fully what it was like to almost die time and time again within a single morning. But now we were primed for the our journey to continue.
With the help of the lovely Mo, the single warmshowers.org person registered in Egypt, we began to plot our onward journey through to Suez (the very same channel that Sam’s dad and Francesca’s mum had squeezed through at important times in their lives in 1946 and 1949 respectively), and across the Sinai desert. We took details of friendly Bedouin settlements and the areas to avoid. We hummed extra loud when wild tales of highway blockade-robbery-killings were mentioned. There was a suspicion that such stories had surfaced through the former regime to tell the people that “an enforcer” was needed to keep them safe. No one was readily buying such a thesis.
For four days the sands of the Sinai unfurled in front of us, with only kindness and warmth at the roadside and from the numerous truckers who honked on their way to and fro, and who offered us tea and Pepsi. On one of the nights in the desert, we stayed with a cheery Bedouin from the village of Abu Rosasa (literal translation: “Mr Bullet”), but we were not put off. This was a man only armed with a large bag of marijuana that he chuffed contentedly all evening as we chatted and mimed for hours, not sharing more than a handful of words between us.
After days of traversing the Sinai expanse, the seemingly artificial inks of the Red Sea suddenly splurted before us. After the at-times interminable rolling eastward through the bubbling heat we tell you it is hard to visualise a more alluring sight. See below for details!
What is now apparent to both of us is that sore bums and exacted muscles take to salty seas like, well, very harmonious things. Over the course of almost a week, we slunk into (and slept profusely in) hammocks in beach-hut communities and talked political-shop endlessly with an ever expanding host of newly made friends. It was our great fortune that our journey to the eastern coast of Sinai had happened to coincide with holidays in Egypt and throughout day and night our lazy lives crossed the paths of Nina’s and Mo’s friends and those of Mo’s brother, Amr. We can think of few times in our lives when we have socialised so happily and plentifully than during these days. Usually, our only reminder to take rest was the rising of the sun over the mountains of Saudi Arabia that quietly stared back at us each morning over the Gulf of Aqaba with its changing colours.
Despite the sedate pace into which we had sunk, with the occasional guilty glance towards our tethered bicycles, the verve of positivity and political empowerment emanating from these friends was formidable to observe, and nothing like we had witnessed before. Friends who had marched to Tahrir Square in the face of state violence and brought about an inconceivable world. There was pragmatism too. A realisation that this revolution is very much ongoing and, in fact, these days are critical days that will shape what lies ahead for Egypt. Elections are set to take place in the autumn, and we will be watching.
As holidays ended, the camps emptied and packed cars drained back into Cairo leaving us alone to contemplate. We had come as far east (practically) as Egyptian soil could take us and the lands of Jordan to the North awaited.
Not wishing to be rude to our piscean neighbours who gently mozied off-shore, (while we chatted away above), we undertook a scuba diving course to pay a visit. Those beautiful shiny fish, which we had munched all week, nonchalantly swished past our goggled faces each day oblivious to the exciting times that were unfolding ashore.
Our parting memory of Egypt was that of a 30km downhill run to the ferry at Nuweiba that would whisk us to Aqaba in Jordan (yes, tales of Lawrence of Arabia await you on our next post). As pleasurable as our laziness had been, the itch for the open-road was once again beginning to surface.
If you are bored of the text, you can always just have a look at the photos which can be found here.