Posted by Max on Monday, January 3, 2011
'"If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding"'
Charles Dickens, 'A Christmas Carol'
Bah humbug! I hate spending the festive season in countries that don't know what a mince pie is, and this year was no exception. My Christmas Eve was like some kind of depraved scene from Trainspotting, on Christmas Day we were left homeless after being turfed out of a monastery in the dark, and New Year's was the most unpleasant day I've ever spent on a bicycle. And today we're off to a country where Sharia Law rules out most people's idea of festive fun (e.g. drinking = 40 lashes, adultery = death by stoning).
Even so, with boisterous fun-loving locals, plentiful sources of yummy street food, and idyllic postcard scenery, Egypt has been awesome. On paper, the long road from Cairo down the Nile looks like a congested nightmare. With the third highest population in Africa - almost all crammed into the Nile Valley - and the most frighteningly dangerous drivers so far, it was a pleasant surprise as we cleared Cairo, to find ourselves in a landscape of lush rural greenery. After so many weeks in the dusty deserts and hills of the middle-east, it all seemed bizarrly out of place, but wonderful to back amongst so much life. It was as if someone had peeled off a 900km strip of South East Asia - complete with palm trees, water buffalo, rickshaws, and rice paddys - and stuck it down in the middle of the Sahara. The tropical setting, in the pancake-flat terrain of the Nile floodplain, with the low humidity and non-existant rainfall of the desert, was in many ways a cycling paradise. The only problem was, we weren't really supposed to be cycling there. After a handful of terrorist attacks over the last two decades, and some well documented support for fundamentalism, the Egyptian authorities actively discourage independent travel in the Nile Valley. They especially disapprove of silly westerners cycling down it. However the British Foreign Office seem to think it's fine, so that was good enough for us.
On our first night, we turned off the main road to look for somewhere to camp. Every square inch of the ultra-fertile soils of the floodplain are intensively farmed on so it isn't easy. The few scraps of available land are normally right by the road, and so noisy, indiscreet, and therefore unsuitable. We stop at a farm and after much toing and froing we're directed up the road toward the police station, to ask for help. We'd spied a big pyramid out of the valley in the desert and were contemplating heading out to camp there but we got stopped at a police checkpoint on the way. I explained what we were up to and they weren't happy with the plan. 'Camping is forbidden', we were told, however there were no hotels nearby so they weren't sure what to do with us. The solution they came up with was to have us camp on the pavement, right outside the police station with an armed guard watching over us all night. This worked well. We cooked up some pasta for dinner and went to bed, safe in the knowledge that nosey locals and curious youngsters would be shooed away if necessary.
The next morning we thanked them, had some felafel for breakfast, and trundled off back to the main road. Before long, a car filled with police started tailing us. I'd heard of paranoid poilce escorting cyclists around but surely they wouldn't have the time and patience to do this for long - we were only going about 22km/h. It turned out they did have the patience, and we were faithfully escorted from that point onward, for almost the entire six day, 700km journey to Luxor. At one point, there was one police car cruising along in front of us, and a small truck of soldiers behind. Nine people all in all, armed with AK-47's, and 'protecting us from what?', I thought. The old men wobbling past on donkeys? The hoards of friendly children running out to say hello? It seemed utterly ridiculous. How in the world can Egypt spare the resources to babysit cyclists for days at a time when they seem to
find it hard enough to manage basic services like rubbish
collection? Goodness knows, but if I was an Egyptian taxpayer, I would
be writing a very strongly worded letter to my MP. Fortunately I'm
not, so I found the whole absurd thing rather entertaining.
We would have a few different escort teams each day, always with one guy in charge, who would invariably be a bit of a maverick, with cool sun-glasses or a non-uniform jacket to denote his authority. After half-heartedly suggesting we just load the bikes on to their vehicle, they would then preside over our day's cycle as if we were some kind of presidential envoy. Taking it very seriously, they were always courteous but ran a very tight ship. There would be no eating at non police-approved tea shacks or falafel carts, no going down off-the-beaten-track roads, no impromtu photo stops, and absolutely no camping. When we got to busy intersections, on went the sirens and we would speed through apologetically as the traffic ground to a halt. Should any local have the gall to come alongside us on a motorbike, donkey, etc to say hello, they would also get a swift blast of the sirens until they 'left the foreigners alone'. When Emily needed the toilet she had to be accompanied. When I paused to buy clementines, it became a ridiculous fiasco: I parked my bike and began to scuttle across the road between cars toward the fruit stall. The policeman was out of the car too though and nonchalantly walked into the middle of the road with one hand imperiously raised against the traffic, calmly informing me that he was a policeman so we don't need to run. 'What a cock', I thought to myself. I then started asking for some fruit, but was shushed by the policeman who proceeded to broker the deal for me. He drove a hard bargain - demanding 20p for a bag of clementines - and the fruit sellers erupted in protest. I handed over 40p feeling a bit embarrased. At lunch I was berated for making Emily carry 'so much' of our baggage.
As amusing as it all was, as evening approached, it would be time for the stressful daily search for a hotel. With up to 50km between towns big enough to have hotels, we often had to cycle into the night (very dangerous) in the name of safety, in order to find somewhere the police would be happy to let us stay. One day we set a new distance record (153km) doing this, and another day the police just gave up and dumped us on the doorstep of a monastery, who kindly gave us bread and a room for free. On Christmas Eve, we were left at a particularly filthy hotel, in an awful little town called Nag Hammadi. This was particularly depressing. Determined to have at least a token celebration, I sat in the mosquito-infested corridor
warm beer wrapped in newspaper, with a roll-up out of my stale tobacco
from Istanbul. Hardly mulled wine and mice pies but it was the best Nag
Hammadi had to offer. On
Christmas Day, we were heading for a monastery where perhaps we would
find evidence of Christmas but when we got there in the evening we found
out that in the
Egyptian Coptic Christian calendar, Christmas isn't until the 7th of
January. Seeing our obvious disappointment, a monk was quickly
dispatched to rustle up some presents.
One small carton of orange juice each. He then broke the news that we
couldn't stay so it was back out for some more nighttime cycling.
New Years was even worse. We'd been abandoned by the police after a luxurious Christmas break in Luxor, it was a Friday so the kids weren't at school. With nothing better to do, most of them decided to terrorise us. Over the 110km between Luxor and a town called Idfu we were chased, spat on, hit with sugar canes, repeatedly told to 'fuck off', had rocks (and more sugar canes) thrown at us, and I had the spare tyre nicked from the back of my bike (which I fortunately managed to get back). I imagined the various scenarios that could unfold if I acted on impulse and gave one of them a good clout on the way past. Most ended badly for me, so I stoically ignored them, with only an occasional odd torrent of abuse when especially provoked. I wondered how one stretch of road could have such violent hostility when most Egyptians we'd met had been exuberant, but almost always friendly and polite. I'm convinced it wasn't just the lack of police, and guess it had something to do with the closeness to popular tourist towns, and that the exposure to rich westerners had bred resentment. In any case, I've tried not to let it colour my opinions Egypt. When you travel like this, searching out authentic character of a country behind their homogenised tourist industry, you have to take the bad with the good.
Today, we head for Sudan, and I'm almost as excited as I was leaving London. The land border is closed to tourists so we'll take the ferry across Lake Nasser, and finally leave the arab world behind. For the first time on this trip, we really have no idea what to expect. Sudan is the one country that's guaranteed to raise an eyebrow when I reel off the list of places we're going through. And it's true that when planning a cycling holiday, one should normally steer clear of places with climatic extremes, civil unrest, and a leader who's wanted by the ICC for war crimes. However, the north-east of the country is famous for its friendly hospitality and has some of the lowest rates of violent crime - not only in Africa - but in the world, so hopefully all will be well.
blog comments powered by Disqus