14 April – 28 August 2013
I spent three days being a tourist before cycling to Ramallah to join the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). This essentially involved being a witness to the ongoing occupation, recording and reporting as well as participating in demonstrations and offering solidarity to those I met. I had originally planned to volunteer with the ISM for three weeks but after my first day there I decided I would stay six weeks and then later four and half months until the end of August. During this time I experienced the wonderful hospitality and strength of the Palestinian people first hand in the face of the ongoing Israeli occupation. (All these photos are my own and the links with them are of the corresponding reports written for the ISM website by myself and other volunteers).
Dabke being performed in the ancient roman theatre in Sebastiya.
Mmm maklouba, midday feast in Asira after helping clean the Retaj Womens Centre.
Looking across the Jordan Valley on a visit to Duma with Ghasssan and Wael.
I witnessed many times the violence of the Israeli settlers and army towards the Palestinian people. I visited homes threatened for demolition or raided by the army the previous night. I met farmers attacked by illegal Israeli settlers while trying to work on their own land and saw fields and olive trees burn from fires Israeli settlers had lit. I saw army officers try to intimidate children on their way to school and invade family houses because no one would ever say no when they knocked on the door.
A house in Qusra that has demolition orders issued against it by the Israeli Army. Eight members of one family have lived here for ten years. http://palsolidarity.org/2013/07/qusra-demolition-orders-if-they-destroy-this-house-where-will-we-go/
Asira villagers desperately try to harvest crops before they catch fire whilst soldiers look on and prevent them from putting out the flames. http://palsolidarity.org/2013/05/arson-attack-on-asira-village-by-illegal-settlement-of-yitzhar/
Soldiers march down the street towards schools in Hebron before 9am in attempt to provoke and intimidate the children on the way to school. http://palsolidarity.org/2013/05/military-presence-at-hebron-schools-regular-updates-2/
I saw countless horrible acts that Palestinians endure every day that I know would be an outrage in my own country. And yet there it is commonplace, still horrible but never anything new. The price one pays for living under occupation. On the other hand I saw the steadfastness of the Palestinians in the face of this and visited social and cultural centres uniting communities and participated in demonstrations that protested the latest atrocities and the continuing occupation of their lives and land.
Women have their id checked by Israeli soldiers in order to pass through the Qalandiya checkpoint from Ramallah to Jerusalem. http://palsolidarity.org/2013/07/restriction-of-movement-remains-for-palestinians-during-ramadan/
Villagers from Urif speak with army after settlers have attacked the village. The illegal settlement of Yitzhar above Urif, Burin, Madama and Asira is considered one of the most violent in the West Bank by the UN. The Israeli Army are present to protect the settlers and maintain the occupation by violently oppressing the Palestinians, as happened this day. The soldiers used pepper spray, sound bombs and tear gas against the villagers while the settlers threw stones and lit the land on fire. http://palsolidarity.org/2013/05/villages-of-urif-burin-and-asira-violently-attacked-by-settlers/
The village of Burin holds its annual Kite Festival despite the Israeli army closing roads on the day preventing visitors access.
Each week villages across the West Bank hold weekly Friday demonstrations marching towards stolen land, the apartheid wall or a road gate. The people participating know they will be on the receiving end of the Israeli armies violence and face possible arrest but they demonstrate anyway. I have had my eyes and throat sting from tear gas and feared being shot with rubber bullets or sprayed with skunk water but all the while knowing as an international the violence I will experience is little compared to that a Palestinian could receive. At the end of the day the worst that was likely to happen was that I would be deported, I never had to fear months or years in a Israeli prison or being shot with live ammunition.
Children in Kafr Qaddum protest against Israeli soldiers who pasted posters in their village threatening to arrest them. http://palsolidarity.org/2013/06/we-are-the-armywe-will-catch-you-or-we-will-come-to-your-house-soldiers-threaten-children-of-kafr-qaddum/
Soldier about to pull the pin of a sound bomb on non violent demonstrators in Nabi Saleh after they got tired of listening to the demonstrators talk about the occupation. http://palsolidarity.org/2013/05/resistance-still-strong-in-nabi-saleh-video-and-photo-essay/
Demonstrator looks over the apartheid wall at the army in Nilin. http://palsolidarity.org/2013/06/nilin-words-versus-the-occupation/
I could go on and on about all the horrible crimes that the Israeli government and army commit against the Palestinian people but there is no end to this as the occupation continues. If I had been more organised/reflective then I could have written about things as they happened as a number of other long term volunteers did. At the end of an extremely violent day after the villages of Urif, Asira and Burin were attacked by settlers and soldiers I sat outside the home of a local activist in Burin with a fellow volunteer A from IWPS . We played with the young children as the sun set and the lights of the illegal settlement of Yitzhar shone out from the neighbouring hillside where the violence had begun. A summed up the day in an email she posted http://allsidesnosides.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/an-email-about-a-bad-day/
Violence is not the only method of oppression as C whom I volunteered with describes here http://whatisawinpalestine.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/watch-out-friday-youre-not-safe-or-sacred-either/. When in Hebron I saw the ongoing harassment of school children by Israeli soldiers, another fellow volunteer Ellie whom spent a lot of time there reporting on this writes about it here http://www.ellieceeoverseas.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/palestine-spit-singing-soldiers-and.html. In this blog she also takes the time to discuss getting skunked and I can testify to being one of the sensible comrades who only got misted by rather less fearlessly running away from the action. It’s only an illusion of safety though as not even your own home is safe in Palestine. In the following link a fellow volunteer recounts our visit to a home in Sarra up for demolition and shows the harsh reality of a home night invasion and demolition by the Israeli army http://discorporatedo.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/reflections-in-broken-glass/.
Getting dressed up for a march through Nablus and Tulkarem to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Nakba (catastrophe). http://palsolidarity.org/2013/05/photo-essay-march-through-nablus-and-tulkarem-commemorates-the-nakba/
Looking out the kitchen window of the Nablus apartment. Nablus, part of Area A which is technically under Palestinian Authority control but is regularly invaded by the Israeli army. http://palsolidarity.org/2013/07/video-israeli-forces-raid-nablus-during-ramadan/
Bedouin by tents and the apartheid wall in Anata at sunset. Every Friday the Bedouin community on the outskirts of Anata, East Jerusalem are caught between clashes of the Israeli army and young men from Anata. The Bedouin families are subject to the tear gas, sound bombs and plastic coated steel bullets used by the army against the young men despite having nothing to do with the clashes. http://palsolidarity.org/2013/07/video-anata-bedouin-communities-caught-in-crossfire/
If I could sum it all up in one story then this is the one. Five teenage boys are imprisoned in Israeli prison right now (December 2013) facing charges of 20 counts of attempted murder each for alleged stone-throwing despite the complete lack of evidence. I met Um Fadi, the mother of one of the imprisoned boys Ali a number of times in Bidiya where she worked at the Women for Life Centre. It was obvious to see the emotional and physical strain of having her 16 year old son imprisoned and the months drain by without any change (they have been imprisoned since March 2013). This is the epitomy of the occupation, wrecking families, young peoples futures and their communities. You can read about it all here http://haresboys.wordpress.com/ but more importantly can help by donating funds to the families here http://namlebee.com/index.php?np=proyecto&pro=27. If you can’t donate any money then you can support all Palestinians by educating yourself on the occupation and not spending money on Israel by participating in the BDS campaign (boycotts, divestment and sanctions). There are two sides to every story, one side is the occupier and the other is the occupied.
10 – 13 April 2013
I wake up in the hay paddock a little before 7am to some vehicle noise. I go outside to pee and see a tractor nearby. Crap. I duck back in the tent hoping they didnt spot me. I lie there nervously listening as the tractor approaches and stops outside the tent. I poke my head out the tent and say ‘Hello, sorry I will be on my way soon’. The driver says hello then asks where I am from. Once he understands I am a tourist on a bike he offers me water and says I can stay as long as I want. All I have to do is move Frankie who is currently leaning against the hay bales as he is picking them up.
As I pack up the tent a little while later he drives back over and promptly explains three things. 1. This paddock meets the border and there are army patrolling there and if they see you they will jump on you. He’s surprised they didnt. 2. There is rabies, the wild coyotes have rabies (that would explain the howling). 3. If I need to camp anywhere I should camp by the gate of a settlement as it is much safer there.
As I walk out of the paddock I think about how that camping spot was pretty stupid but very informative. I reach the dirt track back to the road where two men sit by a car. They invite me to come and sit down and tell me I will see something very interesting. At first I think they have a hawk but soon discover they are collecting various measurements from a barn owl. Apparently there are 300 owl boxes in the area that they monitor.
We end up talking about my trip and Jordan, I refer to some of the trouble I had there and this unleashes some rather casual racist remarks about Arabs living there and here. One of the men, Koby invites me to stay at his nearby kibbutz and explains how to get there, they give me a map in Hebrew. I take all this onboard and though I vaguely had notions of cycling north towards the Sea of Galilee decide I will cycle the country north to south when there is no more occupation and therefore will not be staying at a kibbutz anytime soon.
Taking measurements of the barn owl.
The barn owl and I.
I will admit though it is nice to not be shouted at and feel like I dont stand out anymore amongst the general population. I cycle through Beit She’an and on to the busy roads heading towards the Jalame checkpoint to enter the West Bank. I cross back above sea level on the way. I line up behind the cars waiting at the checkpoint, when it comes to my turn the Israeli soldier standing beside the road tells me I cant go through on a bicycle because it is only for cars.
Another security man standing nearby with dark glasses and a large machine gun quickly marches over and grabs my passport. He repeats that only cars can cross. I ask him then where I can go. He then tells me to wait as he talks into his radio. Hearing the response he then says I can go. Apparently a cycle tourist isnt a security threat after all. As soon as I reach the other side of the checkpoint the road condition deteriorates to become narrow and full of cracks and pot holes. The roadside is noisy with people selling goods, I am yelled at, there is a lot of rubbish.
I make it to the busy centre of Jenin where I attract a lot of attention trying to find the Cinema Guesthouse. I stay two nights in order to visit the Freedom Theatre inside the Jenin Refugee Camp and attend a concert in the cinema the guesthouse is named after. At the guesthouse I meet a German couple Willie and Magdelena. They have just begun a walking trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary though neither of them are religious. Keeping with the theme they are walking with a donkey, which seems to cause them endless trouble as it continually wants to stop and eat rather than walk. It is a nice change to not feel like the only crazy one.
After talking with them I realise since the last days ride in Jordan I have had underlying anxiety from being hit with the rock. When I cycle now I am expecting the worst and this is proving really stressful. I begin to dread cycling through the rest of the West Bank where both Palestinians and illegal Israeli settlers are known for throwing rocks. Its only a few more days ride to Jerusalem though and I want to see and travel this part of the West Bank so forge on.
Fertile lands just north of the West Bank.
Jenin refugee camp.
The West Bank is beautiful in spring, the land is so green and lush in comparison to the other side of the Jordan Rift. South of Jenin the land is flat but progressively gets steeper as I begin to meet the rolling hills that define the West Bank from the Jordan Valley in the East and the flat plains heading to the Mediterranean in the West. I am slogging my way up one of these hills through a small village when I am shouted at “How much?”. My anxiety increases.
Carrying on the main road south towards Nablus, some people kindly stop to ask if I need help. Nablus itself is quite elongated and as I ride through am greeted Hello by some young men, ignoring them I am then sworn at repeatedly. I was planning to stay at the guesthouse here but the listed directions arent very good and I give up trying to find it quickly in order not to cycle round town in circles. Jerusalem is still 60km away and the road is now very hilly so as I continue south I begin scouting somewhere to camp.
Many of the roadside paddocks contain olive trees that provide little cover but the Israeli settlers have planted thick pine forests exotic to the land changing the landscape forever along with there orange roofed gated communities sitting atop hills in the most defensive position possible lauding over their Palestinian neighbours. It is in one of these forests I decide I will camp for the night, it is below the illegal settlement of Eli that was established in 1984.
The forest has various mountain bike trails winding through it and is near a natural spring. I sit at a park bench near the track to the spring to wait for dusk as many settlers come to use the spring. Most of them are from Eli and ignore me completely though a few try to speak Hebrew with me until I tell them I cant. At last they all disappear and I cycle into the forest and find somewhere to put up the tent. As I am sitting outside eating dinner I hear some rustling nearby, thinking some people are about to walk by I freeze. Instead two mountain gazelle run past my tent seemingly oblivious to my presence. Magic.
A plane turned into a cafe, just south of Jenin. Arafats picture is on the tail.
The sign reads: Possibility of mines. No passage on dirt roads.
The surprisingly lush West Bank after the dry terrain in Jordan.
View from top of one particularly long hill.
Green, green, green! You can see why they want to steal it.
The sign reads: This road leads to Palestinian village. This entrance for Israeli citizens is dangerous. Unbeknownst to me at the time this valley road would be one I would go up often in the following months in order to visit the villages of Burin, Madama and Asira whilst volunteering.
Cycling through the settler forest underneath the illegal settlement of Eli.
I head off early the next morning continuing up and down the rolling hills. I am using a UN map of the West Bank from 1992 I found on the internet, finding a useable map of disputed land proving quite difficult. I notice a dramatic difference in the last twenty years in relation to the map, the Israeli settlements have dramatically increased and expanded in size. I dont need to look at a current map to know this, it is clear with the naked eye. The road south of Nablus is also of much better quality with a wide shoulder and good seal now that it is jointly used by Israeli settlers and Palestinians. There are many small Israeli flags along the roadside that have fallen off cars.
I eventually cycle past the wall and through a checkpoint into Jerusalem unstopped by the army officers standing nearby. As I make my way to Damascus Gate I pass a lot of new, large clearly expensive buildings. It is a relief to arrive at the old city full of tourists and locals and finally be finished with cycling in the Middle East. It hasn’t been easy but I have learnt a lot and been to so many beautiful places. 7 months ago I rode out of Edinburgh heading for Berlin. Since then its been over 8500km through 15 countries and three continents. Now though I need to rest.
Trip Casualty List (Istanbul to Jerusalem):
1 rear rim
1 front tyre
1 rear tyre
1 set of rear wheel ball bearings
1 pair of cycling gloves
at least one inner tube
multiple brake pads and tyre patches
That horrible wall. On the outside of Jerusalem.
Damascus Gate, Jerusalem. The end of the road.
3 – 9 April 2013
I end up couchsurfing four nights, its a strange experience. My host is a young Jordanian woman living with her family (mother, two sisters and two brothers). They are very welcoming and hospitable but during this time I inhale enough secondhand smoke I might as well be smoking myself and experience a number of fights between mother and grown up children I would rather not have.
There is also another couchsurfer staying there, an American woman so we meander around the centre of Amman together. I develop a cold from all the smoke and dampness of the apartment. I wanted to leave after three nights but after the other couchsurfer leaves I am weirdly manipulated in to staying another night. Some people are strange the way they want to bring people into their lives when they dont really seem up for having them.
Roman theatre in the centre of Amman.
Sheep grazing in the suburbs in Amman.
A lemon mint drink at the Books@Cafe.
Upon at last leaving Amman I make my way through the various suburbs out of the city heading north west towards the Jordan River crossing with Israel. There is another border crossing the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge closer to Amman but I have read that no foot traffic or personal vehicles are allowed across and so am heading north to cycle across the other crossing.
I eventually reach the start of the descent back into the Jordan Rift though it is not quite as spectacular as before in terms of surroundings and busy road. I start to notice a funny noise coming from the back wheel so stop at sea level for lunch and to examine what the problem is. I think it is the wheel angle but cant seem to adjust it to stop rubbing on the chain stay and mud guard. The wheel is spinning unevenly and so I adjust the brakes allow for this but it still seems to be a problem.
I continue down the hill but now the problem only seems worse. I stop to examine and adjust but the problem persists. Its then that I notice the cracks on the rim sprouting from where the spokes join. This explains why the wheel wont spin straight, the rim is twisting out of line as it cracks at the seams. This is not good. I think that when I had the bike looked over in Amman they over tensioned the spokes thus causing the rim to crack under the pressure of the fully loaded bike. Before this the rim was completely fine and was part of the complete new wheel I got in Athens.
Looking down into the Jordan Rift.
Stopping at sea level on the way down.
I try to ring the bike shop and Rosie but to no avail. So I sit and ponder a bit about hitchhiking back to Amman. A truck pulls up with three army guys from the nearby base and one of them asks me what I am up to. After I have explained he says he will be finished work soon and can give me a ride back to Amman, so I accept and wait for him to return. The next part of this story is not one I care to remember but I will tell you anyway because I have already omitted a few unsavoury encounters with Jordanian men on the blog and if I am going to tell you any I might as well tell you the worst. Ugh.
He comes back in his car and we start the journey to Amman, he buys me food and drink and I am wary until he tells me he is married and has four children. At this point I foolishly drop my guard a little and trust him. Ugh. I should have just asked him to drop me near the centre of Amman so I could find a hostel like I planned but instead he says he has a friend who has a spare apartment I can stay at, the cheapskate in me wins. He stops at a few shops along the way to get more food and then we arrive at the apartment.
Turns out he wasnt only food shopping, after I go the bathroom and come back he has pulled out some shampoo and ridiculous underwear for me. I can only describe this point as the ultimate sinking feeling. I should have picked up on all the cues, I have really landed myself in it now. I take to asking him when he will leave and reminding him that he has a wife and children at home. Uncomfortable does not begin to describe it. He is passive and seemingly unable to go past the prop cues and eventually leaves after flicking through all the channels on the tv whilst I say nothing and sit awkwardly on one of the couches. I feel like an idiot for getting myself into this situation after all the trouble in Egypt I relaxed a little in Jordan, trusting people and this is where I ended up. Ugh.
I wake up the next morning not sure where I am in Amman and without my passport as the owner of the apartment took it the previous night. I eventually track him down after knocking on many neighbouring doors and get my passport back. I ask a few people the way to the centre and make my way back to the bike shop. On the way I get a flat tyre and so stop on the sidewalk to fix this. I am wearing a t shirt for the first time in Jordan as I have seen a number of other women in Amman wearing them so deem it ok. I was not however quite prepared for the problem my arm tattoos would cause.
I am working on Frankie when a young man comes over and starts talking to me, or rather shouts at me. He asks what work I do in Jordan, I explain I am travelling on my bicycle. “Why you not work?” “Why travel?”. I defensively explain the merits of travelling and that I have already been to university and worked. He really starts to piss me off implying that I am somehow stupid for traveling and should be working. He is staring at my tattoos repeatedly as he continues to shout questions at me. It seems I wasnt giving him the right answers. He declares I am in the mafia, referring to my tattoos and then tells me that fucking would be a good hobby for me, apparently the kind of job he was covertly trying to refer to with all the questioning. I cant remember what I said at this point but I was quite enraged for being accosted on the street and having some sort of shouty conversation with this misogynist asshole.
I make it back it to Nader Bikes and they do there best to find and install a new secondhand rim on Frankie for me. It’s nice hanging out with Nader (the owner), the other mechanic Anton and their friends as they look after me and Frankie once more. A pleasant change from being treated like a piece of meat. I find a hostel to spend the night in the centre of town. I end up staying another two nights in Amman to shake off the head cold and regain some sort of sanity. I hang out at the Books@Cafe once more which I later come to realise is the unofficial queer space in Amman, no wonder I felt so at home.
Back to Amman and Nader Bikes to get a new rim for Frankie.
Leaving Amman once more, it seems to take a long time to reach the edge of the Jordan Valley again. The view is as amazing as it was before and I cannot really complain getting to experience it another time. Reaching the bottom of the valley I turn and head north along the road that is now quite populated with towns in between various agricultural land and buildings amongst the fertile land near the Jordan River. The map didnt really indicate this and I had imagined the surrounding land to be more sparsely populated.
I feel a tension as I cycle past people as they seem to be deciding how they should act towards me. There is not the usual Hello! How are you? Welcome. Instead I am shouted at in Arabic words I dont understand, sometimes aggressively. It puts me on edge. I feel like my presence is unwelcome and sometimes provoking. I have no idea why I am so antagonising to the locals (later living in Palestine I think it is probably because they thought I was Israeli and they could possibly be Palestinian refugees living in Jordan).
A group of five or six teenage boys see me coming and walk towards the road. As I cycle past one spits in my face, another on my leg and another throws a tomato that hits my arm and another a stone that hits the wheel. One of them starts to run after me. I stop and yell at him to come closer and show how tough he is. He starts to walk over and his friends behind him. I think one of them is going to throw another stone when a man in a truck pulls over on the other side of the road and shouts at them. I wasnt sure what was going to happen next so am relieved and you this intervention to cycle away.
There are people all along the road and I feel constant tension, real or imagined. A young guy, maybe fifteen steps out in front of me and says hello then brushes his hand at my bottom as I cycle past. I cycle on and turn a corner to see a another guy in his late teens waiting at a bus stop. He sees me approach and walks out in the road in front of me causing me to slow down. I think he is going to make a grab at me as well so I yell at him “Dont touch me!”. His face turns from interest to anger. I continue cycling and get about fifteen metres away when I feel something hit my back hard. I turn to see a rock the size of a baseball laying on the road near me. My back hurts where it struck me.
I shout at him in anger and he begins to walk forward picking up another rock. Luckily a car comes around the corner and I wave it down in a moment of desperation as the guy looks like he really wants to hurt me. The driver getting out of the car happens to be a uniformed army officer whom I hastily tell that the guy threw a rock at me. I dont know if he understands what I am saying but he gets the message that this guy is harassing me and shouts at him in Arabic until he walks away.
I am still at least 10km short of the border crossing I am now desperate to reach. I fear what else this gauntlet stretch of road will throw at me. With 3km to go I pass some more youth on the roadside, one shouts fuck you and begins to chase me until I stop and challenge him. I finally arrive at the border crossing. Thank God. Give me the dogs of Greece and Turkey or miserable weather, anything but this.
It transpires I am not allowed to cycle across the border and instead have to go on the foot passenger bus. Its a confusing process with a lot of waiting but at least on the Israeli side they do not xray Frankie again as they did in Eilat. I am questioned for a short amount of time for my motivations for visiting Israel but not to intensely as the young border control officer seems more interested in my bicycle journey then what I intend to do in Israel. By the time I get through the border control with a new three month visa it is 7pm. I arrived at the Jordanian side at 430pm, it is now close to dark and the town I hoped to get to, Jenin is still 30-40kms away.
I cycle away from the border and start eyeing up the road side for somewhere to camp, I am very tempted by some dense wooded areas until I notice the sign warning of land mines. I continue on and come to some agricultural paddocks, looking at the map I decide my best chances are wild camping and so quickly divert myself down a dirt track along the side of a paddock. I find a hay paddock out of sight of the road and any buildings and put up the tent trying to dodge swarms of bugs. As it gets darker I begin to hear howls from im not sure what, a fox? Dog? Wolf? Whatever it is has friends and they seem to be not so far away in the paddock now making an great noise. I dont get up to look. I have no desire after this day. My back still hurts.
Spot of wild camping in the hay paddock.
Lights from the Israeli border crossing just over there.
31 March – 2 April 2013
Scraping out of the hotel at 1030am I creep up the hill out of Wadi Musa to have the road transform into a wonderfully meandering downhill. My joy is broken when a teenager exiting school pretends to karate kick me as I cycle past him and the rest of his cronies. Things go from bad to worse after this. The road turns to rolling hills and when I reach a town I am followed by a small boy begging for money with hands cupped.
The town is situated on a steep hillside, halfway up the hill I stop at a shop to buy something to drink and a small boy inside is staring at so much he fails to see the stacked goods on the floor and falls over. I leave the shop now quite uncomfortable and continue slowly cycling my way up the hill. Another young boy begins to walk beside me demanding money. Im going so slow he can keep up at walking pace and so I am accompanied by him the whole way up the hill begging.
Once I reach the top he stops but now I have attracted the attention of a group of children playing soccer. I cycle through relieved to finally be left alone only to have the soccer ball smack me hard in the back. I turn around at look at the smirking boy that threw it at me. I pause and then I do a u-turn and go after him. He runs away yelling fuck you, fuck you. I give up and carry on out of town to the cries of Hello! Money? from nearby children. I am really tired of people shouting at me.
I am on guard when I enter the next town and see one of three young boys pick up a rock the size of a tennis ball. I eyeball him constantly until I am ten metres in front of him and thankfully he does nothing. 50 metres later another group of young boys see me coming and run across the road in front of me, one of them spits on me then bursts out laughing. This was the sort of behaviour I had somewhat feared when reading other cyclists blogs on Jordan, and as it turns out it is the same town of At-Tafila that they described having trouble in.
It doesnt end there though. There are more children ready to throw stones, one boy throws one which hits my pannier bag. He only stops throwing stones when I threaten to chase him. I carry on and stop at small shop at the edge of town, the man there tells me the road ahead is dangerous as it is very steep downhill. Sounds like the most fun I will have all day.
I reach the start of the descent and look down into the Jordan Rift that I will cycle down into to reach the Dead Sea. It is getting close to 5pm and dusk as I stop to eat hummus and bread. Enduring the days troubles is all worth it for the next hour that I get to descend down the steep winding road as the sun sets. The road is quiet with only a few vehicles passing me and so I get to enjoy the rocky landscape in peace.
A hairpin at the start of the descent into the Jordan rift.
To the bottom to find Bedouin tents near the roadside.
I should have really stopped halfway down to camp amongst the rocky outcrops in the fading light but I couldnt resist finishing the descent so am spat out at the bottom into the small village of Fifa. There is no where sheltered to camp and so I continue along the main road north as it begins to get dark. Some policemen spot me and ask me where I am going, I point and tell them I am looking for somewhere to camp before carrying on my way. They seem somewhat concerned but let me go.
The police catch up with me a short while later and begin to follow slowly behind me there lights lighting up the road in front as it is now completely dark. I secretly hope that they are escorting me somewhere to sleep for the night as there is definitely no where suitable to camp. Ten minutes later we arrive outside the police station and I am shuffled inside to meet the police commander who thinks I am the biggest joke he has ever heard. I ask to put my tent up inside the police compound but this does not fly. Instead the police commander in between questioning and offering me coffee makes a number of calls and finds me somewhere to stay the night.
I later decide that the person chosen to house me for the night would be the man he knows with the most daughters. Or at least that is what it seems like, there is at least nine of them. He comes to pick me up in his truck with one of his daughters and drives me back to his home. A shared multi level apartment block with a separate living room for women on one level. It is here that I am quickly surrounded by women on all couches, nearly all younger than me and with at least a few children each though not all of them are present.
They look at me curiously and ask questions which I try to answer with the help of my phrasebook. They bring me food and drinks and I try to show them photos of my trip to explain where I have been. One of the young women then pulls out her cellphone and shows me photos of her trip to Aqaba. It is 200km away but clearly a celebrated trip for her as she shows me many photos of her and her friend posing there in their best clothes. How foolish I feel for being taken in from bumbling around in the dark by these people who clearly have little but choose to offer me a place to sleep, food and water. I sleep in the womens lounge with a few of the women, spread out across the various sofa mats.
The next day is a strange muggy day with a thick fog hanging low in the valley. It is a sweaty ride to and along the the rugged shoreline of the Dead Sea. I eventually arrive at the local public beach where Jordanians pay to access the water. The rest of the shore on the north end being taken up by various hotels and apartments. I feel a bit self conscious being the only foreigner present and decide to swim in shorts and t shirt as all other women in the water are fully covered head to toe in black abayas. It’s a refreshing float at the end of a long sweaty day.
After washing all the salt off I now have to look for somewhere to sleep. Only problem is that its rocky barren hillside on one side and apartments and hotels on the other. Im pondering my current predicament when fate so kindly steps in. Three people cross the road in front of and stop to see what I am up to before calling out hello. I stop to greet them in turn and meet Rosie and her two neighbours whom have just been for a dip in front of their apartments. Rosie asks me where I am cycling to and if I am on my own and where I planning to sleep. No sooner have I answered I am whisked into her apartment to stay the night.
I have met a kindred spirit, Rosie is an avid cyclist. Everyday she cycles 20km towards Amman and has competed in the Dead2Red cycling race (a cycle race from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea). She is German and married a Jordanian man thus came to live in Amman fifty years ago when there were few foreigners to speak of. She makes some wonderful vegetarian food and we discuss the sexist nature of men in this country in regards to women on bikes. I feel wonderfully taken care of and at home falling asleep in a comfortable bed showered and well fed.
We head off early together on Rosie’s regular ride towards Amman, parting after 10km. She is the first woman I have seen for months on a bicycle which is just the solidarity boost I need to slowly climb up from the lowest point of my life/the cycle tour -420m to +900m to arrive in Amman. Rosie had already made word of my arrival to her local bike shop Nader Bikes and so the humbling generosity continued. After having Frankie seen to and being gifted new cycling gloves (my other ones being so worn down I was starting to get sore hands) and food I was then given a lift to my couchsurfing hosts house. Things were looking up.
The south end of the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea foaming at the edge.
The local Jordanian beach and the strange foggy day.
Rosie and I just about to part ways on the road to Amman.
27- 30 March 2013
I head off from the hostel in Eilat to find a bike shop to replace my tyres. It is most fortunate this day is the one I am within limping distance of bicycle shop for with about 800 metres to go the back wheel that has gotten progressively stiffer lately completely locks up and refuses to turn. I dismount and ended up dragging Frankie awkwardly uphill the remaining distance, which is something akin to dragging the bike through sand except there is a lot of people.
It transpires that the ball bearings inside the wheel hub had some how gotten out of place causing the wheel to become locked. The mechanic replaces them and the tyres. So then we are off riding smoothly to the nearby border crossing to Jordan which is of little hassle and the visa free as I am heading into the Aqaba Special Economic Zone. I cycle into Aqaba to procure a map and some dinars. The city is refreshing with its tree lined streets, picnic tables and actual tourist centre. With map in hand I head north towards Wadi Rum.
The main road is busy and wide and at one point I pass a large group of truck drivers on strike, im not sure for what. I eventually reach the turn off towards Wadi Rum around 530pm as the sun is beginning to cast large shadows on the surrounding rock. The road is quiet and the landscape inspiring, this area is well known as where T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) kicked around during the Arab Revolt of 1917-1918. The sun sets and the moon rises, I have managed to arrive in the desert on the full moon.
I cycle into the tourist centre just as it is closing and am helpfully driven to the nearby campsite in the village of Wadi Rum. There is a Bedouin wedding party nearby, as the full moon in the desert is a special time, many from the village get married then. There are two large separate tents, one for the men and one for the women set up loudly emanating Arabic music. The camp is full of Israeli rock climbers on their annual trip to Wadi Rum. Some of them sleep overnight halfway up the looming cliff faces so they have an early start in the morning to make their way to the top before the heat of the day.
As you can see my tyres are royally fucked.
On the road to Wadi Rum.
Sun set looming.
An empty house on the way to Wadi Rum.
The next day I want to spend some time hiking into the desert but feel a bit isolated and vulnerable to pesky tour guides venturing in on my own. I spot a large tour group that appears to be set for hiking so shuffle over and ask where they are going and if I can join. They are a French tour group with a Jordanian guide from Amman, and of course I am welcome. Some of the women strike up conversation with me as we hike out into the desert and I am happy for the company as the space is so vast. They are planning to spend the night in the desert so after lunch I turn around and head back the way I came.
On re entering the village I am watched keenly by a young girl who asks if I have been in the sahara (desert) to which I reply yes. She tries out her small amount of English then invites me in for tea upon reaching her door. I accept and sit in the courtyard outside her house with her young siblings and rather bemused mother as we browse through her English school book and try to make some sort of conversation. After the tea is finished I make my way back to the campground for another night in the tent there.
I try to leave early the following morning as I know I am in for a long days ride. It is slow steady climb up to the top of the hill range that reveals green grass and a cool breeze. Riding up and down along the hill tops I am spotted by a family drinking tea near the road and called over to join them. Many photos are taken whilst they ply me with tea. There are more rolling hills until the descent into Wasi Musa, the valley where Petra is located. The sun is setting as I look down into the beautiful canyons below, I am exhausted as I eventually find the cheap hotel I was looking for and check in.
The next morning I am waiting for the free van ride provided by the hotel when I realise it has already gone as I am an hour behind the local time never noticing the change until now. Petra itself is the most expensive tourist attraction I have ever paid for at 50 Jordanian dinars (90NZD). You would think at that price they could have a card machine at there ticket booths but ridiculously they only accept cash and I have to hike back to a nearby hotel to take cash out. I decide after this I am done with tourist attractions. It is a spectacular place and well worth the visit though I really do question where all the money goes as the few information boards on site are funded by USAID.
The Wadi Rum camp ground, full of Israeli rock climbers.
Use of long neck number 237.
Following the French tour group into the desert.
A mighty dune amongst the rock and flat desert floor.
Heading into a narrow rock canyon.
The girl (on left) and her siblings who invited me in for tea.
This kid was enterprising enough to charge me a dinar for the photo.
Heading uphill on the way to Petra.
Green grass on the top of the hills, its been a while.
Looking down into Wadi Musa.
The tourists and the treasury.
The endless caves, ruins and stream of tourists in Petra.
It only took three days but I really questioned whether I wanted to continue cycling in Egypt. I was upset, frustrated, angry and intimidated. Was it the heat? The barren desert landscape? The dangerous traffic? No its the men, and the way they treat women.
I had ended up in Egypt sooner than planned and a little unprepared but was really looking forward to riding there in a landscape and culture so different from my home. How did this excitement turn to disappointment in so little time? Simple, sexual harassment.
After spending a month cycling through the country I will now (many months later) try to make some sense of this experience and just why it is so bad to ride a bicycle as a woman alone there. The unfortunate reality of being a woman anywhere means the possibility of sexual harassment. I have never been harassed so much though as I have in Egypt (not that I have traveled extensively but a bit).
Having read the travel advice online and in guidebooks for women travellers in Egypt I thought I was reasonably mentally prepared for what lay ahead. I knew I was coming to a country where women are often verbally hassled regardless of whether they are tourists or locals. I had read that dressing conservatively with long sleeves and pants was best though some reports suggested harassment regardless of what was worn.
I thought I was well informed and felt reasonably confident after six weeks of cycling through Turkey, a fellow Muslim country with conservative attitudes towards women where I had experienced unwanted attention from men as a foreign woman travelling alone. Then I arrived in Egypt.
From the first day walking around Port Said to the second last day in Sinai I was harassed. I became apprehensive, waiting for the next degrading act. I cycled into the desert in a hope to escape people and the chance of harassment but found it there too. It became the constant of my journey through Egypt, waiting for me in all cities, villages and roads. It left me changed. Im not sure for the better.
Was it so terrible now that I look back on it? The answer is still yes. It was the hardest country to cycle through because of this but also the most rewarding because I survived and saw the wondrous landscapes despite all the trouble involved. A woman on a bicycle in Egypt is an anomaly. The idea of a woman traveling alone, without some sort of male companion is troubling enough. So a woman alone on a loaded touring bicycle is a freak. Some sort of wild western fantasy (What will they think of next?) quite possibly a prostitute, at the very least open to sex outside of marriage, a disreputable woman.
I wish I was exaggerating, but Im not. I was hissed, jeered, stared and leered at and told to smile. One taxi driver in Cairo put on My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion and tried to tell me about this great restaurant he could take me for lunch. Vehicles continually slowed down beside me or stopped in front of me to get a better view. I was told Im beautiful, that ‘I love you’ and I have cool sunglasses. I was called sweetie, madam or lady. Whenever I had to repair my bike in public I was quickly surrounded by the male population and ogled at. I was groped and touched without consent on a number of occasions. Most nice conversations I had with Egyptian men ended up being some sort of attempt to chat me up.
I was told the harassment I received was merely boys playing. That men seeing me travelling alone will think I want to have sex with them. That I should start thinking about a husband and children as time passes fast. When a man telling me that marries a man and gives birth maybe then I will think about listening to him, maybe. Otherwise they can all get fucked.
Anyway as far as I can discern there is an unspoken rule in Egypt and other Middle Eastern Muslim countries such as Palestine that hinders women from riding bicycles after they hit puberty. There is some debate about whether this is because of skin and shape being inadvertently exposed whilst riding, or that it is a question of modesty and safety. There is also the difficulty to which one can ride a bicycle in the full abaya or long jackets worn by some. Whatever the case, its very rarely done. As I was told in Amman, its a ‘mans sport’.
I must clearly state here that I know nothing of Islam and I am not saying that Islam bans woman from riding bicycles, because it does not. Its cool for Muslim women to ride bikes in many countries including England and Saudi Arabia (cough, but only in parks and recreational areas, with a male relative whilst dressed in the full head-to-toe abaya, cough, its Saudi Arabia what did you expect?).
I didnt see a woman on a bicycle in Egypt, not once. In fact the next time I saw a woman on a bicycle was when I met a German woman, Rosie, living and cycling by the Dead Sea in Jordan. I have read that women cycle in the cities of Cairo and Alexandria, in small numbers albeit. Outside of the societal taboo one of the deterrents for woman cycling there is harassment. “Some women could not use bicycle in their daily commutes due to widespread harassment on Cairo streets.”
The harassment is not confined to the bicycle though this tended to increase it by far. A study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights said that 98% of foreign female visitors and 83% of Egyptian women have experienced sexual harassment. From what I understand the level of harassment has increased post revolution, with people no longer in constant fear of reprisal for their actions. The issue has been in the media since the coverage of protests in Tahrir Square and the assaults that occurred there.
With all these horrific statistics and news though there has been action. Groups have been formed, protests held, networks developed and the women have continued to join in the countries demonstrations despite the chance of being attacked. If only Egypt would realise the strength of half their population to change their country for the better and treat women with respect. But then again so should everywhere else…
Anti sexual harassment graffiti I photographed in Cairo. For more see https://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/2013/01/07/women-in-graffiti-a-tribute-to-the-women-of-egypt/
Another one near Tahrir Square. Even more here http://www.acus.org/egyptsource/women-egypt-through-narrative-graffiti
‘678’ Egyptian film about sexual harassment, if you find the dvd send me a copy.
22 – 26 March 2013
A long overnight bus ride later I stop on the Sinai peninsula in Dahab, where you can look across the Gulf of Aqaba to Saudi Arabia. Dahab before the tourism explosion, was a string of sandy beaches with straw beach huts and shacks. It still maintains its relaxed vibe and is a small tourist haven devoid of the prevailing sexual harassment in comparison to the rest of Egypt. Even the touts seem half hearted and barely try to pedal their wares. The main activities revolve around the Red Sea and exploring the coral reef though a trek up Mt Sinai is also at the top of many tourists list. I decide to make this my priority and join an sunrise trek up to the top of the mountain knowing I will never be able to sum up the energy to do it by bicycle or trek alone.
To ensure all the individual groups make it to the top before sunrise we have to leave Dahab at 11pm and arrive at the base car park at 1am. The trek is then negotiated by torchlight shuffling up behind the countless other sleepy tourists. Occasionally a camel driver will materialise out of the dark trying to break the weaker spirits in-between the strategically placed cafes selling overpriced tea and coffee. The view from the top looking across the many rocky peaks making up the Sinai area is spectacular whether you have any spiritual connection to this area or not.
After anothers days rest in Dahab I cycle on for Nuweiba another town with tourist facilities to the north on the Red Sea. The road though does not follow the coast but rather heads inland leaving behind any cooling breeze in the 35+ degree heat. Its a slow steady climb up and twice I decline rides offered to me. After a lunch break I run out of water and face an uncertain ride til the next checkpoint where I can refill my bottles. Thirst begins to dominate my every thought and I actually say ‘You beauty!’ out loud when I see a sign for a rest house on the road ahead.
Making a bee line for the fridges stocking juice and water my happiness is soon quelled by the young male shop keeper who starts to closely pepper me with questions. There is no one else in the shop and I move to look at the food to escape his invasive presence though in doing so he manages to brush his hand against my bum following me around the shop. My jubilation in being able to drink multiple cold drinks in the shade has evaporated. I had wistfully dreamed that in the two final days of cycling in Egypt I might be able to avoid any further sexual harassment. The bubble that existed in Dahab though has popped and my desire to get out of Egypt has never been stronger. I fast track it from the rest house thoroughly disappointed but at least with enough water to last the rest of the day.
The climbing continues and at one particularly slow point a man pulls alongside me in a car very insistent that he will give me a ride and that there is still a very long hard cycle to Nuweiba. I stick to my guns though and a few kilometres later am rewarded with an epic descent back down to the coast. Only someone up to no good would deny a cyclist there downhill for the day. Nuweiba is a village past its peak and the majority of the beach front accommodation, mostly Thai style huts is empty and has seen better days. There is nothing much to do there other than to sit and relax at the sea front so I only spend one night sleeping in one of the many available huts.
The next day is long slog up and down along the coast under the hot sun to the Taba border crossing with Israel. I arrive at 3pm and once through the Egyptian side am forced to take Frankie through the foot passenger area rather than the car access. At first this is fine as I wheel along behind some Israelis returning from a day trip. A stone cold Israeli border security officer asks me what the purpose of my visit is, I laugh and point at Frankie. She looks at me like I am piece of shit she just got stuck to her shoe. Well I didn’t expect the red carpet rolled out but still they must suck some serious lemons in training for this job.
She waves me on and I eventually make it to the x ray machine. Assuming they will want to x ray my bags I take them off and put them on the conveyor belt. The border security officer though then wants me to put Frankie through the machine though there is no way this will fit. She asks if Frankie will fold. I say no. She seems very annoyed and asks ‘Why not?’. ‘Um its not a folding bike’ I reply. Awkward. I offer to take off the wheels to appease her anger and she agrees. I am pulled aside to another x ray machine where I have to grab my bags and find my tools to take off the wheels. Another border security officer puts Frankie through the machine and then begins to ask me about my plans and tells me the name of a bike shop in Eilat I could visit. I feel like I am getting the good cop bad cop treatment, its very disconcerting.
I finally get everything back together again and on the bike and am able to make it to the passport check. When I arrive at the counter the young woman behind the desk sees I am tired and stressed and sympathises to my cause. She asks a minimum of basic questions and then turns to asking me about my bicycle journey saying she would like to do the same whilst printing out a three month visa for me. I exit the border and am ejected into another world. I experience reverse culture shock with the sight of so much flesh, loud music, alcohol and general revelry along the beach and town of Eilat. Its like a slap in the face after travelling through Turkey and Egypt the past three months.
I cant say I have missed this part of western culture though the proliferation of western goods and opportunity to find some new tyres is appealing and the reason why I am here. There is a direct ferry from Nuweiba to Aqaba, Jordan which I could have taken to have avoided coming through the tip of Israel but decided against knowing there would probably be no chance of new tyres until Amman a number of days ride away. I make it to the centre of town and spot a YHA where I find out the reason for the endless stream of people on holiday mode, it is Passover a national holiday in Israel. As a result a bed in a dorm room is a ridiculous price but I am tired and see no other option at the end of the day so take it.
Local Bedouin looking across the Aqaba Gulf to Saudi Arabia.
Watching the sunrise from Mt Sinai.
Visual proof my sneakers made the night ascent.
To the north.
On the way back down the 3000 steps of penance.
Breakfast of champions.
Heading inland from Dahab.
Shade is your friend.
Sign at the camel racing track, how many mistakes can you find…
Nuweiba dunes, struggling through sand to get to the beach front shacks.
Thai style beach huts in Nuweiba.
The good life…
17 – 21 March 2013
Aborting the desert ride in Al Khagra then meant having to find public transport to get to Luxor. Unfortunately there is no direct transport to Luxor but rather I would have to go north to Asyut and then change there to get to Luxor. I march down to the bus and mini bus station in the morning with Frankie in tow. The first driver to Asyut refuses to put Frankie on his mini bus roof so I stand their looking disgruntled until another driver agrees to take me. The mini bus soon fills up and a man of at least 50 in traditional Egyptian garb sits beside me.
As the journey progresses I begin to get slowly squashed by the man leaning against me where earlier there was ample space. I move as close to the window as possible but still his arm and body manages to be pressed up against me. The van is also oppressively hot and the windows unable to be opened as the wind swirls desert sands around outside. My knees stuck in a bent position begin to seize up and no angle of movement seems to relieve the now constant ache. The old man next to me then with his hand conveniently placed beside my leg decides I would like the underneath of my thigh stroked by him. I grab his hand and throw it back towards his face giving him and the man on the other side of him the filthiest look I can summon, unable to find the words to deal with the situation.
The old man then dramatically flops forward resting his head in his arms on the seat in front of him. I cant help but notice the wedding ring on his finger and the fact there is enough room on the seat now for him not be touching me. Asyut seems very far away. Thankfully he keeps his hands to himself the rest of the journey, the drama though is not over. As we finally enter Asyut the driver weaving his way through speeding traffic in typical Egyptian driving style crashes into the side of a large truck There is an almighty crunch as the side of the van hits the truck before the driver swerves away again. The van hit closest to where women and children are seated behind me and now everyone is extremely tense or angry. The van pulls over and the driver and some of the men hop out to inspect the damage. It all seems to be ok and everyone fine so we continue on our way, the driver now a little more cautiously.
Escaping the mini van and collecting Frankie from the roof I find one of the tyres has deflated so set about changing it. I am soon surrounded by at least ten men and boys observing my every move. I am the only foreigner in sight, I am a woman, with a bicycle, that I am now trying to fix. I don’t think free entertainment covers it. After changing the tyre I ask whether there is transport to Luxor but with nobody able to answer my question in the positive or negative. One of the men watching offers me tea and so I sit down with him and his friend. They attempt to ply me with more food and drinks and tell me I can stay the night at one of their homes as there is no transport to Luxor. I am not buying it though so go off in search of the railway station seeing as the bus seems impossible.
I am about to pay for a ticket on the next train to Luxor until the ticket man tells me no bikes are allowed. I ask if there is another train I can take to which I am told I can go on the train with no air conditioning but I will have to get the bike on myself. With no other option I agree and when I try to buy a ticket am told there is no ticket for this train. I carry Frankie down and up various stairs on to the right platform and entertain all waiting with another round of changing the tube as it has gone flat again. Again I am the only foreigner in sight and I conclude I am about to take the free local train that foreigners are not meant to take. As the train pulls up a man in uniform with the help of some teenage boys carries Frankie on to the train, pushing through the huge squash of people trying to enter and exit the train until we are located in the middle of one of the carriages. Frankie is leaned up against a seat partially blocking the aisle and a man vacates a seat for me despite my protests.
The train is rusty inside and out, windows are broken or cracked and the seats bursting at the seams, there is a layer of dirt and rubbish underneath and around the swath of people now crammed inside. I watch the Nile and surrounding villages and fields pass by as men and boys move through the carriages trying to sell food, drinks and clothes. One young man spreads out some cardboard on the overhead luggage rack and lies down for a snooze. The train makes many stops and moves at a rustic pace akin to its appearance so it is over six hours later at 930pm that it finally arrives in Luxor. Its a free ride though so I am not complaining. A number of men help me carry Frankie up and down the stairs on to the street and welcome me to town. Luxor though is known as the ‘hassle capital’ of Egypt so the pleasant beginning is soon replaced by the verbal volleys of touts, shop keepers and any man in general who feels the need to comment. Needless to say I am not a big fan of Luxor and am happy to leave after some arbitrary tourist time and a fruitless search for replacement tyres.
The desert left its mark, the glove tan gets obscene. I looked like more of a dick than usual with taped up sunglasses but at least I wasnt blinded by the sun those last few days in the desert after they broke.
Looking across the Nile in Luxor.
Karmak Temple in Luxor.
Hieroglyphics in Karmak Temple.
Owl owl goose.
Luxor Temple in Luxor, funny that.
Valley of the Kings, for a spot of tomb sight seeing.
I will be honest this hand painted sign was one of my favourite sights in Luxor. Those swirly back spokes and home made font go straight to my heart.
12 – 16 March 2013
I’m still ruminating the next day about how I’m being perceived and treated as a woman traveling alone as I begin cycling. Being thought of first and foremost as a promiscuous woman/some kind of prostitute is not something I had anticipated. I knew it would be a little shocking to be a woman on a bicycle but naively I never imagined this. The gap in logic and lack of reasoning here is really hard for me to understand. But then again I’m not a man, from Egypt.
When I stop in the next small village to get some water some teenage boys sit nearby to blatantly gawk and smirk at me. I’m relieved to finally get out of the oasis and away from the constant attention. The relief though does not last long. I’m riding into a hot head wind that pushes the already hot temperatures up. My odometer tells me its 48 degrees (I can’t testify to its accuracy but I generally find it correct and at worst it couldn’t be more than 5 degrees off), which at this point I thought I would have melted but instead just renders me constantly thirsty.
A futile cycle commences. Stop to drink water and abate thirst. Feel satisfied for a minute until mouth is dry again. Drink more water, feel satisfied for a minute until mouth is dry and now feel slightly bloated for drinking so much water at once. I had read before heading off into the desert of the Khamaseen, a hot wind that blows from the south in April. I was now starting to wonder if it had turned up early though the description sounds a lot grimmer than what I was experiencing.
Way back in November cycling the Croatian coast Id had a serious whinge about Bura the wind that blasts off the Mediterranean coast. At which time I made reference to a scene from the English Patient. The point is the two characters in this scene are actually based on real people, Count Almasy and Lady Clayton who did actually explore the desert (whether they got stuck in a car in a sandstorm and talked sexily about winds is highly questionable) and they were in fact in the very same desert I was now suffering in, The Libyan.
It’s now I must inform you that the desert in Egypt is called the Western Desert only because of the nice straight line the English drew between Libya and Egypt. It is in fact the Libyan Desert one of two distinct deserts found in Africa, the other being the Sahara, or the desert desert as sahara is the Arabic word for desert. I also must heighten the drama of this story by informing you that the highest ever recorded temperature was 58 degrees and occurred in the Libyan Desert.
So there I was soldiering on through the abominable wind and heat motivation increasingly slipping away when a 4WD stopped and the driver asked if I needed anything. The driver was a Spanish man named Huan whom tells me he has a camp 30km up the road and invites me to stay there. Now with something to aim at I slog up and over the hill and down into the depression out of the wind to where the village of Abu Minqar and Huan’s abode lies.
Huan’s camp is actually his house and a series of almost completed hotel buildings on the outskirts of the small village. When I ask him how long he has been here he says ‘too long’. He has been waiting for electricity to be hooked up but since the revolution getting anything done has become difficult if not impossible unless you know someone in the right place and can grease the wheels with money. In the mean time he lives off a generator and hoards the gas to run it in case of shortages. He says since the revolution and reduction in military and police control the black market trade from goods originating just across the border in Libya has boomed.
The water though is hooked up and an outdoor shower gets its hot water from the local spring. There is something quite magical about standing under the stars washing off the grime of the day with water originating from under the desert. Huan informs me tomorrow he is going to be investigating a route for a tourist camel trek he is helping to organise and will be four wheel driving into the desert and I’m welcome to stay another night and join.
So the next morning we are off straight out the back of the house into the desert with Huan’s local help Attif. We drive deep into the surrounding dunes often having to stop and re route to prevent getting stuck in soft sand. Attif says he was working with an oil company one day when he and four others in a 4wd got stuck out here with no form of communication, food or water. Luckily someone noticed they were missing and came looking for them the next day.
The following day I cycle off into a growing headwind. An hour later the wind is at full blast and I am barely cycling above walking pace. There is next to no shade from the relentless sun so I pathetically sit behind the meager shade of a road corner sign to eat lunch. Not so long after I am pushing Frankie along in frustration when a van full of people pulls up alongside me. It is a German tour group whom after brief consultation decide I am coming with them. I don’t put up much of a protest.
Getting a ride with the tour group then means I join the afternoons activities of visiting some old tombs and the ancient village of Al-Qasr. I don’t really understand much as mostly they speak in German but it’s still interesting. In between there is spot of lunch part of the pre paid package that I get to partake in, nothing like a free lunch. They eventually drop me off on the out skirts of Dakhla and I cycle into the centre looking for somewhere to stay and ponder what should be my next move. The state of Frankie’s tyres is verging on atrocious and my desire to continue riding into a headwind in the heat is waning. The grand plan of cycling all the way to Luxor has slowly slipped away. In the end I decide to make one last push to Al Kharga, the last oasis where I hope I might be able to find some public transport to Luxor.
The next day is hot but with little or no wind so I am able to make a reasonable distance and find a nice spot to camp amongst some rocky terrain. When I stop I discover my legs are covered in heat rash in retaliation for riding in pants in the heat. The night is still warm so I decide to sleep without the tent and take in the un pollutted vista of the night sky. My ability to sleep though is disrupted by a large desert locust that repeatedly lands on my pillow or head until I firmly send it packing. Later the wind picks up and any chance of proper sleep firmly disappears so I make an early start into the increasing strength of the wind.
I had hoped to make it to Al Kharga by the evening but by midday I am well out of reach, foolishly having run out of water with no village in sight and again beaten by the heat and relentless wind that blasts across the sand. I persevere another hour before admitting defeat and stop and try to start hitching a ride. After ten minutes a pick up truck pulls over and the two guys inside offer me a ride. At first they want me to sit in between them in the cramped cab but I refuse saying I will sit on the back with Frankie. They insist otherwise and eventually I sit on the door side squashed against one of the guys.
They are nice enough to being with and we attempt to converse a little but I feel somewhat uncomfortable and have to shift out of the way when the one I’m squashed against seems to think I would like my leg stroked by his finger. Thankfully that’s the worst of it and they drop me off in the centre of Al Kharga a little while later. I ask a few people for the location of a hotel and am waved in a few directions. As I slowly cycle around looking for a sign a young boy of around 14 spots me and begins to follow me on his bicycle. He starts to make various jibing comments I can’t understand but the smirk on his face and the fact he starts to cut close in front and behind of me starts to grate. I’m tired, dirty and so very sick of being hassled by the male population, all I want is a room where I can sit and escape the constant attention and exhausting conditions. When two other young boys also begin to follow me on their bicycles laughing at their friends actions the last bit of patience I have seemingly evaporates.
Now what I am going to tell you next I am not proud of, well no that’s a lie, I am, sort of. I’m chalking it up on one hand as a service to society/cycle tourers/women on bicycles. Though having to lose your Ghandi non violent approach on the other hand is the beginning of long internal moral conflict. Anyway when the first boy rode up alongside me again smirking and laughing I kicked his back wheel hard. His bike, the typical rusty hunk of junk single speed then wobbled dramatically before he crashed down on to the road. I kept cycling forward, not looking back hoping there would be no retaliation from nearby observers. Instead a young man on the back of a scooter rode past laughing, gave me the thumbs up and said, ‘Very good’. I wasnt followed after that and soon found a hotel near the central market. And that was the end of the Western Desert. I went out with a bang.
Hot water spring near Fafafra, I was all up for a leg soak but the water was so hot I could only manage a brief dipping.
The next oasis, so very far away.
Whos the boss? The desert that’s who.
Oh that is why I want to die.
In a permanent state of scull.
Heading to the desert with Huan.
A canvas tent buried by a sand storm.
Attif wanders towards the edge.
Fossil from when it used to be the sea floor.
Huan looking for the hard sand to drive on.
Atiff, “I am Bedouin”.
Abandoned well drilling.
The German tour group visiting some ancient tombs.
Farming on the outskirts of Dakhla.
A bit of a pose for the last night camping in the desert.
The two guys that gave me a lift to Al Kharga, complete with subtle leg feel up, hooray.
10 – 11 March 2013
Spending most of the previous evening doing running repairs on Frankie and myself I am little late to leave the hotel in the morning. Heading out of town I mistakenly take the road towards Siwa (the oasis near the border with Libya) before a man driving past points this out. The lack of signs and roads all looking very similar makes guessing hard work. Finally heading the right way I exit Bawiti and begin to enter the Black Desert. I stop to take some photos when a car passing by reverses back to come alongside me and ask if I need any help.
They are german tourists with a local guide and soon want to know what I am doing and to take photos of me. I feel like a bit of a monkey as they feed me dates and water while snapping photos. Not long after a 4WD repeats this process, this time it is a Korean travel writer/poet called Hyun with three Bedioun guides. They are planning to stop at a cafe (the only cafe) ahead and suggest I meet them there. I was already planning to stop there so agree.
I’m starting to think this could be a frequent experience on this part of the road, as most people come from Bawiti where they hire a local guide to the explore the Black and White Desert south of town. Passing me from behind it is then easy to see that I am alone and break up the monotony of desert travel to stop and ask what I am doing. Arriving at the cafe a little while later I am greeted by the owner, a woman who had spotted me earlier in Bawiti when she was there shopping. She had waved me to a stop to give me a personal ad for visiting her cafe. It’s a nice change that there is woman in charge for once and she enjoys talking to foreigners.
Hyun and his Bedouin guides are at the cafe, Hamada the most talkative guide tells me he is part of couchsurfing and that they are interested to hear about my journey so invite me to lunch. They are planning to have this a few kilometres down the road so the other Hamada (there are two) jokes that he will ride my bicycle there. I agree and hand Frankie over and hop into the drivers seat of the 4WD before he has time to back out. It’s amusing to see someone else have to ride while I get to drive for the first time in eight months. When Hamada arrives after us in the nearby village he said people were calling out hello to him along the road.
Following a filling lunch of koshary they tell me they are heading into the desert to camp overnight and invite me to join them. So after washing the dishes in the nearby hot spring they tie Frankie to the roof and we are off hurtling along the road. Out of the Black Desert and into the White Desert then turning off into a part that has only be opened for the past year as it was previously restricted as part of the national park.
After the cycling its hard not to feel I am now traveling far to fast to truly take in my surroundings and feel the power of the elements with a comfy seat and air conditioning. Speeding into the depths of the desert along the sand surrounded by strange rock shapes is fun and something I would never be able to do otherwise but still I have become so conditioned to slow travel I feel a camel or hiking would be the way to absorb it in all its glory. Nonetheless the landscape is amazing, like being on another planet.
We stop and set up camp and the guides start cooking another feast while the sun sets and Hyun and I take photos. As it gets dark Fennec foxes start to approach the camp and creep very close in the hope of snatching some food before quickly running away again. They move silently and have huge ears developed for survival in the desert. At one point I shine my headlamp around the surrounding rocks and see five separate sets of eyes watching us.
After the feast that featured goat meat (which as a guest I felt obliged to eat) we sit around the campfire and smoke the shisha as the Harmadas’ play the drums and sing. Hyun then pulled out the beers and hashish he said had been hard to get in the conservative Muslim community. We watch the stars go brighter and move across the epic desert sky. Things get uncomfortable later when the talkative Harmada said I should share a mattress with him as there wasnt enough, that it would be an “honour” before semi ordering me to lie down. I ignored him and went and got my own sleeping mat and bag and eventually drifted off to sleep on the soft sand.
I was pretty disappointed with what had happened as I had told him on the drive here that I’d had problems with unwanted attention from men already in Egypt and described some of the events. The next morning he told me that there are many people who are uneducated in Egypt and because of this when men see me, a woman travelling alone they will think I want to have sex with them. Being lectured by a guy about other guys perceptions who had just treated me this way was horribly awkward. I had thought that the invitation to join them was hospitality pure and simple but now I felt gross despite having enjoyed the trip and company outside of this incident.
Once packed up we headed back towards the road, stopping at a spring the road workers had originally dug up and is now a camel drinking spot where we then part ways. Having now shaved off 100kms of riding I start again heading towards Farafra. No sooner had I stopped to take a photo did a van pull over with two guides driving an Englishman to Luxor asking if I need anything. I have to decline the offer of a ride multiple times to one guide who is very insistent I join them. He tells me he is from Luxor and would like me to visit him there and introduce me to his family and gives me his number before leaving. I appreciate that they are asking if I need any help but I really don’t need my leg humped especially with Harmada’s words still fresh in my mind.
I carry on towards Farafra and begin to fantasise about the cold drinks I might find there as the sun scorches down and wind picks up. I get a puncture on the outskirts and another after leaving the market where I sated myself with juice and water. I stop outside a house that provides some shade and start to change the tube where I am fixedly watched by a young boy. Soon a taller young boy who can speak some English comes over to find out what is happening. His name is Ahmed and he says the other boy watching me is the local bike engineers (mechanics) son. He is surprised that I am alone and chastens me on the state of my tyres which are more or less wrecked and in acute need of replacement.
I am quite aware of this having already made various boots on the inside with the car tyre patches I got in Albania trying to stop the splits damaging the tubes and growing further. My efforts though are no match for the desert conditions hence the now frequent flat tyres and ever increasing tyre wear. I first noticed the splits in the last few days of riding in Turkey and had hoped to find replacements in Cairo but was unable to locate the bike shop I was looking for.
After another few minutes I am surrounded by even more boys who call out the standard chorus of “Hello, whats your name?”. I tell them and one of them begins to call ‘Miss Emma’ before every following comment. As I begin to put the wheel back together the young bike mechanics son takes over and sees the job finished. He knows his stuff so I give him a spare tyre lever which he had been so curious over when I used it before. A few of them chase me down the street as I ride away and head out of town. A little further down the road I find a spot to pitch the tent behind some sand mounds and scrub.
The start of the Black Desert.
Off in the distance some camels chilling.
Parked outside the cafe.
Frankie gets tied down to the roof.
And then finds a spot for some contemplation.
Climbing the rock to take a photo of Hyun taking photos. Not actually a good idea as the rock is really crumbly and makes getting back down a little precarious.
Beautiful desert lines.
The morning after with the cutest tea cups this side of the black stump.
Packing up camp.
Welcome to the Moon.
Stop! Camel time.
Time to eat some more sand.
My local pit crew in Farafra, you can see Ahmed has got the contemplative pose sorted. Totally won them over when I started singing the theme for Spongebob Squarepants.