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Crossing Over

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.

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As you can see my tyres are royally fucked.

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On the road to Wadi Rum.

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Sun set looming.

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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.

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The Wadi Rum camp ground, full of Israeli rock climbers.

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Use of long neck number 237.

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Following the French tour group into the desert.

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A mighty dune amongst the rock and flat desert floor.

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Heading into a narrow rock canyon.

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The girl (on left) and her siblings who invited me in for tea.

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This kid was enterprising enough to charge me a dinar for the photo.

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Heading uphill on the way to Petra.

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Green grass on the top of the hills, its been a while.

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Looking down into Wadi Musa.

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The tourists and the treasury.

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The endless caves, ruins and stream of tourists in Petra.

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The Monestary.

Egypt and the Sexual Harassment of Women

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…

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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/

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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.

Sinai Sunrise

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.

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Local Bedouin looking across the Aqaba Gulf to Saudi Arabia.

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Watching the sunrise from Mt Sinai.

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Visual proof my sneakers made the night ascent.

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To the north.

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On the way back down the 3000 steps of penance.

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Breakfast of champions.

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Heading inland from Dahab.

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Shade is your friend.

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Sign at the camel racing track, how many mistakes can you find…

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Nuweiba dunes, struggling through sand to get to the beach front shacks.

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Thai style beach huts in Nuweiba.

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The good life…

Down the Nile to Luxor

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.

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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.

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Looking across the Nile in Luxor.

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Karmak Temple in Luxor.

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Hieroglyphics in Karmak Temple.

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Owl owl goose.

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Luxor Temple in Luxor, funny that.

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Valley of the Kings, for a spot of tomb sight seeing.

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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.

The Western Desert Part 3

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.

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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.

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The next oasis, so very far away.

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Whos the boss? The desert that’s who.

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Oh that is why I want to die.

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In a permanent state of scull.

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Heading to the desert with Huan.

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A canvas tent buried by a sand storm.

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Attif wanders towards the edge.

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Fossil from when it used to be the sea floor.

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Huan looking for the hard sand to drive on.

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Atiff, “I am Bedouin”.

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Abandoned well drilling.

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The German tour group visiting some ancient tombs.

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Farming on the outskirts of Dakhla.

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A bit of a pose for the last night camping in the desert.

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The two guys that gave me a lift to Al Kharga, complete with subtle leg feel up, hooray.

The Western Desert Part 2

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.

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The start of the Black Desert.

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Off in the distance some camels chilling.

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Parked outside the cafe.

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Frankie gets tied down to the roof.

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And then finds a spot for some contemplation.

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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.

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Beautiful desert lines.

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The morning after with the cutest tea cups this side of the black stump.

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Packing up camp.

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Welcome to the Moon.

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Stop! Camel time.

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Time to eat some more sand.

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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.

The Western Desert Part 1

6 – 9 March 2013
Riding on to the Western Desert Rd leaving the traffic clogged streets of Cairo behind was a sensory relief. With the great expanses of the desert around me it was only then I realised how much the constant din of noise from car horns, over crowded streets and pressure of always having to be on guard when stepping outside had worn me down. It was quiet and peaceful in comparison even though I was being passed by a number of trucks who blasted their horn at me.  

Having never experienced a desert before I am surprised how much I enjoy it and the diversity in the landscape sculpted by the elements. Late in the afternoon I reached the first ambulance station and stopped there to ask for some water. The two ambulance officers were friendly though a little miffed that I was alone. They invited me in for tea while they filled my drink bottles. They said I could stay there the night but wanting to make a few more kilometres I headed on my way.  

I began to question this decision an hour later trying to put the tent up behind some dunes near the road. The tailwind that had pushed me south all day was now making erecting the tent impossible. After a long struggle I eventually found a semi sheltered spot and used rocks to hold the tent down. It was a wake up call to the realisation how little I know about the desert and the how to survive within it.  

The tailwind aided me again the next day with another solid day of cycling broken up by a stop at the rest house situated halfway between the more than 300km gap of Cairo and the first oasis town Bawiti. As the sun sets on the horizon and I fail to see anywhere to put the tent I began to berate the flat sand around me, “You call that a dune?”. The desert remains unmoved and as a last resort I walk over the steel company railroad that runs parallel to the road and at some parts raises up and provides some shelter. It’s then I am greeted by the sight of a wonderful sandy basin previously hidden by the railroad to camp in. Another quiet night in the desert that continues to impress me with its beauty of subtle changes and endless wide open spaces.  

The next morning I wake up to find a flat tyre and headwind. The flat tyre I can fix but the headwind is a brutal force reducing me to 7km/hr and blowing sand into my eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Every time a truck passes in the other direction it brings with it a trailing wall of sand that I can only brace myself to be hit by with eyes firmly shut. I slog on until midday and park against the only shelter, the wall of a television tower compound.  

Out of the wind I then begin to cook in the 35 degree heat. Thinking there was no one inside I am a little surprised when a man comes and opens the gate inviting me inside. I am given tea and the tv remote in the small living quarters of the two men before they head back to work in another building. I finish my lunch and despite an invitation to stay head back out into the blasting wind. The hard slog does not stop my enchantment with the desert at dusk.

The hot temperatures decline to something more palatable and the bright sun light gives way to soft light that casts shadows and warm colours across the sand and rock. The only shelter with protection from the road and wind in sight is a cellphone tower. As luck would have it the door is unlocked as is the ladder leading up the tower, so I climb a little way to watch the sunset. The walls provide enough shelter that I end up sleeping without a tent as the temperature stays in double figures overnight.  

The next day the wind has died down and I carry on with the hope of arriving in Bawiti in the afternoon. Just as I am beginning to contemplate how little food and water I have and how hungry I am a man in a passing car slows down and asks if I need some water. I reply in the affirmative. He stops and fills up my drink bottles and then asks if I want a sandwich. “Ah yes”. He then hands me a bean wrap and some chewing gum and then departs as fast as he arrives. How did he know?    

Refueled I carry on and as I get closer to the depression that the oasis lies in notice the small flourishes of green beginning to emerge in the sand. Arriving into an oasis is not quite the romantic picture one imagines. Bawiti is more of a wild west town with children driving motorbikes and four wheel drives along the dirty dusty streets. I get the feeling that local law rules here. Many other children on the streets say hello and wave as I ride around looking for a hotel to spend the night.

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Not sure how it was a valley or green…Egyptian joke?

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Like waking up at the beach, just without the water.

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Oil that is, black gold, texas tea.

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Tyre marking the off road entry point.

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The concrete slab, the only shade for miles.

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Sunset over the railway tracks.

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Ka-ching camping spot, the basin behind the railway lines.

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Not impressed to wake up to a flat tyre and headwind.

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A rather lonely looking building in the middle of nowhere.

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Protection from the sand and a chance to rob a bank if only there was one.

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Sunset with the cellphone tower hotel.

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Setting up inside the cellphone tower compound.

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A strip of green in the sand as we creep closer to the oasis.

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Bawiti bounty, time for some fruit and vege.

Cairo

28 February – 5 March 2013
I couldn’t really tell you what I achieved in Cairo other than buying an Egyptian cotten shirt and getting a haircut. Very important measures though, especially when you decide you will ride into the desert next. If one is going to die of thirst lost in the desert, good to look your best. My original plan had been to cycle down the Nile to Luxor, a journey of roughly a week. After the two day ride from Port Said though I really questioned whether I wanted to continue riding here at all. I guess that is where the rest of the time was spent, either complaining on skype/email about the harassment, trying to decide how to deal with it and find out why it was so bad here.

The Nile being the life blood of the country and therefore where most of the population lives didn’t really seem like a lot of fun to ride along anymore. Re visiting the Cycling Egypt website I started wondering about the possibility of cycling the Western Desert Road (http://www.cyclingegypt.com/route-western-desert-oasis.htm). The lack of people was a great appeal but also having never been to desert before and trying to cope with the physical demands required in such an environment had me a little bit intrigued.

The only other online record I could find of a another solo woman cycling through Egypt was Loretta Henderson, whom has been cycling around the world since 2009. It would seem she ran into a similar attitude back in March 2012 if this blog post is anything to go by (http://www.skalatitude.com/2012/03/dear-playboy.html?m=1). All other records of women cycling through Egypt seemed to be with their male partners. As is the case with Hannah and Diarmaid whom cycled through the Western Desert Road in December 2012 (http://www.farcycal.org/2/post/2012/12/sand-and-soul.html). After reading their recent experience of this route I was enthused by their description and photos of the landscape and really began to think it possible that I could do it.

Leaving the hostel everyday to go outside was definitely an exercise in mental preparation. Though I did not find Cairo as bad as the route here (I think because of the higher level of tourism and the fact they are more used to seeing foreigners around) I was still guaranteed some sort of comment and unwanted attention when I went outside. I also noted there were more women without headscarves, which made my lack of headscarf a little less dramatic. From my rough statistical analysis of women I saw on the street I would say 90-95% of women in Port Said, Ismalia and in between wore headscarves. In Cairo (mostly downtown) it seemed more like 80-85%. I didn’t really feel that the atrocious behaviour would escalate to something worse even in Tahrir Square but I gave the small protests I saw around town a wide berth and choose not to go out at night apart from a few streets near the hostel where there were a lot of women and children around.

Mostly I walked around but I did cycle one day. Not something I would recommend, first because of the traffic congestion and free for all driving but with the combination of heat, smog and exhaust smoke I got a sore throat and irritated eyes. I also attracted more attention having a bicycle as I never saw another woman on one. There isn’t that many people on bicycles in Cairo to begin with and I get the impression it’s mostly the poor that use them out of economic necessity rather than choice. Which is unfortunate because riding the bike was actually a time efficient option, being able to weave around and move faster than all the traffic jammed cars. I’m sure if more people rode bicycles there it would benefit everyone (as it would everywhere) in terms of environmental impact, travel time and noise pollution (the constant blast of horns is somewhat soul destroying). Once I had got the desire to ride somewhere really un bicycle friendly out of the way I didn’t bother again.

So why is sexual harassment of women so frequent in Egypt? I’m saving this for future post as it’s obviously complicated but it’s also already hijacking everything I have to say about this country so far. And there is more to Egypt than sexist behaviour, they also have really annoying touts who are well versed in all forms of manipulation and tricks in attempt to get you to buy their tourist souvenirs, clothing and horse or camel rides. I’m wondering if they have become more ruthless since the revolution and the decline of tourism. They only hang out at tourist spots though so there is an easy way to avoid them. And once you have your new white shirt in hand for sun and harassment protection its time to hit the road.

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An average hazy smog filled day in Cairo looking across the Nile.

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Unfortunately the Nile is terribly polluted.

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And the streets of Cairo are covered in varying degrees of rubbish, that sheep and goat herds graze on in the middle of neighborhood markets.

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A curious young herder with his flock on a street next to the Nile in Giza.

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Circus playground in front of typical Cairo apartment blocks. Apparently a lot are inhabited when unfinished to avoid paying taxes.

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Some grazing in between the motorway and apartments in Giza.

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Sunset over the Nile.

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The original painting being two policeman kissing, I suppose implying that cops are filthy faggots along with being corrupt brutes. There was a lot of anti police graffiti along here, cops beating protestors, ACAB etc… The world needs more rainbow mustaches.

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All this graffiti was on Mohamed Mahmoud street coming off Tahrir square.

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Face of victim beaten/tortured to death by police/military.

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Blood of the martyrs.

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Nefertiti with a tear gas mask.

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Kids in front of a memorial painting.

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Kids playing on roadblock near Tahrir square.

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No playing on these blocks though. Unless you bribe the “official” lurking nearby, then you can do what you want.

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The Giza pyramids. More or less ruined by the touts that follow you around the whole time.

Port Said to Cairo

25-27 February 2013
Arriving at Port Said in the early morning I decided to spend the day and night there to recover from the ferry and get ready to start cycling again. I walked around Port Said with hoody and pants on despite the close to thirty degree heat in an attempt to conform to the conservative dress code for women here and avoid drawing anymore attention to myself. Most travel literature recommends this for women travelling in Egypt as one way to minimise sexual harassment. It all started off quite amusingly when I was walking along and a man said “I love you” as he and a friend walked past in the opposite direction. As I continued to walk around town impassive, avoiding eye contact or making any reaction I got stared at, hissed at and comments of “Heeey” “Hellooo Welcome”. I’m used to being stared at by people now as I often end up in places on the bike where foreigners don’t turn up especially women on bicycles alone. But the difference here is the women didn’t stare at me the same way or feel the need to hiss or greet me in anyway at all.

I stopped to take a photo of some graffiti and a man stopped and said something about me taking the photo, I was actually looking for an internet cafe beside the main post shop so decided to take a punt and ask him where it was. He was about to give me directions but instead decided to walk me there. This guy was actually helpful and walked me to the post office but there was no internet cafe in sight. He then walked with me all over town and asked countless people if they knew where one was to no avail. In the middle of the wild internet goose chase he did ask for my phone number but I said ‘No’ and he accepted this and continued trying to help me.

After he had gone a rather decrepit looking old man started following me along the street and tried to approach me a number of times to talk when I stopped until I gave him the slip. As alien as it was to me in the beginning I learned in Turkey you don’t actually have to talk to men who try engage you in conversation or even acknowledge them at all. Generally if someone acknowledges me my natural reaction is to acknowledge them in return and participate in the conversation. But I’d had the friendly “Where are you from?” bandied at me enough times in Turkey to know this was always the first bait to get me to stop and talk so then I could either be chatted up or sold something. Best to keep walking by silent as they start guessing “Germany?” “America?” “Lithuania?” (Lithuania? Yeah I know I was feeling pretty diverse that day.)

Despite this introduction to the men of Egypt I was still feeling good about the prospect of cycling when I set off from the hotel the next morning in t-shirt and pants. I was more concerned with negotiating the multiple lanes of traffic out of town than the stares and comments from men when a man riding a scooter in the same direction said “Hello, Welcome to Port Said Madam”. He was overweight, neatly dressed with glasses and looked like a bit of a computer nerd. His polite greeting and unthreatening appearance put me somewhat at ease and I said Hello. We were riding in the same direction about the same speed and he started a basic conversation in broken English.

He said something about the military checkpoint and the trouble there and that he would ride with me there to help me. Port Said having been the scene of protests a month ago where riots had broke out and people died. As a result the government had instilled a curfew and placed military checkpoints on the roads out of town. There had been a lot of rather bored looking army officers leaning on tanks and blocking off some streets around town but they seemed so well entrenched and immobile like they were part of the decor rather than something to worry about. I wasn’t sure what this meant for the road checkpoints though so I said ok and that I understood what he meant.

We rode out towards the outside of town him leading the way when he pulled over and motioned me to stop which I did. He got off his scooter and came to stand beside me and pointed to the surrounding empty area saying something about the army and touched my shoulder before firmly grabbing my ass. I told him to fuck off a number of times while moving away from him and quickly cycled away continuing to rage in complete revulsion. He started following me at which point I braked to a quick halt and he had to swerve almost falling off his scooter. He got off and tried to come over to me at which point I firmly pushed him away and he pathetically hit me in the arm in response. At this point I really wished I had let Frankie drop to the ground and kicked his ass. I could have taken the unfit fuck. I cycled from fucking Scotland! Don’t fuck with me! But that’s pretty much the opposite of my nature and I have never been in any kind of fight before or had to physically defend myself so I continued streaming profanities and cycled away giving him the one fingered salute (I never done this in anything other than jest either). He said something like ‘Yeah I like to fuck you” as I rode away. This time he didn’t follow.

Even though I knew it might be difficult I had privately considered riding through the Middle East alone to be like giving the fingers to the patriarchy. Then there I was on day one in Egypt doing just that. The checkpoint a hundred metres up the road was nothing other than a few army officers lazily watching traffic go through. Once I had escaped the prying eyes I started crying. Trying to write about it now over three weeks later still makes me upset. The day didn’t get much better. It was a hot flat unattractive ride south to Ismalia where I planned to stay to break up the 220km distance to Cairo. I was continually stared, jeered, leered and shouted at by men the rest of the way there. Entering Ismalia one man driving his car in front of me was turned staring at me for so long I lifted my hands off the bike and made a steering wheel motion at him. He waved his fist at me in response. Dick.

The next day I wore my long sleeved top under my t-shirt with pants more because I had got sunburnt yesterday then an attempt to dress conservative because riding a touring bike will get you attention no matter what you do. It was again fairly uninspiring scenery (not that I was expecting much) broken up by large horse and donkey roadkill. At least the country was a lot more empty surrounding the road so there was fewer people to hassle me. That was until I got to the outskirts of Cairo after 100kms of riding. The pinnacle of the unwanted attention for this day was the young guy wearing aviators riding a motorcycle. He was a lane over from me in the three lane traffic and tooting his horn staring at me trying to get my attention. I glanced at him as he continued to toot the horn. The traffic moved forward and he tried to speed forward while still trying to get my attention. He hit a car and fell off his bike. I would have felt bad if he had been run over but I saw him get up as I cycled away so I didn’t. Dick.

I had hoped to try to find the ring road to navigate around the outside of Cairo until the Nile but there was a complete lack of signs other than those pointing to Downtown so this is what I followed. These signs soon vanished too and I had only a vague idea of where I was and that I needed to get another 30-40km Downtown to find accommodation. Coming from the east I knew the Nile runs south to north through Cairo and that the Downtown is beside the Nile. I decided my best bet was to head west towards the setting sun and hope to hit the Nile and be able to follow it south to Downtown. It pretty much worked though I did end up in some very ramshackle neighborhoods under motorway ramps I wanted to be on.

The streets of Cairo are horribly congested and poorly designed with a lack of intersections that force you to turn then do a U turn further down the road to continue going straight. Trying to get across one of these U turns in multiple laned traffic I got hit by a taxi. Thankfully on the rear pannier bag so I bounced off before continuing. I eventually found a waterway and guessing it emptied into the Nile and followed it til eventual success. It was dark by this time but I stopped on the river walkway to stare across to the other side none the less. A man and two women sitting on a nearby bench spotted me and came over to ask me where I was from. They asked me if I was from Syria which was pretty random. It turned out they were Palestinians from Gaza now living in Egypt. They said “Welcome” and “very good”. The nicest welcome I’d had so far.

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Looking across the Suez to Port Fuad.

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There were hand written banners all over Port Said, I’m guessing they are to do with the political protests. Though it could be a really long happy birthday message.

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Typical scenery between Port Said and Cairo. Sand, scrub and ugly infrastructure.

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I took this crap photo of the Aqua Park and then a military guy chased me in his little orange hatchback to tell me to not take photos. Clearly this clown themed entrance is a facade for all the top secret military actions behind it. It was the most colourful well looked after building I saw on the road to Cairo, so I think they should consider being more subtle next time.

The Ferry

21-25 February 2013
I leave the seedy hotel the next morning for another down the street before trying to contact the ferry company. I had previously contacted them a few days prior and they had said the ferry to Haifa would leave on either Friday or Saturday. With the help of the hotel receptionist I am directed to the travel agents organising the ferry bookings. I have had trouble understanding their thickly accented English over the phone so am happy to speak to someone in person. When I get there though I am told that there is no ferry to Haifa this week only to Port Said, Egypt and this will leave tomorrow or Saturday. I decide another week of uncertainty and waiting is too much and decide to reverse the next part of my trip and go to Egypt before Jordan and Israel. I spend the rest of the day hastily making a plan for Egypt and getting excited about heading there. Friday rolls around and after another visit to the travel agents later I find the ferry will depart tomorrow though they don’t know what time that will be. Saturday morning arrives and I go to buy my ticket when I am then asked if I want to go to Port Said or Haifa. It transpires that the ferry will first travel to Port Said and then stop at Haifa on the way back to Iskenderun. It is too late for me now though as I have already committed myself to Egypt and so buy the ticket to Port Said.

I thought now that I had a ticket the ferry saga was over. Silly me. I end up back at the hotel waiting for the transport that is to come and take me and some fellow passengers to the port. There is Nicky, Nic and their two year old daughter Lilly along with Nic’s father Sib and his friend Priscilla. They have two four wheel drive vehicles and are on their way from England to South Africa (http://familyinafrica.wordpress.com/). Also waiting is Nell and Wouter from Amsterdam who are driving to Jerusalem where they are going to live and work for the next six months. When the driver who is to guide us finally turns up Nic and Nicky kindly put my bike on the back of their four wheel drive and give me a lift. We make it to the port mid afternoon and end up waiting outside the ferry while trucks are unloaded. Along with us there are 100 trucks to go on board and about 200 Syrian refugee foot passengers going to Egypt with everything they can carry or whatever they have left. They are gathered within a great circle in front of the vehicles with their luggage piled high.

Having surrendered our passports earlier to the border control we are now left to wait. Things get a bit more interesting though when a guy from the travel agency asks me to come with him in a car. I guess rightly that the border control have noticed I don’t have an entry stamp to Turkey in my passport and am taken to the makeshift office. The bus I took from Athens to Istanbul crossed the border at 2am on New Years Eve and I only remember handing my passport once to a border control officer that came on the bus. I only noticed much later that I had a Greek exit stamp but no entry stamp to Turkey. I didn’t really think about it though until now that it seems to be a problem.

The office I am taken to contains three men with a few office tables and computers. On one table is everyone’s passports lined up in large rows. One man opens a passport finds the entry stamp then places it open on that page for the next man to stamp. The third man has my passport and reads out my name though this is about as far as we get other than pointing out the lack of stamp being a problem as he can’t speak English. He does say ‘Emma, no depart’ and then one of the other guys offers everyone a cigarette and they start smoking. I begin to think things are not looking to good. The travel agency guy disappears and comes back with another man who can speak English. His name is Mohammed and he is from Syria but has lived and worked in the US so speaks English fluently. It turns out the travel agency guy is Lebanese, so I am asked a question that is first relayed to him who then translates the Turkish to Arabic to Mohammed who then translates it from Arabic to English for me. I try to explain my story and hope it doesn’t get lost in translation.

They ask me for documents but I have nothing to prove I arrived by bus to Istanbul almost two months ago. I give them my drivers liscene, I suppose it proves who I am though not much else. A policeman then arrives and gets involved in a discussion I can’t understand. We end up in another room and the questioning continues. The heat of the questions is cooled a bit by the translation and I find the Lebanese guy is defending me in his frustrated replies. I repeat my story and try to explain I have been traveling by bicycle and start showing them photos on my phone and listing all the places I have cycled through. I think the fact I have been riding a bicycle alone across Europe and Turkey helps at this point, as clearly I am some sort of crazy woman but not an international criminal set on bringing down the Turkish Republic with my accidental border jumping. I’m not convinced they actually know where New Zealand is though as they did debate this between themselves when I first came in. Since leaving Europe I either get blank stares or ‘Oh Yeni Zelanda, very long way from home’.

The questioning finishes and they say I can go but will have to pay a fine and wont be allowed back in Turkey. There is further discussion that I don’t understand and then they ask me whether I want to come back to Turkey and say its important. I tell them maybe I do. There is more discussion I don’t understand and they then say I don’t have to pay any money but wont be allowed back in Turkey for one to two years. Mohammed thinks I am lucky as if I was from somewhere like Syria I would get chucked in jail. We get in the car to leave and I say ‘F**k’ to which the Lebanese guy says ‘Yeah F**k Turkey’. I’m glad he was on my side. When I get my passport back I see there is an exit stamp but nothing refusing me future entry. There was a computer in the office but it was really old and they didn’t use it or have anything to scan my passport. I conclude the one to two years sounds a bit vague and was an empty threat in a last ditch effort to give me some sort of slap on the wrist. I think I’m lucky the border I ended up leaving from was so basic because it is a temporary stop gap created by the war in Syria.

When I get back there is some more waiting as the ferry is still being unloaded. Around 7pm I finally push Frankie on board and am greeted warmly by the Greek crew while the others are left waiting with their vehicles. The ferry is modern but fairly basic compared to others I have been on. Being too stingy to pay for a cabin I end up setting up my sleeping mat and bag in a corner on the floor. Most of the Syrian passengers are also sleeping on the floor or chairs thus I get surrounded by a Syrian family whom I try some Arabic on in the morning. There is a lot of young families with small children so there seems to be always a child crying somewhere day and night. The ferry is meant to take 19 hours so I thought I would only be onboard one night. But the ferry only left the port at 5am after loading on all the trucks. I spend another night on the floor and am woken at 4am to the announcement that we are in Port Said. I pack up and wait another few hours until they call my name and ask me to pay for the visa they are processing for me.

At last we are allowed to go at 7am and I move down to the lower deck to collect Frankie. It’s hard to tell whats going on but all the Syrians are moving their baggage around the trucks so I wait til there is gap and then follow. I then get stuck in the massive scrum of Syrians jammed between the trucks waiting at the open side door as their passports are being dished out by a few guys calling out names. I don’t have my passport and can’t see the staff member whom had it. I know that if they have my passport they will not call me out until last as I am of little interest compared to the mass in front of me. Nobody seems to be moving so I manage to edge my way to the front where they quickly pull out my passport and hand it over seeing as it’s the only one of difference. I get off the ramp just in time as then the previously stationary Egyptian riot police make their way up the ramp and block anyone else from leaving. It all seems entirely unnecessary and over the top and the management of the whole thing a complete shambles. I feel stressed and exhausted from the experience of the ferry from start to finish and I am not even the one fleeing a war-torn country. I cycle away on to the streets of Port Said glad to finally be off the boat and check in to a cheap old hotel.

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