Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Egypt - The End of Africa!

I rode onto the ferry first and was quickly hemmed in by the cattle truck full of nervous looking cows. Like me, they had just crossed the border from Sudan, and they had good reason to be nervous. Their fate would be sealed here in Egypt (probably with cling film and a nice polystyrene tray). Mine hopefully, would not! The air-brakes went off and a half-ton bull looked like he was coming right over the top. I edged my way onto the stairs, not wanting our fate to collide, and imagining what that would look like if it did! Given enough time, it would make for a funny ending I guessed, 'She rode around the world by motorbike and was killed by a flying bull!'. There would be jokes - in time.

By now the other vehicles had filled the remaining gaps. There was no room left to walk around without breathing in and shoehorning yourself between the bumpers. There WAS one small space though, and that was next to Rhonda. A tiny triangle between her and the truck, big enough for a prayer mat, or two at a push. Soon enough two men and their mats were in there. As I looked down from my elevated position it looked as if they praying to Rhonda! This was a lovely image that I would have loved to photograph, but somehow it seemed intrusive to me. Perhaps not to them, but I wasn't going to interrupt to ask permission. Instead I was accosted by a young Sudanese guy who spoke pretty good English and made ME the subject instead. We took many selfies and shared some music (one ear of his headphones each), before we were interrupted and I was invited onto the bridge to meet the Captain! I was even allowed to steer! This was a great start to Egypt and all added to my excitement that I was just a few K’s away from a glass of wine. Something I had been denied the pleasure of in dry Sudan. It was time to put that right! 

At the border, I had met Tom and Stephen, a couple of Land Rover Defender occupants who were heading for Cairo too. We travelled together to the same hotel in the small town of Abu Simbel. As soon as we arrived, we dumped our gear and practically ran to the bar! No shower, no unwind time. It was beer o'clock and we didn't care who knew it! We had some catching up to do and our priorities were well and truly in order. I did take my riding boots off first though!

That night I enjoyed a soft bed, clean towels, loo roll and I even had the luxury of a toilet seat. It was divine.

Egypt didn’t really go well for a day or two after that. The initial border buzz soon wore off and left me in Luxor with what seemed like a nation of chancers and thief’s. Having spent the last four years ‘bigging up’ the people of the world and proving the general consensus was wrong, I really struggled with this. I WANTED to believe I could find the best in people, with a positive approach and quick witted response. Here it seemed I had to lower my expectations, and that put me on a downer for a while. I had been to some of the poorest countries in the world, stayed in some of the dodgiest neighbourhoods and managed to find common ground with some of the sketchiest people (because it’s always there if you look hard enough) but I had to change my game here. It was another Bangkok and I couldn’t excuse or accept this behaviour. It was an ingrained habit and it annoyed me.

In the first few days I had petrol stations trying to rip me off, hotel staff squirrelling around in my room as soon as I left it, and a waiter charging me for breakfast when it was already included in the price. When challenged, they backed down or suddenly spoke no English, but the waiter was funny! When he tried to come up with an excuse I lowered myself to saying something like, ‘In MY country we call this bullshit!’. He replied, ‘Please, what is bullshit?’. I had to laugh. The timing and delivery was pure comedy with his innocently inquisitive face and strong accent!

Street vendors played every trick in the book to get what they could out of me, even when all I wanted was a bottle of water, and most of the guys I spoke to were ‘professional masseurs’ who could offer me a good rub down should I be in need! When I suggested that it seemed they were ALL masseurs, they would warn me not to trust anyone but them! I felt disheartened for a while but soon I found myself adjusting my outlook again and seeing the funny side. I had switched off and on again (factory reset) and I was now ready to play the game. ‘You want to play dirty?’ I thought, ‘Bring it on!’. I find the best approach is with a sense of humour though. Call them out but with a smile! Attitudes soon change. People soon give up when they realise you will not be fooled, and quickly soften when they see you have not taken offence to them trying.

As I pushed on, I found the good in people again, in the little ‘non-tourist’ villages that dot the banks of the Nile. After being turned back by the police on the western desert road, I found myself forced onto the bustling streets heading north on the east side of the river. My tyres were still on sand pressure and so I stopped in one of the little villages to get some air. Here I sat listening to the call to prayer whilst the helpful garage owner pumped up my tyres and sent ‘the boy’ for tea! We had a lovely twenty minutes of chit chat (despite both our language skills being sorely lacking) before I was on my way again, no charge for the air or the tea.

At the first police check point on this road I was pulled over and asked to wait for the boss to arrive before they decided what to do with me. It seemed they were concerned for my safety. As I pulled my helmet off I was greeted with a gasp and a collective ‘wow’, as if I had just stepped out of a L’Oréal advert! ‘Beautiful hair’, they said, ‘Beautiful eyes!’. ‘You should see me after a shower’ I replied with a grin from behind a layer of road grime! Soon I was offered a seat, a cup of tea and some marijuana, in that order.
‘No thanks. I don’t smoke weed.’ I replied politely.
‘But why not?’ said the more flirtatious of the three.
‘Because there are too many police around’ I said jokingly.
We laughed and changed the conversation back to my hair, which was particularly ‘helmet chic’ that day!

This was the beginning of my police escort through Egypt which took me practically all the way to Cairo. The police were all very polite and stopped regularly to check to see if I needed anything like a pee break, a cigarette, a coffee or petrol. Each truck would have between four and six armed police and they would drive ahead instructing me to stay close whilst watching my every move. It was quite off putting as they would jump up and shout at any other vehicle who got too close to me! It was also very funny and I pottered on behind tapping my foot to my music and enjoying all the attention! Often they would stop and tell me to keep going alone. I would wave, thinking that was the end of my convoy, only to find a police road block set up just for me 10km’s down the road. They would pull me over, pull up the cones and explain that I was safe as they all had guns! One officer spoke good English so I took the opportunity to ask him why I was getting such special treatment. ‘You are a very important person in our country’ he replied. “Really?’ I said with a doubtful tone and a smile. He grinned and said the last police escort had called ahead and told them there was a ‘beautiful lady with beautiful hair’ on her way and that she must be protected. I laughed. ‘Well a girl could get used to this’ I said.

Half way to Cairo I was taken to a military base for a stop-over. Once past the armed soldiers on the gate I was greeted by Oscar, who took the time to show me around the base. Oscar, a 26-year-old, took up his compulsory position in the army a little later than the normal age of 20. This was because he was studying at uni, but he had no choice to enter once he had finished his leisure and tourism degree (although if he had married a European lady he would have got away with it!). He hates it but only has 6 months left of his two years. He tells me the first 7 months were at barracks where, ‘you learnt a lot about how to survive, not showering for 10 days and going without sleep’.

Now he works here at the officers digs for just 500EP per month (£20). He works 45 days on and gets 8 days off.  His English was pretty good so we chatted as he showed me around. It was just like a family park really. Very pleasant.

I was not allowed to leave the next morning until my police escort arrived. They were late but I decided not to argue and waited patiently (under close scrutiny) with as much coffee as I could drink!

On one of my ‘alone’ sections that day, I decided to jump off the main drag and try another road. I don’t know if there were more police waiting but I never heard anymore. The road I chose was like riding in India all over again. Chaos with a capital C. It took two hours to do the last 30kms but eventually I made it to Cairo! Once in the city I made my way to the overwhelmingly ex-pat neighbourhood of Maadi, where I pottered around trying to find my destination. Suddenly I spot a small Egyptian woman with wonderfully big hair jumping around and waving a Welsh flag at me! I laughed and pulled over. This HAD to be for me!

Chris (A fellow Welshy), and Rania (the Welsh flag wielding Egyptian lady with the wonderfully big hair) had offered me a safe haven in the chaos of Cairo several months previously. Once again, the power of Facebook connecting bikers had proved its worth and here I was with friendly faces and what turned out to be a home from home in a strange city! What a difference that made to me and what great hosts/friends they have been over the last few weeks. I will cherish the memories of Shepherd’s Pie with ketchup, the ‘proper’ tea, the soft bed, and most of all the feeling I enjoyed of being with friends from the moment I walked into their apartment.

It was mostly at the Ace Club (an ex-pat bar) that I was introduced to many of their friends and soon felt very much at home there too. A friendly community mostly Welsh, English and Scottish, with the odd South African thrown in!

One particular South African caught my eye and Rania quickly introduced us by sending him one of my YouTube videos! Was she match making? Hmm! I wouldn’t put it past her and I didn’t mind a bit. He was pretty damn hot. He was also a Stunt Coordinator in the film industry. That definitely added value for me! I could overlook the fact that he said ‘Mulk’ instead of ‘Milk’ and ‘braai’ instead of ‘barbi’! He was a guy with a sense of humour and big Afrikaans shoulders. He also had stunning eyes and contagious dance moves, which I made the most of until around 4am the next morning!

Soon after I was on a plane to Baltimore (hung over and all danced out!), to present at the Timonium Motorcycle Show. Here I would make the money I needed to get home. It was great to catch up with everyone again but boy was it cold after the lovely Egyptian weather. 

Within 10 days I was back in Cairo with a pocket full of dollars and some great memories, ready to continue where I left off. I love my Baltimore friends. I hope I get to see them same time next year. 

Anton (the South African Stunt Co-ordinator with the big shoulders), accompanied me a few days later to Alexadria, where I was to drop Rhonda off at the shippers ready to be taken to Italy and the last leg of my journey. Hilariously, he broke down on route (so much for support truck), and finished the journey on the back of a recovery vehicle. My back was causing some weakness in my legs (at least I think it was my back and not the South African Stunt…….), it was also a miserable motorway on a rainy day, so we put Rhonda on the truck too. We then climbed into the jeep and rode into Alex together. It felt very much like being on a carnival float. Cornering was VERY strange!

Rhonda is now on the ship and I am back in Cairo, enjoying some chill time and some great company before I leave Africa and fly over to be reunited with her again.

It’s funny how the shakiest of starts to a country can be turned around so quickly.

Just four weeks to go and I’ll be home……..but for how long? Time will tell.  


  




















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