Thoughts of an Egyptian Sunrise
February 6, 2014
I arrived at the Sharm El Sheikh airport at 4 am, and waited close to an hour for my bicycle to be unloaded from the plane. While waiting I befriended the duty-free employee and was invited to enjoy some sweet Egyptian tea. The airport was rather small compared to LAX standards but was still large enough, in Egyptian standards to have two Mosques! I listened to the morning call to prayer while putting Gaby together.
The sun came up and I noticed that I was surrounded by dry, rocking mountains. After figuring out what direction to ride in, I pedaled out on the desert roads to the city. It is hot here, and the sun is fierce! The airport was on the outskirts of the city and I pedaled through sun dunes and mosques for the first 20 km. The climate conditions are very similar to the Mohave desert in California, but just when you think you are in America, a beautiful minaret stands out in the horizon.
Sharm el Sheikh is not my kind of city, tourism has destroyed the natural beauty of the landscape, and now Egyptians from all over the country flock to make a dollar from the sunburned tourists. My best comparison to the city is Tijuana, Mexico, all beach access in Sharm is owned by the frequent 5 star hotels, and it is impossible to go swimming without paying an outrageous sum of Egyptian pounds. There is no place for me or like-minded people in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.
The next day, I couldn’t wait to pack my gear and pedaled out of the city. The next destination was a small beach city in north-east Sinai, called Dahab. This city is famous for its kite and wind surfing and only has a few hotels. The road between Sharm and Dahab took me through the mountainous interior and while pedaling I wondered how Moses and his tribe could survive in such an extreme landscape for so long.
I arrived in Dahab and met with my connection, an Arabic language teacher hiding from the problems in Cairo. He lives in a tent on the beach with a small family of Bedouin who own and run a small restaurant. The Bedouin are a minority ethnic group a lot like the early American Indians. They are the earliest inhabitants of the deserts, and are very connected with the earth and nature. They have little desire for money, possessions and business, and spend their day’s fishing, smoking and drinking tea. They are the friendliest and most honest people I have met in Egypt, and wear beautiful traditional clothes. It is not uncommon for a family to have more than 30 members and males in the tribe can have up to 4 wives. There are Bedouin tribes all over the Sinai but Dahab has the largest tribe in Egypt, and they are known as the Mazeena.
Dahab it quite a culture shock, the beach front has a very western Promenade and a few restaurants, but the rest of the city is a large Bedouin village. My guess is that Dahab is a lot like what Kauai (the Hawaiian island) used to be like before tourists. Children playing the in dirt, herds of goats, and women in full Burqa frequent the mud and dirt streets. Toyota pickup trucks roam the narrow alleys and cats and dogs run rampant throughout the city.
There are quite a few expats here, mostly Europeans teaching surfing or driving. Dahab has a large coral reef, and a small anomaly known as the Blue hole, where divers can be pulled into a coastal abyss. Yesterday I dived with a Bedouin friend and he taught me which shell-fish to eat, and I watched him free dive through the reef colorful coral collecting food for lunch.
Alcohol is rather uncommon in the city and is sold mostly to Haweiga’s(foreigners). I visited the bottle shop last night and quickly departed when I noticed it was full of Europeans. The alcohol alternative however is very popular amongst locals and expats. Its concentrated form is also found almost everywhere tobacco is sold! The middle east is like no place I have been before, I am full of extreme excitement and am constantly overwhelmed by this fascinating culture! Tomorrow I will head to the extreme remote interior, and will camp at the Orthodox monastery in St. Catherine. Hope to write again soon, internet is pretty scarce.
February 10, 2014
My plans to depart this awesome city continue to get postponed! I have spent the last 4 days, cycling to the route beaches north and south of the city, exploring large canyons and desert oasis’, and hangout with the local Bedouin. The Coral reefs are never ending and every night you can find local Bedouin cooking clams, and bread in an open beach fire. Visa expires in 4 days! Europe is so boring compared to the middle east!
Egypt’s most wanted: An American cyclist in the Sinai
February 16, 2014
Thump.. thump.. thump… My heart beats so strong that I can feel my body flex with each beat. In the distance the silhouette of St. Catherine and Mount Moses defined the horizon and the wind carries the sound of Arabic shouts to my desert hiding place. “What have I gotten myself into”? I peak over the sandstone rocks protecting me from view and see that a road block has been established and each car passing is stopped and interrogated about my whereabouts. I have two options now, give up or go with Bedouin into the desert. (Inner Sinai Troubles, Happy Valentines day)
Three hours earlier I was drinking tea in a small Bedouin village, and upon departure was followed by an unmarked pickup truck filled with men in head scarves and Kalashnikov rifles. Is this normal? Define normal I thought, this is the middle east and I am in a country marked “Avoid at all costs” by the United States Travel Advisory website. The truck crept up behind and followed at a slow pace. Sometimes I would look back and they would be gone, only to hear them creep up again a few minutes later. Eventually they sped up, yelled and pushed me off the road. A man in all black clothes and a green head scarf jumped off, and the truck sped off. He approached, said “hello” and then offered me a cigarette. I declined, and pretending to stretch. After a few awkward minutes the man turned his back to me and walked a few meters away, checking the contents of his pockets, and I took the opportunity to run. I jumped on Gaby and sped off, the man taken by surprise tried to stop me but was a few steps behind, as I pedaled away he got on his cellphone, and started shouting in Arabic into the receiver. What the fuck is going on!! My mind raced, I only had a few minutes before the truck would circle back. I needed to hide!!! I rode out of sight of the man behind me and turned onto a small dirt road, frantically pedaling to a small hill of sand stone rocks about 100 meters from the road. Behind the hill was a small crevice, big enough for me to lie down and hide from view, I removed all my reflective clothing and listened.
Who are/were these guys? What do they want with me? I peeked over the mound of rocks and saw the pickup truck return to pick up the man. I was just out of eyesight from the road, and between the small stack of rocks I could peek out at the road. The car pulled a quick 180 and sped off into the distance. Are they gone I thought? I looked at my camera for the time, it was only 4 pm! It wouldn’t get dark for another 2 hours!! I contemplated my next move, I needed a better hiding place. About 100 meters from me was a small ravine, but to get there I would have to expose myself and be in full view of the road. My thoughts were broken by the truck returning. I peaked out, they were back and were now driving slow. The men in back were standing up, and looking out into the desert. Shit, these guys are serious! At this rate there is no way I can move to a better hiding place and I can only hope that it will get dark before they decide to drive down the dirt road.
I shivered in the wind and waited peeking out every fifteen minutes to check on the situation. Things were getting worse, 2 more unmarked trucks had arrived and they were now parked close to 100 meters from me. The men were stopping traffic. Fuck!!! “I am not going to give up” I thought, I had just listened to a podcast about a women who was held in captivity for 6 months and her story was fresh in my mind, “stay strong” I thought. After about an hour an old Bedouin man came walking down the road, he pretended not to see me and then slowly walked over.
“These men are crazy” He said in a heavy accent. “What do they want”? I asked, “They look for trouble” his response. “Who are they”? I asked, “Egyptian, Egyptian go with me and we hide” he said. I thought for a few minutes… if these guys are Egyptians then they are probably some sort of authority. “Police” I asked. He didn’t understand. I decided to man up and confront the small militia looking for me on the road. They would eventually find me anyway, and if I went with the Bedouin man it would only cause him trouble.
“No cyclists since Arab Spring” an Egyptian voice screams at me through a mobile phone. “This is a very dangerous area for tourists” “Two Australians killed recently” you must come with us. The men wearing headscarves showed me their police badges then a marked police truck pulled up. Gaby was loaded into the back, and we sped off towards the coastal region of the Sinai. The truck was full of guns, ammunition, and body armor, and driver blasted exotic middle eastern music as we drove into the sunset. Ten minutes later the engine sputtered and the car came to a halt, “no petrol”!! the driver said. A minute later a second truck came up behind and Gaby was unloaded and load again into the next vehicle. The new driver sped off again into the desert, driving like were being chased, after about 10 minutes the car lurched and came to a halt, tire troubles!! The man in charge got on the CB radio and like before another truck came to the rescue. However, the third truck was different and unmarked, filled with men in full head scarves. We sped off again into the darkness, and they dropped me off at a random check point in the middle of the desert. “Don’t diss us again”! The driver shouted, then sped off. I was alone and it was pitch black. This is how the government protects me? Leaving me in the middle of the desert after dark? I pedaled another 10 km and camped in a sandy ravine. Earlier that day I had slept in excrement filled cave on the top of Mt Moses and hiked close to 3,000 feet, before falling asleep I laughed from the comforts of my tent…What a day!!
Earlier this week
Leaving Dahab was not easy! and I must admit that I fell in love! I have never felt so much chemistry with someone, maybe it was all the spliffs or the opium tea, or maybe it was just meant to be, love in Dahab! The logical side of my brain completely shut down, and it took me a few days to decide what to do. After a long night of thinking I came to the conclusion “You have got to be one super, special person to hold me back from my journey, and this is not the case, I must keep going… there is still so much for me to do”. I said goodbye and left Dahab during a colorful sunset.
Food prices in Egypt are great for the touring cyclist! Most cheeses and perishable goods can be purchased in air tight, juice box form great for on the go snacks! A local meal at the restaurant costs about $2-3 US dollars, and it is easy to survive on $ 4-5 a day. The local favorite is bread dipped in a Tahini and Molasses mix, middle east peanut butter!
Police check points are everywhere and super intense! Like I mentioned in the earlier post the officers at each checkpoint are armed to the teeth and ready for an attack. Heading into St. Catherine (located in the inner Sinai) I was constantly searched for explosives, hashish and all other illegal substances. It is obvious that the authorities are looking for a way to get a bribe. I am also constantly warned about kidnappings and other dangers involving the local tribes in the area. The Bedouin say the Egyptians create the problems and the Egyptians say the opposite, who can I believe?
In Dahab I purchased local Bedouin clothes and started wearing a “shmock” (Bedouin head scarf). This is not only a great “ice breaker” with the locals but also a great way to bond with the elders by having them teach me the different styles of wearing the scarf. I have been taught over 4 ways to wear the “Shmock” and its practicality in the desert supersedes a western hat. I also carry over ten pounds of sugar in my panniers to give to the remote Bedouin villagers when I pass. The Bedouin love sweets! Each village I pass, I stop and befriend the children and elders, then give them a kg of sugar. I am then usually invited into their home, served tea and offered either; “Tobania” (fire cooked bread) or “Farasee” thin bread cooked on an upside down wok. These breads are usually accompanied by feta cheese and yogurt. Sometimes, though the Bedouin villagers are so kind that they offer fish and rice, which is eaten by hand while squatting! Today a group of Bedouin gave me lunch and then handmade me an anklet!
The road to St. Catherine was absolutely stunning! The scenery is a mix between Death Valley National Park in California and Canyon Lands National park in Utah.
I arrived in St. Catherine city in the late afternoon, and searched for a few locals to accompany me to the top of MT. Moses. Warned earlier by policemen and the US travel website, the St Catherine and Mt Moses area is a high risk kidnapping zone, and technically if I followed all the advisories I shouldn’t have even come here! Two Australians were kidnapped a few months ago, and security is really tight. I took the best precautions necessary, and found two local Bedouin guides to travel with me to the summit. These guys were super chill and carried my gear with a smile. We hiked through canyons, up steep mountain trails, and stopped for tea in the local villages. These are the same steps that Moses took after seeing the burning bush! It took us close to three hours to make the summit.
About 500 meters before the summit the trail got really steep, and I hopped from rock to rock slowly ascending in the cold mountain winds. Small stone huts rent blankets and serve coffee but my two guides carried my sleeping bag, thermarest, stove and Bosnian coffee with ease! The top of Mt Moses offers a bird’s eye view of the whole Sinai, and at night all the big cities are visible; Sharm, Dahab, Nuweiba and Medina all the way in Saudi Arabia. Other than a beautiful view there are two permanent structures; a small Mosque and a Greek Orthodox church. The Church was closed but the Mosque was open and my guides helped me gain entry and let me take a few photos.
After a spectacular sunset I slept on a large rock overlooking the valley. I fell asleep early, and watched the moon move over head. Just around midnight the wind picked up, and the temperature dropped. I was freezing! I tucked my head inside by bag (Bedouin style) but my teeth still chattered! I packed up and searched for a place to hide. About 100 meters away I found a small cave,,it seemed empty so I tossed in my gear and set up to sleep. Upon closer inspection the cave was filled with trash and several people had used it as a toilet! It stunk and I accidentally put my head on used toilet paper, I was too cold to care. I slept until 4 am, at which point I was awoken by a group of Egyptians who wanted to “hot box” the cave.
The sunrise was just as spectacular as the sunset, but I shivered in the fierce winds. My guides took me on “secret Bedouin” trail back to the city and we passed an old Orthodox church tucked away in a remote canyon. The Catherine Catholic church, which houses the “Burning Bush”, was closed but my guides pulled a few strings and got me inside. More interesting than the burning bush was the 5-6th century painted icons inside the chapel. It was interesting to be a Buddhist with two Muslims in a sacred Christian church.
I have now overstayed my Sinai visa by 3 days, and hope to be in Israel by tomorrow. I am absolutely in love with the middle east and have already extended my stay till late March. Will post videos as soon as I find a better internet connection.
Hours before arriving: Terrorist’s attack bus in Taba
February 17, 2014
My pace was rather slow yesterday, and as I got close to the city of Taba the streets became flooded with ambulances. I pedaled around a rocky cliff and saw a line of cars waiting to cross a check point into the city. The fully armed patrol guard, refused to tell me what was going on but said “City is closed today, come back tomorrow”. I was at least 30 km from the nearest super market and was completely out of food and water. I pushed Gaby up a steep, rocky side road and camped, boiling water scavenged from the road side.
Today I cycled into Israel and passed the above wreckage kilometers from the Israeli border. Yes…. I am scared.