topics: Nile River, taxis, train travel, rules of the road, environment; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: December 1–2, 1997

Breakfast: We snacked on bread and some delicious fried-cheese sandwiches that Corinne discovered. We supplemented this by eating some honey-soaked pastries on the train.

Lunch: At one of the countless intersections we crossed, nestled among a number of falafel stands, we spied a small kushari restaurant. The kushari slingers couldn't have been older than 12, but they knew their work.

Dinner: While the ladies once again enjoyed more kushari, Anthony, Padraic, and Ethan tried out two separate restaurants for dinner. At the first, they ate the only thing on the menu — kofta with tahini (a sesame seed paste) and a green salad. Though tasty, it did not quite fill them up. With a ravenous Ethan leading the way, they prowled the crowded streets of Zagazig searching for a more substantial meal. At last Ethan found a restaurant that had at least a dozen chickens roasting on a spit in the window. After prying him off the window, the boys stepped inside for a wonderful meal of chicken, rice, pinto beans, and another salad.

Food of the Day: Fruit cocktail

During their search for a second restaurant, Padraic, Ethan, and Anthony noticed that the sidewalks were full of people standing around eating fresh fruit salad. Deciding that anything so good that people didn't mind eating it standing up had to be worth our while as well, we made a point of trying the fruit salad after dinner. We quickly realized what made it so popular. Like the fruit drinks of Cairo, they were made with fresh bananas, apples, pears, mangoes, and melon topped with a light dusting of sugar. Delicious! We almost stopped for a second one at a fruit stand further along the road back to our hotel.

Word of the Day: Fein . . . ? — "Where is the . . . ?"

"Fein . . . ?" means "Where is the . . . ?" in Arabic. It is our Word of the Day because we spent much of our time on the way to Ismailia asking "Fein Ismailia?" at every intersection.

Person of the Day: People of Egypt click to view a photograph

Although we have encountered friendly people in every country through which we have traveled, the Egyptians have, without a doubt, been the some of the friendliest. Everywhere we've stopped in Egypt, practically all people have gone out of their way to be welcoming and helpful. Looks of wonder at our strange costumes and gear quickly fade, replaced by broad smiles and words of greeting.

Egyptian cordiality was particular welcome and helpful in helping us navigate the Nile Delta. Although we have done our best to learn enough of the Arabic alphabet to allow us to identify the cities to which we are going, the road signs, particularly in out-of-the-way locations, are often less than stellar. Luckily, we always found someone willing to try to figure out what we were saying and to point us in the right direction. Indeed, many times we had only to look a little lost and someone was at our elbow asking, "Can I be of service?" On a number of occasions, people just stopped what they were doing and led us — on foot, by bicycle, and even with cars — where we wanted to go.

Place of the Day: Bridge over the Nile in Zifta/Mit Ghamr

As we head out of the Nile Delta towards the Suez Canal and Sinai Peninsula, we had one last look at the Nile when we crossed it on the bridge between the towns of Zifta and Mit Ghamr. Although the Nile has only a few bridges over it, and this one marks the intersection of two busy roads, the bridge was remarkably small. It could accommodate only one narrow lane of traffic (for both directions!), one set of railway tracks, and a pedestrian walkway. We were happy to be able to ride by the long line of cars waiting to get over the bridge, and then weave our way along the busy pedestrian path.

On the bridge itself, however, we were surprised to hear the only harsh words of the day — indeed the only harsh words we've heard from an Egyptian the entire trip (see the People of the Day). When andrEa pulled out her Casio digital camera to take a picture of the Nile click to view a photograph, a man passing on his bicycle started yelling. Photographing bridges (and even from bridges) is illegal in Egypt, particularly as you get closer to the Suez Canal. Some people still remember the wars with Israel in the 1960s and 70s and are sensitive about the use of a camera in places that might be considered military targets. Evidently, this man knew the rules and wanted to enforce them by confiscating andrEa's camera. Little did he know that this would be the equivalent of separating a grizzly bear cub from its mother. Finally, seeing that andrEa would be more likely to give up a limb, he relented, but not before delivering what sounded like a terrible tongue-lashing in Arabic. Needless to say, we have tried not to photograph sensitive locations since, and we would hope that no one uses these pictures of the Nile for military purposes. click to view a photograph

Tech Fact of the Day: Egyptian service taxis

Egyptian service taxis function in a fashion similar to that of the louages of Tunisia. They are cars of all sizes — sometimes regular four-door sedans, sometimes minivans, sometimes pick-up trucks with benches and hard covers, and sometimes a converted Mercedes 240D or even a non-luxury stretch limousine. They wait at crossroads and important loading and unloading stations, catch travelers, and fill every seat before moving to many destinations near and far. The price per person is usually very low, but, considering how many people squish and smush their ways into them, the drivers must do just fine. There are usually two people who work on them: the driver (who drives) and another who hangs out a door or window and yells the name of the place they are servicing. The latter also collects the money.

Group Dispatch, December 1–2

picture of Padraic

Early Monday morning, we packed up and prepared for our long journey across the Nile Delta to the Suez Canal and the Sinai Peninsula. (Before our departure, we stopped along the sea wall in Alexandria and did a quick photo shoot of us with our bicycles. click to view a photograph)

To avoid the traffic of the big city, we took the train as far as Tanta, the scene of our prior experience with the train. This time we had fewer problems. Our bikes were loaded on the train long before it left the station and were unloaded in seconds when we arrived at Tanta. All things considered, it was probably the most pain-free train experience we've had since . . . well, we can't remember any train experience that was entirely pain-free. click to view a photograph

Not that everything went like clockwork. For example, we ran into a very peculiar and time-consuming system of buying tickets for the train. The Egyptians train authorities have obviously spent a great deal of money on a sophisticated computer and printing system for first- and second-class train tickets. Each ticket is printed up on special index-sized cards complete with holograms and anti-counterfeiting devices. However, once the ticket clerk printed all five of our tickets, he put these high-tech marvels to one side and spent the next 25 minutes writing out by hand all the relevant information in triplicate on carbon paper. We somehow felt cheated when he handed us one flimsy piece of paper full of scribbles.

In Tanta, once we had packed up the bikes, the real adventure began again. For sheer chaos, the traffic of this "capital of the Delta" rivals that of Cairo. The roads were the worst we'd ever seen. Potholes that could swallow cars, deep sand pits, miscellaneous boulders lying around, etc. Naturally the traffic ignored lanes to swerve around the obstacles. And, of course, there were absolutely no road signs. Tanta was a touring cyclist's worst nightmare. We only made it out by proceeding cautiously and asking directions at every intersection (see the Word of the Day).

Once on the road between the towns, we had a different experience. Traffic thinned out a little. More importantly, the road got wider and included a generous shoulder. Given this extra room, we only had a few "shut-your-eyes-and-pray" close calls with the traffic. click to view a photograph What a relief. Even the road into the city of Zagazig (our next destination) wasn't that much problem. We only had to worry about dodging the service taxis (see the Tech Fact of the Day) that constantly cut us off when they darted to the right-hand side of the road in hopes of picking up more passengers.

After checking out the accommodations at the youth hostel (full) and the police hotel (too expensive and full of armed men), someone pointed out a service taxi for us to follow into the center of town where we were told we could find more suitable lodging. We finally arrived directly opposite the train station and checked out a couple of hotels. Both could certainly be termed "seedy" at best, but by our special standards (all hotels are compared to the "hotel" in Kaceta, Morocco, and so far none has reached those depths), one of them was fine. Everything in the room was dingy except for the linen, and, although the bathroom had no hot water, it at least had running water. Everything is relative, and this place was only relatively seedy.

It was Anthony's turn to get the single while the rest of the group shared a room with four beds packed closely together. We didn't mind; we were trying to isolate Anthony anyway. He has a cold and his snoring had been keeping up Ethan and Padraic for a couple nights. However, judging from the sounds outside the window all night, his snoring kept all of Zagazig up as well. Or perhaps it's just a city that doesn't sleep.

Anyway, because the rooms had no electricity and light bulbs that were so dim we had difficulty seeing each other from across the room, we neither used our computers, nor read up on coming attractions. After dinner, most of us were in bed by 9 p.m. and asleep by 10 (though we all woke up at various times to marvel at the continuous beeping in the street below). Ah, the excitement of life on the road.

Our early night made getting an early start in the morning that much easier. We were looking to cover the remaining distance between Zagazig and a city called Ismailia located on the edge of the world-famous Suez Canal. Unfortunately, nothing makes cycling through the traffic in the Delta easy. Zagazig, an easy city to get into, turned out to be as hard to get out of as Tanta. At times, we weren't sure whether we had somehow wandered onto an obstacle course rather than a road. Of course, we could cycle around most of the debris while the poor cars had to ride through it. Maybe that's why the city is called "Zagazig" — cars are forced to zag and zig all over the place to get where they have to go. Perhaps that, too, is why the traffic between Zagazig and Ismailia seemed so desperate and so ready to force us from the road. We hugged the narrow sliver of a shoulder all day and still spent much of our time either holding our breaths or exhaling in relief. If cars — particularly those passing in the opposite direction but in our lane! — came that close in the United States, we would sue the drivers for causing us mental anguish and emotional distress. Nevertheless, we arrived in Ismailia safely, soundly, and only a little the worse for wear.

While cycling, in those few moments that our eyes were not glued to the asphalt, we noticed that the eastern side of the Delta seemed less densely populated and less intensely cultivated than what we had been seeing. We were following a canal that irrigated the surrounding area, but there was none of the earlier lushness. click to view a photograph And by the time we reached the outskirts of Ismailia, it was clear we had left the Delta and were now heading into the desert. While still near water, the greens became less brilliantly green; the cultivated land no longer stretched all the way to the side of the road; and there were fewer and fewer trees to shade us from the sun. click to view a photograph

For the last ten kilometers or so into Ismailia, we also enjoyed an escort, or rather escorts: first a boy out for a ride on his new bike, and then the local police. Our first escort was an aspiring young touring cyclist, apparently riding home to Ismailia. Although we passed him, he picked up his pace to stick with us into town. Most of the time he rode out front, but even when he was behind us, we knew he was still with us. With speakers that played sound effects from Star Wars mounted on his handlebars, we had only to listen for the beeps and zooms of space combat. Though he spoke no English, he somehow divined that we wanted to go to the train station (always a good spot from which to seek information and directions to other places) and took us there. He would have happily guided us further had our next escort not come along. While we were stopped at a traffic light next to the train station, a police car pulled up and the three officers inside offered their assistance. click to view a photograph We named the hotel we hoped to stay in and they not only led us directly there, but escorted us into the building, had a long discussion with the manager, and even called a second car as backup. We were a little puzzled by their efforts, but were happy to have arrived.

We spent the rest of the day making a superficial exploration of the town, or napping, or both. For more information about Ismailia and the Suez Canal, see our next report!

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