topics: Sinai Peninsula, Suez Canal, HISTORY, environment, "bonking" (bike term); jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: December 5–6, 1997

Breakfast: On our day leaving Qantara, we were once again and hopefully for the last time before the New Year, up before dawn. As anyone who sees the dark and quiet hours before the sun rises knows, not much is open. Even in Egypt. And especially in Qantara. So there was not much to get. Fortunately, the night before, Corinne and andrEa had gone in search of water and bits of bread. Everyone else had stocked up on "power" snacks like candy bars and cookies. This is what kept us going throughout the day . . . until it was no longer enough (see the Food of the Day).

Lunch: Lunch on the full day we spent in Al Arish was like a review of all that we have learned about the basic and great fast foods of Egypt. Just after noon, when Ethan, Anthony, and Padraic were out trawling for food, they came upon a likely looking place. A quick glance revealed tubs of everything we knew and have grown to love: ta'amiyya, fuul, torshi, tahini, and many assorted salads. We thought we would have a light lunch, but this is not what we got. The sandwiches we asked for somehow turned into a full spread of what one of the locals called a "cocktail," or lots of little plates containing lots of little bits of absolutely everything there was to offer! It was a feast marred only by persistent flies and a surprise (very high!) price at the end. We dealt with the former and fought against the latter.

Dinner: After over 160 km (100 mi) of steady pedaling and having arrived in Al Arish alive and in one piece (but very, very tired), the three guys stumbled to their feet and dragged their tired bones the length of Al Arish to a restaurant that Anthony had promised was only 700 m (760 yd) away. More like 700 km (400 mi)! Along the way, barely aware, they met Corinne and andrEa walking back to the hotel. They had indulged in a ta'amiyya and spiritedly announced that the restaurant at the end of our stride was only a little further. It was. And the welcome feast of salads, well-prepared chicken, long-grain rice, and cooked mixed vegetables was ample reward. It fueled us for the walk back — with a pause at another fruit juice place (a mix of mango and banana) — and gave us the strength to get ready for bed.

Food of the Day: Food!

How could food be Food of the Day, you ask? Simple. When you don't eat enough of it, any amount of it can make someone's day. We learned this lesson again on the day of our long ride from Qantara to Al Arish. Ethan in particular, who gets very, very cranky when he hasn't eaten enough, did not eat enough. This can be particularly bad on a day when continuous physical activity is important. Ethan suffered from what many people call a "bonk." That is, there were not enough resources in his body available for easy conversion into energy. And he suffered. He got cranky, bitter, incredibly weak, and even nauseous. Try as hard as he might, he could not keep up with Padraic and Anthony, even though they were pedaling at half the speed all three had maintained earlier. Since he was cranky, Ethan could do nothing but mutter nasty things under his breath about them. Finally, though, a rest was taken, and seeing how badly Ethan had "bonked," Padraic and Anthony shared their snacks with him. (Read more about this below.) Remember that, if you have access to food, it is always important to eat. Low energy and bad feelings could result if you don't.

Person of the Day: Mr. Mohammed Gamal click to view a photograph

Mr. Mohammed Gamal is the Inspector General for the Ministry of Education. He was on his way to inspect the schools in Al Arish when he met Corinne and andrEa as they crossed the Northern Sinai in a taxi. As an inspector, he travels throughout the country and inspects schools to verify that they have used all their resources as effectively as possible. Unfortunately, sometimes this has meant finding computers still stored in their boxes since no one at the school has enough training to set them up properly or use them effectively in support of classroom practices. He told us that even in Cairo the public schools are behind the times. He expressed great interest in the BikeAbout journey and wished us luck. He hoped that when he returned home to Cairo he would be able to show his son, who is in secondary school, how to follow our adventures online.

Place of the Day: Sinai Peninsula click to view a photograph click to view a map

The Sinai Peninsula is the triangular desert area flanked on the north by the Mediterranean Sea, on the west by the Suez Canal and the Red Sea's Gulf of Suez, and on the east by the same Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba, as well as the Negev Desert of Israel. It is officially in Asia and, leading up to the Suez Canal, is the last stretch of land before the African continent. The Sinai is particularly renowned as a land of holy miracles. In the Bible, Moses receives the Ten Commandments on the top of Mount Sinai, located in the southern part of the peninsula. Elijah, Jacob, Abraham and other prophets sacred to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam spent many days and nights in its arid interior hills. In fact, throughout the peninsula, there are markers in areas where Mary, Joseph, and their baby Jesus supposedly rested after having fled from King Herod.

The history of the Sinai completes our telling of the history of Egypt. Our dispatches from Cairo showed how people live today surrounded by an ancient and magnificent dynastic and pharaonic history. Our logs from Alexandria picked up after the pharaohs with the Ptolemic period. The trip across the Nile Delta and to the edge of the Suez Canal carried us into the 20th century and contemporary Egypt (up as far as 1956). Now, our century (100-mile) ride (see the Tech Fact of the Day) across the Sinai will bring us up to the end-of-the-millennium present.

The written history of the Sinai goes back as far as 3000 BC. The name itself may come from the devotional focus of one of the oldest Near Eastern religious cults: the moon god Sin. But the consistent use of the one name says little of the tumultuous times the land has seen, usually as a parade ground for marauding armies making their way between Egypt, the "Holy Land," and points further afield.

During Biblical times, Moses, after leading the Jews (through the parted waters of the Red Sea) out of Egypt, wandered for years in the wilds of the Sinai. In the 16th century BC, Egyptian soldiers crossed the Red Sea to conquer Palestine and Syria. Alexander the Great took Egypt in 332 BC after a march across the Sinai. In 48 BC, Ptolemy and Cleopatra's armies fought off the Sinai coast. Over the last 1000 years, the Sinai saw the Crusades and the expansion and contraction (at the hands of the French and British) of the Ottoman Empire. The international boundary with Israel that we know today is a new line drawn by the British before World War I.

Thus, since World War I, the Sinai has been mostly under Egyptian control. That said, in 1948, 1956, and from 1967 to 1979, it was under Israeli occupation. Israel succeeded in wresting control from the Egyptians as a result of its 1948 War of Independence (after which it returned the land), and the 1956 Suez Crisis (after which it again returned the land). The 1967 clash (see next) was more critical.

At the end of the 60s, Egypt's President Nasser had taken steps to isolate Israel by blocking its outlet to the southern seas. To counter this, Israel made the Sinai one of its primary objectives and wrested it from Egyptian hands for a third time during the 1967 "Six-Day War." They then took steps to protect their interest by fortifying the Suez Canal's eastern shore (at te western edge of the Sinai) with what they called the "Bar Lev" line. The situation remained unchanged for six years until Egypt's new President, Anwar Sadat, who had taken over after Nasser in 1970, made a stand. Sadat, famous for having designed a foreign policy more open to the West, knew that progress toward peace could not be made in the Middle East if Egypt had no bargaining chips. Therefore, on October 6, 1973, Egyptian armies crossed the Suez and attacked the Israeli battlements. The forces used a "secret weapon" — water cannons — to blast the Israeli sand-dune barriers.

The Israelis responded by repelling the Egyptian forces and pushing almost to within striking distance of Cairo itself before peace negotiations began. Still, Sadat had made his point and, in March 1979, the Camp David Accords were signed. Sadat became the first leader of an Arab nation in the Middle East to make peace with Israel. In return, the Sinai was, once again, returned to Egypt. In 1982, a United Nations Multinational Force & Observers group was stationed in the Sinai to oversee peace. Unfortunately, this occurred after Sadat was assassinated on October 6, 1981, eight years to the day after the attack that made him a national hero.

Lately, as a result of the secure peace, Egypt, now under the leadership of Mr. Hosni Mubarak, has invested a great deal in the development and reconstruction of the Sinai. Tourism, an industry receiving attention throughout Egypt, will also play an important part in its revitalization. More importantly, since 1981, President Mubarak has managed to bring Egypt back into the Arab world and, in particular, into a position of leadership in the Arab League, while at the same time maintaining peace with Israel. He improved relations with both the U.S. and the then Soviets. He has also worked to tackle the internal problem of religious tolerance and rising fundamentalist demands on state management.

Group Dispatch, December 5–6

picture of Ethan

We were up earlier than early. Which was fine. The previous evening, Qantara had not offered much in the way of distraction so we had turned in at a respectable hour. We were also doing our best to prepare for the longest of day of riding yet. Our destination, about 166 km (103 miles) away, was the city of Al Arish on the eastern edge of the Sinai, 40 km (25 mi) short of the Egypt/Israel/Gaza border.

At 5:30 a.m., our alarms beeped us into bleary-eyed consciousness. No one else was stirring and the hotel was locked up tight, so we actually had to wake up everyone to get out. First the two policemen who had spent the night sleeping on cots outside of our door (we will never understand why they felt that we needed this kind of protection), then the hotel night attendant, and then the hotel owner were roused from their beds to unlock the front door and gate and help us get our gear onto the sidewalk.

By 6:30, we were packed and making our way through the dark streets toward the edge of the Suez Canal. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph We had selected Qantara as a place to spend the night since it is the last urban outpost within manageable cycling striking distance of Al Arish with both a hotel and a canal crossing. An all-night, free, pedestrian-only ferry runs people back-and-forth between Qantara West and East and we were eager to catch an early one and get on the road. So, with a light orange glow just beginning to creep over the horizon, we lugged the loaded bikes one-by-one over a precarious gap between the tire-sided dock and the high edge of the boat and then bid goodbye to the African continent. Yes, the Suez Canal is the dividing line between Africa and Asia and we had completed our journey through our first continent!

On the other side of the silent waterway — only a few minutes away — we hauled the bikes up out of the belly of the boat, over an even wider and more harrowing gap, and onto Asian ground.

Our first order of business was to locate a long-distance, or service taxi that could take Corinne and andrEa — who did not feel up to the full marathon ride — and their bikes and both the B.O.B. trailers to El Roda, which appeared by our maps to be 70 km (43 mi) from Al Arish. We had no trouble finding someone who, after some quick bargaining, was willing to take it all for a perfectly reasonable price: 10 Egyptian pounds (US$3) each person, all luggage included!

That left Anthony, Ethan and Padraic with nothing but the long stretch of road click to view a photograph across one of the most famous land masses in the world. We each had thoughts about what it would be like click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, tempered by recent information gathered during research; but we were looking forward to following what might be one of the oldest march routes in history, used by Pharaohs, Persians, Greeks, Crusaders, Arab Muslims and a host of others all throughout history.

A large part of the north coast of Sinai, from Port Fouad most of the way to Al Arish, is dominated by the salty and swampy lagoon of Lake Bardawil. And this is separated from the Mediterranean by a limestone ridge. Thus the area has never been one to draw many tourists or beach lovers. Nevertheless, the small population of the Sinai is mostly concentrated in this northern fringe because of the easy proximity of water. We could not really tell if this meant there would be lots of people or just a few.

So what can be said about the ride? Well, it was long. 166 km (103 miles) long. And we didn't focus as much on our surroundings as we did on keeping our legs going and the bikes moving forward. But of course we looked around too. And what we saw was both what we expected and surprising.

First, small communities dotted the arid landscape of rolling hills — sometimes barren and sandy, sometimes under cultivation. These settlements seemed to be principally residential, since there was not much visible large-scale industry or roadside commerce. This is what we had expected. But we were still surprised by the number of villages we passed, especially earlier in the ride. The image we had created for ourselves was of a vast, Biblical expanse of desert and nothingness. While this may be true of the interior — a rocky and mountainous spread that we could see in the distance from the tops of small rises — it was certainly not always the case along the coast. Ironically, one of the two times we actually did stop to take pictures was in one of the more "natural" and barren parts of the road. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

While we were pausing along the side of the road, we also admired the power of the Mediterranean light, something we have often overlooked since, when we cycle, we are hidden behind strong Briko sunglasses. The two following photographs are taken within just a few feet of one another, one into the sun click to view a photograph, the other with the sun to the photographer's back. click to view a photograph

But back to the ride. Since we had made an early start, we had our full day's complement of ten hours of sun before us. We made our calculations. 160 km (100 mi) divided by 10 hours meant we would have to cycle an average of at least 16 km (10 mi) per hour if we were to get to Al Arish before sunset. We were determined not to cycle in the dark and so we started out strong and hoped to gain time (and impress Corinne and andrEa).

We actually succeeded in covering the first 100 or so km in excellent time, sometimes speeding along at between 30 and 40 kilometers an hour (20 and 25 mph) over 5- or 10-kilometer (3- or 6-mile) stretches of road. As a result, by noon, despite a flat tire and a few rest stops, we were well along in our ride and feeling confident.

Then, unfortunately, Ethan "bonked" (see the Food of the Day). That is, the natural store of food in Ethan's body that gets used for quick conversion into energy was completely tapped. And the external supplies that protect against this — cookies, candy bars, fruit, and other "high-energy" foods — had all been eaten. Worse still, we were on the last stretch of road to Al Arish — the most barren bit, utterly without small shops or teahouses from which something could be bought.

Ethan began to fall behind. He complained of the cold, became grumpy, and felt nauseous. (Common effects of bonking are low energy, low spirits, and nausea.) But he had no choice. Since Padraic and Anthony kept on trucking, so would he. Nevertheless, not willing to leave Ethan behind, the speed of the trio dropped to almost half of what it had been through most of the morning. And then, finally, a rest and stretch stop was ordered. click to view a photograph While the break in the action was essential, we had nothing but a few candy bars to chew on. This was a bad sign.

Still, the kilometer counters did keep on falling, and ultimately, around 2:30 p.m., we arrived at El-Masaid, on the outskirts of Al Arish. To say the least, we were surprised by what we found. After the hours and hours of small communities along sand-swept roads, the El-Masaid/Al Arish urban spread felt like a metropolis. The significant roadworks projects — repair and expansion — large-scale residential and business construction, and long, long stretch of well-maintained main drag lined for kilometers (literally as far as the eye could see!) by street lamps all came as quite a surprise.

On the outskirts of town we even found a Mobil Mini-Mart (really!), the first sign of food since Ethan had bonked. We pulled in and ran for the food area that turned out to be disappointingly small. Other than cookies (of which we were all a little sick), there were only small bags of potato chips. We bought ten of them! And gobbled up some of the weirdest flavors: beef shish kebab, curry chicken, hot pepper and garlic. Delicious. Well, actually, it was pretty disgusting since we had had nothing else to eat in too long. But it did feel good to have food in the belly, and we felt a little better finishing the final 10 km (6 mi) into town and to the hotel that we had all agreed we should use as a meeting point.

Meanwhile, Corinne click to view a photograph and andrEa click to view a photograph, true to their plan, had exited the taxi at El Roda and then cycled the 50 (not 70!) km (31 mi) to Al Arish with the B.O.B. trailers. They had gone straight to the hotel, negotiated a price, and secured the rooms. Padraic, Ethan, and Anthony were relieved to find that everyone had arrived safely and that a warm room (on a chilly evening) was waiting at the end of their ride. We staggered upstairs, lay down on the very welcome beds, and napped.

After dinner — which proved to be on the other end of town and a long walk after such a long ride — we fell fast asleep.

The next day was a rest day. And a catch-up day. As it was our last 24 hours in Egypt, we had to finish as much of the research and writing as we could to close the Egypt chapter and prepare for the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Israel. We were all full of the anticipatory trepidation that travel through such a tumultuous part of the world can inspire. A day of rest, relaxation, recuperation, and research was in order.

Of course everyone left the hotel from time to time.

During one of these times, what was intended to be a light lunch for Anthony, Padraic, and Ethan turned into a feast and ended in an argument with the restaurant owner about cost. (We had been told that prices in the Sinai were higher than in the rest of Egypt, but five times as much (!), especially for the simple foods we had bought very cheaply everywhere, struck us as a little exaggerated.)

Afterwards, the boys continued down to the beach and appreciated the waters of the Mediterranean. click to view a photograph We did some round-robin filming click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph and interviewing click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph and then ran into andrEa and Corinne who were appreciating the waters and the moment before sunset as well click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, and hanging out with some new young friends. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

Later, over dinner (our last kushari!), we all strategized about tomorrow's border crossing and the trip through Gaza. We really did not know what to expect and felt the need to prepare for the worst. After all, almost everything we had ever heard about Gaza was bad. Of course we felt we should know better (having seen and learned what we have so far about media-built and/or false expectations), but some preconceptions are hard to dispel. We were also concerned about getting stamps in our passports leaving Egypt or entering Israel. BikeAbout will be visiting Lebanon and Syria after the passage through Israel, but the former will not allow anyone to visit their countries if there is a stamp from the latter in them. In some cases, an exit stamp from Egypt at a border crossing with Israel is enough to cause troubles. So we talked about how we would try to convince everyone not to stamp our passports.

After one last dessert fruit drink — a delicious banana and mango combination — at one of the fruit drink stands we have come to love, we wandered back up the avenue to our hotel, finished some lingering work, and went to bed.

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