topics: kushari (food), arrival in Egypt/Cairo, border crossing, rules of the road; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: November 16–17, 1997

Breakfast: We were so exhausted from our travels that once we found a hotel in Cairo, all we wanted or needed was to crawl into bed and slip away into a never-never land full of dancing fairies and sugar plums (at least we dreamed about food).

Lunch: We wasted no time experimenting with the new cuisine, munching on ta'amiyya (similar to falafel) and fuul (fava beans mixed with oil, lemon, and salt) sandwiches.

Dinner: For dinner, Tarek and Ahmed (see our People of the Day) introduced us to the "comfort food" of Egypt, kushari (see the Food of the Day).

Food of the Day: Kushari click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

Kushari is a combination of rice, noodles, black lentils, chick-peas, and tomato sauce, all topped with fried onions. The kushari maker is a man who stands in front of large containers of each ingredient. Once you place your order, he grabs a bowl, scoops a little of each ingredient into the bowl and sends it on its way to your table. Each kushari takes about four seconds to compose. As the kushari maker scoops, he knocks his spoon against the side of the bowls, making a rhythmic tap-tap-tappity-tappity-tappity-tap-tap sound. When an order for four or more bowls of kushari is being prepared, the restaurant fills with this sound. It is almost as though someone is practicing the drums. At the table, there are usually two different kinds of sauce, one made from vinegar and oil, the other from spicy red peppers. Tarek and Ahmed (see our People of the Day) warned us about the hot sauce, but having tempered our stomachs on harissa in the Maghreb, we felt prepared for anything. A proper kushari restaurant will serve only kushari, which makes the ordering of dinner quite simple — "Will you have a small, medium, or large kushari tonight?"

People of the Day: Tarek and Ahmed click to view a photograph

Tarek has been our contact at inTouch Communications (our Internet Service Provider in Egypt click to view a photograph), which has helped the BikeAbout team acquire local dial-up access to the Internet while we are in Egypt. Tarek and Ahmed (Tarek works in the marketing division of InTouch, while Ahmed toils away in sales) have gone out of their way to make BikeAbout feel at home in Cairo. In addition to meeting with us our first night in Cairo (and introducing us to kushari!), Tarek and Ahmed gave us a night tour of Cairo and even helped us find a hotel in a quieter neighborhood. They have been instrumental in helping us get our dispatches sent out and we greatly look forward to working with them during our stay in Egypt. We would like to take this opportunity to thank them and all the wonderful people click to view a photograph at inTouch for all the help they have given us.

Place of the Day: Cairo World Heritage Site World Heritage City map icon

We will be spending several days in Cairo, exploring a variety of attractions in different neighborhoods (the Egyptian Museum in Central Cairo, the mosques and crowded streets of Islamic Cairo, and the religious centers of Coptic Cairo) and some of the sites that surround it (the pyramids at Giza and Saqqara, and the upscale suburb of Heliopolis). Having only recently arrived, we are unable to sum up the essence of Cairo in a mere paragraph or two (read more and more if this isn't enough). Suffice it to say that Cairo is a teeming metropolis full of lights, excitement, pollution click to view a photograph, dust, thousands of honking taxis, fruit stands, grocery stores, fastfood stalls, restaurants, and millions and millions of people. It is a city that never sleeps and yet never stops dreaming, a dazzling mix of the traditional and the modern, of East and West. click to view a photograph

Cairo is often called the heart of Egypt. Indeed, the Nile River, which flows along Cairo's western edge click to view a photograph, certainly provides the lifeblood for the entire country. Known to Egyptians as al-Qahira (named after the planet Mars, al-Qahir, which was in the ascendant during the beginning of the Cairo's construction), Cairo is at the center of Egypt's economic, political, and cultural life. It has drawn people to it for thousands of years. The population of this huge city is not exactly known, but some estimate that as many as 18–22 million people — one quarter of the population of the entire country! — live here.

Group Dispatch, November 16–17

picture of Anthony

Our arrival in Cairo was the most surreal thing that the BikeAbout team has yet experienced. For many reasons we were extremely apprehensive about biking in Egypt, not to mention biking in Cairo in the middle of the night. All the guidebooks we had read and people we had been able to contact said basically the same thing: "Do not bike tour in Egypt!" However, we did not have a choice . . .

We arrived on our flight from Malta at 3:30 a.m. Needless to say, we did not sleep much on the flight, even after having exhausted ourselves trying to visit the entire island of Malta in one day. In theory, we could have skipped the in-flight meal, which would have given us a solid 3.5 hours of sleep, but the BikeAbout team is in no position to be skipping meals. Our metabolisms have been honed to such an extreme degree by all the biking we have done that all it takes is one skipped meal before we start eyeing each other as would a pack of hungry wolves adrift on a Bering Sea ice pack in late January. We have already had several near disastrous episodes. On one occasion, Padraic "White Fang" Kennedy click to view a photograph nearly turned predator after missing a meal. Normally, when this happens, we toss "White Fang" the emergency Mars Bar from the first-aid kit (now kept exactly for this type of situation). But this time someone, who for his safety will remain unnamed click to view a photograph, apparently thought a clandestine late-night snack was in order the night before.

Upon our arrival we glanced nervously about for the hordes of people that we had read crowd the Nile River valley, making bike touring suicidal madness. Instead we discovered some sleepy customs officials who were only too happy to stamp our passports and let us go on our merry way. We located our trusty steeds and a quick check found that they had survived the cross-Mediterranean flight relatively unscathed — Padraic's bike had a broken spoke, as did Anthony's (probably out of spite), and all the tires needed some air (we had deflated them a little for their ride in the unpressurized hold of the plane). Within an hour though, we were on the road, much to the amazement of the baggage handlers, guards, custodial staff, and our fellow travelers. As we rolled out of the terminal into the predawn inky darkness, the taxi drivers blinked a couple of times in astonishment and then made a halfhearted effort to get a fare: "Taxi, Mister?"

With a confident air, we flipped on our lights and headed in the direction we thought Cairo should be. On the road, one of the first things we noticed was that many of the road signs are only in Arabic. This slowed us down slightly, but using our uncanny sense of direction and a fair amount of bravado, we made our way south towards the center. While the ride was only 17 km (10.5 mi), it seemed to take forever. Our only choice of road was the superhighway that runs along the edge of the city. Fortunately, at 5 a.m. on a Saturday, the traffic is light (we later learned that the Egyptian weekend is Friday, the holy day, and Saturday). Practically the only people that saw us pass were the guards posted in the towers of the military academies along the highway. They stared in amazement at us as we floated by like silent ghosts through the mist. Only after we had passed did some regain their composure enough to shout a greeting.

When we finally figured that we were close to Cairo, we turned our trusty mounts west off the highway and towards the Nile. Riding into Cairo, we were amazed by the city itself. The road infrastructure is amazing. Huge overpasses towered overhead, carrying cars far above the streets of the city. It was almost as though the city had sprung up around a major interstate exchange. As the city started to come to life, we biked in the dark shadows of these overpasses feeling our way towards the center. Even at this early weekend hour, we shared the streets with lots of people. We saw new BMWs, donkey-pulled carts piled high with vegetables, and even a bike delivery person who was balancing on his head a board the size of a kitchen table heaped with loaves of bread. Children wandered around, shops began to open, the cafes were already filled with people drinking tea. Cairo gave every appearance of never really having been asleep.

As we struggled towards the center, a kind soul in a late-model car stopped to see where we were trying to go. Once we told him, he honked, waved, and motioned for us to follow him. He then led us into the heart of town and even pointed out a budget hotel. Our helmets came off in tribute to this kind stranger. As he sped away into the growing early morning pollution, we checked into the hotel and were asleep within 40 minutes. We were so exhausted that the entire group slept through breakfast and lunch but woke, near death with hunger, just in time for dinner.

Then, too, was when our friends from inTouch Communications (our Internet Service Provider in Egypt), Tarek and Ahmed (see our People of the Day) click to view a photograph, came to our rescue, introducing us to the simple Egyptian culinary wonder known as kushari (see our Food of the Day). We discussed with them our plans for the next few weeks — school meetings and tourist visits — and then they drove us around the city a little so that we could get our bearings. At night, when the neon lights stand out the most, Cairo looks a lot like a big western city. After our time in Morocco and Tunisia we were a little dazzled by the height of all the buildings and by all the signs in English and Arabic advertising everything from Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, and Pizza Hut to the dozens of other restaurants we didn't recognize. There seemed to be thousands of shops selling everything from shoes and baskets, to sausage and glue. We were so overwhelmed that when we returned to our hotel rooms, we immediately tried to catch up on our sleep knowing the days to come would be very busy.

Our first full day in Cairo was spent switching hotels (to another one recommended by Tarek and Ahmed that was of a better quality and in a quieter neighborhood) and finishing up some of our dispatches. By late morning, we were ready to cross the Nile to the headquarters of InTouch. click to view a photograph With Tarek and Ahmed's help, we were quickly online and finally able to send our long-overdue dispatches to our WebMistress, Elizabeth Guffey click to view a photograph, in Maine. Often we find that when we are able to get online, all we can do is send our dispatches out, but for the first time in an extremely long time, we were also able to send and download email and even do a little Web research. click to view a photograph We returned to our hotel relieved that we had taken such big steps towards catching up with our work.

The last several weeks of travel have left everyone in various states of disrepair: neither Padraic nor Anthony has a clean item of clothing; Corinne has a week's worth of video tape to log; all the bikes need tune-ups; Ethan has a nasty cough; and everyone seems to be battling some form of intestinal rebellion (andrEa and Padraic's have been the most persistent, Padraic's lower intestine having been waging war for so long that toilet paper sellers throughout North Africa are marveling at their increased sales and herald his arrival wherever we go with great fanfare and chants of "All hail, Master Padraic, King of the Porcelain, Creator of our Good Fortune!") On top of all of this, we are trying to write requests for sponsorship so that BikeAbout–the Mediterranean does not become BikeAbout–the Southern Mediterranean. It seems as though we have a never-ending list of things to do.

That said, we are all looking forward to spending the next week in Cairo, traveling out of the city to see sites on day trips and attempting to visit at least some of the sites that lie within the limits of this fascinating city. Mostly though, we are all looking forward to staying in the same place for a few days and letting our bodies catch up to us.

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