Egypt, Part 6: Bike Maintenance in Cairo

17 – 20 May 2011

Since my windshield got broken by the customs agents in Alexandria, I headed to Mohammed Anwar’s bike shop (GPS: N30 01.289, E31 13.825) in Cairo for a solution. His reputation is well-established in the Africa overland community as he’s helped many a bike traveler with small to large issues. I spent four days at the shop, going back and forth and waiting most of the time for things to move along. No reason to hurry. In that time, I got to know some of the mechanics there and met some of his regular clients, along with experiencing warm Egyptian hospitality.


Anwar measuring up how big I’d like my new windshield. I showed him photos of what it looked like before and he understood what I was after. This would be the third windshield for sanDRina (the first one got broken in an accident in Bolivia). The advantage of designing my own first windshield is that I know how to design subsequent ones as and when they break on such a trip.

He was a busy man with many clients showing up throughout the day. Here he’s off to a Lexan specialist to mould my new shield. That’s his elder brother in the background along with a younger nephew, working as an apprentice.

Since there was lots of time to wait around, I did some usual maintenance to the bike, such as cleaning the chain, but his nephew stepped in and helped out. Anwar’s shop is considered the best place for high-end sport bikes in Cairo, along with being reasonably priced. That red beauty next to sanDRina is a Honda CBR600RR, with a Goldwing in front along with many cruisers and other sport bikes around. I was yearning for a ride on a fast bike. I love sanDRina, but she’s just not designed to go faaast.

I also got around to installing some parts that I’ve been carrying with me for a while, but haven’t had the time or space to get them on the bike. This is the delivery head for the chainoiler from Loobman. If you remember, I made my own chainoiler back in São Luis, Brazil, but that failed after a few thousand kilometers. I then wrote to Loobman and asked them if they’d like to send me one and Dennis, the founder, was more than happy to help. The oil is delivered down the tube and is then split and follows the plastic leads of zip-ties to coat either side of the rear sprocket, which with centrifugal force will lubricate the o-rings on the chain.

Securing the support for the delivery tube and Loobman head on the swingarm.

The chain oil reservoir secured on the frame next to the airbox and in a location that I could reach down and give it a squeeze while I’m riding. The Loobman is a manual chainoiler and the principle is very simple: give a squeeze every couple hundred kilometers (or more frequent during rain riding) and chain life should be extended.

Anwar found me a nice chain cover to prevent the spray being flung to other surfaces.

Finally getting around to bleeding the brakes, the first time on this trip. I had intended to bleed the brakes before heading on the Lagunas Route in Southwest Bolivia, but couldn’t find a long enough open-box 8mm wrench to get enough torque on the bleed nipple on the calipers. They were secured tight with grime after all those miles. The brake fluid surprisingly didn’t look all that bad, considering the heavy use over the past 61,200 kms (38,000 mi).

Anwar was storing a lot of interesting bikes in his shop including this gem, a Royal Enfield Bullet, manufactured in my home city of Chennai, India. In the back is a Honda Africa Twin, which has been ridden through Africa by one of Egypt’s own overland riders.

Maybe there’s a Bullet in my future…

Anwar fixing a long time annoyance on the bike where the rear brake pedal always hit the clutch cover upon being released and it was slowly making a dent in the magnesium casing. He used a wrench to torque the pedal away from the engine cover.

I tried using zip-ties and rubber hose along the way to prevent the pedal from damaging the engine cover but they didn’t get the job done. A little muscle to bend the lever was all it took.

A svelte gas tank and Anwar’s resident cat. He had a lot of bikes and other junk in his shop and that provided enough space for this cat to raise her family in. There was a dog too, but he occupied the other half of the garage.

I was still staying with Fabrice in Maadi and one evening, after giving a joy ride to Yasmin, we ended up at Cairo’s version of Starbucks, called Cilantro, a modern coffee shop.

Yasmin, who was also staying with Fabrice through CouchSurfing, and I after an evening ride through Cairo. She said she liked bike rides and I told her we could go for a spin but I didn’t have a spare helmet, which wasn’t a problem for her. She’s an Indian-Canadian from South Africa who just spent a few months volunteering at a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, learning Arabic.

Having a tasty espresso with tones of whipped cream at Cilantro in Maadi.

Yasmin was a friendly and open girl and she soon chatted up a group of Cairenes on the next table and we got into a lively discussion about the effects of the revolution. Being from the higher strata of society, they complained how their freedom of movement was curtailed during the tense period and now, with the lack of a police presence, petty theft along with car-jackings were occurring more frequently. Of course they welcomed the change in leadership, but the transition was not a smooth process. Most of them had lived abroad for the past few years and were now back in Cairo, presumably to take advantage of the emerging economy, such as I’m planning to do when I make it back to India.

Back at the shop and installing some sponsored parts that were sent to me from Ricor Shocks. This is called the Vibranator and it reduces the vibrations through an oscillating weight in the handle bars.

The entrance to Anwar’s shop on Al-Gabassa Street. Note the water cooler on the street – free chilled water for anyone.

A fetching LML Speedy scooter with a BMW emblem. It was made in India during the 1980s under a partnership with Piaggio and their Vespa brand. Piaggio arrived with their Vespas much earlier in India under a collaboration with Bajaj, who produced similar looking scooters under the Chetak brand, which was hugely popular. My dad still has one of these and it holds a special place in my riding history as I covered my first few mechanical two-wheel miles on it, along with my first crash. The strange thing is that it has a twist gear shift along with the clutch on the left handle bar.

The simple powertrain of such a scooter with its horizontally-mounted engine and transmission in close proximity to the rear driven wheel. The short drive chain is encased and could be considered a part of the engine package. This layout allows for maximum space at the rider’s feet for cargo, along with extra passengers.

One day at Anwar’s shop, I met Omar here who was having his wife’s scooter fixed. We got chatting and he soon invited me for dinner. We didn’t get far from Anwar’s shop when the Chinese scooter died. The spark plug was loose and Anwar’s brother came out for a field job. With sanDRina’s windshield still a work-in-progress, I was riding around with a street-fighter look.

Along the busy streets of Cairo, small-scale merchants were busy selling all sort of products, such as roasted corn here. A girl out on an errand to pick up some fresh bread and leafy greens stops to pick up some corn for the walk home.

Omar works in the financial sector and was doing well during Egypt’s recent high-growth spurt. There was more tension these days as the local stock market was still recovering after being shut for 8 weeks during the revolution. We went out of Cairo towards the satellite city of 6th of October (so named to commemorate Egypt’s success against Israel in the 4th Arab-Israeli War in 1973 where Egypt won back the Sinai peninsula) and stopped along the way for dinner. He first took me to a Starbucks cafe for Western food but after expressing an interest in trying local Egyptian food, we ended up at Dandy Mega Mall where there was a well-known Egyptian restaurant. These kind of mega malls have sprung up anywhere on the planet associated with rapid growth, all trying to achieve the living standards of the West.

A full table of tasty Egyptian food at Abou el-Sid restaurant with Omar.

Stuffed grape leaves with a yogurt and mint dip.

Spicy oriental beef sausages.

Besara, which is mashed fuul (fava beans) that have been slow-cooked and let to set in clay pots along with herbs. It has a similar consistency to hummus.

It got late and since we were far from Maadi, I decided to spend the night at Omar’s house and really liked the open layout of his guest bathroom, especially all the light coming in from the huge French windows.

On the way back into the city the next morning, we had breakfast at this street stand of good-ol’ fuul with fresh bread.

Along with the Vibranator, Ricor Shocks sent me their front suspension enhancing part called the Intiminator and Anwar is installing them here. In the process, he replaced the fork oil, which has been in there since the last major servicing in São Paulo, about 25,700 kms (16,000 mi) ago.

Installing the Intiminator below the fork springs. It’s an interesting piece of technology that is supposed to enhance front-end feel while riding over bumps and rough roads. It works in such a way that the valves in the Intiminator regulate the flow of the fork oil so that it keeps the chassis stable if it detects the front wheel traveling into a bump and conversely, it allows the chassis to move without upsetting the unsprung part of the front wheel. It also greatly reduces brake dive, which is an issue on the long forks of dual-sport bikes.

The springs going in above the Intiminator. We had a check on the spring life, measuring their unsprung length, and they still looked good. The Intiminators replaced the Race Tech Emulators that came with the bike, which always seemed to deform after hitting a few bumps and I was glad to get rid of them.

An unresolved issue that I finally got around to was cleaning the contacts on my Centech AP2 fuse box. This is a small fuse box under the seat that collects all my electrical accessories and runs them through individual fuses and most importantly, runs them through a switched relay that turns off the accessories when the bike is turned off. Corrosion formed across the positive and negative (ground) leads way back in Guatemala and not having the time then to root-cause the issue, I simply by-passed the fuse box in Peru and ran all my accessories on individual in-line fuses to the battery. That worked well except that I had to remember to turn off my accessories when I turned off the bike, which was a pain, especially for my Vision-X auxiliary LED lights that I always ran. So, I was happy to clean this up and get it working properly again. I can be attentive on some issues and at the same time let others slide if there’s no immediate concern.

Anwar’s nephew rebuilding the engine cylinder on a scooter’s drivetrain. Nice how the centerstand is used to make for a stable working platform. These kind of mechanics should be lauded for having to work in sub-optimal conditions. The shop was also a mess with tools scattered but all the mechanics knew where everything was, so who cares.

I was kept entertained by watching this cat’s movements around the shop. It felt like a natural history show with an urban twist; imaging her to be a lioness on the African savannah, stalking some prey (that came as leftovers).

It was Friday and time for the weekly lunch at Anwar’s shop. Lots of flat bread with a tub of fuul, roasted aubergines and other veggies. Good eats.

A fun bunch of guys that I enjoyed spending these days with. Anwar was telling me to put down the camera and get some food before it disappeared.

My new windshield finally arrived and Anwar did an excellent job with the design and fabrication. He doesn’t speak very good English, but that wasn’t a problem as mechanics anywhere in the world can communicate in our own language revolving around our machines.

A black kitten perched on a small pedestal as he explored the world he was born into.

A small clearing in the back of the shop for the five daily prayers of Muslims pointing towards Mecca and the Ka’aba in Saudi Arabia. I thought about joining in to give thanks to the mechanical geniuses behind that sublime Suzuki GSX-R sport bike.

I installed this new adjustable kickstand that was sent to me from ManRacks who were looking for ways to promote their new product. But, it’s footprint is too small, especially for the weight of my bike and it easily dug into soft asphalt. It needed a wider plate welded on.

I rode with Anwar around the corner to a welder and the job was done in a few minutes. While keeping an eye on the welding job, I noticed the golden arches in the background.

It turned out to be an old Roman aqueduct cutting across the city. Modern Cairo with lots of grand structures from its storied past.

Across from the welder, these gentlemen from an autoshop were having a tea and shisha break and invited me to join them.

Hot coals heating up the flavored tobacco molasses in the brilliant design that is a water pipe.

Wider foot welded on the kickstand and freshly spray-painted. This should prevent it from sinking into soft surfaces, such as hot asphalt, loose sand and wet mud.

Being done at Anwar’s shop and packing up my tools, which were being occupied by some urban lion cubs.

I thanked Anwar for the excellent work and that too for focusing on my issues with such short notice. All that amazing work over the past four days cost just LE 250 ($45). We never talked about price until everything was done as I knew he would treat me well. I would’ve been glad to pay even double that amount but I’ve noticed how travelers seem to get an exception from mechanics, as they understand the part that they’re playing in helping this journey continue.

sanDRina was once again feeling fresh and I noticed the effect of the new Intiminators in the front forks right away, while buzzing along the Nile. The front end felt more planted and brake dive was considerably reduced. I was looking forward to seeing how it would handle the countless miles of corrugated roads ahead. I was glad to get the Loobman Chainoiler mounted and hoped that it would extend the life of my chain and sprockets, an expensive consumable on such long distance trips. The new windshield would soon serve its purpose of reducing buffeting from the fierce winds of the desert and let’s see how the adjustable sidestand performs.

I’m always happy to service sanDRina and feel like we bond during such sessions as I get into the internals of my bike and keep up with her mechanical wear along with adding some goodies. As mentioned previously, I’m a preacher of preventative maintenance for sustained happiness with your machine. At this point, the 1998 chassis has already seen 103,400 kms and I’m looking forward to crossing 100,000 miles.

Next: Egypt, Part 7: Dune Bashing in the Sahara

Previous: Egypt, Part 5: Islamic Cairo at Night

Egypt, Part 5: Islamic Cairo at Night

16 May 2011

After the evening show of the spinning Sufis of al-Tanoura, Cody and I met up with a friendly local, Mohsen, who wanted to show us around Islamic Cairo at night. Armed with my SLR camera, we walked back in time and experienced a Cairo that probably hasn’t changed much in a couple centuries.

This next installment of photos is from an evening stroll down one of the oldest streets in Cairo, al-Muizz. It is said to have the greatest concentration of medieval Islamic architecture. After taking in some of the stalls, we got access into the al-Mu’ayyad Mosque with some excellent skyline views of Islamic Cairo at night.

This part of Cairo isn’t any more Islamic than other parts of Cairo, but this is the nucleus from which the modern city has grown from and it contains many historically important Islamic monuments.


Under the giant Ghuriya Complex looking towards the southern section of al-Muizz Street, whose full name is Shari’a al-Muizz li-Deen Illah. The al-Tanoura performance was in the building to the left and behind the complex lay a maze of small alleys with shops in every nook.

There were mainly textile shops on this side of Azhar Street with the Khan el-Khalili souk on the other side.

The enthusiastic man in the foreground is Mohsen, who approached Cody and I as we were walking to the al-Tanoura performance and told us he would take us around later. We asked him if we had to pay for this tour and he said not at all, he was just glad to show us around his neighborhood. Cody is a well-built man and this merchant requested to arm-wrestle him. I think Cody won.

A very narrow textile shop in what used to be stalls for horses. This is under the Ghuriya Complex, which was built by the last Mamluk Sultan, Qunsuh El-Ghuri in 1505. The merchants were quite happy to have their photos taken.

Another horse stall turned into a spice cellar.

Spices in a more standard shop on the main al-Muizz street, which has been an active commercial and religious area since Cairo’s founding in 969 AD.

An array of mannequins displaying various ascents on black Abayas, the traditional dress, which started out as a simple cloak to veil the whole body but has progressed today into fashionable wear. Beyond just the colorful embroidery on the sleeves, a really radical Egyptian woman might opt for the hot pink abaya. Truth be told, the Islamic fashions these days don’t leave much to the imagination.

A little further down al-Muizz and we came upon this knife sharpener, who was hard at work past 9 o’clock in the evening.

Two big grinding stones being used to sharpen a variety of knives. He showed us some old photos of him in this shop when he was much younger. That must be some kind of dedication if he’s been at that spinning wheel for a couple decades.

There was an open bale of cotton hanging in the street and I told Cody to stop there to get some perspective. Fine Egyptian cotton was being spun into textiles to be sold in the markets, just like it’s been since antiquity here.

At the entrance to the al-Mu’ayyad Mosque, situated at the southern end of al-Muizz street. This is the Muqarnas Portal, which is framed by square Kufic inlays that portray the Shahada, the first pillar of Islam – there is no god except Allah and Muhammad is his prophet – a central belief of all Muslims.

The giant doors showcasing medieval Islamic bronze metalwork. These doors were taken from the Sultan Hasan Mosque, which is actually illegal according to Islamic law, but I guess a powerful enough patron can get away with it.

Moshen made a phone call and the caretaker of the mosque let us in to take a look (after a LE30 ($5.50) donation).

The main prayer hall of the al-Mu’ayyad Mosque. This was a rare opportunity as non-Muslims usually aren’t allowed inside mosques and that too to photograph them. I hope it was respectful enough that I didn’t use flash.

The focal point of the mosque is the mihrab, a niche indicating the qibla, which is the direction of prayer, pointing to the Ka’aba in Mecca. To the right of the mihrab is the minbar, a raised pulpit from where the imam gives the Friday sermon, which was finely decorated in wood with marble inlays. The top step of the minbar is reserved for the Prophet Muhammad, so the imam occupies the second highest step.

The colorful stone inlays in the marble of the mihrab.

The high ceiling under the dome of the mosque, which housed the tombs of the mosque’s patron, Sultan al-Mu’ayyad and his son.

Marble inlays in fine woodwork on a door in the mosque.

A view of the prayer hall from the courtyard.

Quranic inscriptions in marble.

A portion of the painted and gilded wooden ceiling.

The courtyard of the al-Mu’ayyad Mosque with the water basin in the foreground and the dome on the roof with the full moon up in the sky.

A view through a window in the mosque to life on the streets outside.

The living quarters of the religious scholars, across from the mosque.

Walking up the stairs for a view from…

…the rooftop of al-Mu’ayyad Mosque with its dome and the twin minarets of Bab Zuwayla, the southern gate of the old Fatimid City.

The twin minarets of Bab Zuwayla with the signature decoration from this period of Mamluk architecture of zigzags. The architect of this mosque is known as he carved his name on the staircase; al-Mu’allim Muhammad Ibn al-Qazzaz finished this Islamic icon in 1420.

The zigzags on the stone dome with the full moon up high. In between the minarets is the lit-up Cairo Citadel, built in the 12th century.

An Islamic Cairo Nightscape from the roof of al-Mu’ayyad Mosque. I count six minarets, which is not far from Cairo’s nickname of “The city of a thousand minarets.”

We thanked the caretaker of the mosque for letting us in and the tour concluded as we reached Bab Zuwayla, the southern end of al-Muizz street.

The fortified gate was built on the southern limits of the old Fatimid City in 1092 to protect it from the crusaders and other attackers. The slender minarets were built on top of the large gate as the architect of al-Mu’ayyad mosque, al-Qazzaz, used its proximity to the gate to incorporate them into the structure of the mosque.

Walking back to the Metro and grabbing a street snack of boiled lima beans.

I thanked Mohsen for taking us on the tour and showing us a glimpse of Old Cairo. I could just imagine how things probably haven’t changed much in the past few centuries or even the millennium that Cairo has been in existence for. Here I could see how the religious side and cultural side of Islamic Cairo are tightly interwoven. The mosques are a focal point of daily life, but surrounding them is the buzz that has kept this city alive through the ages. I hope not much changes here in the next thousand years.

Next: Egypt, Part 6: Bike Maintenance in Cairo

Previous: Egypt, Part 4: Al Tanoura Spinning Sufis

Egypt, Part 4: Al Tanoura Spinning Sufis

16 May 2011

My host in Cairo, Fabrice, told me about this cultural show that was a must see before leaving the city. It was put on by the Al Tanoura Dance Troupe and consists of men spinning around in big skirts. If I lost you with that description, I urge you to reconsider and try and grasp what a mesmerizing performance it was.

The dance has it origins with the Whirling Dervishes of the Sufi order of Zikr and is a form of physical meditation where the dancers enter into a trance-like state to get closer to spiritual purity.

The organizers of the show allowed unlimited photography but forbade video recording. I put together a rough clip from video shot before they told me to stop recording and another sequence to capture the audio of the rhythms to add another dimension to the photos. Click here to see and hear Al Tanoura (rough video).

I took the Metro with Cody into the city and while I don’t know what the Arabic writing says, the station that’s crossed out was named Mubarak, who was recently overthrown by the Egyptian people. Nasser and Sadat were the previous presidents. Other places named Mubarak were also crossed out and I can see the same happening in Libya now with Gaddafi gone.

Walking from the metro station to Khan el-Khalili in Islamic Cairo, we passed this colorful stand and I had to have a glass of fresh mango juice. The streets shops were more alive in the evening compared to the day time.

Busy street life under an elevated highway near Khan el-Khalili.

A colorful tea merchant having a cigarette break.

Just across the street from the main entrance to the Khan el-Khalili souk is the Wikala El-Ghuriya, a 500 year old building that used to be an inn for travelers and these days its courtyard was putting on performances of the…

…Tanoura Dance Troupe, showcasing the cultural heritage of Egypt’s Spinning Sufis or Whirling Dervishes.

Walking through this vaulted hallway, framed by exquisite stone-work, into the courtyard of Wikala El-Ghuriya for…

…The Tanoura Cultural Show. The hour-long show had three acts, with the first act being a presentation of the various musicians and their instruments that create the rhythms and mood for the following acts of the Sufi dancers.

The facial expressions of this particular gentleman was fantastic. He took cymbal playing to a whole ‘nother level.

Ending his solo with a grande pose.

The intense expression of this drum player was contrasted by the almost comical act of the cymbal player.

Act 2 brought out the Tanoura dancers and introduced the colorful skirts that are a trademark of Egypt’s adaptation of the spinning Sufi dancers, compared to the white dresses of the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey. One origin of the dance is from the Sufi order of Mevlevi, that originated in Turkey in the 13th century by Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi. The story goes that when one day Rumi was walking through the bazaars of Persia (Iran) he became mesmerized when the beats of the hammers by the goldsmiths synced with the chanting of his followers in tow and caused him to start spinning, which put him into a trance-like state and has since been emulated by his followers.

The constant spinning, which each dancer did for about 15 minutes, puts them into a trance, which along with thinking of ‘god’ is supposed to get them to a nirvana-like state called Kemal (the source of perfection), where with no other thoughts in your mind, you can become pure. The dancers mesmerized the audience by manipulating the heavy skirts into flowing motions.

And after a few minutes, he detached the skirt, first dropping it to the ground, then picked it up and started whirling it around his neck. The patterns on the skirt helped create a hypnotic effect.

The third act took the demonstration one step further and introduced dancers with multiple skirts. The act of removing each layer symbolizes progressive stages of shedding earthly facets such as ego and desire and attaining a more pure form of being, that which is encapsulated by the idea of ‘god’. Note the foot-work of the dancers. It was amazing to see them spinning constantly for about 15 minutes and then stopping with no effects of dizziness or imbalance. Clearly a long training process is needed to become a Tanoura dancer.

The thought of dancers spinning non-stop for such a long time might sound monotonous, but actually, it was a highly engaging performance. The accompanying music varied its pace and intensity, which created a dynamism to the show. Here, the engaging cymbal-player is focusing his energy on this spinner who sped up to a tremendous rotation speed that left me in awe. They also whirled their heads around constantly, which must be such a strain on the brain.

One of the highlights was this strange spectacle of one skirt being expanded over the head. Besides the Turkish origin, another story states that the Tanoura spinning was introduced when the Fatimids conquered the area and created Cairo in 970 AD. Now for some Islamic history that ties in here: The Fatimid Caliphate was created by Ubayd Allah in 909 AD in present-day Tunisia, and he traced his genealogy back to Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad who was given in marriage to Muhammad’s cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, known simply as Ali and considered the first male convert to Islam (~7th century). Ali is revered by all three sects of the religion: Sunnis, Shias and Sufis.

If you’re not familiar with the difference between the various sects of Islam, they mainly stem from what importance they give to Ali. Shias (mainly in Iran and Iraq) believe Muhammad designated Ali as his successor and Sunnis (the majority of Muslims, including those of Egypt) believe Muhammad did not appoint anyone as his successor. From this difference stems all the hatred between these two sects captured by Saudi Arabia (Sunni) wanting to get rid of Iran (Shia) and vice versa. Sufis on the other hand are above these differences and choose to use mysticism to get closer to god, such as spinning into Kemal (the source of perfection).

At an energetic part of the third act, it appeared as if the dancers were jousting with each other by using the heavy, spinning skirts as an extension of their strength.

Besides attaining religious purity, Al Tanoura also had acts of showmanship with one-handed spinning going on here.

All of this was taking place in the great courtyard of Wikala El-Ghuriya, a 500 year old building that used to be an inn for travelers. The ambiance was excellent with the changing lights and the sharp rhythms bouncing off the stone walls.

Now that’s definitely just showing off: spinning a heavy skirt one-handed while lying down.

The show ended with a grand finale of the hypnotic skirts spinning into and out of each other and coming to an emphatic conclusion when the last skirt was dislodged, symbolizing the attainment of Kemal by the spinning Tanoura dancers.

And here’s the obligatory Egyptian Cat, who was also watching the performance from under the chairs or looking for his next meal.

Al Tanoura put on an exciting hour-long performance and being there in person was a deeply moving experience. I’m not a religious believer, but I can empathize with the search for purity sought after by continuous spinning and freeing your mind of human desires. This spiritual goal has developed in various cultures throughout human history with some calling it nirvana and others calling it god. Far from being an esoteric goal, I think human society would benefit if everyone sought to clear their mind for at least a few minutes each day and just concentrated on nothing, which if attained successfully would actually strengthen your mind. If you need to spin, invoke chants, sing hymns or meditate to get there is your choice, as long as the goal is Kemal and you harm no one else along the way. Ommmm.

Next: Egypt, Part 5: Islamic Cairo at Night

Previous: Egypt, Part 3: Cairo, City of Many Faces

Egypt, Part 3: Cairo, City of Many Faces

May 10 – 15, 2011

Cairo, known as al-Qahira in Arabic, is not only the capital of Egypt, but is considered the center of all Arabic politics and culture. That’s partly due to its long existence (since the 10th century) and also due to its massive size. It’s the largest metropolitan area in Africa and with only desert in its way, urban sprawl is bound to keep that title in Cairo.

Having a strong cultural heritage but being thrust into the modern world lends the city to have many different faces. In my two weeks here, I managed to experience a few of those different facets, ranging from age-old souks to modern clubs to dune-bashing and pyramid-gawking.

This first installment covers the first five days.


I stayed with Fabrice in the affluent neighborhood of Maadi, which is south of city center and his place is well connected by Cairo’s Metro system. It is the first and only metro system on the African continent and I was very pleased with how efficiently it ran, reflecting Egypt’s status as an emerging economy. The fare for a single ride cost LE 1.00 ($0.18).

Clock tower at the railway station with Eastern Arabic Numerals. I managed to learn them pretty quickly and could draw signs on my palm when buying something from a street vendor. 1 is pretty straightforward; 2 has two horns; 3 has three horns; then 4 is tricky, it’s a reverse three; 5 looks like a zero; 6 is again tricky, looking like a seven; 7 and 8 go together; 9 is straightforward; 10 is one and zero, which is a dot; 11 is two ones and 12 is one and a two. Simple. Yeah, I know it’s pretty late in the evening, but shops are open long into the night in Cairo.

I was heading downtown with these three other CouchSurfers who were also staying with Fabrice: Tiph and Flavien from France and Candela from Spain. They are all studying together in Athens and just came down for a week-long break. They arrived here just as the street protests were escalating in Athens due to the imposition of austerity measures by the government in fear of defaulting on their loans. Since Candela’s English wasn’t that proficient, we all spoke in Spanish, which helped me keep in touch with the language I learned through my many months in Latin America and lack of practice is what makes one forget a certain skill.

Arriving at the main subway station named after Anwar Sadat, the president before Mubarak. It’s located right under…

…Tahrir Square, the focal point of the Egyptian Revolution. It was here that three months ago, Egyptians of all strata in society gathered and demanded that their dictator step down. With the army on the people’s side, Mubarak had no choice but to realize his time was up. I felt nervous and excited to be so close to this hot bed of political activism. Seeing the pictures on TV and then standing here and understanding the significance of this location reminded me of the opportunity that overland travel presents, namely, to be living in history.

We walked down one of the side streets from Tahrir Square, looking for a place to eat dinner at 1 am. The orange glow from the street lights highlighted the French influences in this building.

We found some comfort food, Kosheri, served at the chain restaurant Tom and Basal. Here it was served with some tomato sauce to drizzle on top of the fried onions, chickpeas, rice, lentils and macaroni mash up.

After dinner, we sat at this street café overlooking Tahrir Square, having some sweet tea and smoking shisha through a hookah, which I might add originated in India in the 16th century.

Refreshing the hot coals that heat up the shisha (flavored tobacco molasses) with its smoke being drawn down into the water chamber, which acts as a filter for the smoke.

In the time we were there, people started gathering in the square and it was evident that things were not yet fully back to normal in Egypt. The people had realized the power that they hold in numbers against authority and following the stepping down of Mubarak, Egyptians repeatedly came back to Tahrir to voice their demands to the military council in charge of the transition. By the middle of May, Egyptians were getting restless with the slow pace of the council’s ability to bring Mubarak and his family to trial, accused of siphoning off billions of dollars during his thirty years in power.

The café closed down around 2 am and I like this shot for the depth added by the reflection in the standing water.

Cats, this time three of them, all absorbed in their own social drama, which looked like it mainly revolved around territory and who had first claim to rummage through the garbage. Candela was looking through my camera and commented that I mainly took pictures of food, roads and cats. Guilty.

The trains had stopped running by now and Fabrice told us not to pay more than LE 20 ($3.64) for a taxi back to Maadi. This guy was offering to take us back for only LE 10. It sounded suspicious, but he confirmed the price. We got in and as I usually do with cabbies, I started chatting him up. I had just finished my Michel Thomas Arabic language lessons and with the few phrases that I remembered, I struck up a simple conversation with him. He was eager to learn English and me, Arabic. We had a jolly old time and when we arrived, as I offered to pay him, he refused to accept and motioned that he was thankful for the conversation. Wow, a nice first impression of Cairennes (people of Cairo).

The next morning, I headed back into the city to take care of some trip administration: visa for Sudan. When overlanding, your top priority becomes visas, especially when traveling on an Indian passport. But I think from now on, things are going to be easier for an Indian passport, such as the good relations between India and Sudan. I grabbed some fresh bread for a breakfast on the go; seasoned with pollution can’t be that bad.

I wonder how he prevents people grabbing a fresh eesh baladi (Egyptian flat bread) and running off, especially guys on horse carriages. Bread is baked first thing in the morning and then these rapid deliveries bring them to various outlets around the city. He’s part of the food supply chain and I guess the Qur’an ensures that no one steals from him.

Some company for Manuel’s Lada Niva in Alex. I had to capture this garish bright blue against the predominantly earth tones of Cairo. I love the beefy look.

Downtown Cairo, with its lifeblood, the Nile flowing through it. Modern eastern Cairo on the right looking over at Zamalek, an older, affluent part of the city from the 15th May Bridge. After traveling more than 6,650 km (4,132 mi) from its sources, the longest river in the world has lost the battle with man and can’t purge his sewage quick enough. From here, the main trunk spreads out over the Nile Delta, a vast, fertile land that has fed the people through the eons. However, due to their unsustainable use, the Nile is one of the major rivers in the world that doesn’t flow to the sea some years, which has lead to a loss of Mackerel and other fish in the Mediterranean Sea (since the river delivers nutrients that form the food chain).

I arrived at the Sudanese embassy in Cairo and initially came to its formal entrance, with the lobby decorated with gold-painted chairs. When I motioned that I needed a visa, I was sent around the compound to the bourgeois entrance. The visa office resembled that of a bus station ticket counter.

The most expensive visa so far: one Benjamin to get into the land of the Sudan. The strange thing about this visa is that they require each applicant to get a letter of introduction from their local embassy. This is a very old protocol, from back in the day when bureaucratic formalities were not judged by their efficiency. Some western embassies no longer offer letter of introductions, stating that that’s the purpose of the passport. Something to this effect is also written in my passport, but it just goes to show how much India herself swims in bureaucracy that they did produce letter of introductions, costing another $14.

Getting some lunch while my visa was being processed. This is a machine to mix the base of falafel: chickpeas or fava beans along with herbs and spices. Note the prosthetic hand on the end of the spindle, which holds the wooden roller. In the name of efficiency, some genius came up with this contraption to replace a real hand. There’re tinkerers everywhere.

I got the visa stamped in my passport in 45 minutes and was thrilled to be done with that. With the visa officer singing a Hindi song when he saw my passport, I knew this would be a smooth process. Poor Americans, most of them have a tough time getting in, due to economic sanctions placed on Sudan by the superpower. Walking past The Mogamma building, which has been a fixture at Tahrir Square since 1952. It was a gift from the Soviet Union, who were trying to build an ally in Egypt and the Soviet-influence in the architecture is clearly evident.

A roadside book shop at Tahrir Square.

Being placed right next to new books on the January 25th Egyptian Revolution, The Da Vinci Code must still be a bestseller here. Note that the binding is on the right side, since Arabic script runs right to left.

One of many metro entrances at Tahrir square, leading down to Sadat station that occupies most of the roundabout, reminding me of the Charles de Gaulle-Étoile metro station in Paris, under the Arc de Triophme. The café from yesterday is under that yellow building.

At the other end of Tahrir Square is the mauve-colored Egyptian Museum, housing most of the famous finds from Egypt’s ancient past. Prominently behind it is a scar from the climax of the revolution: the burnt facade of the Interior Ministry. In it were housed records of all the torturing and abuse by Mubarak’s state security police, which kept the dictator in power. When Mubarak stepped down, it signaled the end of the party and records were ordered to be destroyed, especially those that could implicate Mubarak in war crimes. It was set ablaze on February 23 and again on March 22, 2011. As expected, the Interior Ministry blamed the fire on the protestors, who had nothing to do with it.

I explored up one of the main veins running from Tahrir Square and came across Café Riche, a long time establishment, steeped in history. It was here that some royals first met along with revolutionaries planning their activities in its basement.

I spent some time going over these photos from the Cairo of the 1930s. It showed a very sophisticated society, resembling that of Paris. Nowadays, there are plenty of flyovers bisecting the cityscape, in the name of appeasing the ever-increasing traffic. Click on it to see a larger version.

Café Riche’s prices were too riche for me, so I sat down across the street at Café Groppi, another old time establishment but with more reasonable prices. Groppi was also once the center of Cairo’s intellectual scene, but it showed signs of being weathered and felt quite drab. Service was also quite poor, but I was here to soak up the nostalgia and the architecture of this tea and pastry hall that opened in 1891. I imagined the kinds of crowds that would have packed these ahwah’s in the 1920s, just after the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 that lead to the end of British rule and independence in 1922.

Along with a pot of tea, I had this super sweet, flaky confectionery, soaked in honey, resembling baklava. I have a few cavities, but I still keep my sweet tooth happy with a heavy dose of sugar every once in a while.

Taxis in Cairo are pretty cheap and I noticed this ancient taxi meter from Halda in Sweden (who made pocket watches) on my way over to Islamic Cairo. If it works, why bother upgrading? I’m all for old mechanical devices surviving into this age of electronics.

Al-Zahar Masjed, the first mosque established in Cairo, back in 970. Its associated university is the world’s second oldest continuously running higher education facility (the first is in Morocco). As expected, it focuses on Sharia (Islamic Law) and Sunni theology. Over its millennium-long run, its architecture has been influenced by the changing tastes of Cairo’s rulers with some Ottoman and Mamluk influence in there. The landmark mosque is situated near the entrance to…

…Khan el-Khalili, the major souk (market place) of Cairo where almost anything can be found. I lost my sun hat in the subway and was told I could find one here and managed to do so. The souk has been a center of trade since 1382, allowing sufficient time for vendors to develop their hawking skills, who are quite aggressive.

The items on offer ranged from clothes to appliances and my favorite, spices and herbs of all kinds. I think these are different kind of tea leaves, with hibiscus flowers in the foreground.

Whatever that is, it looks good. We have something similar in India, which is sweet and taken as a snack.

Shops cashing in on nationalist pride after the successful January 25th revolution that brought down Mubarak. Note the props given to Facebook, being central to how protestors organized and communicated during the uprisal. It was a Facebook Page set up by an Egyptian Google employee, Wael Ghonim that was central in uniting the protestors and giving momentum to the movement.

Various items from the sea, ranging from huge shells to corals. I wish I spoke more Arabic to understand what they were used for, but probably they’re for decorating and I think some of the stones could be used as a bath scrubber.

The market lanes were wide near the main roads but got narrower the deeper I went into the maze of Khan el-Khalili.

Bird nests, which I think are used as a bath scrubber. The merchant was constantly pouring water on them to prevent them from drying out.

A whole range of spices that I had no idea as to their uses. It could be fun living here and trying out different spices every week. I bought some fresh cumin and coriander powder.

This was a strange-looking shop. The shopkeeper said these were all different perfume essences that were blended on the spot to match your needs and pheromones. Talk about a complete custom product and imagine the range of scents available.

Walking back to the metro, I noticed this public water dispenser. I was told that this is a way for Muslims to give alms to the needy, Zakat (one of the pillars of Islam), and as water is a precious resource in this desert climate, this act would be much appreciated by the public. Besides the negative impact from fundamentalists, there are a lot of positive acts that Islam instills in society and has done so for centuries. These are trying times for religion and hopefully the good parts survive.

The shops weren’t limited to Khan-el-Khalili, but extended to any available street front. And with each shop trying to get the attention of passers-by, it’s a cacophony of sound that can easily produce a headache. Note the satellite dishes mounted on the roof, beaming in one of myriads of Egyptian soap operas. They love their soaps as much as Latinos. Egypt is a mass-producer of Arabic entertainment for the entire region, comparable to Mexico for Latin America.

This is Fabrice and his dog, Conga. I stayed about two weeks with Fab as I had to take care of a few things in the city and thanked him for being so flexible and generous. He’s an expat petroleum engineer from France, but has lived very little of his life there. He was born and brought up in the Congo and Gabon and lived in Venezuela for a while. He said he’s probably heading to Russia next.

One evening, for dinner, we headed to the local French bakery, La Gourmandise in Maadi, a district in the city catering to many expat tastes. There’s also a German bakery putting out excellent bread. I waited with Conga outside while Fab picked up our orders of quiche.

Fab read about my chicken curry on my CouchSurfing profile and asked if I could prepare it for a dinner party. Sure thing. Fab hosts a lot of CouchSurfers and these three were also staying with him at the time. The guy in the white pants is Cody from Vancouver, who just finished a year in Nairobi developing a mobile-based news alert system for violence in the slums (preparing for a possible repeat of the 2007 post-election violence around the next elections in 2012). Since I was planning to spend some time in Nairobi, I picked his brain for info. The other two in the kitchen are Yasmin and Daniel, who just arrived on a bus from Jordan where they were volunteering at a Palestinian refugee camp. They were vegetarian, so they prepared their own dish.

The chicken curry came out pretty good, but not one of my best attempts. I had to cook for eight people this time, meaning two chickens in two pots.

Fab and his dinner guests happy to get their hands on some authentic Indian curry.

Being French, Fab is a cook himself and prepared this for dessert, which is a slice of meringue pie with a grilled banana topped with ice cream. Yum!

After dinner conversation and Cody is briefing everyone on what he’s going to pursue when he gets back home, namely, being a consciousness counselor. It’s a very small field, but basically he’ll be training high profile individuals (sportsmen, politicians, actors, etc.) on how to think better to perform the best in their job. He’s a very deep thinker and an articulate speaker. We had many interesting conversations and I wished him luck in training minds and raising awareness.

In my first few days in Cairo, I saw the many faces of this large city, spanning from images of its recent revolution to old souks to upscale neighborhoods. There are still many more faces of this city and I’ll be exploring some of those in the upcoming installments.

Next: Egypt, Part 4: Al Tanoura Spinning Sufis

Previous: Egypt, Part 2: Alexandria the City and Ride to Cairo

Egypt, Part 2: Alexandria the City and Ride to Cairo

May 8 – 10, 2011

I only spent 2 days in Alexandria as I had to get to Cairo quickly to sort out my visa for Sudan, which was reputed to be quite complicated. Plus, the Egyptian immigration officials only gave me a 72 hour transit visa compared to one month for the Dutch boys; talk about discrimination against developing countries. The Egyptian embassy in Paris said it would be no problem for me to get a one month visa on arrival. As expected, there isn’t clear communication between the foreign ministry and the immigration department.

I had a quick look around Alexandria and then headed down the Desert Highway to Cairo. Alexandria is famous in history for its great library and lighthouse, both of which don’t exist today. There’s a brand new modern library, but I wasn’t so keen on visiting it during my short time there.

Welcome to Alexandria. The five languages on the sign representing Egypt’s past: Hieroglyphics of the Pharaonic Age on the far right; Arabic, representing the spread of culture from across the Red Sea; English, from their British colonialists; French, from Napoleon’s incursion and Greek, for the initial establishers of this city, back in 331 BC, as a port in their empire across the Mediterranean.

Even though the city was founded more than 2,000 years ago, it’s been inhabited ever since and has changed with the times. This view characterizes the 20th century vision of towered apartment blocks for their efficiency in space, while neglecting the design’s flaws in blending in with the landscape. I walked across this bridge to buy a Mobinil SIM card and wondered how this scene looked when the river was clean and blue. Humankind has taken advantage of rivers and dumped the sewage of our societies in there. This is not an uncommon site in most developing country cities, such as my hometown of Chennai, where we have the Koovam River with its fragrance of fresh sewage.

Egypt’s currency, the Egyptian Pound, denoted as LE (French for livre égyptienne). With an exchange rate of USD $1 = LE 5.95, this LE 50 note is worth $8.40. The name and its symbol reflect colonial European influences in Egypt: a lasting French influence after Napoleon’s three year control of the region around 1800 on his way to India and the more recent influence of being a British protectorate in the early 20th century (to protect their access to India). The Egyptian Pound was initially pegged to the British Pound and then switched to the US Dollar (reflecting changing global superpowers) before being floated under tight controls. The front of the notes feature Islamic buildings with the value denoted in Eastern Arabic Numerals (Arabic script) and the reverse features Ancient Egyptian motifs with the value denoted in Hindu Arabic Numerals. What can be confusing is that Europeans and Americans refer to the modern numbers as Arabic numerals (because they were introduced by Arab merchants in the 10th century), but for the Arabs, these numbers are known as Hindu numerals, because it was introduced to them from India much before that (yes, the zero was conceptualized by Indians).

I wandered with the Dutch boys until we found this hole-in-the-wall cafe serving up fresh falafel for breakfast. Falafel is ubiquitous across the Middle East and is a fried patty or ball of chickpeas (garbanzo) with other beans, herbs and spices. It’s usually very cheap and enough food for 3 breakfasts cost just LE 4.50 (75¢). Falafel is said to have originated with the Christian Copts of Egypt as a replacement for meat during Lent. These days, it has spread around the world for that same purpose and who doesn’t love a fried snack?

The cafe had some other typical food such as fuul (fava beans), roasted eggplant and french fries. Boiled eggs and pickled vegetables were also available.

I wandered into the city in search of the Immigration office. I was told it would be no problem to extend my visa there. However, the lady behind the counter threw a fit and told me I had to leave the country and enter again with a new visa. Hmm, I couldn’t go to Libya (the war had broken out there). I wasn’t going to enter Israel, in case that affected my Sudanese visa and Jordan was too far away. While standing in line, a travel agent told me not to worry about it and said immigration officials hardly looked at the date when you left the country and if they did catch you, a small fee (bribe) would suffice. With no other option, I took his reassurance and left, content with being illegally in Egypt.

As I walked around, I couldn’t help but notice the vast amounts of garbage lying in places. This scene caught my attention because there’s a…

…cat rummaging through for food. He blends in quite nicely.

Alexandria has two tram lines (this is the Al Madina line) and they look just as dusty as the rest of the city.

But it does its job of getting people around for cheap. A single fare costs LE 0.25 (4¢). It is one of the oldest still functioning tram lines in the world, operating since 1860. The tightly packed buildings made me think of Paris and perhaps the influence is from when the French were here.

Time for lunch and I spotted this mobile fuul stand. The big pot, a qidra, is constantly heated, keeping its stew of mashed fava beans ready to be dished out in bowls. More than falafel, fuul is considered the staple food of Egyptians. It’s been part of the staple since Pharaonic times. The beans themselves are unflavored, but that’s what the various bottles of condiments are for. There was olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and other tasty toppings.

A simple lunch of fresh eesh baladi (Egyptian flat bread) with some seasoned fuul and a side of pickled vegetables. Note how the bread is just served on the table; time to add some local germs to the immune system. This lunch cost just LE 1 (18¢) and is the cheapest meal I’ve had on this trip, so far.

A small park with old designs in the heart of the city.

Besides the new crop of skyscrapers, most buildings in Alexandria look like this: brown in color and about 3-4 stories tall and usually spanning most of a city block. Again, resembling the Haussmann style of Paris.

These friendly men in an ahwah (Egyptian coffee house), smoking some shisha, were more than happy to have their picture taken. It’s very much part of the culture to take things slow and catch up with friends over some hot coffee or tea and flavored tobacco smoked through a hookah.

Garbage scene again, with a recycler going through the containers for anything valuable to sell.

A sidewalk store specializing in all things blenders. From complete used units down to every single moving part in a blender. You can’t get this kind of parts choice in a regular store.

This vendor of assorted goods sold me a lower back support (I lost my original one in the winds of Patagonia). He’s standing in front of the little structure that gets locked at night with all his wares.

After my day in the city, I took a minibus back to Manuel’s place near Green plaza. This is the standard mode of public transportation and fares cost about LE 1.25. I like the contrast between the minibus and the BMW 5 series, representing the socioeconomic range of Egyptians.

Inside the minibus and noting how this could be a scene from India. Egyptians look very much like Indians and within my first day here I was told that I looked like an Egyptian or North African. Excellent. My tactic of blending in wherever I go was going according to plan (only when I’m off my bike, that is).

A tour of the city from the minibus. A palm-lined park along the corniche by the sea.

The Mosque of Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, originally built in 1775 by Algerians over the tomb of the patron. It was rebuilt in 1943, giving it a gleaming new look. Hanging onto old ways, women are not allowed inside.

Taking the ring road highway around the city that was named after Alexander the Great, the Greek commander who stretched his Macedonian Empire from the Adriatic Sea to the Himalayas. There are about 20 cities named after him. He died only aged 32, but his name is emblazoned in history for the spread of Greek culture (and its philosophies) and his brutal military tactics. His weakened army threatened to mutiny against him just as he was about to enter the Indian subcontinent in 327 BC. As the name ‘Alexandria’ has too many syllables for quick conversation, people in the know refer to the city as ‘Alex’.

A modern flyover interchange, which I would be taking the next day on my way to Cairo.

That evening, I went out with Manuel to meet some other CouchSurfers for dinner. This is the corniche at night, providing a promenade for friends and couples. Note the half moon high in the sky.

Freshly roasted maize for a quick street snack.

The closed office of Libyan Arab Airlines, which was grounded following the start of the Libyan revolution in March of this year. The donkey cart in front symbolizing the tried and tested mode of transportation in this part of the world compared to the new, instant (by comparison) transportation by aeroplane.

Meeting up with Ylva and Felix from Sweden, CouchSurfers who were here to study Arabic. They had traveled on a timber-carrying cargo ship from Finland to Alexandria and were envious of my four week journey across the Atlantic.

A bowl of wholesome goodness: rice with macaroni, chickpeas, lentils and seasoned with fried onions and garlic. This dish is called Kosheri and is another staple of Egyptian food. It looks like a chef threw together whatever was left in the fridge one day and it became a hit (my kind of cooking). It tastes excellent and is a filling meal for LE 5. The concept was introduced to Egypt by British soldiers coming from India, where we have Khichdi, a comfort food of rice and lentils cooked together.

The next morning, the guards at Manuel’s apartment block wanted their picture taken as they tried this new type of skateboard with just two wheels. I was feeling the jovial Egyptian spirit that I had heard about and was happy to relinquish the sour experience of the Egyptians at customs and immigration.

My route map through Egypt, starting on the northern coast in Alexandria, heading thru Cairo, then onto the Oasis Route through the Western Desert, down to Luxor and exiting at Aswan. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

With a good mood about the people, I set off from Alexandria on the new Desert Highway to Cairo, 200 kms (124 mi) away. There’s an older Agricultural Route that passes through all the small towns of the Nile Delta, but I heard the traffic was intense with crazy drivers.

The crazy drivers were on this road, as well, but at least there were two or more lanes on either side. In a place where helmets and safety gear are not required, I look completely out of place, from outer space, but I told myself not to compromise on bodily safety during this trip.

This wasn’t the Agricultural Route, but nobody told this tractor, who’s driving like he owns the road. Note the cell tower. Even though the highway went through some remote desert, there were cell towers every few kilometers. The digital divide is slowly being bridged.

Stopping for a break and noticing that my recently installed adjustable sidestand was working itself loose.

After some water, I got ready to get going again and here you can see the contents on my left pannier as I strap in my kidney belt to aid in lower back support (wish it was black). My sandals are the last items to go in so that I can use them to keep everything else from rattling about.

Coming across a toll booth and happy to note that motorcycles don’t have to pay tolls in Egypt. Yeah.

A section of brand new four lanes of asphalt heading across the desert to Cairo. This was a Tuesday and the highway was empty in sections. I knew I should enjoy this peace before the…

…chaos of traffic in Cairo. I arrived in the capital within a few hours but it would take another hour to find my way to Maadi and my next CouchSurfing host. I had the Tracks4Africa GPS maps in my Garmin, but they’re lacking detail for northern Africa, especially in big cities, so I had to resort to the usual way of stopping and asking for lots of directions. Being inland from the coast, Cairo was noticeably hotter than Alex and while my heavy meshed-gear is efficient at keeping me cool while moving, I quickly heat up in traffic jams, along with the air-cooled motor of sanDRina. The roads here are barricaded by concrete walls and once every last inch is taken up by traffic, things come to a halt. This is marked as a two lane bridge.

There was no alternate route as every road looked like it too was jammed. This image through a steel barricade best represents the feeling of being trapped in traffic.

I wish I could’ve spent a few more days in Alexandria but I think I got a good taste for the city. I had made it to Cairo and now the mission was to get a visa for Sudan, then I could relax and take in the city and its sights.

Next: Egypt, Part 3: Cairo, City of Many Faces

Previous: Egypt, Part 1: Alexandria’s Port and Intro

Egypt, Part 1: Alexandria’s Port and Intro

May 7, 2011

I arrived on the African continent by my preferred way of entering new continents: by sea. I love the notion of having to cross water bodies in order to arrive in a new land. There is something romantic about that, harking back to the original explorers in our past. And I guess it’s especially poignant in today’s age of instant transportation by aeroplane. Long live slow travel.

The three day voyage from Venice abroad the vehicle ferry, Visemar One, gave me sufficient time to focus on and get excited about arriving in Alexandria and entering Egypt. Besides the deeply entrenched bureaucracy (thanks to its colonialists), I was a bit apprehensive to see how the situation would be on the ground of this recently liberated nation.

At the beginning of 2011, as I was getting ready to leave South America, I was eagerly following the people power movement of the Arab Spring. After Tunisia’s success in overthrowing their long-time autocratic leader, Egypt picked up the torch and surprised everyone by successfully overthrowing their autocratic leader, Hosni Mubarak, that too after just 18 days of protest that began on January 25, 2011. He had led Egypt for the past 30 years and like every other charismatic leader of the peoples, after the first few years in office, he got more and more self-obsessed until he was ruling like a dictator. But a new age has arrived of information transparency, thanks to social construction of knowledge that empowers oppressed citizens to act leaderlessly in the hope of a more democratic society.

On February 11, 2011, Mubarak stepped down and no one (inside and outside the country) knew what would happen next. Egyptians never thought the day would come where they could vote freely and now the country is slowly progressing towards elections. The population has been reinvigorated by the collective power they hold over traditional authority.

Egyptians are known as a friendly people and therefore, the security situation wasn’t a concern for foreigners after power was given to a military council that was tasked in leading the country through this transition. The revolution scared off most of the tourists, who generate income for a large number of Egyptians. Now the country was eager to let the world know that they were open and ready to show off their historical and natural treasures.

I got confirmation from other overland travelers and the CouchSurfing community in Cairo that things were back to normal and it was completely safe to travel through Egypt once again. I also felt like I was doing my part in showing the world that things were indeed safe on the ground by choosing to travel through Egypt in such a fresh, political climate. Actually, I didn’t have much choice after the door to Morocco was closed to me, but yeah…

I took a lot of pictures over my four weeks through Egypt and the first installment covers my processing through Alexandria’s port and pictures of life in the city from that first day in a new country and culture.


Getting ready to ride off the Visemar One and realizing that the customs officials had dropped sanDRina while looking for the chassis number and broke her windscreen. This happened while we were still upstairs being processed through immigration and initial customs procedures. This was already the second incident, in my few minutes of arriving in Egypt, where the customs officials did me wrong. A careless officer wrote the information of a Mercedes car in my carnet (customs passport for the bike), rendering one page of this very expensive document useless. I took a few breaths and let it go, but then came down to see this. What irritated me even more was their reluctance to accept responsibility for this damage. I had read all about Egypt’s corrupt and incompetent officials and told myself not to let this affect my first taste of Egypt.

In case you’re wondering what that sticker is on the front of the bike, it’s a graphical representation of a Mandelbrot set with fractal properties of self-similarity. That means that this mathematical equation creates shapes on its edges that are a replica of the larger image and this goes on to infinity. I like it because I think it represents a model of how our Universe is structured, as in the model of an atom resembles the structure of our solar system, which resembles our galaxy and so on. We just happen to exist on this particular plane, where I have to deal with customs now.

Rolling off the Visemar One and into the port of Alexandria. The next set of pictures are captures from my GoPro helmet camera since photos aren’t allowed in ports, due to security reasons, but bikers are exempt.

Lining up next to the ship for…

…a scan from a mobile X-Ray unit. They’re supposed to check for hidden compartments in containers for weapons and other contraband. Glad they didn’t find my machete 🙂 Don’t worry, I moved away before the rays got me.

And then a sniff from a German Shepherd for a drug scan. Good thing he’s not trained to identify curry powder, cause that’s a no-no across borders (quarantine issue).

Riding off with Martijn on his BMW F650. He and his friend, Ralph, are traveling from the Netherlands to South Africa and they have about three months for their trip.

Our port authority escort to make sure we wouldn’t ride off without being processed through properly.

We realized the port complex is a huge area and now we’re entering the customs declaration area.

Back near the water and that’s the Mercedes, a CLS500, whose info got wrongly put in my carnet. Belongs to an Egyptian, living in Switzerland, who’s driving to Saudi Arabia for business. We were chatting on the ship and it sounded like he wasn’t too fond of the recent revolution, obviously because things were well-suited to the rich during Mubarak’s time, but now the common people have taken back the country.

Our customs handler, making us sign forms that we had nothing to declare.

Having a quick look at our belongings. My machete is at the bottom of that pannier and no one has found it through the numerous police searches that I’ve been through since Bolivia. I figure I’d say it was for cutting up chickens.

Done with part 2 and riding by some customs officials, dressed in all white. They must use a lot of bleach.

And finally the last part, being processed through at the vehicle import facility. This was the head of the customs office and I tried to get him to compensate me something for his boys rough handling my sanDRina and breaking her windscreen. But I didn’t want to put up too much resistance as my carnet was a little dodgy with extra stamps on it for Egypt and had to let it slide.

There was lots of waiting around. Ralph and Martijn admiring sanDRina’s large presence and all the extra tubes at the back. For a place that gets very little rainfall, the clouds looked quite ominous and we even felt some rain drops but luckily it stopped there. There was a new country to enter outside the port and lots of new information to process, which rain would just add to the complexity.

Ready to roll out and checking out my temporary Egyptian license plate, zip-tied over my US plate. Egypt is the only country that I know of that still requires temporary foreign vehicles to get local license plates. I think they hang on to their deep bureaucracy because it allows for more fees to be collected and opportunities for bribery, as in ‘oh, you lost your license plate, that’s a $100 fine…’

Finally leaving the Port of Alexandria, a city unto itself.

“What, you want to see my papers? But I just got processed through, it’s raining, I’m running out of fuel…” “Ok, ok, just go.”

Rolling on the streets of Alexandria. I love the feeling of the first few kilometers in a new country, especially on a new continent. So many new things to process: how do people drive here, do they respect motorcycles, what are the rules of cutting through traffic, how do pedestrians act, etc.

Crawling through traffic and seeing these guys buzz by on a scooter with both of them looking at this strange motorcycle and its alien pilot. Ok, this tells me helmets aren’t enforced and you don’t really need to see where you’re going in Egypt. I would follow them, but I like to give myself a day or two in a new country before riding like a hooligan.

Brave chap for cutting through traffic with his metal cart and just a hand raised.

Hello, ladies. While Egyptians are predominately Muslim, they’re a bit more moderate than their neighbors in terms of covering up their women. These girls are wearing either a hijab or shayla. A niqab or burka is the full body covering for more conservative people.

We rode around town until we could find a place to park the bikes. Martijn’s bike was suffering from an electrical problem (bad rectifier) and since he couldn’t work on the bike while at sea, this had to get taken care of right away. I also had to wait a few hours for my CouchSurfing host to be done with work. I parked my bike in such a way to create a space for some street repairs.

If you subscribe to the ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ philosophy, then going on a bike trip means knowing how to fix most of the problems with your bike. Martijn was prepared with a spare rectifier and he prepped the wires on the ship for a quick job.

That’s the rectifier hanging lose. Its purpose is to bleed off the excess current that comes from the engine’s generator, before it damages any of the other electronics, so that’s why this is an important repair job.

Final connections for a healthy electrical system.

Of course, this whole repair job was going on in the midst of crazy Alexandria traffic and its cacophony of sounds. And we sure drew a lot of attention. Only later did we realize that this was the main square of the city, Raml. Friendly locals were coming up and asking where we were from, where we were going, etc. Ralph is mimicking this guy’s excitement while Martijn checks to see that his bike is running fine now.

Looking out across Raml square to the open sea behind there. And yeah, my first impression of Alexandria was that it’s not really a clean city. They had garbage cans everywhere, but they were over-flowing, maybe a feature of the post-revolution times, where government workers cared less now that authority had been usurped.

We were starving and I got us some chicken shawarma sandwiches (like gyros). This is stacks of meat roasted on a turning spit by a fire lamp that is shaved off in thin slices and wrapped in pita or a sandwich bun.

Ready to roll as it got dark. Yeah, we realized that we parked right in front of the KFC, yuck.

We met up with my CS host, Manuel (on the left) and I asked him if it was ok to bring along these two Dutch bikers, which was cool with him. Manuel is a French engineer, who’s working here for a company that produces roofing material.

After showering up, we went out to grab some dinner, but first, some fresh orange juice.

Meals on wheels and hooves.

This donkey was dragging around some fuul, the staple of quick Egyptian food.

We would eat that pretty soon, but for the first night, we went for some store-bought food.

The friendly faces at GAD, an Egyptian fastfood chain serving up…

…little sandwiches of falafel and fuul along with roasted aubergines (eggplant/brinjal).

The cats of Alexandria. I noticed there were no stray dogs around and in their absence were…

…lots and lots of stray cats. This kitty was just sitting on a busy sidewalk and not perturbed a bit by the nearby stomps.

Walking back to Manuel’s place with some beers and noticing his car, a Lada Niva. It’s a Russian built 4×4 that was very popular from the late 70s onwards for being a cheap, robust, off-road vehicle. When it was launched, it was one of the first vehicles to feature a unibody and independent front suspension. However, quality varies a lot and Manuel’s Niva was in need of some repairs. He said when it was running fine, he could it get it up to 160 kph (100 mph), with bolts and doors rattling to break free. Ladas are produced locally in Egypt and that’s one of the reasons for the high vehicle import fees, to protect the local auto industry.

That was a good first day in Egypt and I was looking forward to trying more of the local food and meeting the friendly Egyptians that I’d heard a lot about and putting away the sour first experience at the port customs. I was also eager to find out how things had changed on the ground after the revolution that was showcased to the whole world.

While I was thrilled to finally be on the African continent, Egypt to me is part of the Middle-East and is geopolitically part of North Africa and Arabic culture. I was already putting my Arabic language lessons from Michel Thomas into use.

Next: Egypt, Part 2: Alexandria the City and Ride into Cairo

Previous: Crossing the Mediterranean on Visemar One