Temples, Tombs and Subterfuge
Posted on January 7, 2015
Upon arrival in Wadi Halfa, we sought out a fixer named Mazar Mahir who had helped some of the other travelers we’d met along the way. By pure chance we ran into him at the open-air restaurant we stopped at for dinner. We pitched our tent in his yard and he got the paperwork organized for crossing the border the next day and even fed us breakfast the next morning. If all that Mazar did for us wasn’t enough already he even managed to find a half used front tire for the bike left by another traveler. This totally saved our bacon, since the front tire was already starting to show steel belting and there was nowhere in sight that we might find a new one. Thanks Mazar!
Getting out of Sudan was harder than getting in and we were glad to have Mazar at our side during the two hour-long process.
I’d intentionally left Egypt off of the Carnet, since they required a deposit of 800% of the vehicle’s value. Not that it mattered anyway, since the document was already expired. So off we marched into the quagmire of Egyptian customs holding a document with Egypt clearly crossed off on the back cover, expired by more than two months, and containing a bunch of new pages that we’d obviously altered, printed, and inserted ourselves. This seemed like a terrible idea.
Getting through Egyptian customs mostly involved walking back and forth between offices having people fill out the same information on different forms and put their super special stamp on it. It started simply enough, with the man holding the exit stamp examining the Carnet. He shuffled me off to another office to fill out another form and then to an office that contained a guy with no forms and no stamps who seemed to simply look after a box of money sitting on a table. They told me it would cost t $75 USD to stamp the Carnet. I still don’t know whether or not I got the standard western tourist routing or received special treatment because they noticed the discrepancies on the Carnet. This was only the beginning of a process that eventually produced a dossier of a dozen forms each filled out by a different guy in a different office. Each of these form filler-outers had a big boss who required some baksheesh for final approval. I sweated every single one as the Carnet sat there on their desk, just waiting for our forgery to be discovered.
We finally got to the biggest of the big bosses, a large, slope-browed fellow who seemed to have his game face on. He sent me back to the first office that I’d visited four hours prior to get another stamp on one of the bits of paper in the dossier. By the time I returned it was time for lunch. After an hour, the big boss of the big bosses returned from lunch and quickly noticed that my California bike registration was expired. I thought it only a matter of moments before he examined the Carnet closely enough to notice that it too was expired. When he pushed the Carnet aside, I willfully resisted the urge to snatch it from the desk. The seconds that ticked by felt like minutes as he scowled at the other documents. He finally looked up, smiled and boomed a hearty ‘Welcome to Egypt” and sent me off to collect two car sized license plates that we’re supposed to carry around with us now. I would have accepted a car-sized spare tire to carry around if it would get us away from that border.
We spent two days riding along the banks of the Nile and the canals the radiated away from its life-giving waters, turning barren land into cultivated fields flanked by villages. Wild camping was no longer a very good option as alongside the Nile there was rarely a break in the villages, so we rode long days to reach Luxor where we would catch our first views of the remnants of Egypt’s ancient civilizations.
We rode to the Nile’s west bank of and up into the Valley of the Kings where all the tombs of famous pharaohs like Ramses III and Tutankhamen can be found. During the Middle Kingdom of the Egyptian empire, royalty had become wary of conspicuous above ground tombs like the great pyramids of Giza. To thwart would-be raiders and conquerors from making off with all of the pharaoh’s treasures bound for the afterlife with them, they constructed their tombs well hidden below the mountain in the Valley of the Kings.
Wandering the ruined temples of Luxor is nothing less than spellbinding, with everything constructed on a colossal scale. As we walked through the relic of Karnack, I marveled at the fact that everything we stepped through was built by people’s hands, thousands of years ago. Imagine an adventurer coming from some small village far away to set eyes on this place at the height of it’s glory. They would have heard stories of the place from others, but I can’t imagine that words could convey what they would have found here. It sets the mind to wonder what will be left when our time is finished. Will a future civilization wander the ruins of Manhattan wondering what life was like for people strolling across Times Square?
Egypt generally appears to be not far removed from a police state, with frequent checkpoints outfitted as bunkers with healthy garrisons of personnel, armored vehicles and heavy artillery. You get the feeling everywhere that they are prepared for some massive civil unrest to kick off at any moment. In fact, we weren’t able to get far from Luxor without a full police escort. Annoyed, I asked, ‘Why do we need an escort?’ From the scowling police trooper came the curt reply ‘Danger for you’. To us the prospect that there was some particular danger to us as tourists seemed a bit silly but we weren’t given much of a choice as the police truck carrying two guys with assault weapons in the back became a fixture in my rear-view mirror.
We lost them a couple of times, which was a welcome reprieve so that we could stop for something to eat, take a photo or just have a piss without an audience. But each time we would pick up a new tail at the next checkpoint. Their demeanor and the way that they passed us off from one group of police to the next at each checkpoint began to feel like we were espionage agents being covertly delivered to a safe house. Whenever they deemed to drive in front of us, the guys in the back of the truck were making this expression with their hands that I normally associate with Italians talking animatedly about food, with the palm upturned, fingers squished together, and the hand bouncing up and down while staring our direction with a pinched look. People were doing this to us in all different contexts so we had absolutely no idea what they meant. We figured it either meant slow down, speed up, or they’d just had some really good felafel for lunch.
In their zeal to protect us from other Egyptians (that so far had only wanted to buy us lunch, have tea, and take photos with us), the police created a real danger for us. When we were delayed at checkpoints waiting for the pass-off to the next group of police heading into the town of Asyut, the sun went down and forced us to ride for hours after dark. About half of drivers in Egypt prefer not to use their headlights, and some of those are motorbikes riding the wrong way along the shoulder of the road. People are constantly having near misses and we saw two motorbike accidents on the roadside. Islamist extremists notwithstanding, this was probably the most dangerous thing that we could choose to do in Egypt. The cloak and dagger routine didn’t end when we found a place to stay in Asyut. We managed to lose them coming into town, but before long we peeked out the window to see the police truck sitting in front of the guesthouse. They even insisted on following us to dinner and a restaurant half a block away, within sight of the guesthouse. The next morning there they were, ready to resume the spy game routine all the way to Cairo.
Our campsite in Cairo was a dusty compound attended by a huge, lovable Rottweiler called Magic who spent his nights trying to bulldoze his way inside our tent. Cairo is a city 20 million strong and we didn’t relish the prospect of making our way into the heart of the city to visit the museum, so we camped outside the city and took the train in. Temperatures plummeted when the sun went down and we spent our nights shrinking to the bottom of our sleeping bags trying to keep out the cold.
Traffic in Cairo generally does not stop, but only slows down, and the only way to cross five lanes of traffic is to simply walk out in front of cars hoping for the best. It seems to defy reason, but you constantly see people walking straight into the street paying no attention whatsoever, talking on their phone, wholly dependent on the drivers hurtling towards them not running them down. We called them blockers. After standing by on the curb waiting for breaks in traffic that just didn’t come, we got a sense of the rhythm in Cairo, and like the locals, we stepped out into traffic leaving our fate to Allah. With the aid of some good blockers we were walking… like Egyptians. Sorry. Had to be said.
At tourist attractions like the Pyramids of Giza, we were often asked by Egyptian tourists if they could take photos with us. There weren’t many western tourists around, but still it was fairly baffling for us. Jamie and I are now surely plastered on random Facebook pages across Egypt.
As we rode north from Cairo out onto the Sinai Peninsula, the landscape became increasingly desolate and militarized. We rode through a tunnel that went beneath the Suez Canal, and tried to take a road across the north end of the Sinai, but were turned back at a heavily armed military post. Instead, we had to ride all the way to the southern tip of the Sinai and come back up the other side. The scene became distinctly more biblical feeling.
We finally arrived at our destination of Dahab, a windsurf and diving mecca of sorts, and found a place out of the wind to park it for a few days. We found some masks and snorkels and rode up and down the Red Sea coast looking for interesting bits of reef to explore with the mountains of Saudi Arabia across the water as a backdrop.