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Egypt and the Men in Black

Updated: Feb 9, 2023

I write this sitting at the train station cafe with 4 policemen within 2 metres of us. What a ridiculous situation we find ourselves in. Egypt has been a bit of a crazy experience so far. We feel challenged for sure, but also learning a lot about the culture of control in this Arab country, which feels starkly contrasted to the lovely people we have met here.

One of our best camp spots in Egypt so far



Emma and I arrived in Cairo 3 weeks ago, having flown from Athens. Flying with bicycles in boxes proved to be quite a lot of effort, but it worked out well in the end. We planned on staying in Cairo for 3 or 4 nights, at a hostel, in order to see a bit of the city and organise our Sudanese visas. We really enjoyed the energy of the city, and despite it being very touristy in places (understandably), we got a good feeling from this biggest city in Africa. 20 million people live and sleep in the city, and during the day an extra 5 million commute in and out (that’s more than the whole populations of Berlin or Cape Town commuting). We ended up in Cairo for 8 days; we kept on having to extend our stay because the Sudanese visa was mildly complicated. We spent 3.5 full days at the embassy; the only word to describe the place is chaos. There was no information available to us as to what to do, aside from word of mouth from fellow strugglers and some helpful reviews on Google. The various mysterious metal windows opened at completely random times and we never knew what the window openings would allow us to do. When they did open, there was a rush of bodies and papers being shoved towards the person inside. Long story short, we finally received the stamp $300 later, and were very keen to get out the city. The good thing about the hours spent waiting cluelessly around was that we met some cool people, including 2 cyclists who were in the same position as us. Jeremy had travelled here from Australia with all his gear aside from a bike, and was finding it very difficult to find one in the city. Arturo had just arrived from Spain and we would cross paths with him further down the Nile.


These would be the first kilometres we cycled on the African continent. We were excited to get going, yet at the same time apprehensive. Egypt is notorious amongst bicycle travellers for being very heavily policed; for the lack of freedom to go where you want without being followed everywhere and being forced to stay in hotels. We had heard of 2 cyclists who had left Cairo in the last month and been sent back to the city and forced to take the train instead. 3 Italians on a Cairo-Cape Town WhatsApp group had reported that they had been caught on day 2 and had to fight with the police to let them continue cycling, eventually settling to be followed all the way down the country by police escort. The apparent reason for this surveillance of tourists is that Egypt is heavily reliant on tourism, and after some events in the past where tourists were injured or killed there was a sharp decline in tourism which hurt their economy. That is the official reason. Another reason might be that the police do not like people doing things differently; cycling and camping are both not very common here. Much better to fly in, stay at an expensive hotel, see the famous pretty sights by air-conditioned bus and fly out again.

Emma at sunset



We left Cairo on a Friday morning, the 1st weekend day in Egypt (Friday and Saturday are the weekend days here for religious reasons). Friday mornings are beautifully quiet in the city, and we were happy to have less traffic on the normally crazy roads. However, we were also told last minute that on Friday’s there is aways a bigger police presence because in the past revolutionary action and protests occurred on these days. We cycled for 20kms through small back roads, dodging police checkpoints by taking spontaneous last-minute turnoffs. We did get stopped by one, but he allowed us to continue. 

The outer suburbs of the city were full of life, friendly greetings, and extremely rough roads and the rivers and empty spaces between lanes were thickly clogged with rubbish; the water that oozed through looked like crude oil. 95% of Egypt’s 109 million people live along the Nile and in the delta. This means a very high population density, and we certainly experienced this over the next days; we could literally not find a place to stop and pee, and our lunch breaks were always with an audience of 10+ people, mostly kids, always friendly and persistently keen to chat to us in Arabic no matter how many times we tried to explain that we unfortunately have no clue what they were saying. Emma and I realised that we had been quite spoilt by the empty spaces and solitude of travelling in the Balkans. In the next days we would meet very friendly people of all ages, but we would slowly become quite exhausted by the constant attention and interactions and noise, however well-intentioned it was. Emma and I are both naturally more introverted people; the constant social  stimulation would become quite draining, and escaping to the desert to sleep was a necessary break. 


The first night on the road we were invited by 15 year-old Omar to eat and sleep at his family’s home in a small village. This was a fascinating experience for us. We were fed a meal that was easily enough for 4 people which consisted of bread, tomatoes, rice, 2 different sauces and pickled vegetables. We met about 20 family members throughout the evening, and 15 or so of Omar’s friends. We were to see how useful Google translate would be, even though we were trying to learn the basics of Arabic. The broken conversation ranged from football (about which we are pretty clueless aside from Bafana Bafana); to why we don’t eat meat; to why we don’t have jobs and are not yet married with children at the ripe old age of 25 and 27; to whether Emma would like to convert to Islam, to how good Omar’s mom Zahara’s food was; and why we should not sleep in the desert (wolves, apparently). We slept in the social space on a bed they made for us on the floor, and were given breakfast of Egyptian falafel called tamaye (as it’s known in the smaller villages), bread, and tomatoes and tea, which we ate on the open rooftop where the chickens, ducks and goat also lived. Meeting Omar and his friends and family was a really great experience which demonstrated the extreme hospitality of Egyptians; trying to imagine this happening in Europe was a bit of a stretch (of course we felt very welcome most of the time in Europe but the ease with which we were accepted and honoured here was new to us). 



The next night we spent camping in the desert. This was great because we got a moment to breath, and we watched a beautiful sun setting right next to a pyramid of sorts on the horizon (Egypt has over 100 pyramids, those at Giza are just the largest, most well known, and best preserved). Sleeping in the desert (we think) is not legal in Egypt, and so we tried to keep a low profile; trying not to be seen heading off the road to a spot (difficult, with so many people around), and also pushing 200-500m through the thick sand behind some mounds or dunes. We both had the feeling that we didn’t really want to leave our peaceful spot the next morning to go back into the noise. This would be something we felt each time we were able to camp in the desert. However, when a helicopter started doing some big circles around us we packed up Asap and hit the road. When 4 fighter jets also appeared we thought they were probably occupied with something better than 2 stinky cyclists :)

Our trusty camp chair. We are happy to be out here away from the crowds.



We had just heard from Arturo our Spanish friend that he had been caught at a police checkpoint the day before, and sent back 40km in the back of a truck to sleep in a hotel. He had managed to leave the hotel early to evade the police again. Jeremy, who was heading to the Red Sea had also been caught on his 2nd day of cycling and sent back to Cairo with a warning of being deported from the country if he tried to leave the city on his bike again. So we were a little on edge to say the least. For the next 5 days we would stay almost exclusively on very small back roads, often feeling as if our bikes and skeletons were being shaken apart by the rough corrugated roads; progress was slow but we still had the freedom to move without a police escort. We met up with Arturo later that evening after a long 70kms; he had scouted a spot behind a power station in an old landfill rubbish site. That night my shoe was stolen by a jackal, but I luckily found it 50m from camp the next morning with only the laces chewed off. We travelled about 65kms a day for our first 6 days in Egypt, often having to go far off-route to find any quiet potential wild camping spot away from the constant towns and agriculture. We joked that we should make a poll on the Cairo-Cape Town WhatsApp group about the longest time anyone had been able to cycle without the cops; we were on day 6 with only a few very close shaves.



On day 6, about 300kms from Cairo, we had just found a beautiful secluded spot after a long day in the sun and extreme social stimulation from people the whole day. The sun was setting and we were excited to be there. Then we heard a Tuk-Tuk approaching. 2 older men, presumably farmers, had followed our tracks and found us. They were not happy with us being there (even though we were not on their land), and were making phone calls while glaring at us and asking for our passports. We said we would leave, but they wouldn’t let us. They indicated that they were calling the police, and when we tried to cycle away from them fast down the road in the dark they first chased us on foot and then caught up with us on their motorbikes with 4 other people tagging along, blocking our way. 2 police trucks and about 15 men arrived after some time and after negotiating in broken English and Google Translate we agreed it was fine that they took us to a hotel in Dirot City, 30kms away. We packed our bikes into their trucks, and drove with them, until they stopped at a big police station. They gave us chairs to sit on and told us to wait. We waited 45 minutes, and were then told to follow the cop car “go fast”, they said. We could manage 15kms to Dirot, we thought. Then their car broke down and we had to help them push start it 3 times before they got a replacement car. “No photos”, we were told, and yep I would have been a bit embarrassed as well. Finally we got to the outskirts of the city, but we don’t go into it, we go around it and start heading South along the Nile, on the big highway. We could not communicate with them because they couldn’t speak English, and because we were on a highway and they were in a car in front of us. We cycled 20kms without stopping, until they were forced to stop because they needed air in their tyres. Here I asked where on Earth we were going and they said Asyut, which was still 55km away. 

At this point we had cycled 75km that day already and it was 9pm. We got the feeling these men were not such big cyclists and didn’t understand it was a bit more of a tiring activity than sitting in a car. So we said “no ways, we can’t do that”. Finally, the main guy says “okay fine, in 2km you can sleep”. The people in charge also keep changing every 10kms, so there is certainly some broken telephone going on, we wonder what each new policeman thinks about the whole story. So we agree to continue. After 2kms we are promised it is only 1.5kms to go. We don’t quite understand why we need to continue because we passed a city as well as many smaller places which surely had some form of accommodation, and have tried to explain that we need just a simple place to sleep. But we don’t get an answer. Finally he says no no, there is actually no hotel, we have to continue to Asyut. So we stuff the bikes and all the bags into the back of a bakkie (pickup truck). We walk with him slowly down the road because there is no space for us in the bakkie, and we have the distinct feeling he is making things up on the go. He then decides to pull over a Tuk-Tuk, and so we speed away down the highway, feeling quite unstable with 5 people in the small vehicle. All the way to Asyut, we assume. But nope. 10kms further we stop at another police checkpoint; we are now the responsibility of the police in the next region. So we unload everything and now need to fit everything into a smaller bakkie with a canopy. They squash our bikes in, trying various positions and us just trying to protect the derailleurs and spokes from snapping. Finally, with the wheels hanging out the back and 3 bikes horizontally on top of one-another we head off. Another 10km, next police stop. Unpack and repack bags again into a new vehicle, the bicycles go onto the back of a big truck that they have pulled over. Another 10kms and we are on the outskirts of Asyut. Here, we need to change again. The cheap hotel which we have found is still 9km, but they only have space for our bags in their car, so we cycle the last stretch into the city. When we arrive at the hotel, it is 12pm and we have cycled over 90kms; 30 of them unscripted and in the dark. We are told that we need to notify the police when we want to check out, they will be following us closely from now on. The whole thing was ridiculous, funny, exhausting and eye-opening at the same time. We eat some falafel and are in bed by 1:30am. Emma and I later agree that this was the most challenging day of the last 3.5 months of our journey so far. 

Arturo looking ultra happy at the train station cafe where I wrote this blog post



We decide we will spend 2 nights in the hotel, we are quite exhausted after 6 days of cycling and the previous nights events. The next morning we want to go get some groceries but the receptionists don’t allow us to leave and call the police, we have to wait for them and get shouted at when we try buy some water at a shop 10m away. When they arrived, we get shouted at to hurry up. From then on, we went to go buy some fresh juice, some legumes, and other groceries, all the while being followed by 1 policeman on foot and another 2 in a cor, regularly stopping the traffic and going in the wrong direction of traffic flow and using their sirens to force others out the way. The man on foot has a notepad and we think he is making notes about what we do. That evening, we are continously asked by reception where we are going the next day and what time we are leaving. We try to not tell them because we think we might still be able to evade the police (we realise this is pointless because they are watching us the whole time and we are on the 2nd floor so cannot get out the hotel quickly with our heavy bikes and bags). The next morning we have a police escort, and are promised we can follow the smaller road next to the desert that we want to. However, they take us straight onto the main road and we follow this for the rest of the day. When we get to the town that we have booked an Airbnb in, the latest change-over of police become quite suspicious. The concept of staying in someone’s spare room has obviously thrown a spanner in the works. After finally finding the place and the host coming down to meet us and about 30 phone calls and all sorts of questions asked, we can go up to the Airbnb (which is on the 5th floor). The cops come up with us, and spend about 45 minutes inspecting the house and asking questions and making more phone calls. We are told there will be someone outside the front door the whole night and we will be followed again the next morning. Our host, Ibrahim, tells us that the police are highly unpopular because of their controlling and forceful manner, yet people have to be friendly and cooperative with them.

The welcoming committee for when we leave the Airbnb


The next day we are followed closely but the changeovers are relatively smooth. We are very embarrassed by the whole situation. As soon as we enter towns, they put on their sirens to announce our arrival (and their importance, we suspect), and people look at us very differently compared to when we were travelling alone on the smaller roads through the villages. We fear that locals’ perception might be that we are afraid to be travelling here, and have requested the police to escort us through this ‘dangerous’ place. We have not once felt unsafe or threatened in this country, aside from by the police themselves. When asked what the danger is, the standard response is “dangerous, dangerous” or “wolves and dogs” or “don’t worry about this issue” or “for your own safety”. We are not so sure. When we want to stop for lunch, it becomes problematic. We have cycled 30kms, but are told that we can only stop in 15kms time for a break. After saying we are tired, they say 5kms or 3kms. We try stop next to the road but are not allowed. They say we have to stop at a chai restaurant, so when we see one we stop, but we are not allowed to stop here either for some reason. I am usually able to remain patient but am quite annoyed by this point. As people who live in a relatively free society, we are un-used to being pushed around and demanded to do things against our will. We wonder what it is like to live under this regime of police control. We are finally allowed to stop. Later that evening at the hotel, we wanted to go walk in the city to get some Koshary (delicious Egyptian dish of rice, pasta, lentils, chickpeas, tomato sauce and lime and garlic sauce). When we go down to reception there is a man waiting for us with a big shotgun. We have to wait 25 minutes for his backup to arrive. They follow us in a car with 4 policemen, tell the waiters something, escort us to a table upstairs, then wait outside the restaurant. We are again embarrassed by the unnecessary attention and ‘special care’ we seem to need. No blending in here. Meanwhile, we try to understand that these men are only following orders. We have learnt that being a policeman is a relatively well-paid job in Egypt, so it’s understandable that people want the financial security, and this means following orders from above. We also crossed paths with friendly policemen who showed humanity and kindness to us and others. 

Our escorts waiting for us while we eat some Koshary



The next morning we decide we have had enough of this, it is unfairly negatively skewing our impression of the country. So we decide to skip the next 200km by taking a train to Luxor, where we have heard they are slightly more relaxed. At the train station, we find out the next train only leaves at 3pm. After much negotiation and begging and reasoning, we are allowed to sit at the station cafe literally 30m away for the 5 hour wait, as opposed to in the tiny police office. The officer in charge makes a very big fuss and it seems he is doing us a massive favour by allowing this. So that is where I sat writing this text. He spends his entire day with us, not allowing us to leave the table without explaining where we are going (to the toilet for example), until we are on the train. When we get to Luxor at 8:30pm we are able to leave the station with only a brief police check asking which hostel we will be staying at. We can’t believe it. That evening, we go for a walk around the city to find some falafel and it feels good to be able to do just what we want. We all acknowledge that we take our various freedoms back home completely for granted. We unfortunately cannot recommend cyclists to visit Egypt given our experience. It is strange because it will be the first country in many cyclists’ journey, as the route from the top of Africa Southbound is a popular one. We do look forward to Sudan, but are still hoping that we might be able to complete the rest of Egypt without police escort and having to stay in city hotels, if we can get out of Luxor undetected tomorrow. Holding thumbs. While the last days have been difficult, we realise that we were never really in physical danger (although the highway at night was a bit sketchy). We also realise that we are extremely priveleged to have grown up in the comparatively free society’s that we did, but also that there are many places on the planet that live under stricter authoritarian rule than Egypt. But also a reminder that the time period we are living in (on a human civilisation scale) is a very good one to be alive in, arguably the best yet. 


The physical space at The Valley of the Kings in Luxor was impressive. Trying to wrap our minds around this complex 4500 year old civilisation.



To inform ourselves better about the political situation in Egypt, we will be reading a book recommended to us called “The Queue” by Basma Abdel Aziz which is a fictional tale that gives the reader an impression of life in modern day Egypt after the failed Arab spring revolution in 2011-2013. 


We are feeling motivated again after 2 nights in Luxor, and are ready to get in some good kilometres in the next days. 

Still in good spirits, eating some guavas



Thank you for getting through this slightly long and drawn out story. I won’t often write about experiences in such detail but thought this would be a good way to share this particular experience, as well as a chance for me to reflect through the writing process. 


Oscar

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