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16th November 2012

At last, were in Egypt!!

On Tuesday morning I headed out in search of a cafe for breakfast with Metin and quickly found somewhere for the typical feast of bread, feta, olives, tomatoes and cucumber, with lots of coffee! Fully refreshed, we returned to the hotel to load up our steeds, but not before Metin bought me an enormous brown paper bag of assorted Turkish delight from a nearby seller. Delicious and predictably enough very different to the kind of heavily perfumed goo you find in Britain - this was much harder with chopped pistachio nuts, quite delicious!

After an intensive 220 mile ride that day in increasingly wild traffic, just as dusk started to fall, I began to drive through the industrial outskirts of the port city of Iskenderun. This is an area of heavy manufacturing and steel production so the air is thick with dust and grime, and the roads are clogged with huge thundering trucks, reducing the relative size of Suzi and I to mere gnats. Eventually we arrived at the town and found the office of the travel agency where we had made a ticket reservation for the ferry. After some lengthy administration, the agent enquired after the purpose of my visit. When I explained that I would be riding my motorbike through Egypt, her face dropped into a mask of horror. “Egypt is very dangerous country. People very bad”. “Really?”, I asked, “All of them?” “Yes”, she replied, with no hint of irony, as her colleagues nodded dumbly behind her. This struck me as a remarkable statement for someone whose entire business model was built around selling ferry tickets to Egypt, but by this point she had taken my money so perhaps she felt it was a safe time to issue her caveat.

Once everything was settled with the agency, the staff offered to book me a hotel for the night and given the chaotic nature of the local traffic systems, one of the members of staff walked on foot to the hotel as I followed with Suzi. On arrival he suggested that we immediately unload my luggage and also issued me with the warning “don’t leave the hotel tonight. People very bad here. Don’t believe anything they say”, even though it seemed likely that he himself also lived in this city and presumably thought himself trustworthy. It was a hot and dark night and after hours of riding and battling away just to be here, in my exhaustion I started to feel a little nervy and on edge after all these warnings. However once I was left alone in my room to unpack and cool down, I decided that these opinions seemed more than a little extreme and rather than live in fear, I would rather find out for myself. Sure enough, after a brief potter through the streets on high alert, it seemed just like any other city at night where the same basic rules of common sense apply. Eating a delicious chicken kebab with coriander and tomatoes in a local eatery, I felt reassured that the world hadn’t suddenly changed and that my own judgement was still the best guide I have.

Next morning was Wednesday and time to catch the ferry! Firstly I headed to the agency once again ready to be taken to the port in convoy with all the other personal vehicles. The scene at the office was completely different to the day before - it was absolutely bursting with jumbles of families and piles upon piles of luggage. I soon discovered that these were mostly relatively wealthy Syrians who had fled into Turkey from their homeland to start a new life in arabic Egypt. But there was no time for conversation here, as after we were all assembled we were then instructed to return to our vehicles and form a convoy in the direction of the port. It was at this time that I spotted two smiley, western looking young men and introduced myself. They were Johannes and Josef, two Bavarians who had decided to drive from their home town of Ingolstadt to Capetown in a Toyota Landcruiser. I was immediately happy to meet them - this boat journey was going to be a long couple of days so it was good to have some company.

The next 10 or so hours passed in a blur of administration and waiting around as the departure time of the boat was gradually pushed back from midday to 8pm (African time begins at the port it seemed), so I will spare you the tedious details. Suffice to say that during this time we were able to chat with some of the English speaking Syrians who were keen to talk. Of all of the people we met, Mohammad is the one who will stay in my memory most enduringly. Mohammad is a baby-faced, sparky 18 year old young man with twinkly eyes and a ready smile. He was keen to talk with us and share a joke, but also to tell us why he was getting on this boat. His father had been shot dead 3 months ago and his house burnt to the ground. Subsequently his mother and sister had fled to Egypt, but due to some problem with his passport, he had to stay on in Aleppo and await his proper paperwork. Now 3 months on, his friend had driven him to the Turkish border and now he was really on his way to Cairo to be reunited with his mother and sister. But leaving Aleppo had been particularly hard - he had left “my love” there, a girl he had grown up with, a daughter of close family friends. He loved her but she and her family could not afford the passage to Egypt and so remained in danger in Aleppo. His aim now was to live in Cairo and raise as much money as quickly as possible to bring his love and her family to Cairo, where he will marry her. He showed us many pictures of her on his phone alongside horrifying videos of local militia in Aleppo, balaclava clad men, firing automatic weapons into the sky amidst thick crowds of people. I truly hope he can get his love to Cairo soon.

Another Syrian who will last long in my memory was Annan, an English teacher also from Aleppo who had escaped with his wife and lovely baby girl to start afresh in Libya. Annan spoke gently with a smile but when it came to questions about Syria, his tone changed to one of despair, anger and disbelief - “why does no-one send aid? The people in Syria are starving. There is no food, no water, no petrol. They are living in the forests and in the caves, they fear for their lives. They are good, peaceful people. Why does no-one help?”. I had no answers. In time the conversation turned to the purpose of my trip. Never before have I felt so entirely lame and self-indulgent. I tried to explain that I was travelling to Capetown but suddenly this was not a story I wanted to tell, it was nothing to be proud of. How can you explain to a man who has seen his family killed, his country destroyed and his people brought to ruin that you chose to give up your job in a peaceful country because you just felt that you wanted to travel? That life was perhaps lacking some excitement or interest that you just couldn’t live without? That curiosity about the world had proven a stronger force than the simple necessities of personal safety and comfort?

After a long while, once our passports were processed they were handed back and it was time for everyone to board the boat. All except for one. One Syrian man was told that his passport was missing an entry stamp to Turkey and therefore he should get into the back of a waiting car. He showed no surprise at the news nor made any protest. He had been so close to achieving his great escape but now it was all over - his body language spoke of defeat. He simply lit a cigarette and got into the car, head bowed. Mohammad had told me earlier that anyone who has tried to flee Syria can never return under this regime as they will be sought out and killed. Watching the car drive away, I had to hope that a different fate awaited this man.

Once on board the boat and with land finally slipping out of view, the mood amongst the passengers noticeably lifted - we were all on our way at last! The crossing took 36 hours in the end with a lengthy wait at the other end as papers were once again processed. During this time the German overlanders, Mohammad, myself and two Australian backpackers who we has also met were sitting around a table drinking the strongest chai I’ve ever known (only made palatable by hefty spoonfuls of sugar) and making light-hearted conversation. I felt someone watching me, looked around and spotted who it was - a little Syrian girl who must have only been 4 or 5 was crouching in her elegant mother’s lap and peering out at me from behind her scarf. I smiled at her and gave her a wave. Like any child you’ll find anywhere in the world, a beautiful shy smile snuck across her face as she crouched back behind the safety of her mothers robes. After a few more brave peeks and smiles at me, she plopped down from her mother’s lap, slowly walked over to my chair, looked up at me and gave me with two perfect little white shells that looked like miniature conches. I smiled back at her, gave her a little hug, thanked her and told her that they were beautiful. She looked pleased and skipped off back to her mother, who raised her hand to me in a wave and smiled. I remember being a little girl and holding such shells as precious treasures. This child’s whole world must have changed beyond recognition in the last few months - I was very touched that she still wanted to give away her little treasures to me, a smiling stranger.

After a few more hours of being docked at Damietta, Egypt, I was told to ride Suzi to the customs compound, where she would remain held until released by the authorities. Damietta port is usually not used by tourists (our boat was supposed to dock at Port Said but for some reason had changed course), but for industrial imports - perhaps this is why the road surface at the port was inches deep in a mixture of mud and oil with a peppering of fertiliser pellets - not the best riding conditions on 2 wheels! Fortunately however suzi and I made it to a dodgy-looking warehouse, where I had to wave good bye to suzi and hand over the key - never a good feeling but I trusted the look of the watchmen and through a laugh and a mime we agreed that they would keep their eyes on her!

Afterwards all the passengers from the boat were bussed to downtown Damietta and with the first rains of the season lashing down outside, we were unceremoniously dumped onto a pavement and left to sort ourselves out. It was by this time about 11pm and Damietta wasn’t looking too hot - the streets were stacked high with stinking rubbish and with the rains falling as they were, a soup of waste soon streamed through my sandals (we later found out that since the revolution, there had been a highly intermittent rubbish collection service, so you can just imagine the scene). Eventually we all found sanctuary in a very basic hotel (£3 a night, mercifully not including breakfast) and, concluding that this was very much a sleeping-bag-on-top-of-bed type establishment, drifted off into an exhausted sleep.

Next day was Friday, a weekend day in Egypt, meaning customs would be closed, so our little group pottered out into the streets (now very hot and swarming with flies that darted from the open-dumped rubbish to feet, arms and worst of all - lips - with revolting frequency) and went in search of breakfast. Shortly afterwards we came across a tall, rather westernised looking Arab who introduced himself as Mohammad (or Hammam as he preferred to be known), a fluent German speaker. He took us under his wing immediately and for the next 5 days showed us extraordinary hospitality of the kind that is typical in Arab countries but off the charts by western standards. He introduced us to all of his friends, an excellent crowd of successful local businessmen (most connected to the furniture trade, for which Damietta is famed) who loved nothing more than a sugary chai and a good laugh. Hammam also insisted that wherever we went and whoever we met, we should have a chai with them, or perhaps some food (and then yet more food, and then a bit more just in case there was the remotest chance that one of us could be hungry)! We were taken on tours of the furniture making workshops, shown how the highly intricate, baroque inspired furniture here is carefully carved by hand, how the gold leaf is applied and how the upholstery is completed. We were introduced to such local treats as Bilela (a huge of bulgur wheat, chopped hazelnuts and coconut with hot milk poured over the top), sugar-cane juice freshly squeezed and served in a plastic bag with a straw, and of course falafel, flat bread and hummus for breakfast. We were shown endless patience with their help at the harbour with the incredible bureaucracy there (it went on for 5 days) and were always made to feel as though nothing was too much trouble.

At last yesterday after nearly a week of this endless generosity and good humour, I said my farewells and set off for Cairo, grateful for all that I had been given, albeit now almost certainly several kilos heavier and after all those sugary chai’s, most probably also diabetic. The kindness shown not only by Hammam and his friends but also by the locals will remain with me for a long time - walking through the market streets with Josef and Johannes after dark amidst the hustle and the bustle, it was lovely to hear the shouts of “welcome”, “hello” and “how are you” calling us. For the cynics out there, these people weren’t actually trying to sell us anything, they were just very excited to see western tourists in their town, which is usually totally ignored. Only a tiny percentage of the locals would have been able to get a visa to travel to the west (assuming they could ever afford the travel costs) so for them, we brought a little bit of western stardust to their chaotic town. Everywhere we went, people wanted their picture taken with us and were delighted to share a smile. Children were nudged for a handshake and broken sentences of Rooney, Beckham and the like were inevitable. Also its worth saying that these locals here have a very positive opinion of British and German quality in manufacturing, and anything Chinese is strenuously considered to be rubbish. Sadly enough though, Chinese rubbish is all that most can afford. When a typical car costs even more than we in the west would pay due to high import taxes, many individuals and families buy a Chinese motorcycle to get around town given they cost an astonishingly low €300. Tragically though the quality is predictably dreadful with vital parts such as brakes frequently failing without warning. The problem is so bad that I’m told Damietta hospital even has a “Chinese Motors” section due to the number of people seriously injured by them every day (no joke). When a death-trap is the only affordable way of getting around town though, for many it’s a risk that has to be taken. When Suzi was finally released from her customs imprisonment, she was viewed in town with substantial admiration and a few cheeky locals even offered to swap 2 of their Chinese bikes in exchange for her - it wasn’t a hard deal to refuse!

I’m now in Cairo trying to organise some visas etc, staying at a beautiful hotel courtesy of a very generous friend of mine. There are all kinds of delights, like hot running water, a bed that I actually really wanted to climb into without fear of contracting some kind of disease and a bit of peace after the scariest ride of my life last night trying to get here (on a 3 lane highway with vehicles under and overtaking at terrifying speed, the last thing you also need is a donkey and cart slowly crossing all 3 lanes and a tuk-tuk or two driving the wrong way down the hard shoulder - insane!!). What a lovely treat it is to stay here, I shall very much enjoy this while it lasts…And now to plan some fun in Cairo!