Day 30 – Cairo, Egypt


Having fun in Wadi Rum, Jordan

I had heard that Cairo has both the worst drivers and heaviest traffic
in the World. Personally, I didn’t believe that anything could possibly
be worse than Lima, Peru. I was wrong. The craziness started on the
highway on the way in. Big slow moving semis drove in whatever lane
they wanted, which was often the left lane, even when the right was
free. There was no pattern. The faster moving traffic (and there was
lots of that) would have to weave around the trucks. It was customary
for two cars to try to pass semis simultaneously, one on the inside and
one on the outside, even though ostensibly there were only two lanes.
In reality there were as many “lanes” as cars and semis could fit side
by side. Motorcycles didn’t count. Drivers would honk as they came
barreling down on you from behind, expecting you to get out of the way.
I guess it is considered bad etiquette for a motorcycle, which could
fit on the shoulder, to occupy space that otherwise could contain a car (or at least a part of one).

It was after 9 PM when we got to the outskirts of Cairo (yes, we were
riding at night but we thought it was justified because we thought
there would be less traffic and that it would be cool enough so that
our mules wouldn’t overheat in traffic jams). I’m not sure if there was
less traffic, but our mules didn’t overheat. I was still drenched in
sweat though because it definitely wasn’t cool. As we got closer to the
city centre, the traffic became a crawling mass of honking chaos. Every
car tried to squeeze into even the smallest spaces. If a space opened
up, the rule appeared to be if you honk your horn, you have a right to
that space. You just honk and gun it there before the guy beside you
can get in. On motorcycles we were able to filter better than cars, but
even still it was slow going. It took us 2 hours to get downtown to our
hotel (Hotel Luna chosen from the Lonely Planet guide). I couldn’t
imagine having to get around in Cairo on a
daily basis.

We had planned to spend two nights in Cairo because Tom needed to get
his Sudan visa (which could easily take an entire day) and we needed to
get desert knobbly tires for the bikes plus change the oil on Tom’s
bike. Jerry and I had already done that in Yalova, Turkey with the help
of “Bill the Turk” and his gang of Yalova Choppers (whcih they all had
emblazened on their leather jackets). I also had to get all four of my
Pelican case padlocks cut off, but that’s another story.

So this morning we split up: Tom went to get his visa sorted, Jerry
went shopping (and ended up spending time searching for a stolen wallet
but I’ll let him tell about that), and my job was to handle the bike
maintenance. Luckily the guys working at the hotel spoke English and
knew of a motorcycle repair district that was nearby. They drew me a
map and I set out on Tom’s bike thinking it would be good to get the
repair shop (when I found one) started on his because it needed the
most work.

The traffic was so bad that even on a motorcycle (which can often
squeeze into places where cars can’t), it took me an hour just to go a
couple of kilometres. I was glad that I had decided to ditch my helmet
and riding jacket. Crazy traffic or not, I would have died of heat
stroke sooner. The drivers were so crazy and the noise of horns and
engines so overwhelming, that there was nothing to do but grin. It was
so ludicrous to watch people fight over every square inch that I found
myself entertained just watching the show unfold around me. Pedestrians
walked right into 6 “lanes” of traffic as if they were invincible.
Racks of clothes and shoes, surrounded by crowds of shoppers, lined the
sides of the roads, and there was no clear boundary between the road
and the stalls. In some cases I took advantage of the fact that I could
weave my bike through the racks and tables to gain a few car-lengths.
Each car length was worth several minutes at least.

When I finally got to a place that looked like a motorcycle shop
(really a row of bikes with price tags parked on the meridian of a
street), a couple guys standing there took one look at my monstrous
Japanese bike and shook their heads. I’m not sure if they were
affiliated with the bike shop of if they were just motorcycle
enthusiasts. They motioned for me to follow them. They set off into a
mass an outdoor market jammed full of people and goods. My helpers kept
disappearing into the crowd in front of me. I tried to keep up, but I
felt like I was riding onto the set of a chase scene in a Jackie Chan
movie. People kept pushing carts of fruit and clothes right in front of
me. Suddenly the crowd parted and a car was heading right at me. There
was nowhere to go but into a rack of clothes, which I sent sprawling
onto the ground, sending hangers and clothes flying onto the
cobblestones. I was about to get off my bike and help clean up, but the
owner
rushed out from behind another rack, smiled, and waved me on.

I dodged a few more obstacles (a mother pushing a baby carriage,
another oncoming car, some more racks of clothes) and finally caught up
with my helpers. They led me through a maze of narrow alleys before
finally dropping me off at a bike accessory shop whose owner actually
spoke decent English. He welcomed me to Egypt (as so many people have
done) and set out to help me in any way he could. When he found out
what I was looking for (new tires), he called his son out from the back
who jumped on a motorcycle. Chase scene take two. This time I avoided
all the obstacles.

When we arrived at the parts shop, I no longer had any idea where I
was. No one spoke English, but I was able to communicate that I wanted
new tires by points and gestures. An old man disappeared into the maze,
and returned 5 minutes later with a front tire that was exactly the
right size (amazingly) but obviously purely a street tire. We were
headed for Sudan and miles of sand and dirt. How could I communicate
that I wanted kobblies? I spotted a quad with the right tread and after
pointing at its tires, the old man went on another mission. This time
he brought back a tire that would work, although I had no idea of the
quality as I had never heard of the “Duro” brand before.

Once I had managed to indicate that I wanted 3 rear and 3 front tires,
I sent the man on another mission. I needed new brake pads because my
caliper had seized up quickly destroying two sets of pads (and wrecking
my fuel economy by having the brakes permanently applied). Tom cleverly
suggested we take it apart and lubricate everything. Since then it
seems to have been working properly, but I had gone through all my
spares and the current set would definitely not make it all the way to
Cape Town. I was shocked when the old man came back a few minutes later
with exactly the right pads. I think there are about 3 KLR650s in Cairo
at the moment. It was a lucky find. The only explanation is that other
local bikes must use the same style.

The total for the 6 tires and set of brake pads was 1860 Egyption
pounds (about $370). I didn’t have this kind of money on me and they
only accepted cash. I communicated that I needed a bank machine. The
old man called a kid over and I got on the back of his bike. He took me
to a traffic choked street and hailed me a cab (which already had a
fare inside – it seems that cab sharing is normal here) and explained
in Arabic that I needed a bank. Off we went. I tried to find a
landmark, but it was just a swirl of colour, people, and nondescript
buildings.

Getting the money and returning to the shop (and Tom’s bike) would turn
into a 4 hour ordeal. My bank card wouldn’t work in the first two bank
machines I tried. The third and fourth were out of service. I finally
hailed another taxi, but the driver didn’t understand what I needed,
even when I showed him my bank card. Luckily a guy passing on the
sidewalk who spoke English overheard my feeble attempts to communicate
and came over to translate. It would sit in the taxi for over an hour
(not really going very far, but you can’t get anywhere fast in a car in
Cairo). I had no idea where he was taking me or whether he had
understood what I wanted in the first place. I was starting to feel
defeated when we passed the hotel Luna, and a bunch of ATMs right next
door. I said I wanted to get out, but the taxi driver didn’t
understand. He was still clutching my bank card and was pointing at
RBC. He had been trying to find a Royal Bank in Cairo! I opened the door, paid him 10 pounds (which is $2 but I had no idea what the
actual fare was and he seemed very happy with that amount).

I went to back to the hotel and got my bike (our bikes were parked in
the lobby area) and set off to return to the shop where Tom’s bike was
parked and to pay for the tires. Except I couldn’t find my way back. I
found myself in a maze of dirt alleyways filled with garbage and
livestock and smelling of sewer. There were no motorcycle shops to be
found. I kept circling, but as soon as I got out of one maze I would
spend a half an hour on a traffic clogged street just going a few
blocks. Then I would get lost in antother maze of alleyways. I finally
decided it would be quicker to walk across all of Cairo than to ride in
the traffic. I parked my bike and set out on foot. I was trying to
retrace my steps through the Jackie Chan sets that I had rode through
that morning, but it all looked the same. I was just about ready to
give up and think of a new plan when I rounded a corner and saw Tom’s
bike parked where I had left it. What a pleasant sight
that was. I made circling motions to explain my hours long absence and
they smiled because I’m sure they knew exactly what had happened. Now
where did I leave Rosa?

The next step was finding a mechanic to put on the tires. I was
directed to a stall where a couple of guys would end up working on our
bikes for hours. They seemed to really enjoy it. I guess they didn’t
often get to work on giant Japanese bikes. They offered me tea and even
a full meal at supper time. When I went back to get Jerry’s bike, Tom
was back from the embassy, his mission accomplished. He rode with me on
Jerry’s bike back to the shop, which I found after only one wrong turn.
This is after getting a good feel for the area by walking back to the
hotel from there. I thought a 25 minute walk was better than an hour
taxi ride to go the same distance.

When the bikes were done (tires, air filters cleaned, Tom’s oil
changed, and they even fixed the circuits on my dashboard), one of the
mechanics (and his buddy) offered to ride Jerry’s bike back to the
hotel with us to save us a trip (and to go for a joyride it turned
out). I started off leading, but soon the mechanic dude took the lead
and took us over the Nile (away from our hotel) on a nice little tour.
I knew he was having fun when he popped a monster wheelie, nearly
sending his buddy flying off the back. The traffic going back across
the bridge was a nightmare. Somehow the mechanic dude got between the
cars, but the spaces between the cars seemed to close up behind him.
When I finally got across the bridge, he was waiting there with Tom
with his hands up – wondering how it could have possibly taken me so
long. Maybe he was just crazier than me.

That assumption would turn out to be correct. When I motioned the
direction we needed to go, he took the lead again and took us on a
“short cut” through sheep filled alleyways. When we finally emerged
onto a major street, we were again headed in the wrong direction. I
pointed back the way we needed to go. I was shocked when he backed the
bike up to the curb and turned around – right into 6 “lanes” of
oncoming (albeit jammed) traffic. Like in Guatemala when we were
following Kike as he split lanes against oncoming traffic with only
inches of clearance, I couldn’t believe this was actually happening. He
was on Jerry’s bike, so there was nothing to do except follow him. I
had to avoid running into a policeman standing in the street as I
turned my bike around. In fact I rode right around him as I headed the
wrong way down a six lane thoroughfare. He was completely unconcerned.
The mechanic dude started honking Jerry’s horn at the cars facing us to
get them to back up or move to the side to let us through, as if he had
every right to be there and what where they doing in our way anyway?
When I found myself between two buses moving the opposite direction as
me, I found it so unbelievable that I laughed out loud. Welcome to
Egypt indeed.

PS – I have uploaded a few new pictures here.

3 thoughts on “Day 30 – Cairo, Egypt

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