Day 1: Alexandria – Mastarouh: A Great First Night
Saturday May 21, 2011, 106 km (66 miles) – Total so far: 106 km (66 miles)
I eventually got a good night’s sleep and awoke feeling refreshed. Due to having to put the bike together, getting the luggage ready and finding an ATM it was a late start. The main reason I had chosen to start in Alexandria was to avoid the traffic of Cairo. I had imagined a city of 3-4 million would have more managable traffic, how wrong I was! I’ve looked for the right words to describe it but all I can say is it was batshit insane. You had no choice but to ride aggressively or you would be pushed off the road. Cars would shoot out of roads to my right without looking, minibuses and taxis would pull in and screech to a halt in front of me and cars would swerve towards me cutting me off. And between all this I had to watch out for drainage grills which would swallow my front wheel and pedestrians stepping out in front of me. Although it was a bit tough at the start I soon got the hang of it and after 15 adrenaline fuelled kilometres I was out of the city! I reckon the reason I found it so difficult was that I hadn’t adjusted to the Egyptian driving style yet. If I went back now I’m sure I wouldn’t view it as badly. It was just a matter of being thrown in at the deep end.
In the chaos of finding my way out of the city I had missed the turn off for the international coast road (a highway running from Alexandria to Port Said) and ended up on the old country road to Rashid instead. The map had the international coast road going through Rashid so I stuck to this quiet road. 70km of pleasant country cycling later passing horses and carts and people out working in the fields I arrived in the bustling market town of Rashid. Probably better known as Rosetta, where the Rosetta Stone was found.
Over some felafel here, the store owner tried to con me out of buying my bike in Arabic. I soon caught on and had to keep avoiding his handshakes trying to seal the sale! I stocked up on supplies in a nearby shop and asked in my limited Arabic for directions onto the international coast road. I was brought into another shop with 4-5 locals where there was internet access. Here though translate.google.com we were able to communicate a little bit better. Although the first translated question that popped out of it was “Do you search for the magic spirit?” Once they knew I was searching for the road to Baltim, not the magic spirit one of the guys disappeared for a while. He came back in a pick-up truck and offered to give me a lift to the junction. I stubbornly said I needed to cycle all of the way to Amman and he understood. I followed for 2-3km to a junction which had no signage and continued onto the entrance to the international highway. I offered the driver some money for helping me out but he shook his head and put his hand to his heart. This was a world of difference from Cairo where I was constantly hassled for baksheesh. It seemed out here where no tourism had taken hold that the people were truly generous and wished to help people out of the goodness of their hearts. I thanked him for his generosity and continued past the sleeping traffic policeman onto the international coast road.
I was already tiring badly after 15km due to the headwind I was cycling into. A guy on a motorbike pulled over and offered me a pull off the luggage on the back of his bike. I held on for all of 200 metres before letting go. The driver was swerving all over the place with me on the back so I decided it was a little too dangerous and let go.
After another 20km fighting this headwind and without sign of any shops, I asked a man by the side of the road where the next one would be. Or at least I attempted to ask in Arabic. I think he could see I was fairly wrecked so invited me into his home for some food. He insisted so I took up his offer and decided to visit his home which was in a village just off the road.
I wasn’t expecting the feast that arrived, a huge plate of rice piled high surrounded by 10 smaller plates full of fish, chips, omlettes and vegetables! This all seemed to be for me. I ate as much as possible but there was still loads left. After nearly half an hour of eating I said I could eat no more! After the meal I was told I should stay the night, I wasn’t going to make it to Baltim so I would be camping anyway and Moshad (my host) seemed genuine so I took up his offer.
I spent the next while chatting to the family, they all spoke only Arabic so communication was a bit difficult and my catchphrase became “ana mish faehem” (I don’t understand.) After a good while chatting and a round of tea it was decided I should see the village. So I was given a traditional Arab robe so I would fit in and went for a quick walk around the village of Mastarouh. Afterwards we ended up in the village hall where tea and shisha was served and I met a good few of the men from the village. One of the men, Ragab, spoke great English so he was able to act as a translator. A great night was had talking about topics such as Northern Ireland, Israel, Barack Obama and Angelina Jolie! We chatted for a good while here before I headed back to Moshad’s place for a good night’s sleep.
It was a brilliant experience to be invited to stay here, I was shown true Egyptian hospitality and got an insight into life in rural Egypt. Although I loved Cairo, it’s inhabitants could be quite rude at times and in some places you would be constantly hassled for baksheesh. Outside the areas affected by tourism however I was finding the people very different. All the people I had met today were friendly and where possible went out of their way to help me. Moshad and his family were truly generous as were all the men of the village who I met and the experience gave me a truly good impression of Egyptian people.