We left Alexandria at 8:15 on Monday morning. Traffic was still a bit sleepy at that time of the day – good for us. Still took us a long time to worm our way out of this giant city, and when we finally hit the road through the Nile delta we took a deep breath. Mistake. Apart from the times when a truck or bike loaded with mangos passed us – the smell of ripe Egyptian mangos wafting across the tar makes you want to jump from your bike and dive right into the fruits – we can’t say we enjoy the smell on the roads here in Northern Egypt. Too many factories blasting their dirt unfiltered in the air, too many cars doing the same, and if there is no plant or old diesel truck than there is nearly always the sweet scent of open sewage or garbage dumps (the latter sometimes burning). Throughout Africa we only had this much dirt in the air when we hit the capitals (and sometimes not even there). Another definite sign that we have nearly left Africa, and are now coming through countries with heavy industrialization. Not the most pleasant thoughts on this right now.
Still, the road itself offered very beautiful views – distracting from the many constructions sites on the first 100kms. Bad luck that our GoPro battery had accidentally run flat the day before, which we only realized in the morning. So unfortunately no clips of our ride through the Nile Delta, with ponds and canals on either side, small rickety houses perched on ridges in between, and lots of fish farms. The Mediterranean was on our left, gradually getting further away, then closer again after Damietta. Once great yellow sanddunes turned up on the sea-facing side, but soon the land was flat again. We had met with Ahmed, another biker-friend of Omar, close to Damietta, and he had told us that we were basically sitting on a big saltwater lake. The roadside restaurant we had met in was selling fresh fish as well as preparing it on the spot, and they showed us their two pet pelicans which they keep there to entertain visitors and kids – HUGE birds with vicious looking beaks who got a malicious twinkle in the eye when you got close to the cage. Anne was happy that her mom was safe away in Germany and thus not able to try and pet them*.
Ahmed escorted us with his Harley to Port Said (another missed GoPro opportunity). There we met up in a cafe with our fixer Eslam, who was to help us get our bikes on the ship to Turkey. Leaving Egypt via boat had not been our initial plan, and for good reasons. Everybody who has tried to ship a vehicle out of or into Egypt tells horror stories of the Egyptian officials and the tricks they apply to press more money out of you. We only decided to take this route because of the escalation of the conflict between Israel and Gaza, and some emotional blackmail of our families back home who wanted us to find another route. In the end, when we had reached Port Said the situation in Israel had calmed down again, but by then we had already arranged for the ship from Egypt.
We can’t say that we fully enjoyed the next 5 days in Port Said, though in all fairness it is a nice enough place to hang out in (especially compared to Wadi Halfa). But we frequently had to wait for hours in odd places for something to happen: for Eslam or his brother to pick us up, for some official to stamp some paper, for another official to receive us and see that we really exist… and we were already feeling itchy to get going when we arrived in Port Said. Ahmed visited us once and we spent a lovely evening chatting to him about his motorbike travels in Turkey, but our plans to go to Damietta for a quick visit did not work out as Eslam always kept us in attendance for some or the other official process. In all fairness, the price we agreed with him was never re-negotiated, and he paid all the baksheesh and extra fees that officials were frequently asking from him – sometimes just to do their job, sometimes just for not hindering his job. Eslam was also the only one we had ever allowed to drive our bikes himself into the port (he could have gotten us a permission to do that, but that would have taken more time…), which gave both of us some heartache. Luckily, he knows how to ride big bikes. When the ship arrived in the port and he told us we could get on board and stay on the boat for the night (even though it would not leave before the next day), we accepted immediately. We were sick of waiting in our hotel room or walking around Port Said, and though the ship was just another waiting place, we were just keen to get the whole process of leaving Egypt behind us. And as the ship and crew were Turkish, we expected we would also be freed of the Baksheesh-asking officials from the port.
A last fun part came when we rode our bikes from the port storage onto the ship, in between high-stacked rows of shipping containers, dodging “Stapler” and dock workers who curiously looked after us. Both Eslam and us were very happy to be done with that ordeal, and after a last farewell picture we rode the bikes up the ramp and onto the ship. Done!! The second officer, a really nice guy named Deniz, welcomed us and showed us our cabin, and immediately after hoisting our stuff into it we got our first Turkish dinner – very lekker Pide (a kind of oval bread) with minced meat and tomatoes. After a last tea we went to sleep in our tiny bunkbeds. The next day was spent waiting, and we finally also found out WHY the ship was behind schedule: Egyptian port officials were holding up some of the trucks that were booked to be loaded on the ship, to get some baksheesh from the drivers for letting them pass. The whole crew of our ship was Turkish, and the whole crew was fed up with Egyptian port officials. A few months earlier, their ship had covered the route from Iskenderun to Odessa in Ukraine, and the guys raved about the hospitality of the Ukrainians. In Egypt, they were not even allowed to leave Port Said for a day trip to go to see the pyramids, and after a row of negative experiences when trying to explore Port Said, they all had decided to stay on the boat whenever they reached Egypt. We could sympathise with their feelings, but our attempts to tell them about the really nice and helpful Egyptians we had met, like Karim and Omar and Ahmed, were dismissed by most of the crew. Especially the third officer, who was one of the youngest guys and also the one who spoke the best English, had established some kind of hatred against Egyptians, and when the news came through that same day that their contract for that route was to be extended for another six months, he said he would rather quit his job. Only Deniz acknowledged that they had a very limited experience with Egyptians (and really met with the worst of the bad, in our view), and that there were certainly nice and bad people everywhere. But he also looked very miserable at the news that they were to do this route at least six more months.
We had never thought much about it before, but from seeing the Egyptians and the Turks interact with each other on and around the boat, you could feel the cultural difference between the Arab and the Turkish world. The Turks are really a class of their own, and if anything closer to us Europeans than to the Egyptians, never mind the share the Muslim faith. The third officer said that the Egyptians made them pay more as punishment for Erdogan, who had supported the Muslim Brotherhood government. But from what we had heard the mutual feelings had not been exactly warm before Erdogan either. So the crew sat there brooding and waiting, until finally the last truck arrived and they could start loading the ship. Tetris for grown-ups, that’s what it looked like when they shoved these huge trucks around until the whole ship was full. We had to park the bikes on the ramp to the upper deck in a sloping position, but the guys strapped them down so thoroughly that we did not need to worry. When we went to sleep they were still sorting out the lower deck, but when we woke the next morning we were already under way – Africa was behind us. We looked at the blue Mediterranean sea around us and felt both elated and very sad. True, our farewell to Africa had started in Egypt, which felt more like a Middle-Eastern than African country (also true to the feelings of its inhabitants as well). When we thought back of Africa, we thought more of Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda and Tanzania. Ethiopia and Sudan already had felt like little encapsulated worlds of their own, but still African. Egypt was this massive conglomerate of ancient history and powers and cultures, thoroughly streamlined to international tourism on one side, very conservative and Muslim on the other. We had been bombarded with spectacular historic and natural sights and met awesome biker friends all along the way. But it also exhausted us thoroughly, and though we know we have to come back – the Red Sea and the White Desert still deserve some thorough exploration – we were looking forward to some more calm and peace on the last stretch of our route back home.
*Which she had tried with Penguins in the Cape and a warthog in Krueger.