Recently, I came third in a travel writing competition run by the UCC Express.
Which was nice.
The published entry is below.
A homecoming of sorts
Fearghal O’Nuallain recalls a surreal and testing cycle trek that led him blindly into the heart of Egypt’s chaotic capital
Arriving in Cairo is an experience for any weary traveler, and arriving after a 150km cycle through the eastern Egyptian desert, we were weary travelers..
Cairo is a sprawling, organised chaos of 20 million people, a bustling, loud and dusty urban oasis surrounded on three sides by desert. It is a place of ancient gods and pharaohs, temples and pyramids for the tourist, a place of business and day-to-day life for its residents.
When approaching from the east, it rises from the desert like a smoggy mirage, its impending arrival heralded by the cement factories and heavy industrial yards found on the outskirts of most big cities.
Our day began at sunrise on the derelict shores of the Gulf of Suez, littered with half-built tourist resorts and eerie relics, causalities of a tourist boom and bust in the eighties.
We finished well after nightfall on the chaotic streets of downtown Cairo. The previous seven days had been spent riding north, from Aswan on the Sudanese frontier, along the lush green and blue banks of the Nile, through the dusty and desolate Eastern Desert, and the blustery Red Sea coast.
To two men from the grey and green, moist landscape of Wicklow, Egypt’s eastern desert is both a beautiful and alien place – painted from palette of khaki and brownish grey, a landscape of smooth sandy plains, framed by jagged basalt peaks.
It is pancake flat and devoid of trees or any other feature that might give a cyclist the impression of progress. In September, a strong dry wind blows from a northwesterly direction, drying mouths, eyes, and skin, and compounding a cyclist’s feeling of inertia.
The desert has no smell except that of heat; the only taste is the soapy plastic of the tepid water from our bottles, and the occasional salty treat precipitated by drying sweat at the corners of the mouth.
The only sounds are the constant buffeting of the warm wind and the descending horn of the odd passing truck. Due to the lack of moisture, movement grates; even rubbing dry fingers together is an uncomfortable feeling, the feeling of abrasive dry skin on skin threatening a faint gag reflex.
We packed and were on the road before the hot sun had time to start baking the naked earth. But a week on the road, cycling in an unfamiliar place during Ramadan, through tough terrain, against a northerly wind that often felt like a hairdryer on the full setting, had taken its toll on our weakened Irish limbs.
The monotony of the desert had left our minds in a tender state. We craved a beer, the Simpsons and familiar colours, the sensual assault of Irish life. We began to be annoyed by the 4am wake up call of the Muezzin, grew tired the ubiquitous dry flat bread and Fuul, the local staple of braised broad beans, which constituted most of our daily meals.
Cairo, we hoped, would satiate at least some of our cravings. Thus, it was with high spirits that we covered the 150km from the small town of Ain Sukhna to the end of the two-laned autostrada, high on the expectancy of the bright lights of a big city.
“A week on the road, cycling in an unfamiliar place during Ramadan, through tough terrain, against a northerly wind that often felt like a hairdryer on the full setting, had taken its toll on our weakened Irish limbs. The monotony of the desert had left our minds in a tender state”
We had imagined that our road would lead us to downtown Cairo; instead we found ourselves on the side of a four-laned ring road. As we had no map of the city, and could not speak or read Arabic we did not know where to go from there.
We stopped at a petrol station to ask directions but as the staff didn’t speak any English the conversation was little more than smiles and gestures. A customer overheard our plight and offered to show us the way. He hopped in his car, and sped off with us in pursuit. I’m sure he did his best to drive slowly but we still had to push hard to keep up, after eight hours in the saddle we were running on empty.
The road was potholed and there were no street lights; both of us had some hairy moments as we tried to keep pace with our well-intentioned stranger and avoid the debris that litter the edge of Egyptian roads.
We never quite got used to the roads in Egypt, where the rules seemed only to apply some of the time. On several occasions we found ourselves overtaking an ass-driven cart laden with sweet smelling fruit or bundles of mint traveling at a snails pace on the hard shoulder, while being overtaken ourselves by a brand new Merc or Hummer attempting to set a new land-speed record. Avoiding tuk tuks driving at top speed on the hard shoulder in the wrong direction was also a daily and somewhat harrowing experience.
We finally emerged from the hectic motorway into the frenetic chaos of downtown old Cairo. The din of a busy road was replaced by the bustle of narrow alleyways filled with busy people. The tinny rasp of scooters and small cars echoed and reverberated off the four-storey buildings.
The smell of cheap diesel, belched from sooty old trucks, replaced by a pot pourri of spicy hookah smoke and strong coffee wafting from cafes, the heavy ripe aroma of pomegranates, and mint pilled high in bunches on venders carts, all dampened by the savoury smells of lamb kebabs cooking on street-side charcoal grills.
We navigated the increasingly clogged and narrow arteries that are the lifeblood of central Cairo with our cumbersome machines. Taxis cut us off, scooter drivers clipped our handlebars and pedestrians loitered in our path.
A donkey, riddled with mange and with protruding hip bones and shoulder blades, dropped a pungent pile of his steaming dung in our path, oblivious to the two lost Irish cyclists. Every stallholder and tout who caught our eye called in our direction to buy their dates/pastries/leather bags, to sit in their restaurant or just tell them our names and where we were going. Passers-by stared at the two unkempt men with brightly coloured spandex on the strange shiny bikes.
When a taxi diver added his beat up Lada to the growing congestion, I asked him directions in my best Arabic, to which he looked at me quizzically. For a moment, it seemed like we were to spend the night wandering through the rabbit hole that it felt like we had just fallen into. It finally dawned on us; why not pay him the price of a fare to act as our guide?
We spent the best part of half an hour chasing the black and white taxi through the streets. Luckily, Cairo seemed to get more congested the closer we got to its centre, so that the Lada could only manage a crawl at best. It is almost as though Cairo is so big that it has its own gravity, which pulls everything to the centre, where space and time is reduced to a viscous mass of bodies and cars and carts and donkeys.
Our hotel told a different story of a Cairo. One of a bygone age, of a time when Cairo was not so big, not so polluted, not congested with people and cars. Hotel Victoria is a somewhat tired, but no less proud, colonial railway hotel that has its best days behind it.
It was a space of calm and order; quite literally a world away from the chaos only metres beyond the door. The green fronds of a potted plant and black and white check of the tiled floor in the lobby felt reassuringly familiar. As we sat on the crisp white sheets of our soft beds, watched a Clint Eastwood movie dubbed in Arabic on a small TV while eating cake and drinking a cold beer, and once we had left the last grains of the desert sand on the floor of the shower, it was beginning to feel like home.