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20 January 2015 No comments

Adventures in the Egyptian Sinai

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Adventures in the Egyptian Sinai

In the spring of 2013 I set off from California carrying my father's ashes to his hometown in China. By the end of the year I had cycled across the United States, flown to Norway from Florida and cycled Scandinavia, the Baltics, Central Europe and most of the Balkans. It was early 2014 when I decided to escape the winter doldrums of Europe and fly to the warm and exotic land of Egypt.

Arriving in the busy and chaotic city of Sharm el-sheikh, located at the southern point of the Egyptian Sinai, I quickly reassembled my bike and pedaled north heading to the remote regions of the country. I had been warned by the travel advisory bureau to not only avoid the inner remote regions of the Sinai, but also Egypt altogether. Protests and violence starting in Cairo had quickly spread throughout the country, and a few months prior to my arrival several tourists had been kidnapped by armed gunmen.

After visiting St. Catherine Monastery and spending a cold night in a rocky cave at the summit of Moses Mountain, I began my return trip to the Red Sea coast. Connecting the coast to the interior of the Sinai was a long desolate road, and soon after departing a beat up, white pick-up truck began following me. For close to an hour I pedaled on, constantly monitoring. The car seemed be slowly dragging further and further behind, only to reappear again after I finished a steep climb. Finally the truck sped up as if to pass only to stop half way and push me off the road onto the shoulder. There were two men inside and 3 sitting in back all had faces covered with headscarves, the ones in back carried machine guns. The driver said something in Arabic, after which one of the men in back jumped out and walked over. He offered me a cigarette, and then tried to talk to me, using a mix of Arabic and English words. I ignored him.

The truck sped off, leaving the man behind. I had no idea what was going on but knew that with the truck gone I had an opportunity to get away. The man continued to watch me so I sat down and pretended to eat lunch; he quickly became bored and walked a few meters away. I waited for him to turn his back, then quickly jumped on my bike and pedaled away as fast as possible. Taken by surprise the man ran after me, but I had too much of a head start. I looked back to see him yelling into the receiver of his cell phone.

I knew he was calling the men in the pick-up and that I only had a few minutes before they would return. I looked into the distance for a place to hide, and saw a small, sandy road that led towards a canyon. With little time and no other choice, I pedaled off the main road only to quickly realize that the sand was too thick to pedal. I jumped off and pushed with all my strength, constantly looking over my shoulder and searching for any sign of the white truck. In the distance I could see the reflection of the car and knew that I only had a few minutes before they would be able to see me. The sand was too thick to get to the canyon in time, so I stopped half way and tucked myself behind a small sand mound.

I was 50 meters from the road, and from my hiding place had a good view of the returning vehicle. It stopped, picked up the man then sped off in the opposite direction. I held my position and waited, if after ten minutes the truck did not return I would make a break for the canyon. However, it was not long before it returned, this time driving at a slow pace with all three men in back standing and looking out in all directions. I stayed put, and for close to an hour watched as the pickup drove back and forth continuing its desert search for me. Soon I watched in horror as the men set up a small road block, stopping each passing car.

I patiently waited for the inevitable; I could not make a break for the canyon as I would clearly be seen. There was nothing I could do but wait for the sun to go down. I heard a car driving down the sandy road and looked over to see an older pickup truck slowing coming towards me. The truck drove right passed my hiding place and the driver seemed not to notice me behind the mound of sand. The car stopped and a local Bedouin man nonchalantly walked over. He greeted me in Arabic then followed in English. “The police are looking for trouble” he said. “They are looking for you….come with me now and we can go to my place, they will not find you there”. “Police” I said, “these guys look more like terrorists or kidnappers to me, are you sure they are police” I asked. “Look” he said and pointed out towards the road. I looked out over the sand, and saw that along with the unmarked pickup truck two other trucks had recently arrived, one with “POLICE” clearly written on the side.

“What did the police want with me”? I thought. Had I illegally crossed the border as I had done earlier in Kosovo? Had I pissed off some local Egyptians by sleeping in a holy cave? A few days earlier I had seen corrupt officials accepting bribes at check points, was this one of those situations? I thought about my options, I would clearly be jeopardizing this Bedouin man’s situation if I asked him to take me to his home, and If the police really wanted me they would eventually find me as I crossed the border into Israel. It was time to confront these guys and figure out what was going on. I got up from my hiding place, picked up my loaded bike and slowly walked towards them. Everyone seemed to stop what they were doing as they watched me approach. Without any exchange of greetings a uniformed man pulled out his cellphone and handed to me, on the other end a boisterous chief of police began to shout.

“Why are you running from the police?” The voice yelled into my ear. “This is a very dangerous area, with a high risk of kidnapping; recently two Australians were kidnapped and held for many days”. I told the man that it was because of this location being so dangerous that I ran from the 5 men, who seemed more like kidnappers than police. “You cannot travel here alone” he said, “it is too dangerous; we will take you back to the coast”. I knew there was there was no arguing with what he said, so I handed over my bicycle and it was loaded into the back of the familiar white pick-up truck and we sped off into a beautiful Egyptian sunset.

It was a dark moonless night when the truck came to a halt. I was half asleep when the driver yelled at me to get out. I jumped out and my bike was lifted over the tail gate onto the asphalt. “Where am I” I asked. Before I could get an answer the driver said “Don’t mess with the Egyptian police again”, and the truck sped off into the darkness. It was so dark that I couldn’t get a bearing on where I was. This is how the Egyptian police protect tourists from kidnappers? Luckily it didn’t take long to find a safe spot to camp and in the morning after asking a few locals, I slowly made my way toward Israel.

Read more at: pilgrimsandashes.com