Cross-Egypt Scooter Challenge

February 27, 2013
By Dewane Van Leuven

Riding 125cc from Cairo to Karnak

Adventure travel. That’s supposed to be done with big, manly machines, BMWs or KTMs, masses of Teutonic metal snarling with power, loaded to the gunnels with fuel, food, spare parts and Claymore mines. Machines ridden by unshaved he-men who can re-wire their alternators while bribing border guards and weaving a hammock out of reeds. Or you can ride a borrowed SYM scooter through the remotest stretches of the Egyptian desert.

That offer popped out of nowhere on Fifteen hundred miles on 8-horsepower scooters along the Mediterranean coast and through the deserts in eight days. But it left me wondering. Why Egypt? And why now?

The Cross-Egypt Challenge, first run in 2009, is a government/private-sector effort to promote tourism and alternative transportation in Egypt. Each year, a select group of Egyptian and international scooterists makes a long—very long—ride through the cradle of Western civilization. Was it really open to anybody?

I sent my application in and got the approval a few weeks later. I remember the exact day I got the approval—July 23—because it was also the day I got laid off from my job after 12 years at a local high-tech company. I considered canceling, but my cube is about six meters away from an Egyptian co-worker. Nermeen (for that is her name) heard the details of the trip and where I was going, and told me, “Dewane, you have to go.”

So I did. And oh boy, am I promoting tourism.

Time to plan:

– A short Google search to see if I need a visa beforehand to travel to Egypt. No visa required; you get it at the port of entry in Cairo for $15.

– Glance at an online map to see where we are traveling. Looks like we’re starting in Cairo, going north and east along the Mediterranean coast, then south near the Libyan border, to ancient desert oases. We finish the trip in Luxor, home to untold treasures of ancient Egypt.

– Go to Daiso (the Japanese dollar shop) and buy three five-packs of disposable underwear for $4.50.

Planning: Done.

Preparation: What to expect in Egypt: Is rioting a constant? Are there kidnappings? Is robbery a problem? What are people like there? Do they hate Americans?

The answers: No, sometimes in the Sinai/Gaza area but not anywhere else, pretty crime is 50 times less prevalent than it is where I live in Oakland (not an exaggeration), like Americans except poorer and with a better sense of humor, and not if you bring money with you: Egypt loves tourists. It’s like living in the beautiful Laurel district: Have an open mind, don’t stereotype people by the way they look, and keep your eyes open.

I meet up with my Vespa Club of Los Gatos mate, Mike, who is also going. We take a 16-hour flight with a transfer in Munich. For the first time in my life, I have somebody waiting at the airport with a sign with my name on it (well okay, actually it said “Cross Egypt Challenge”). Tamer, our driver, takes us to his car (a BYD F3, a Chinese-built copy of a Toyota Corolla) and drives us to our hotel in Zamalek, an island near Tahrir Square, birthplace of the Egyptian revolution and, many would say, the Arab Spring.

Cairo traffic has to be experienced to be believed. On bridges with three lanes, I saw four and even five lanes of traffic. The horn noise went from unbearable to hilarious. The traffic patterns look random at first glance, but Egyptian traffic has a logical flow that requires almost subconscious thought to maneuver. I become well acquainted with the quintessential Italian hand gesture: Joining the index and middle finger of your hand with your thumb and placing your hand, fingers out, face high. This has a typically Egyptian meaning: Patience.

There is a restaurant/bar (but with no alcohol) on top of the hotel. Mike and I get coffee and a shisha (flavored tobacco in a water pipe). The view of the Nile is stunning. Boats with strings of colored lights cruise the Nile and blast house music from their decks. Cairo throbs with life.

The next day, Mike and I go to the Cairo Tower and get lunch. I notice the heavy smog in the air. The brown haze is oppressive and omnipresent. The look and smell seems familiar. A few days later, I figure it out; the air in Cairo, 2012 is exactly the same as my home town, Redlands, California, in 1972. Anybody who thinks that CARB and the EPA haven’t made a difference to the air quality in Cali needs to spend three months in Cairo. It’s like a time machine back to Southern California’s bad air.

We meet the other riders. There are 26 of them, about 40 percent of whom are Egyptians. The other riders are adventure motorcyclists, scooterists, and a couple of expatriates (one Greek and one German) working for the oil companies here. About five of the riders seem to have no experience at all, and at least half have no experience with group riding.

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