Today I experienced a little bit of sadness. As such, I’ve got a confession to make. It’s been kind of a secret. Though those who’ve ridden with me in Africa including Ronnie “B”, Grant and Julie and even Robin from Cape Town were privy to the secret. But today I’ve got to let it out of the bag. You see I had this strange delusion that I could possibly have been the only overland traveler through Africa and the Middle East that made the journey with a Riedel Bordeaux crystal wine glass.
Not that I’ve had a chance to use this particular glass, the one that was practically given to me at the duty-free shop in EZE airport in Buenos Aires so that I’d have proper stemware to drink a bottle of premium Argentine Malbec on the flight to Cape Town last November. But it’s been strapped to the seat of Doc in a lime green Sea to Summit dry bag since I left Cape Town in early November. It made it through the rains in the Drakkensberg, the rough roads of Namibia, through the Okavango Delta. It toiled with me along Lake Malawi and was drenched on the road to Dar es Salam and crossed the mighty Serengeti. It got hammered on in Rwanda and Uganda and crossed the mighty Northern Kenya desert before bounding along the Ethiopian high and low lands.
But when I was repacking today I put my fist on the seat to jockey the bike around in this tight alley next to my hotel. And I think I crushed it. So my dream has been shattered and the tears are helping irrigate the desert. But I donated the broken glass and container to my friends at the Hathor Hotel here in Aswan who have no idea why or what this glass is. But it elicited some smiles, nonetheless.
I spotted a KTM on the street earlier in the week and last night had dinner with Mark Galliers a South African who left London a few weeks back and is making his way back to South Africa on his new KTM. The speed and distance to which he’s been traveling is astounding. And he’s been in Aswan almost as long as I have. Remember that ferry? The one that leaves once a week from Wadi Halfa in Sudan? Well once a week it returns from Aswan. Mark had tried to avoid riding in one of the mandated tourist convoys to get here in time to get on the ferry last week. But traffic police held him up and he was forced to ride the convoy anyway. So he’s had to wait here until the next ferry.
Sadly I broke my Riedel Bordeaux Glass in Aswan.
Fish for sale in Aswan market.
For me I was packing as much as could in my final day in Aswan. After waking up at 3:00am and spending six hours in a car and a few more at a temple, some people would probably have called it a day and continued touring or traveling the following day. Not me. I’d seen everything there was to see here and was ready for Luxor and the Valley of the Kinds.
Luxor is about 130 miles down the Nile River north of Aswan. There are three ways to travel to Luxor from Aswan: overland, air, riverboat down the Nile. As with most roads in this part of Egypt, traveling overland means going in a convoy. There are two daily convoys to Luxor. One that leaves at 8am and stops at a few archaeological sites along the way and another at 1:30pm that goes straight to Luxor. In about 3 hours.
With my broken Riedel in now good hands and the bike packed I thought I followed instructions to the convoy’s gathering point but soon found myself stopped at a police checkpoint and asked to pull my bike off the road and talk to the “man in charge.” I asked about the convoy.
“Where’s the convoy,” he asked while squelching the noise down on his walkie-talkie.
“Yeah! Where’s the convoy?” I echoed his question right back and explained I was looking for it, too.
“You wait. Wait here for convoy.” I turned the engine off and waited while he chatted on the walkie talkie and then made a call on his mobile phone.
After about 15 minutes he tells me to go, that it’s okay. I don’t need to wait for convoy. Wow. Free. This is great.
It’s a narrow two lane road that passes through several small towns with shops, houses and businesses nearly encroaching on the tarmac. Donkey carts, pedestrians and other obstacles in the more congested areas mean riding at a moderate speed. I’m in now hurry. The ride should take about three hours and for most of the time I’m riding along the Nile or one of its canals.
After about an hour I see flashing lights in my rearview. It’s the typical Egyptian police vehicle a deep dark blue pick-up style truck. A couple uniformed and armed guys in the cab and about four others riding in the cargo area. I slow down and pull to the side and let them pass offering a big wave to the guys in back. I move back to the center of the lane and seconds later I’ve got a white mini-van riding my ass. It’s rather frightening, actually. He’s literally about 20 feet from the rear of the bike. I flash my rear brake a few times, turn around and glare and use the palm of my hand to try to indicate he’s just too close for comfort. But these drivers have no clue. This is normal.
I decide to let him pass. Then right on his ass is another van and another. Soon ten vans have passed me and then the motor-coach busses are doing it. Shit. It’s the convoy. They caught up to me and were traveling about 120 kph (70 mph). I see a gap and pull to the center of the lane again. Seconds later I’ve got another mini-van tailgating me again. So I let him pass and then a massive bus is riding my tail. I can’t win. Seems to be about 20 mini vans and thirty or forty busses in this convoy. And I’m stuck in the middle.
They blast through these tiny towns on a road that is narrower and more potholed that some rural routes in the states. Only here there are more people and other obstructions. But this doesn’t slow the convoy down. It’s 120 kph average. I finally realize that the only way to have a safe riding distance is to get out of the convoy. So I start passing the busses. Then the mini-vans. More busses. Then I’m behind four mini-vans who are right behind the leading police car and its flashing lights. Here at the front of the line things are moving fast. Plus we’re winding around some curves. I get sandwiched with two white vans ahead and two behind. The one directly behind, like the others, has about six white faces behind the tinted windows. Western tourists. But the driver is riding me again. Can’t be more than 10 feet behind me. I’m pissed. And turn around and wave my hand in the air displaying and open palm as I’m trying to say “What gives?” Why must this guy drive so close to me. But again, it’s normal. I let him pass and offer more questions in my arm and hand gestures. He does the same back to me. it’s useless. The guy frankly doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong. If anything, he’s wondering what the heck is wrong with me.
I’ve gotta get out of the convoy.
It’s the only way I’ll feel and be safe. Sandwiched in a line of 50 vehicles all leaving a quarter of a car length in between each other while driving 120 kpm is rattling my nerves and is not what I signed up for when I headed out on this journey. So I jockey to the front position with only a police vehicle flashing its lights ahead of me. I contemplate my action. The van driver I explored non-verbal communications with has now passed the front runner van and is now right behind me again. I figure that since the first time I saw this police vehicle I was riding on my own. I did wave and for sure I’m the unique vehicle on this road today. Do I pass the police? The four guys in the back of the pick up holding the automatic weapons, would they care? Even if they did they’ve got fifty other vehicles to worry about. What have I got to lose. So I muster up my cojones and pass the blue police truck and its armed brigade waving and doing my best to catch eye-contact as I pass. They wave back and I’m off.
I ride at excessive speeds for the next fifteen minutes to increase the buffer zone between me and the others. Next thing there’s another mini-van coming up behind me. But he’s carrying no tourists. He passes me offering a huge grin and big thumbs up while nodding his head. He approves and likes the bike and the idea of traveling on it. I wave, give him a couple toots of the horn and return a thumbs up. We’ve bonded. And that’s a good thing.
A little bit later I’m stopped at a police check point. There’s questions, but these guys don’t speak much English. My thumbs up friend helps in the translating. He says the cops want to know why I’m not in the convoy. “The sergeant in Aswan told me it’s okay to ride alone,” I explain. This is translated. But by now the convoy is behind me again. And while I’m busy explaining my story, the checkpoint cops are having a word with the truck and the brigade. THey want me to ride in the convoy, but I don’t. Seems a difference of desires here. The convoy presses on and I join in again.
Once again the safe traveling distance decorum is ignored and I’m once again a sardine in moving school of busses and mini-vans. Once again I begin the passing game and in a few minutes I’m behind the police truck. And once again, I just go and pass them. What are they going to do? Sure, I guess they could shoot. Have the cops at the next checkpoint confiscate the bike and put me in jail. Sure, all these things are possible. I am in the Middle East, after all. But something tells me otherwise. I’ve got a gut. And I’ve got confidence. And I don’t want to ride in this mess.
So I pass the police truck for the second time today.
And I’m off. It’s now a bit of a game for me. I speed to build that buffer and ride on. There’s not much to see along this stretch of the road. I’m simply anxious to get to Luxor and being my exploration of the Nile Valley. Just as I get my rhythm back I’m stopped at another checkpoint. The convoy is far behind me. The men in the crisp white uniforms ask me to pull over and talk to the general. Oh no. I guess the word got out on the radio, perhaps. The general is sitting in the shade under the awning of one of a couple vendors who’ve set up what looks like an ad-hoc market on this roadside more than a couple miles from any settlement or town. Interesting.
“General says you must wait, maybe twenty, maybe thirty minutes,” one of the police explain. “No. No,” I say, “I must go on to Luxor. Very important for me to go.” We go back and forth and by the time the convoy shows up I am told to pull my motorcycle up. So I park it about 50 meters from the check point while the mini-vans and busses park on the side of the road in front and behind me. “Everyone must wait for the general,” another officer says. There are about six officers in crisp white uniforms roaming the street. “I must go,” I explain. “I am not part of this convoy.”
“No you wait,” he says with a bit of a smirk and his eyes hidden by the shade of his cap, “general says everyone must wait.”
“For what,” I ask.
“Wait,” I’m told again.
He can see that I’m a persistent bugger and now no longer wants to deal with me. “You go talk to general then,” he shrugs me off on the general.
So I drag the heals of my boots down to the shaded area and meet the general. “You must wait until I say you can go,” he states matter of factly. He can’t explain why we must wait. He simply says, “Wait.” All in convoy must wait. I explain that I am not part of the convoy, but he insists I wait.
“Convoy not safe for me,” I explain using a new tactic but sticking to the truth. “They ride too fast on this road and the ride too close to me. I don’t want to have accident and be killed in Egypt,” I explain. He explains but you must wait. “Not safe for me, please you let me go now,” I ask nicely.
“No. You must wait.”
I notice the two refrigerated displays with coke, water and soft drinks. “Okay, I wait. But for how long.”
Coca-Cola in Arabic for those interested. But for me the interesting thing here is the pull-tab. I barely remember these from the early days of my childhood, but sometime in the 70’s they were banned from canned beer and soft drinks forever. Most places in Africa there aren’t cans — only bottles. But here in Egypt I was reacquainted once again with the pull tab and its dangerously sharp remnant — those things that end up on beaches, on streets and in the most awful places.
“Okay. You wait five minutes.” This I’ll agree to and I ask him if he’d like a cold Fanta or soda. He thanks me but wants nothing. I pull a Fanta Orange out of the cooler and ask how much. He says 10 Egyptian pounds. “What? That’s crazy!” Everyone was out of their bus or van and wandering around. Looking at the trinkets and sipping cold drinks. Then I figured it out. This is how the general is helping the local people and their economy. He had no reason to make all the busses and vans stay. We’d passed through four or five check points and never had to stop. But here the local people were selling goods to the convoy. There was no temple, no ruins, or museum here. Once again the locals and the belief it’s their right to capitalize on the tourists. The Fanta should be 2 or 3 pounds. Here he was trying to get more than triple the price everyone else pays. I smile and explain that I know how much a Fanta costs in Egypt and ask why he’s charging so much. “Because the tourists will pay,” he says. “I’m not a tourist,” I explain. “I will not pay.” He offers me the Fanta for 5 Egyptian Pounds. I told him I’d give him 3, though that’s more than I ever paid in Aswan.
We don’t do business, and I’m a bit miffed at this ludicrous stop and the tourist rip-off operation and walk back to my bike. Five minutes had passed and the general said I could leave after five minutes. But the armed uniformed officers tell me to wait.
“I’m not waiting.”
The general did not say everyone could go. We wait for general.”
“General told me I can go in five minutes,” I explain nicely and with a big smile. “Now five minutes finished and I go,” I explain while securing the chin strap on my helmet. Two cops are watching me now. I push the starter button, and I point to my watch and say, “I must go. Too dangerous for moto to ride in convoy. Too fast. Too close. I go now general say okay for me.” And with that I dropped Doc into gear, released the clutch and motored out of there with the two policemen just staring at me as I watched them fade from my rearview.
Free at last.
I passed three more checkpoints on the way to Luxor but was never stopped. In Luxor adjacent to the Luxor Temple I park the bike along the east bank of the Nile and pull out my map and guidebook. The sun is beating down and it’s still 100 degrees. I notice a small collection of shops. I’m dying for a cold drink and walk into the first one and pull a Fanta out of the fridge. “How much?” The well spoken Egyptian says 3 Egyptian Pounds. I smile. That’s more like it.
I asses the situation and decide I’m going to stay on the less touristed part of Luxor on the West Bank. Not only are there less tourists, but it is closer to most of the temples and archaeological sites. It takes some serious jockeying and rear wheel shifting to pull my bike off the sandy side street that is home to the Amon Hotel where a cold beer and home cooked Egyptian meal awaited me.
Temple at Luxor, Egypt.