Days 7 & 8: The Motorcycle Diaries
Dates: 31st January – 1st February, 2011
Location: Somewhere b/w New Cairo & 6th of October City
Site: North Eastern Sahara Desert
So I’m crouching here, silently, in a dark back alley of an even darker ghost town in the middle of an extremely dark desert, and I’m thinking to myself: “oh man, how’re you gonna get out of this one?”. I mean, I knew this would be dangerous and all….but I can’t honestly say that I saw this coming. Come to think of it, this is a pretty life threatening situation. Like, I could actually die if I don’t find some way out of here (and for those of you who don’t know, my sense of direction is desperately lacking, in fact being nearer in proficiency to that of a drunk toddler, rather than a nineteen year old undergraduate globetrotter). Holy shit, the shock is wearing off, and the panic setting in. Keep calm, breathe, don’t lose your head. You’ll figure it out. You always do. Now, on the off chance that I manage to make my way back (or that someone stumbles across this journal) here’s how it all went down:
It’s late at night, and I’m standing alongside the Ring Road with a huge grin on my face, as I attempt to hitch a ride Downtown for a closer look at the riots. The Road is a seemingly endless eight lane highway, extending a full 72 km in length, and circling the whole of Greater Metropolitan Cairo. 50% of the land it traverses is utterly dry, mercilessly barren, and apocalyptically lifeless Saharan desert. The Road is notoriously perilous, serving as home to nomadic bandits, wild dogs, and law-defying truck drivers in abundance (these barreling down the wrong side of the Road doing 90 mph, so that all one can really do is swerve frantically out of the way). My incorrigibly teenage brain is laboring under the intense delusion that this is not, very obviously, quite a stupid thing to do. Nevertheless, here I am, eagerly awaiting the arrival of a good Samaritan with a set of wheels.
I am AWOL, having recently executed a rather devious vanishing act from campus at the American University in Cairo, whose administration has seen fit to sequester the remainder of the student body as a protective measure in response to the current civil unrest. The other exchange students have been evacuated on strict orders from the State Department. I, however, am Egyptian by blood, and thus entitled to stay, if I so choose. I am also cold (winter in the desert is something of a frigid bitch), and quickly losing patience for waiting out here. Just as I’m about to turn round and double time it back to campus, a small, goofy, vaguely rhomboidal van comes screeching to an ungainly halt beside me. The door slides open, and the occupants, very enthusiastically, beckon me in. So of course, I break the cardinal rule of solo travel….and get in the van.
I immediately regret this decision. There are no fewer than ten brooding Muslim men crammed into this woeful little death trap. The smiles that had greeted me so warmly only seconds ago have now turned to scowls — all eyes averted from me. The driver, without looking, asks me in Arabic where I am going. I tell him, in my mangled AmeriGyptian accent, that I’m headed downtown. He nods, speeds up the van, and so the journey begins.
I’ve been on the road a few minutes now, and am quickly assessing the danger of this situation. Everyone is, for the most part, silent. Now and again someone will mutter something sketchy to the man sitting next to him, but never once am I included in the conversation. Egyptians are famously friendly people, and in all my time spent there since childhood, I’ve never once experienced a truly negative or mean spirited encounter. This is about to change.
After several fruitless attempts at sparking light conversation, I have fully depleted my already shallow reservoir of primitive Arabic icebreaking material (i.e. food, football, and women [this last one garners a particularly negative reception]). It has become hysterically plain to all present that I am: (i) an American; (ii) very much alone; and (iii) very, very stupid. This comes to my attention when one of them finally speaks up, saying something that I can’t quite catch, apart from a very concerning use of the words “traveller” and “American”. I smile, but my pulse shoots up — as I realize that I am, officially, fucked.
This is not where I want to be right now, or ever again, for that matter. Laughing awkwardly, I casually ask the driver if he will pull over, because this is far enough. He smiles back, waving his hand and telling me everything is fine, that we’re almost there. I am well aware of the fact that we are nowhere near “almost there”, given the very distinct aggregate of motherfucking Sahara that is currently surrounding me. So I say now, a little more forcefully, that I really do appreciate it but here is fine, and I’d like to get out. He responds, a lot more forcefully, that we are not stopping. I look at the speedometer, we’re doing something like 80 kph. I have no idea how fast that is. I panic, and move for the door. They see this, and start trying to grab me. I open the door, and….
I jump out the door.
I’m stunned, dazed, and pretty sure my ribs are broken. I’ve managed to land on my backpack and roll into one of the dunes by the road — no doubt this saved my life. I look up, and see that the van has pulled over, some of the men are getting out to see if I’m still alive. They see that I am. I get up. I run. I am so lucky as to have jumped out somewhere near a town, and start sprinting towards it. When I reach the outskirts, I find that they have been abandoned since the riots. Excellent.
I was hoping there’d be someone around to help me out. There isn’t. I see the van pull into the main street. They come after me. I keep running, and duck into an alley. They’re prowling around the side streets looking for me. I stay hunched over some trashcans behind a shitty little Pizza Hut. I’ll wait here until they pass. Please, let them pass.
They’ve passed. I pull out my journal. Oh man, how’re you gonna get out of this one? I scribble a few things down, but the only thing that makes sense to do right now is sleep. I lay down, and my ribs start to sear in pain again. There’s not much in the way of bedding around, so I curl up with my scarf wrapped around my face and pass out.
I don’t think I’ve ever slept more poorly in my life. I remember where I am, what’s happened, and start wondering what’s going to happen. Well, time to see about a way out. I’m walking around the town looking for water (I’ve got around sixteen ounces left in my backpack) but no luck, everyone seems to have taken everything with them after evacuating the city. Food? Yeah, right. Nothing for it I suppose, just have to keep searching.
There is something profoundly eery about a completely uninhabited environment.
There are victims of car bombings:
Buildings have been set aflame all over the country:
The whole place is some kind of magnificent, for all its mayhem.
I’ve done a full sweep of the city’s center/outskirts and found nothing, no one. By the time I make my way back to home base [shitty little Pizza Hut] the sun is coming up, and I’m feeling pretty demoralized. Fuck, man, this might just be the one you can’t get out of. I sit down with head in hands, but not yet ready to give up.
All of a sudden, out from the corner of my eye, I see a motorcycle. Must be one of those old bikes the pizza boys use for deliveries. I walk over to it, and the key’s still in the ignition. I turn the key. No way am I this lucky.
This is one for the books. I’ve got a quarter tank left to get me to Cairo, better hit the road….I wonder where it’ll take me next.