Wednesday, August 19, 2009

From Sea to Shining Sea

Posted from New York, New York

There it is - the Mediterranean. Its blue wonder is blocked by points of land and a metal fence.

MinWah and I arrive at Port Said suddenly; the last 30 km blow past and I expect the sea to be anticlimactic, but there's a rock in my stomach when I look at it.

We make our way down to the beach to dip our tires and I'm overcome with reverence.

We don't stay long. The beach extends the length of Port Said and we ride along the pedestrian path until we can go no further, then pull our bikes through a construction site and find ourselves on the other side of a major police checkpoint.

From Port Said to Damiette is a narrow strip of land dominated mostly by the highway. We don't bother to find out whether we can ride on it, but rather get out of there as fast as we can.

Some kilometers on the sun is going down and we wonder where we'll sleep. The narrow spit of land is hardly more than a causeway. Then we come upon an old caravan parked on the beach and think maybe it - or the small structure behind it - would hide us from the road. Upon closer inspection, I am surprised to find the caravan occupied.

Ahmed and Achmed are smoking from a hookah and watching the sun set. Achmed offers the hose to me. I've been curious about smoking from a "water pipe," so I accept.

Then Achmed, uses his vocal cords to produce a series of compressions of air and his lips and tongue to shape them into a word.

"Hasheesh," he says, and the race is on.

The vibrations expelled from Achmed's mouth create more vibrations in turn, which pass the information on to my ears as I bring the hose to my lips. Behind the eardrum, hammer meets anvil and little hairs in my cochlea lie down. They trigger tiny electrical impulses which run down neurons and jump synapses until they reach my auditory cortex. The auditory region of my brain turns these bits of electricity into vital information and pass it on to the frontal lobe, which takes enough time to say "oh, shit" before it sends the relevant command to my motor control center.

It's too late. The motor control center has already instructed my diaphragm to inflate my lungs and draw in a mixture of air and smoke.

I release the breath gingerly, as though if I'm gentle enough the chemicals in the smoke won't bind to my blood and I can expel the offending toxins without harm.

Meanwhile, I try to look unperturbed, and fail. Instead, I stare at Achmed with the expression of someone who just unsuspectingly bit into a habanero. He laughs at his joke and shows me a tin of tobacco.

There's a big ditch between the road and the sea, to protect the pavement from any waves that get out of control. Ahmed and Achmed stay in this old caravan and look after the pump that spits water from the gully back into the sea.

MinWah asks Achmed how many years he's been there.
"Katheer," he says. Many.

They allow us to camp and I go out past the ditch to take in the scene. To my right I can still see the lights of Port Said glittering across the water. To my left, equidistant and equally beautiful I can see another town, smaller but just as bright. Ahead, the lights of many ships speckle the sea. Above, the moon is nearly full. Behind me, Ahmed, wearing a gray robe and a white turban balances on the gunwale of a beached boat and prays to the East.

I throw my arms out, clench my fists and choke back a yell. Port Said was nice but for me, to camp here, to hear the thrumming pump, feel the spray of the sea, smell the salt water; this is the climax. From here we will work our way back to Cairo where a plane ticket to New York City awaits me. America, after so long, will be an adventure in itself.

Besides, I've never been to New York.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Do you speak English?

Posted from Zagazig, Egypt

We pedal a long Thursday into Addis Ababa. The Egyptian Embassy is only open until noon on Friday and we don't want to wait out the weekend to submit our visa application, so we try get close enough to Addis but stop far enough out that we can still find a place to camp.

We fail. The capital of Ethiopia and the fourth largest city in Africa, Addis is sprawled to the extent that we're within it before we know it. Between all the industry and the masses of people, we see nowhere to camp. A petrol station refuses our request. There's little green space and where there is it's urban, inappropriate and probably unsafe.

The sun goes down. We've come 100 km uphill and we're so tired that our decision-making is suffering. We stop to put our feet down and wonder about what to do.

"Can I help you?" a passerby says.
We tell him we need a place to stay. He indicates that he knows a place, but he's acting strangely and we realize early enough that it's probably not a good idea to follow him.
A couple of ladies walking by might be more help. We ask, but they only tell us there's a hotel up ahead somewhere, out of sight.

We go another hundred meters or so and see an industrial compound of some sort. It's dark so it's hard to tell what exactly it is. There's an old fire truck, presumably undergoing some sort of maintenance. There's a low building with a satellite dish on top. Most importantly, there's a fence around the place and a group of uniformed guards, one of whom is holding an automatic rifle.

Ethiopia is the only country in the world whose national language is Amharic. Amharic is difficult to begin with. It's got it's own script and it's full of sounds not found in English, like the "exploded" t and k. The syntax and grammar is different, and words addressed to women often have different suffixes than those addressed to men. Furthermore, we've been in Ethiopia for only a little more than a week. Suffice to say, we butcher our attempt to ask for a place to sleep.

Like the women we met before, the guards suggest a hotel down the road. We try to explain that we wish to sleep in a tent, that all we need is a small square of ground to put it on.

We fail. The Amharic word for tent is "dnkwan." We learn later that a dnkwan is actually a large canvas tent used in funeral celebrations, which can last up to three days. It doesn't really matter because we can't pronounce "dnkwan" anyway.

We're debating whether to keep trying here or move on and hope for better luck elsewhere when one of the guards steps forward.

"Do you speak English?" he says.