Saturday, October 26, 2013

Cairo - Egypt

--Há uma versão em português logo abaixo--

Since the beginning of this journey I've been watching the situation in Egypt, and before leaving Europe I was already worried about it. It was when president Mohamed Morsi was removed from power and the chaos again reigned, with hundreds of people being killed in the protests.

While traveling in the Middle East I was always worried about the possibility of having to leave Egypt out of my planned route. Things started getting better but the uncertainty on the political scene meant that I still had my doubts until a few days before the end of my time in Jordan.

But the fact that a friend of mine from Amsterdam was going to travel to Cairo for a religious meeting, and had had information from his people there that things were much better than they seemed, encouraged me to accept the risks. Not visiting Egypt would have been a lifetime frustration.

I knew that it wasn't wise to cycle in the Sinai Peninsula; there have been reports of an increase in terrorist activities in that area since the revolution in 2011. So my plan was to cross from Jordan into Egypt by ferry and to take a bus across the Sinai Peninsula to arrive in Cairo.

The ferry left Aqaba around 03:00 am and it took about three hours to reach Nuweiba. From there, as a foreigner I wasn't allowed to get the direct bus to Cairo, I had to go via a safer route, from Nueiba to Sharm el-Sheikh and from Sharm el-Sheikh to Cairo.

I arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh in the evening and the only bus to Cairo was the next morning. So I slept in the bus station and the next day, at 07:30 am headed for Cairo. It was a 7 hour ride.

It was a trip with some tension but everything was going OK, the route was very safe with a lot of military check points. Many times we had to leave the bus to show our identity and have our bags checked.

The only problem I had was caused by myself. I was taking pictures from the window, while trying to hide what I was doing from the people on the bus, since I wanted to go unnoticed. But when someone did noticed then the trouble began. They started to complain that I was taking pictures of the military and it developed into something more serious.

I talked a lot to the people on the bus. I said I wasn't going to take any more pictures and everything seemed OK. I thought that the incident was over, but I was wrong!

As soon as we reached the next check point, the bus stopped and within a few minutes military officials were inside the bus. They asked for my passport and asked me to leave the bus. They checked my passport, my pictures and saw my bike .

I said the same thing I'd said to the people on the bus, that I'd taken the pictures without any ulterior motive. Since it wasn't a military zone, but a road, I thought that wouldn't be a problem to take pictures from the bus. My idea was to show that the road was very safe.

They talked amongst themselves, talked on the phone, and asked me to delete the pictures, which I did (fortunately some survived). The bus continued and my camera no longer saw the light of day.

Arriving in Cairo, I had no option other than to cycle in the city. I had hosts, a Brazilian family, waiting for me, arranged by my friend from Amsterdam. But I had to check my e-mail to get their phone number, so I left the bus station and went to find a place with internet.

I can't say that I wasn't a bit tense, but despite all the tanks, military and blocked streets that I saw from the bus, everything seemed to be very quiet. I called them, and I was told that from where I was I'd be able to cycle to their neighborhood without any problem. And when we met I followed their car as far as their home.

Tahrir Square
They were very nice people, but were very busy organizing the religious meeting, with their apartment already full of friends who came from different countries to participate. They allowed me to stay in another apartment on the first floor, used by their social project. My bike and I called that place home for the week I spent in Cairo.

My first great joy in Cairo was meeting the friend from Amsterdam, a Brazilian pastor, who had come to participate in the event. He's a very special person, a great friend. He was the first person to sign my Brazilian flag but unfortunately we weren't able to say good bye when I left Holland. So now this meeting in Cairo was a special gift.

The first thing that I did in Cairo was to go to the Indian Consulate to apply for a visa. My plan was to get the visa, then cycle south to Luxor, come back by train to Cairo and fly to India. But the procedures to get the visa took a week. By that time I had already changed my mind about Luxor. It would be amazing to cycle there and visit the Valley of the Kings, but I couldn't be sure that it'd be OK. It's 800 km, cycling through an Egypt that hasn't the same stability as it had three years ago.

At least Cairo looked very quiet, I used public transport and walked around the streets almost everyday. With this beard and without any trace of being a tourist, no one thought I wasn't Egyptian.

There are still some streets blocked by military tanks, and some metro stations closed, to avoid the protests that still take place in some areas of the city. And a night time curfew is still going on.

This week there has been an attack on a Christian church (Coptic Orthodox). Gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on a wedding party outside the church. 5 people were killed including a Muslim man. Morsi supporters accuse the Coptic Christian community of having given support to the coup that overthrew the president. Many attacks on Christians churches around the country have been reported with a huge number of churches being burnt or looted..

That was one of the reasons that made me give up going to Luxur. Egyptian people like Brazil and soccer very much, and when I arrived here people saw my bike and treated me very well, but knowing that the environment isn't 100% safe and that there will always be radical people everywhere, I decided to stay in Cairo until leaving the country.

In Cairo an old dream became reality: visiting the Pyramids. That was the main factor that brought me to Egypt, and I was very glad when it happened. An unforgettable experience!

I also visited the Egyptian Museum, nowadays heavily protected. In 2011, during the revolution, the museum was attacked and many artifacts were damaged or stolen. A very stupid and unforgivable crime against their own culture. These pieces are now being exhibited in a different room, revealing the amazing restoration work that it took to bring them "back to life".

The museum is located next to Tahrir Square, the stage and symbol of the protests of 2011 and the ones that took place after the military coup. The day I was going to the square I had only my passport in my pocket and the money for the museum. I didn't know what I was going to face, so I wanted to go unnoticed.

But it was very quiet, all the ways to the square were blocked with tanks and barricades, with a strong military presence. Pedestrians were allowed to walk without any problem. Yesterday when I went there again it was already reopened to cars.

I finish my post here today because I have an airport waiting for me and I definitely don't want to repeat what happened in Athens.

Thank God everything since Amsterdam has gone as planned, which I'm really thankful for. Today when I fly from here to India, I'll be completing exactly what was planned: traveling through Europe, Middle East, and from Egypt, the only country I'd visit in Africa, fly to Asia.

So India, here I come..