Riding to fabled Mt. Sinai
July 20, 2004
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"We'll just have to see about that," I replied with the bravado of a defiant Han Solo in "The Empire Strikes Back," when told that his tauntaun would "freeze before reaching the first marker."
Like the headstrong Han-a childhood hero of mine and every 20 to 30-something male-I wasn't going to let some pantywaist, naysayer rain on my parade, especially when it came to my biking. I'd made up my mind to ride to Mt. Sinai, and ride to Mt. Sinai I would.
And if I don't make it, or am swept away by the peninsula's unpredictable desert sands...Well Andrew, like Han says before heading out into the bitter Hoth cold: "Then I'll see you in hell."
I'd been living in Cairo for about a year and a half when I got the itch to tour again. I'd been slaving away at a daily newspaper and needed a break from the grind.
Besides, it'd been three years since my epic 56-day trans-America ride and I was getting a little soft. Never mind the extra 10 pounds around my midsection; it had been too long since I hunkered down for a night's sleep along a deserted road or in the thicket after a long day's ride.
So it was off to Mt. Sinai. The destination seemed perfect for galvanizing my inner adventurer. Moses led the Israelites there out of their bondage in mainland Egypt. I would liberate myself from the bondage of too much deskwork and greasy takeout, finding salvation in that ancient holy land...
OK, so I was prone to delusions of grandeur, proof enough that I desperately needed a vacation.
First task was a road check. Were there even roads navigable by bike to Mt. Sinai or would I be thumbing after a dozen flat tires just trying to get out of Cairo? I'd never cycled east of the city, always restricting my rides to the west and around the Giza Plateau, home of the Pyramids.
I consulted with some people and managed to procure a less than detailed road map that showed there were indeed roads to the famous mountain of the Ten Commandments. From the handful of answers I got about their condition, I ascertained they'd suit my needs.
But the assurances of road quality often came with ominous warnings of prowling thieves and rabid fauna. "It wasn't wise to sleep alone in the desert," many said. Towns, few and far between, were not used to seeing "khwaagas" (foreigners) and may not respond kindly to a flush-faced cyclist looking for drinking water and a hot meal.
"Ehh," I thought with a dismissive wave. "They're not going to scare me." Nor were Andrew's allegations that the Egyptian military-which had checkpoints every so often along the major highways-would never let a khwaaga ride through that hostile land alone. Map in hand, I plotted my course. I was going. Case closed.
Second: equipment check. I had none except for my trusty Cannondale bike. Sure I'd ridden it tens of thousands of miles in the states and around Cairo, but I'd never put it to a multi-day road test. Would the wheels buckle under the additional weight during what I planned as a week-long ride? Unsure how to check since I didn't yet have any equipment to weigh it down, I resigned myself to just "hoping for the best." That seemed to work in the past--final exams come to mind--when I was woefully unprepared.
So instead, I took advantage of one of the Cairo citizenry's more admirable attributes: being able to make just about anything you describe. Egyptians have an amazing knack for handiwork, be it goods fashioned from metal or fabric, or the ability to keep running ancient taxis with a quarter million miles on them, they find a way. It was time I put those skills to the test.
I went to one of the city's well-known "souks" (markets) where tradesmen skilled in sewing own small stalls that sell ornate blankets and decorative pillows. It was a long shot, I thought, but proceeded to describe to one maker what I needed.
He listened attentively, scratched his chin, and asked me to draw what I wanted, including the dimensions. Thirty-five minutes later, I was the proud owner of a set of cloth saddlebags that would have done any rustler proud to wear across his stead's hindquarters.
Next it was off to the machine shop, where hot barbs of metal and sparks flew indiscriminately among machinists clad in flip flops and certainly no safety glasses. I told them I needed a rack, showed them my bike, let them puzzle over the how-to's and went out for a coffee and "sheesha" (traditional waterpipe filled with tobacco).
An hour later I returned to find I had a reasonable rack fixed to the back of my bike. Though the metalwork weighed about the same as my bike's aluminum frame, I was pleased with its craftsmanship.
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