Adventures in Egypt… Getting to Cairo by Bus

To try and keep my costs down I do a lot of traveling by bus… they’re cheap, usually reliable and sometimes very… err… umm… colorful.  So when I decided to get out of Sharm El Sheikh and head to Cairo the bus schedule was the first thing I checked.  The schedule noted that the bus to Cairo from Sharm was supposed to take about 7 and a half hours… about 6 hours of driving, with an hour and a half stopping for breaks and various checkpoints.  I took the 10:30 AM bus, with my impeccable timing working in reverse, as I arrived to the bus station just as the 9:00 AM bus to Cairo was leaving (there are about 6 buses a day, including two overnight buses… which may sound appealing to some of you, until you realize you’ll have to stop every couple of hours to show your passports and have your bags searched)… The bus was pretty nice… standard issue bus type stuff similar to any Greyhound in the US… assigned seats, air conditioning, two movies (except they’re in arabic of course), one okay toilet in the back stairwell… nothing really out of the ordinary (no wifi though… the buses in Spain have wifi… I know the country is collapsing economically, but they are crushing the US in terms of bus amenities).  When I get up I manage to have a decent breakfast… the lunch stop cafe is pretty awful looking, so I just end getting some crackers as I figure I’ll make it to Cairo in short order.  Well… let’s just say that did not quite work out as planned.  About 60 kilometers outside of Cairo the bus hits some major, and I mean major, traffic.  It’s about 5 PM so I just assumes that it’s just a rush hour type thing (this was a weekday).  Stop and go, stop and go, stop and go… then a very slow crawl, then just stopped.  I’m thinking that this is some pretty crazy Cairo traffic (the place is known for it).  We’re stopped for 5-10 minutes… no big deal… but 10 minutes turns into one hour, which turns into an hour and a half and on and on… with no movement whatsover.  The bus (and every vehicle around it) is just stopped.  There are some announcements in Arabic, but I don’t really ask anyone about it so as not to stick out too badly.  After about two hours, the bus driver opens the doors to let people out to walk around and smoke cigarettes (the Egyptians chain smoke constantly).  Everyone from our bus and the other stopped vehicles gets out and starts mingling, the truck drivers start passing on info they get via their CB radios (those that have them).

So try and picture this… where we were stopped is basically in the middle of the desert… flat sand, with maybe some small hills in the (far) distance.  The only buildings in sight are about 2 kilometers ahead on the side of the road (looks like some sort of checkpoint) and a small military installation off to the south (the barbed wire fence and anti-aircraft/howitzer-type guns give away what it is).  The highway is two lanes wide in each direction with a large sand median… but, since this is Egypt, the drivers have managed to cram four lanes of traffic on the pavement (shoulders and lanes…quite impressive actually).  As it has long since become apparent that no one is going anywhere on the highway, anyone who is able to, usually passenger cars and small trucks (think small u-haul-sized), try pulling off the road and driving out on the sand.  These vehicles, plus vehicles who have pulled off way at the end of the traffic jam start to form informal dirt-highway convoys anywhere from about 400 meters to one kilometer away from the main highway (on both sides of the road).  Most vehicles attempting to get off the pavement do so successfully, but a couple get stuck on the very soft sand on the shoulder… including at least one bus from what I saw.

View forward from just outside my bus…

…and the view the other way.

Just imagine this going on for miles…

After about three hours since we stopped, the sun begins to set, and most of the trucks, and many of the buses, have long since shut off their engines as there doesn’t seem to be much hope of moving anywhere.  I’ve been outta the bus for a minute and am just wandering around within a kilometer or so of the bus just to to see what’s going on… apparently (despite me wearing shorts) I look Arabic enough for people to begin talking to me in Arabic… to which I politely shrug and smile and nod, which usually tips them off that I don’t understand.  I still have no real idea what’s happened to cause such a mess, but it does not seem to like it’s going to be resolved anytime soon.  Eventually I make my way back to the bus (it’s dark at this point) and I overhear a couple speaking English (turns out it’s an Egyptian and his Russian wife) so I ask about what’s going on… to which the wife replies with a questioning “you don’t speak Arabic”?  She explains that the rumor is some upset group is on strike, and to protest they used a lot of vehicles to block the highway.  The police came, but either didn’t do anything about it, or couldn’t… and they’ll likely disperse and open the highway tomorrow morning.  Shyte… I guess I’m going to be spending the night out here.  She informs me that the blockage is about 5 kilometers ahead, and that she and her husband are going to get there things and go up to meet someone else they met to take a taxi into Cairo (note that she did not invite me to come along).  I thank her for the information and decide to walk ahead and check things out for myself.  In the distance I can see a building or two alongside of the road with lights on, so I head for it (taking note of some landmarks nearby so I can find the bus when I get back as it’s dark and the road is lined with buses from the same company).  I walk ahead to the building (about two kilometers)… it looks like some sort of checkpoint/waystation building for the local authorities… there’s a lot of guys in white (local police) and then about 150 or so males just sitting around on whatever they can seemingly just shooting the shit.  I’m not sure if they are the strikers, bu I figured they were most likely truck drivers just waiting.  I keep walking past the buildings… there’s still just trucks and buses stopped end to end everywhere… and it keeps going and going.  I pass a roadside cafe, which, as is typical, is full of Egyptians drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and shisha.  I keep walking and the traffic keeps going… however, it thins out a bit and I start to see police vehicles and smaller trucks and cars pointed the other direction (i.e. towards the where my bus was).  There was no big line of cars or anything across the road, but it was clear that somewhere around here is what caused the problem, and now that everything had been stopped for hours, some of those cars doing the blocking had disbursed… but not enough to get traffic moving.

The beginning of the “desert highways” formed by cars driving off the highway and out onto the sand.

Trying to unstuck a bus caught on a sand berm.

The road on the right is actually an unused strip of road in the median that people crossed over to drive on (until it ended in sand and rocks just ahead in this picture). The road on the left is the other side of the highway, cars began to drive the wrong way on that side of the road and it filled up with vehicles and was brought to a standstill about 30 minutes after I took this picture.

More cars stretch out as far as I can see, but I decide to turn back as I’m not trying to hitch a ride at this point.  I find the bus easy enough… I think it’s about 11 PM or so, the bus is switched off with the doors open (at night the temperature is pretty pleasant… I’ve got on shorts and a t-shirt, and it’s cool with a slight breeze, but not cold).  Some people are in their seats trying to sleep, so I sit down and try and snooze, but every 30 seconds or so, someone’s cell phone rings annoying loudly and a loud conversation in Arabic beings… I try to fall asleep for 20 minutes or so, but I soon realize that’s not going to happen here.  I had already resigned myself to having to spend the night out here when I spoke to the Russian lady… and although I hadn’t eaten, I had a large bottle of water and all my stuff in my bag under the bus… so I wasn’t too worried about anything other than being a little hungry by tomorrow.  By this point, a lot of people (usually families with children) had decided their best option was to grab their stuff and head forward until they could catch a cab to Cairo… which created this very post-apocalyptic scene of people streaming between idled vehicles with their bags, heading for somewhere away from here.  I was pretty tired at this point, and my lack of Arabic wasn’t going to help in getting a taxi anywhere, so I looked around and considered my options for where I could sleep… the bus wasn’t going to happen… I considered lying in the sand, but didn’t want to get run over by a stray car that might come through, and I’ve seen of the bugs that live out there and didn’t really to have to deal with them in the middle of the night either.  I kept looking around until I laid my eyes on a large two trailer semi with what appeared to be gravel in the back… which I figured that would be as good as anything, so I grabbed my bag and found a way to climb on up into truck… so far so good, it was gravel… I laid down, wiggled around a bit to form a pocket and used some small clothes from my bag for a pillow.  It did the trick as I fell into a half-sleep pretty quickly.  I’d wake up every once in a while and look around… despite the situation, it was actually pretty nice up there on the truck… the stars were out, the moon was rising over the horizon (and had that blood red color for a couple of minutes), everyone had shut their vehicles down so it was dark and quiet on the highway, and off in the distance were conveys of cars and trucks slowly crawling through the desert with their lights on (the scene actually triggered a couple of burning man memories as my friend Gavin and I had to wait about 5 hours at night in traffic, in the middle of the desert, at the entrance gates… luckily I wasn’t in the back of a gravel truck then).  I drifted off to sleep again.

Similar to the one I slept in later on in the evening.

At some point later in the evening I awoke because my bus fired up it’s engine.  Curious, I got down from the truck and went over to see what was going on.  One kid from another bus informed me that all of the remaining passengers on his bus and my bus were going to walk ahead and try and catch a taxi to Cairo.  Well… if everyone else is doing it, and there’s one guy here speaking English, I thought I’d better go… as at least trying to do something beats sleeping on top of a gravel truck for the rest of the night (plus, if this didn’t clear up tomorrow morning we’d be stuck in the middle of the hot, hot hot desert with little water and no food for 24 hours for me).  I grab my bag and we all head forward, weaving through all the vehicles.  We keep going past the area where I stopped originally, and find a bus-taxi (think a small van with about 12 seats) and negotiations start.  I stand by and get in where I’m told… I keep my duffel bag in my lap and some of the luggage gets strapped to the roof while about 15 people pile in and off we go to Cairo.  The ride takes about an hour… I don’t have a hotel at this point, so I’m curious as to what’s going to happen when we reach Cairo (I figure I could have them drop me off downtown and I’d walk, or take a cab, until i find something).  The kid who speaking English starts asking me where I’d like to go, I explain my situation (which baffles everyone, as it does most places… what do you mean you don’t have a place to stay?), once he gets it he says I can get off at some place and just ask for a taxi to take me to a hotel… and that’s what ends up happening.  The driver drops me off, I find a cab, somehow communicate that I need a hotel, he finds one that’s open (after trying two others… and the hotel was way overpriced but what was I going to do?), and I end up getting into my room at 4:15 AM… glad to finally arrive at my destination, but seriously hoping that this isn’t foreshadowing something.

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