Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Last Story

This last note is being directed to the many readers who have sent such thoughtful notes ‎of support over the last two months. Being a such a long ways away,  I am really grateful for your support and encouragement and it has kept my enthusiasm going to make the story as interesting as possible. Thanks very much and again sorry I could not reply personally, best, Nick

Ps I am sure my good friend Karen will not mind my sharing this story!

Thanks Karen! This may be providential and I ‎know you will appreciate hearing about it. I wish I had time and space to share it with my wider audience but yesterday was chock full of uncertainty and a race against the clock.

We left the Mena Hotel at 5 am for the 200 km trip to Alexandria. Having made one journey already in a crowded bus to get the 'preliminary' paperwork completed we did not anticipate too many delays, not! We got to the shipping/cargo area and it was one stop, then another and on and on. I was understanding because  ‎after all, we are in a foreign country and it is not often that 10 motorcycles are being containerized to go to the U.S.

Others were not and were in danger of people missing their flights. We did not get back to our hotel until 14 hours later and it was touch and go for 3 of our group to make their 1:30 am flights.

When we FINALLY got permission to load the bikes you should have seen Helge swing into action! Of course he has done this before but not with such a rush against the clock. He swung those bikes around and strapped them down with the rest of us helping in record time all in the dark with a few flashlights; quite the scene.

So here is the providence bit: that lovely little clam shell you gave me for good luck was in my right hand riding pocket zipped up the whole time along with an emergency plastic key, a whistle and some chapstick.

We get to the shipping port at one of our wait points and it is getting warmer so people are stripping off clothing including me; a little while later I look down where my bike is on its center stand and there lying on the ground is that little clam shell! It was so neat to see it there all white and obvious on the dirty ground.

I really do not know how it got there or even fell out of my pocket and I did not have time to check for holes in the lining. I just looked at it for a few seconds and then picked it up, dusted it off and put it back in its hiding place.

Later I thought about the coincidence of it all; last day, last stop, there it was maybe sending a message.

Thanks a lot for asking me to take it along because I am sure that little clam shell kept me safe.

Best, Nick

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Missive #9, Day 56 Sat, Mar 11th to Day 63 Sat, Mar 18th

Day 56, Sat Mar 11th

Maritim Jolie Ville Kings, Luxor, 0 km

I have been to the Pantheon, the Acropolis and Cape Sounion in Greece, the Coliseum in Rome and many other ruins, all very impressive. However, nothing remotely compares to what I saw today. The Greeks and Romans were like little boys playing with meccano sets in comparison to what the Egyptians built more than a ‎millennia before them.

We started off on the west bank of the Nile which symbolized death because that is where the sun set and it became nightfall; the east symbolized life with the sunrise. The west bank ‎is where the Valley of the Kings was discovered up in the mountains right adjacent to Luxor. There are 64 tombs in total but in order to preserve what is there, 9 are open to the public; only 26 remain intact as the tomb robbers made a habit of ransacking the treasures inside once a sacred location was discovered. There is much more to discover as remote sensing techniques and ground penetrating radar can locate new cavities without disturbing too much in their search so these methods will become more prevalent with time.

Our visit was heavenly compared to what the tourist traffic used to be like; in the good old days 8,000‎ tourists per day caused claustrophobic conditions getting in and out of the tombs. Untold billions of tourism dollars flowed in which is now just a comparative trickle- this makes visitations today that much more pleasant and educational.

We were not allowed to take photos inside but I did pick up some postcard photos. The creative thought and planning that went in to building these tombs for each  Pharoah started when he was appointed as the process took a lifetime and the work effort to dig hundreds of feet into and down into a mountain side was extensive. The artwork and hieroglyphics to tell the story not to speak of the stunning colours they used to explain each life which is incredibly well preserved even after all of these years of wear and tear was quite an experience for me to try to absorb in one short day.

We went in to 6 of the 9 tombs (some several hundred metres into the ground) including King Tut's and our guide Mohammed gave us excellent insights into each one. I was very moved by the engineering, digging process, ‎and sheer effort involved especially with the kinds of tools and implements thay had to use in those days. Many of these tombs were and still are buried under ‎significant sand dunes of time. It is also quite extraordinary just how much we know about each of these Pharoah's and their complex lives as told by the detailed stories on the walls.
The Pharoahs wanted to be preserved forever in a mummified process that would take them to the after life; no one can reach a second life without being preserved through a mumification process which takes 70 days. The brain is removed through the eyes, nostrils and ears, the intestines and blood is drawn out, the body is washed and stuffed with spices and sawdust, there is a wait period of 40 days and then a great deal of linen is used to wrap and preserve what remains. All of this is buried in a sarcophagus at the end of the specially designed tomb complete with gold, jewels and other riches.‎ 

It is believed that some of the guards and workmen became corrupted and worked with tomb robbers to desecrate some‎ of these precious sites over many, many centuries. Most of the tombs were very carefully hidden in the mountains and almost impossible to locate so thankfully a lot has been preserved. What you see gives the visitor some idea of the amazing sophistication of this society over 3,500 plus years ago.

The Pharoahs and their scientists understood time exceedingly well; they had 24 hours, 7 days, 12 months‎, even leap years figured out. Their astronomical skills were incredible. They had a sun dial in those days and used the sun in amazing ways to reflect light into places at special times of the year.

What eventually happened is that their civilization became fractured much like the Greeks and Romans after them and incoming hoards of Libyans, Nubians, Persians including Alexander the Great etc. broke down and attempted to destroy their history. Fortunately much remains for us to see and enjoy.

We next went ‎to see Queen Hapshepsut's resting place and learn about her complicated place in Egyptian history which I largely tuned out from.

The third visitation was splendid. It was the Karnak temples built by the Pharoah's for the high priests. It got added on to by each Pharoah over many centuries and was built on 60 acres 3 km from the Luxor temple right in downtown Luxor‎. 1200 priests lived and came and went from there and no royalty was allowed within their walls.

I made one big mistake. I was not prepared for the grandeur and immensity ‎of what I saw let alone the complexity of the history before me. I just got overwhelmed out of sheer ignorance and lack of education. Anyone who can afford a trip abroad should put this high on their "to do" list if not at the top (the peak season is Oct-Apr). I will come back again someday better prepared.

Let me also say that Egypt looks very, very safe from this person's eyes. Yes there is a lot of over the top security and yes there are some wackos out there but in general you cannot find nicer, more hospitable people anywhere and of course there is so much to see and learn. My advice should you wish to visit is to do some research first to better understand and enjoy what you are going to see.

Our last visit was the Luxor temple and the avenue of the sphinxes- 1750 of them on the 3 km street leading to the Karnak temple where the high priests hung out; just about all of this was buried and unknown until very recently so it a quite a sight to see.
By now my thumbs are getting tired plinking away so enough of this except to say- we saw many Obelisks in our journeys, great huge monuments that make the Washington Monument in DC look like a dinky toy. They carved these things out of the ground down in Aswan‎ and moved them during the 4 month flood season of the Nile all in a 7 month time span. The ones I saw are 70-100 feet high and weigh 150-350 tons. How in the hell did they do all of this? Just stop and think for a minute what kind of planning and preparation, carving and chiseling, polishing and finishing, rolling and moving all of this required, simply unbelievable. 

I do not think I have seen anything quite so large, majestic and moving in my lifetime. We were all exhausted and somewhat speechless by the end of the day's activities.

Day 57, Sun Mar 1‎2th

Jolie Kings, Luxor to Westin Soma Bay, Hurghada, 263 km

Lots of flat tire problems and this morning is no exception. Part of it comes from rough roads which we have long since passed and part of it comes from low tire tread. On another trip Helge will be changing tires in Arusha for sure. Even though we all have tube less tires we also carry inner tubes in the event that the outer tire will no longer hold air- which was the case with Helge's rear tire this morning.

Tom, Joe and Helge have been the most problematic mainly with rear tires.  Omar brought down some old tires as spares which is what we have been using‎ but they do not seem to be holding air well either; a trip like this has so many variables and good tires is a critical component.

We travelled again in convoy eastwards to the coast on good roads. I have not quite figured out why we are being so closely supervised. Maybe because we are motorcyclists, or Americans or all of these police people do not have enough to do so they need to keep busy, I do not know. There were lots of unsupervised tour buses all over the place yesterday. We had a motorcycle cop with flashing lights in front, a well armed guard detail behind us and another guy with a Heckler Koch automatic weapon on board. Kind of amusing we all thought!

When we left our hotel this morning we were again under armed supervision most of the way. 

We arrived at our Westin Hotel on the Red Sea to be met by the local motorcycle club so it was fun to meet them. There is a Gary Player golf course here which we will play tomorrow during our relax day.

The hotel also has two very nice squash courts. It did not take Mac and I long to get in a game as the time for heckling had ended and the time to play was at hand. I am pleased to say that I won the match but lost the best of three for the beer afterwards so we were both winners I guess!

Even though he is from New Jersey (strike one of many), Mac and I get along great, two peas in a pod, squash player wannabes, specialize in one upmanship antics. In a crowd the dynamics change and friendly insults are hurled continously, always good natured. Gary calls us Mr and Mrs Bickerson with good reason; adds to the enjoyment and keeps everybody jovial.

The buffet we had this evening was something to behold. We are all a bit tired of buffets but this one was outstanding.

Day 58, ‎Mon Mar 13th

Westin Soma Bay, Hurghada, 0 km

A relax day at this first class hotel with almost no one here, such a shame. Tom, Gary, Mac and I had a great game on their Gary Player course (had an honest 91) and then lunch, beers a quick rest and out for a snorkel. Quite a few of the guys are licensed divers; the snorkeling is world class amongst the multi coloured coral and even more multi coloured fish species in about 80 degree quite salty water. Fun to say I have snorkeled in the Red Sea!
Day 59, ‎Tue, Mar 14th

Westin Soma Bay to Mövenpick Resort, El Sokhna, 367 km

Ho hum day on a ho hum road made more interesting by heavy winds; I stopped for a pee along the way, looked down and the stuff was landing 6 feet away!

The Red Sea was a beautiful turquoise whipped up by lots of white caps in the wind. In the distance I could see Saudi Arabia about 30 miles away, as close as I want to be; there were also lots of small gas rigs out there hooked up and doing their thing.

As mentioned Egypt is mostly desert (94%) and today's route even though by the seaside for the most part was all sand, desert and rocky hills, pretty boring. Then, as we closed in on our destination of El Sockna ‎we were suddenly in what I will call Egyptian Riviera country. There were at least 50 plus resorts cheek to jowl and all in various stages of completion, literally thousands of doors. I found out later that most of these places are presold and service weekend demand from Cairo about 100 miles away.

The highlight of my day was a water ski on the Red Sea. This has been on my mind for a week or so and I have been on the lookout for a ski boat as unlikely as that sounds in this part of the world. Arriving at this splendid spot this aft I made my way down to the infinity pool by the beach and lo and behold there is an inflatable with a 90 on it and a set of crappy skiis behind the bar; for $10 plus tip I got in a 20 minute run, got the single ski dipsy doodling a bit and had a blast in their salty turquoise ocean!
The 64 gig memory card in my camera now has 3644 photos on it 194 short videos and I have used up 43 gigs- lots of work to cull out the crappy stuff on return home although I have been doing some of that enroute; hope there is some half decent stuff left over.

Day 60, Wed, Mar 15th

Mövenpick Resort, El Sokhna to Mena House, Giza, 147 km

Another police escort; we have not been without their supervisory help since Aswan. This one was helpful because the traffic coming in to Cairo was pretty bad and the highway signage was almost impossible to read although we were on GPS headings which can sometimes be a bit tricky with road construction etc. The drivers love to see how close they can crowd you, pretty bad manners really.

The 147 km trip was uneventful  ‎and here we are at the famous Mena House at the foot of the pyramids, pretty neat actually! I just did my last fuel fill up and my bike reads 20585 with 212 km to go to leave it at the container in Alexandria day after tomorrow- almost exactly 13,000 km.
Very neat opportunity arranged by Omar's connections to get us up close to the Giza pyramids. Our hotel right next door is spectacular, an old castle and the reception area is equally so; we met there at 1 pm suited up and ready to go.

Surrounded by police detail, most speak great english
and at our many stops‎ I am at the front handing out little Canadian flag pins (this has worked well even better than the soccer balls because there are so many more opportunities- key is for me to put it on too). Many are Captains and Majors, all well armed and chatty; they are having a ball because it is a significant departure to their usual routine and they all oogle our bikes; one guy says he is going to buy them all.

Finally we get the go ahead to proceed but we are not in any hurry because after all, we are up very close and personal to perhaps the most famous site in the world; on top of that, the temperature is perfect and there are scads of people (all manners of dress) and activity, camels crapping, horses peeing, ‎great huge blocks of stone piled high to what looks like the sky.

Horns and sirens blaring we head up the dusty, dirt road to get in behind where the hoi paloi cannot go. I feel shivers as we proceed because it is all a bit surreal.

We get to the chosen sight (where a squash court was erected years ago for tournaments but has since been removed- shades of Hosni Mubarak ‎who loved to play?) and we get a good half hour to take photos. What an incredible thrill!!!
Later Helge had us working through some quite serious downhill sand so he could get a few videos of us in motion. I was half thinking it would be a bit ironic after 14,000 km of riding to have someone dump a bike right in front of the pyramids but no one did.
I had a chance to meet someone quite important at the Canadian consular office who by coincidence was visiting the hotel with family from Canada. I have been very, very curios about all of the police supervision of our trip since Aswan. His comments:

-he is not allowed to travel alone south of Luxor for security reasons; also quite a few less touristy but important Egyptian sights are off limits to him
-there is more unrest going on behind the scenes than we would know about
-when the pound floated from a fixed rate of 6 to the dollar it settled at 16 which caused huge economic hardship for people, still is and that makes people more desperate
-the government is paranoid about visitor protection because tourism is their number one industry and ‎it is only now coming back (also, way too much undeserved bad press)
-and key‎, he thinks that when the American embassy found out about this trip from the south to north of Egypt and given their penchant for equal security concerns and close scrutiny of things that they had a chat with their Egyptian counterparts and said let's watch out for these guys enroute (sounds credible to me because we stick out like sore thumbs in more ways than one).

We had a nice dinner back at the hotel which I invited my guide Souzy to; some of our guys are staying longer and need help with purchases so they will be moving to the Marriot at Zamalack ‎and getting looked after by Souzy.

Day 61, Thur, Mar 16th

Mena House Hotel, Giza, 0 km

Up at 4:30 am for a 200 km journey in a cramped mini bus to Alexandria (approx. population 6-8 mm), Helge's orders; we need ALL of our paperwork so that the powers that be can scrutinize everything before the bikes get shipped. This is all a good idea because we do not want to have any surprises when we arrive to the container port on Saturday. Here is a brief description of the forth and back process (Norwegian term) as I understand it:

-go to the shipping office in downtown Alexandria, wait, go to the passport office (so we can become short term residents to gain access to the port), wait some more,  go to the notary for the shipping company to take possession of bikes through power of attorney, wait some more, go back to shipping office‎ to finish dotting i's and crossing t's. 

In the notary office it's a beehive of comings and goings, many people most in traditional dress; as I write‎ Dean is observing the inefficiency of one copier for 7 desks, very slow computers compounded by two fingered typing and each person having to be notarized singly instead of all of us in one go; our guy with the Heckler Koch hidden under his jacket is trying to speed things along; Helge thinks that the police presence is a big help in all of the paper processing.

We arrived Alexandria at 8:30 am and finished the whole deal by 2:30 so we are all pleased to have it completed. Despite 6 hours of rigmarole ‎I had fun observing typical Egyptian life fighting the impracticalities of the bureaucracy. 

This will speed things up when we get to the container port Saturday morning again under police escort. It is 15 km of driving once we are inside this huge area to actually get to our final loading and shipping area.

We were all glad 13 cramped hours later to arrive back at Mena House for a great Indian cuisine at one of their many restaurants.

Day 62, Fri, Mar 17th

Mena House Hotel, Giza, 0 km

Busy day visiting pyramids and back to the museum one more time. We have always had excellent guides and Ramez was no exception; way too much to communicate so will provide the following overview:

-until the Eiffel Tower was built (174 metres) the largest of the nine pyramids was the tallest structure in the world at 147 metres; it was built 4400 years ago and is exactly 250 metres around each of the four sides making it one kilometre in total
-there are between 1.6 and 2 million stones with the ones at the bottom being 4-7 tons and the top 250 kg; it is thought that it was built using a spiral staircase approach
-all the pyramids were completely smooth all the way to the top; the big guy had 9 metres of solid gold capping at the top so the sun could reflect on the kingdom all the way to Jordan and Morocco
-when the Arabs arrived they took all of the casings off to build fortresses on the other side of the Nile
-no slaves were employed in this process; it was all local craftsmen 300,000 per day on the job and it took 21 years to build
- there are many small tunnels all through the pyramid to contain mummies and tombs for the various family members; they used copper mirrors cleverly to reflect light inside so that workers could have some visibility 
-we took a camel and horse and buggy ride out into the desert for a panoramic view and photo ops
-right adjacent to this area is the huge Sphinx carved from a block of stone right in place 4350 years ago to act as a guardian for the pyramids; it has the body of a lion to signify strength and the head of a man to signify wisdom and is considered to be one of the most important images in Egypt
-I could go on and on about this great taking place

In the afternoon we finished off with another tour of the museum which needs way more time than I have given it. There are 250,000 pieces in this building so tons to learn about. I paid extra to go in and see the 'mummie' room which was really worth it. How were these ancient humans preserved in such good form with the techniques they had all those years ago?

Tonight we had our farewell dinner which is always quite an event and rather emotional. Everyone spoke eloquently and with emotion about the great time we had together over these past months and of course, Helge came in for a lot of well deserved accolades for his great leadership along the way.

Day 63, Sat, Mar 18th

Mena House Hotel to Alexandria, 212 km

Clutches out at 5:30 am for the highway journey to Alexandria; windy morning, cold and lots of traffic in this city to get to our shipping destination uneventfully. Lots of high fives all around and all glad to be here. Unfortunately a big negative is the time delay with the port authorities, just unbelievable.

It is time to get this last Missive out to my readers and here are some closing thoughts:

I have been thinking about how to fittingly end this most marvelous of adventures. I have not felt homesick since leaving on January 10th but all good things have to end at some point. Words cannot express the emotions, the sheer diversity of the continent, it's people, it's customs and culture, it's countryside and it's multiple languages and music is something to treasure forever through photos, a few videos and this story.

It is not an exaggeration to say that this has been the most eventful, exciting and intense two months of my life and maybe the most enjoyable. How does that come about at 68 years of age?

One of my best buddies wondered how many pots I could be cooked in along the way; others were just as cautious both verbally and with unspoken eye contact. Frankly I wondered a bit too as my imagination sometimes got the better of me.

It was all for naught. Africa is an amazing, amazing place full of its own complexities just like our world but mostly very caring, friendly people, people always glad to see and help us and have us enjoy a bit of what is theirs.

I looked up the dictionary definition of adventure: an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity. Synonyms: exploit, escapade, deed, feat, experience; that pretty much sums up my trip.

I will especially miss our group of comrades and minders. From Andy and Harry at the beginning to Simon in the middle, Omar at the end and others too numerous to mention we have been very well looked after, thanks a lot guys!

Our group of 10 has jelled very well together and enjoyed experiences and memories we will not soon forget. It is just unfortunate that our bonding process is over at least for now.

Finishing off with Ethiopia and Egypt could not be more fitting. These are two very large countries in terms of size and population. Their complexities, beauty and history have been described. I am not saying they are the best of the ten just they just left the greatest impression.

In closing, it seems like a good idea to consider signing up for Helge's South America tour next January. If it lives up to this adventure then I will be that much wiser about a part of the world I know little about.

Augustine of Hippo who lived in the period 400 AD said long ago:
The world is a book and those that do not travel read only one page. So true!

Thanks for reading along and adios until next time, NG