Day 90: Cairo

Over the last six weeks I passed through Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and now Egypt.

From the last update, I had a nostalgic weekend in Kampala starting with an overnight bus into the city playing Sean Paul music videos. Then a day of biking and camping in Uganda's villages and forests, followed by a minibus ride to the Mt. Elgon region. I wanted to ride around the perimeter of the mountain back into Kenya. It was Uganda's rainy season, and a lot of the roads were barely passable.

The Mt. Elgon region is affected by frequent flooding and mudslides. I camped in a school in the region, and even the principal told me he lost his home in a recent mudslide.

The border to Kenya from here has no customs or immigration posts on either side. Just a simple dirt road connects the countries in this region. Living across the two sides of the border is the Pokhot tribe, a pastoral tribe, whose lives revolve mainly around cattle (and some camel) herding.

One of the surprises of this trip has been how many pastoral tribes and people I have come across, usually on the road with their herds wearing traditional clothes: the Massai and Samburu in Kenya and Tanzania, the Pokhot along the Uganda and Kenya border, and eventually the Turkana in Northern Kenya and the Dassenech, Himba and Hamer in Ethiopia. On the Kenya side of this border, I met a school teacher in the Pokhot region, who said his school is twenty kilometers off the road since his students live so deep in the bush. He said most of his students are in their 20s, as many of the Pokhot spend much of their childhoods tending flocks and only appreciate the potential of education later in their lives.

This border region is not well travelled. In other areas, children in villages get excited as I roll by and chase after me; here they ran away. One older Pokhot teenager stopped and stared as soon as I came close. He looked mortified. I smiled and waved, but he had no reaction. I have no way of knowing, but I suspect I might be the first foreigner he's seen (or maybe just the first one on a bike).

Since I was crossing into Kenya in a border without customs, and planning to leave Kenya through another border area without customs, I was considering just passing through without dealing with immigration. But further down the road I was intercepted by two (non-uniformed) Kenyan police officers that scared me straight. When I reached the first Kenyan town, I bussed south in a long detour through consecutively larger towns until I could find an immigration office. When I did, in the midsized town of Eldoret, the office turned out to be closed for the weekend—days I couldn't afford to lose.

I ended up going back to the Uganda border at a more legitimate post. I expected I would need to spend a few hours explaining my situation to get the stamps I need, but luckily this was a 'one stop border'. That meant one building had both the Ugandan and Kenyan immigration desks. It was easy to walk in from one side, pretend I came in from the other, get my needed Ugandan exit and Kenyan entry stamps, and leave from where I entered.

Next, I took a minibus up to the small town of Lodwar, where I was going to continue biking in the desert Turkana region of Northern Kenya. Here I hit my next few days’ delay: I was made to switch minibuses in the middle of the night and promised my bike would be sent in the next one in just a few hours. In Lodwar, a few hours became ‘by tonight’, which then became 'tomorrow night’ for a few nights in a row. I was worried the bike was actually lost or stolen, so I made the bus company send regular hostage photos.

I happened to meet several people working in a coding and graphic design bootcamp in Lodwar, started by the German Prince Ludwig of Bavaria. I enjoyed passing the time with their volunteers and students until my bike arrived.

I then made my way to Lake Turkana. This is a desert region, one of the most remote in the world. It is home to the Turkana, another pastoral tribe.

The Turkana have frequent cattle raiding conflicts with their Ethiopian Dassanech neighbors to the North. After a day's biking from Lodwar, I was advised that the route I was planning to take was currently too dangerous due to recent escalations of the conflicts. I was pointed to another route back through Lodwar. So I turned back, stuck in the town for one more day.

The new route eventually took me to the last Kenyan town of Todonyang. It had few people and fewer water sources along it, and deep sandy trails I had to push my bike through. Close to the border, a truck of Kenyan soldiers picked me up. We passed by Todonyang Mission, a missionary elementary school that had both Todonyang and Dassanech children, in an effort to bring peace to the area. The soldiers dropped me off at the country's edge. They did not check my passport or visa, just pointed me towards Ethiopia and wished me luck. Then I biked through no man's land.

A short while after taking this photo, I was crouched over my bike adjusting my bags when I heard something fly past overhead. A bullet. It sounded like someone released a slingshot a meter above me. I shot up, put my arms up, and looked around. Nothing in any direction, just the empty landscape in the photo above. Eventually I saw a figure in the horizon, bobbing in and out of visibility. Soon I noticed another, a hundred meters to the left of the first.

The soldiers had told me that although the Turkana and Dassenech frequently target each other, they leave the soldiers and foreigners out of the cattle raiding conflicts. I heard this frequently. A man I met in nearby Lokitaung said "it is insecure for us black men, but for you red men it is safe." I took my hat off and kept my arms up, trying to make my foreignness obvious.

I slowly crept forward, unsure of what to do next. I tried to read the movements of the figures in the distance. Were they crouching in a shooting position or approaching non-aggressively? I considered lying flat, hiding behind the bushes, but did not want to escalate the situation.

Eventually, an Ethiopian trader on a motorcycle came up behind me. I explained the situation, and he suggested I turn back, but agreed to escort me ahead. We got closer to the figures and they walked towards us. It was four, not two, each with an AK-47 strapped on their back. One came up to me and shook my hand. They looked brutal. One had a grid of scar tattoos across his chest and stomach. They spoke with the Ethiopian trader, who explained they are Dassanech and thought I was Turkana from the distance. They fired a warning shot and were waiting on my retaliation. They demanded close to $10 to let us through.

On the Ethiopian side, I spent a few days in Omorate, the first town. I'm delayed again, due to incorrect dates on my Ethiopian visa. I had no intention of coming back the way I came, so I re-applied online and waited in this small town for the visa's approval. It's a Dassanech town.

I camped in a tour guide zone, where tourists meet with guides that take them out to Dassanech villages. One guide I met explained that the scars I saw on the Dassanech man means "he's a hero—he killed a Turkana enemy". He also told me his younger brother went to the Todonyang Mission I passed, but dropped out as he felt he was getting bullied by the Turkana.

The days pass slowly, getting invited to countless cups of coffee and Ethiopian meals with the guides.

Finally, the visa is approved and I get stamped into the country I had been in for the last few days.

I soon hit my next delay though: applying for the Sudanese visa in Addis Ababa. These delays mean I will need to hitchhike and bus through Ethiopia if I intend on reaching Egypt. Luckily, Ethiopia is a great country for traveling by bus. Everyone is friendly, sharing snacks with fellow passengers. One family I met on the bus is on their way to Addis for a wedding. They invited me to join: a celebration full of singing and dancing.

They also invited me to one of the most unique meals of this trip: a dish of raw steaks. They're cut up and eaten with injera bread and a chili sauce.

My Sudanese visa is eventually approved, and I travel through the rest of Ethiopia into Sudan.

Sudan stands out for Sudanese kindness. Everywhere I go I am invited for meals or cups of tea. I hit my last delay in the first Sudanese town. I compliment a Sudanese man on his jalabeya and ask where I can get one myself. He points me to the direction of the town market, where I decide to have one tailor-made over the day.

While waiting, I meet a Sudanese swim coach, Captain Zorrof, who brings me over to the swimming country club. I enjoy the pool and Sudanese meals with the swim students.

In Sudan, I frequently stayed in simple pit stops, sleeping on rope beds and drinking water fetched from the Nile.

I also visit a few historical sites. Unique to Sudan, major sites have no guides, touts, tickets, or security except for the stray dogs. I just wander in and have the place to myself.

Near the Egyptian border I wild camp for the last time. One last night under the African night sky.

Then a ride through the desert to Egypt, with almost no days left to spare.

One last border crossing: a twelve hour ordeal at the disorganized Sudanese-Egyptian border. Then a weekend in Aswan along the Nile, and the sleeper train up to Cairo to start my last and longest ride: 220 km to Alexandria.

And now I am back in Cairo. I spend my last few days in the familiar sites of Egypt, preparing for US immigration, seeing and dealing with family, having bugs once again assigned to me at work, all a nice slap out of trip mode, back into reality. :)