It's been 6 months since Madrid, 6 months without getting on a bike except for the odd trip outside Cairo, 6 months of missing my favorite exercise and means of exploring the world, 6 months of envying anyone who can ride a bike anywhere.
This weekend, I finally found great riding buddies, the members of the C.C.C. Cairo Cycler Club. Funny enough, in Madrid, my biking buddy and I were part of another (exclusive) cycling community which we referred to as C.C. For some reason, I felt the similar accronyms were a good omen.
Even though I have roamed the streets of most European countries I visited (check my previous post), I had never been on a bike in the streets of my own city. As a kid, my bike was my greatest companion in summers spent outside the chaotic city; a liberating means of transport it was... Come September, school and Cairo it was goodbye to bikes, except for short drives in the limited space at the Gezira club. Older friends who have known in their childhoods a quieter cleaner city have explored the streets of their neighborhoods by bike though, especially the guys; I envy them.
So, back to my biking in Cairo account. I found out about the group on wednesday, thanks to Facebook, one more Web2.0 tool which helps birds of a feather to flock together. I can't imagine my life in Cairo without the communities and circles which have formed thanks to such tools. Anyways, back to the subject, I kept checking facebook every two minutes to make sure it isn't an illusion, and spent the whole working day with a goofy smile on my face (my office mate is by now used to all sorts of facial expressions, humming and talking aloud).
In all truth, my week at the office had been plain boring, now after the weekend rides, it feels light years away. Those bike rides transported me to a parallel universe...
On Thursday night I called up a couple of friends known to welcome new activities and we went to meet the group. On Friday morning, I was so worried that I wouldn't find the bike rental open or any bikes left, yet I was somehow wishing for it. The thought of a bunch of girls and guys wandering in the monster of a city that earned the world's best drivers' award was kind of scary. Nevertheless, the minute I was on the blue milkman's bike storming out of Am Salah's shop heading towards the meeting point I was FLOATING (word's going around that I fancy Am Salah but that's just a rumor).
The ride from Agouza to Abbasseya was a bit surreal, with each of us going in a different direction and at a rather slow pace on prehistoric bikes. It was particularly eerie when we passed my old school, it felt like drifting through both time and space at once. It was also amusing to ride along with my friend sharing the latest gossip in Shari' Ramses without a care in the world, as if we were simply going down Gran Via (on the flanks of which we had both lived once), completely oblivious to the surroundings. We were women riding bikes in downtown Cairo, a rather conservative part of town where men outnumber women 4 to 1 (while the real population ration is 1 to 1)
To make it more movie-like, we met another group riding from Masr El Gedida to Abbasseya and gave passersby a scene of 20 young people cheering the achievement and taking photos with their bikes lined up against the walls of Ain Shams University. It was a good day, full of adrenaline (particularly on the 6th of October bridge which I don't recommend even to my worst ennemy). We went back home safe and sound (there's lots of Barakah in this country) and energized in spite of having inhaled significant amounts of polluted air.
The Saturday ride was quite pleasant and with great team spirit (the group kept switching bikes and taking turns walking a sick bike). Around the beautiful island of Zamalek, the ride was quieter, less polluted and we were less of a traveling circus (accustomed to foreigners living there, passersby must've assumed we're khawagat and gave us more subtle comments and more discreet stares).
Throughought the weekend, one could almost touch the perfect yet worn out architectural jewels of downtown Cairo, feel the same wind moving the boats in the Nile wondering how ugly Cairo would be without its magical river, smell ta'meya (felafel) and freshly baked bread and simply thank God for weekends and for the fresh juice shops scattered around the mighty capital.
We got to rent bikes for 2 pounds an hour from kind people who live day by day (el yom b-yomoh as we say) thanking a gracious God even when they have just enough to get them through the week. We met on the bridge a mother of two who smiled at us earnestly for a whole minute and then said "just take care and don't get hurt". Such kindness is seldom found in big cities, but this is a city with a million faces (and that is a story I have yet to tell).
Feeling the authentic spirit of Cairo I curse the suburb where I work with its manicured lawns and giant malls which takes me away from all this magical chaos. It is true that mine is not the cleanest nor the quietest city (you get to realise this much more when you ditch the car) but I love it. It could sometimes be overwhelming and exhausting because of all honking and pollution, but it somehow grows on you. Even the human noise which used to drive me up the wall, I have come to appreciate the Urban noise ...'attaba 'attaba 'attaba, kolo b-etnein gneih, ya 'assal, mesh tefatah ya homar!*
Countless people have come to this city, struggling to adjust at first and homesick when back home. I'll tell you why soon. Now I have to go meet a friend before it's another working week.
I am thankful to my grandma who taught me how to ride a bike (though she'd probably regret it if she knew I'm riding in those crazy streets), my friend who got me biking again (ya sabes cuánto te echo de menos), and needless to say the gang who encouraged me to bike in my chaotic city (you guys rock!).
Bread delivery bike, king of the road! (photo from the web)
A song I was humming in one of the rides: الفرصة بنت جميلة راكبه عجلة ببدال
Mounir's El Forsa comparing the chances we miss or the opportunities we seize to a beautiful girl speeding away on her bike. Listen to it here
*a micro-bus komsari (the local equivalent of a train inspector) yelling the destination for people wanting to hop on (amazingly enough there are no formal maps nor line numbers in the informal transport system and it works better than the formal one) - a shop attendant in a market advertising that all items are for two pounds - another young man throwing a sticky compliment (telling the woman she's like honey)- one more driver rolling down the window throwing away a well deserved insult to this guy who suddenly decides to switch lanes (and who probably got his driver's license without taking the test thanks to our corrupt system).
*Inspired by El Warsha theater troupe's sketch أصوات القاهرة
Will you join us?
Enough about Cairo, back to business. The club is undertaking an initiative which may -with a bit of luck- change the face of Cairo. You'll find details of our regular Friday morning rides and our occasional themed rides at this page and more on the facebook group that it links to.
An account of our early rides can also be found on this blog and coverage of our first event can be found in this article (both written by my riding pals).
Now, this is a crazy city you might as well stay safe. Safety tips fit for "normal cities" won't work for Cairo, so check this guide out (written by a co-member of club).
photo: number plate (!) of the first bike I rented before getting my bike (while we're at it let me share with you that my originally French bike is now very Egyptian, it has tied to its saddle a miniature green flipflop like those hanging from many trucks in my city to ward off the evil eye).