What I learned (in one day) in Egypt about leading around blind corners

Riding in EgyptEvery year a few adventurous spirits join me in a faraway land to ride indigenous horses in their ancestral terrain. This year we headed to Egypt to ride Arabians around the pyramids and through the desert. While there, we had an adventure all right but not the one we were hoping for. Yes, Covid-19 interrupted our trip and we had to return early. And yes, we did get to ride horses a few days. But the most memorable experience took place in a van on a 300-mile trip from Cairo to Luxor. On this day, I learned what is required to lead around blind corners.

The day started with a jolt as we listened to the President’s proclamation of a travel ban to the US. Uncertain what that meant for us, we began to gather information from every source possible and soon discovered it didn’t curtail US citizens from re-entering the United States. Crisis averted, we naively thought. What happened next is what became the start of an unanticipated, unwelcome, but valuable and oh-so-timely, learning curve.

In Cairo, Egypt the average annual precipitation is less than an inch. In other words, it never rains! Imagine our surprise when that same day the forecast was for rain. We didn’t even pack rain gear. “No worries,” says our British guide., “They don’t know what rain is here; it will be over in a blink.” Only it wasn’t. It not only poured, but there was Midwest-style lightning and thunder. They hadn’t received rain like this in close to 50 years.  We had to cancel our planned ride for the day. School was called off. Museums shut down. There was nothing to do but sit idle –something adventuresses don’t do well.

That evening we were scheduled to fly to Luxor for the next leg of the journey. Why not get a jump on it? Logic ruled the day! If everything else was canceled our flights would be too (which they were). It isn’t that far—we can drive, get there early and not lose any more time. Our guide was very accommodating and found us a van and two (mostly) non-English speaking drivers. (Two are required by law for the distance we were traveling.) We settled in for a 7-hour trip.

Driving through a storm in the Midwest is not that unusual and while not always pleasant, not a life-threatening event. Only it was! Cairo sits on sand and is largely made of sandstone. There is no drainage system. The streets were flooded and we were driving a van through a foot or more of water with drivers who have not driven in those conditions in their lifetime. We turned down streets where we were blocked by water and floating debris, passed stranded vehicles, navigated camels and tuk-tuks, and experienced a very serious hydroplane that took our breath away. It took us two hours, but we eventually made it out of Cairo. Whew! Now it was raining more gently, no more flooded streets and we could kick back, right? Sometimes, we are so blinded by habit we don’t try to accomplish something others thought impossible. It was a risk you might say, and admittedly it was. But at the time, we had confidence on our side and a can-do attitude. If we didn’t, we would have turned back multiple times. We can’t do something we have never done by relying on what we always do.

We were starting to relax when the skies changed yet again, growing dark and ominous and eerily green. And then, the skies broke open yet again releasing quarter-sized hail stones—a sign we were changing temperatures from the cool rains of Cairo to the warmth of the desert. We pushed on.

Travel foodAmazingly, we didn’t need any pitstops for a couple of hours which was a good thing –many of the gas stations were closed even though we were on the main highway. Due to the weather, employees never showed up. While it crossed my mind that we could run out of gas, at worst, I thought we would be sleeping in the van, but I kept my thoughts to myself. Stay positive! Thankfully, after several more hours we did find an open station, had to get permission for a load of foreign women to use the bathroom and negotiate the proper rate. Unfortunately, since we hadn’t anticipated the journey, we didn’t have small change and “overpaid” for the usage. As we climbed back in the van we saw a small group of men gather around the bathroom to argue over who received what compensation for our stop. In respect of the customs, we typically try not to call attention to ourselves but it was mother nature that turned us into highly visible and very welcome guests. That just hit our funny bone and we laughed for the next 20 minutes about our “claim to fame”. Staying optimistic and keeping morale up can go a long way to easing the uncertainty of the journey.

As we got back on the road, the rain was almost gone but the sky was turning brown due to high winds and swirling sand. The van startedMen discussing things rockin’ and not due to anything we were doing! The further we went the darker it became. All of sudden we see taillights. Lots of them. There was a parking lot in the middle of the road ahead.  Driving in Egypt is interesting and comes with its own rules, which are definitely not written anywhere, so it could have been anything. We snake around trucks and overloaded vans weaving through traffic to get to the head of the mess.

A friend of mine on this trip, Travis Brinck, tells the next part better than I. “We discover the hold up. A blocked highway with police holding machine guns and large barrels blocking the open road. Standing in a group having a serious discussion are about 15 men grabbing their beards, looking stern faced and pointing in different directions. Off to the side are Egyptian men with their phones out pointing at the now zero-visibility sky. So…. when the locals have their phones out and are videoing the sandstorm, which is not terribly uncommon in the desert, it might be time to be concerned! (What else could go wrong?? Are there locusts too???!).” My dad had an expression he used often that best describes my reaction—where there is a will there is a way. By now, we were committed. We were about 6 hours into our drive and less than half way. But turning back wasn’t an option.

We did, however, turn around and navigate back through the stalled traffic and interestingly, they all moved a little this way or that to let us through without one jeer or raised fist. From our guides limited English, we learned our only option was taking the agricultural road which was rough and slow. Oh, brother! More delays ahead. But at least we are still headed toward Luxor. After a few miles, we noticed our drivers looking a little concerned. When we asked what the problem was, they informed us they were lost! The couldn’t find the turnoff we needed. Uh-oh. And it wouldn’t be the last time we had to re-group and find a new way on this little trip. But our answer lay ahead—a chicken truck. While driving side by side at 70km an hour and yelling through windows, we discover they too are headed to Luxor via the agricultural road so we follow them to find our new path. Our lesson, the more minds the better, especially while seeking a path you haven’t followed before. Reach out to others you might not normally consult when you are looking for a different answer.

It has become dark as we drive on through the night. We meander through many small towns along the way. A silver lining to this trip, and all of the madness and unexpected issues, was getting to see a lot of the real Egypt—the way people live, work and celebrate as well as how they deal with conflict and challenge. They treat strangers like neighbors most of the time.

Unfortunately, we ran into more closed roads. It became difficult for our drivers to find a path that would take them where we needed to go. We turned around and backtracked several times and had, by now, been in the van for about 11 hours. Suddenly, we pulled into a small station that sold gas and snacks and did auto repair. We thought it was a comfort stop as we hadn’t eaten much all day (another supply we didn’t think to bring!). We had grabbed a few packs of cookies, corn nuts and crackers at the first rest stop but nothing since. However, they didn’t stop for US but had a different agenda. The rules of the road apparently included a requirement to stop for an oil change after so much time or mileage. They drove over an open pit and we were attended by a family—a father, a young boy that was probably 12 or 13 who did all the work, and a few able bodied and even younger “assistants”. Mind you it is late—after 10 pm—but they willingly took care of the task. It took us about 30 minutes and then we were on our way again. Expect the unexpected but don’t let it stress you out. Stay focused on the goal.

Even though by now we were getting out our cell phones and checking GPS to “help” our drivers, they refused to look at it. They spent the last two hours of our trip on the phone with our Luxor host who was trying to “talk them into town”. Just prior to connecting, our driver was so furious with the circumstances, he had to stop for a smoke break. Once back in the car, he turned on Bob Marley (I am not making this up!) and we started letting off some steam. He found us dinner by driving alongside a sugar cane truck and plucking a large 6-foot piece of cane off the truck. He expertly peeled it for us and passed out individual pieces to each of us. Authentic if not filling! “Don’t worry, be happy.” In retrospect, we were very humbled by our driver’s determination to get us there. They could have given up on us. We had an Egyptian friend call us, someone we had met on the plane over, telling us to get off the roads, they weren’t safe, and stay in a small town a few hours from Luxor. But with all that we endured we didn’t feel threatened, we felt protected. When one person was worn out and out of ideas, someone stepped up. We were a team and that is what got us through.

Margaret on camelWhen we got to Luxor after a 14-hour road trip at 1am, we were weary and happy. Although it had felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole and facing an unending list of unusual and never-ending unexpected circumstances, we knew we made the right decision. We were taken to a private villa where we were the only guests and treated to a luxurious meal accompanied by local wine. The next morning, we were greeted with a surprise of “high-steppers” (camels) to carry us off to our first stop. The adventure began anew and we were so glad to be able to enjoy it. If we had stayed in Cairo we would not have gotten out by plane for another two days and since our trip ended early due to Egypt closing its borders, we would have flown a long way to look at hotel walls. This adventure was not the one we signed up for but we made the most out of it, and discovered our own strength and resilience, along with the benefit of team work, along the way. If we knew everything we were going to encounter that day, I am quite sure we would not have ventured out. But look at all we gained.

Knowing what I do now, I would do it again. Where to next year?!

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