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Cycling Through Egypt on the Eve of an Uprising

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A week before I left my home in a suburb of Buffalo, New York to cycle across Africa, the most common question I was asked is: "is it dangerous?" Now, danger is a relative term -- on this trip, there's the kind of danger one faces cycling (common on any street with cars worldwide), the kind that comes from lions, and the kind that comes from war. The most concrete fear and uncertainty which I had, echoed by most others who follow international news, was the safety of cycling though Sudan in the weeks following their referendum for independence. The violent history of the country, combined with questionable economic security and a large deposit of oil at stake, lead to a situation of extreme uncertainty. None of us ever expected that it would be Egypt that would ignite with the fury of a powder-keg the day after we left.

The initial time spent in Cairo was an unpretentious mix of floating around the city to check out tourist sites and pick up provisions for the journey ahead. Those that had local connections met up with old colleagues or friends. Everyone seemed to be going about life as usual, from the cab drivers we befriended to the shop owners we met in out of the way neighborhoods. Some noted that the police had conducted a round-up of the "usual suspects" just prior to our arrival, but that in and of itself seemed hardly a cause for concern.

Egypt as a whole seemed to be content with life as it was -- a mix of African patience and hospitality, alongside a complacency with the tourist scene. Even the sight of 60 spandex clad foreigners racing past on bikes hardly was a cause for the adults to lift their head for more than a minute. The children on the other hand raised their voices in a chorus of a thousand hellos when we passed. As our journey took us East out of Cairo from the Great Pyramids to the Red Sea, we watched cargo ships lining up to await their turn through the Suez. Further down the coast, we passed by tens of resort buildings mid-construction, as if a switch were to be flipped, and tourists would instantly appear in this new resort destination. We passed through the towns of Safaga, Edfu, Luxor and eventually Aswan, covering 600 miles over eight days. In all, what was it that we suspected? Not a thing. We left Egypt on January 24th, impressed with the country we had seen, and with a bit of trepidation over the still undecided situation in Sudan.

Seeing as we have been existing in a near news vacuum, word the protests didn't reach us until after we had been in Sudan for 3 days. With proper internet connection and access to the news, we now realize how close we were to getting stuck in Egypt. There remains a feeling of disbelief at the moment, as to how the peaceful, relaxed place we left two weeks ago could be in the middle of a violent uprising today. To see Tahrir Square, an area where just weeks ago we had visited, as the center of a nation's uprising brings a different element of reality to the situation. This is no longer a conflict in a far off country, but rather a movement in what seems like my own backyard -- one which may have repercussions as we continue cycling through Africa over the next four months.

Chris Fenar is a participant in the ninth annual Tour d'Afrique -- a cycling race/expedition traversing over 7,000 miles from Cairo to Cape Town. For more updates follow @PedalXAfrica and his personal blog at http://www.PedalCrossAfrica.com