Monday, October 1, 2018

Cape to Kapp: Pedaling Under the Suez Canal Requires More Patience & Perseverance Than Legs

Teresie Hommersand grew up near Stavanger, a city known as the oil capital of Norway. She remembers eating supper every evening off plates with the logo of the national oil and gas company on them. Somehow she became the "green sheep" of the family. She has lived in Uganda, Oregon, and Australia. Learn more about her 13,700 km ride going from South Africa to Norway and her charity crowdfunding campaign on her Facebook page and Instagram.  She has just finished the epic African leg of her journey and is now in Israel. This post is about her experience getting permission to cross the Suez Canal Tunnel on her touring bike.

I think I've made a bit of history?!!!! I have cycled through the Suez Canal Tunnel on my Soma Saga!!!!!!!! No one is allowed to do this! I've only heard of a small group of Egyptians who's done it legally. They had the support of an Egyptian ministry. Two other solo foreign male cyclists did it as well but they both got arrested afterwards as they did not have permission. Could I at least be the first solo female cyclist to do this?
A process
It was quite a process getting the green light. I came riding before noon. Armed army personnel greeted me at the first checkpoint. "Hi! I'd like to cycle through the tunnel."
"No. It is not allowed."
I then confidently handed over an eloquently formulated letter by The United Nations Environment Programme's 'Share the Road' Programme in support of my low carbon emission mission. 
There was some quick discussion between the two which I could only make out "It's the UN.". They picked up the phone to call a superior. The person at the other end of the line picked up another phone. So did the commander above him again. I don't know how far up in the system it went, but down here they started looking at me positively hoping that I'd be allowed. They were really impressed with how far I've come on my bike and supported what I was doing.
Making friends at the army checkpoint

I don't know how long I waited. For a good six hours at least. I was really hopeful. If I didn't stand a chance, then why would they take this long to get back to me? In the end they did reply --- with a 'NO'?!!!  I was so surprised. Why not? 
They cited lack of traffic safety through the tunnel and because the first 30 kilometers after the tunnel has seen activity by militant groups present in the region. Another army officer I spoke to was of the opinion that it was not that dangerous – that the likelihood of anything happening was very slim. "But if it did... One video of a pretty girl in the wrong hands would have devastating effects on Egyptian tourism [it's already suffering due to previous terrorist attacks]." The officer who conveyed it was very sorry. So was I. I asked again. I didn't want to give up. I was told that if I didn't leave, I would not be allowed to pass through the tunnel at all.
Nuns that allowed me to stay overnight at their church.

A New Plan for Tomorrow
I was taken in by Greek Orthodox nuns that night.  Before going to bed I texted one of the guys from the Egyptian group that had cycled through the tunnel. The army had refused them too, BUT THE POLICE had helped them and escorted them through! How does that work? I thought the army had greater authority than the police? I went to sleep with a new plan not knowing how everything would turn out. I'd either be allowed to cycle through or possibly be banned for good from crossing the tunnel, and therefore not able to continue by bike via the Middle East en route to Europe...
I woke up the next morning, feeling as if the whole day was completely open ended. Just had to deal with what came my way in a good way. I went to the police and presented my case. "Yes, of course, but join us for fool* and falafel for breakfast first!". Really? I couldn't believe it! Two hours later I rode up to the same army checkpoint from the day before – followed by the police, I saw the same army officer sitting there. I could tell he was not happy to see me. "Hi! I have found a solution to the safety issue! The police will escort me!'
The local police made it possible. Thank you.

New calls where made. I got an interrogation. 'Where have you been since you left here yesterday?'. It wasn't enough to say "in town". 'Where in town?" I had to provide names of the places. Show it on my map. I was pleased with myself when I could present a selfie of me and the nuns;-) 'How much money do you have?'. Pictures of every single page in my passport were taken. 'Where did you study? What did you study? Where are your parents? Write down all the countries you have cycled through, including the dates of entry and exit here'. 'Why are you doing this?'. 'Because of climate change. Because I care about the people and other species that are and will be affected by it'... I passed the test. 'Ms. Teresie. I am happy to see you again'.
Uncertainty and confusion
Back to the waiting game. We went through all my stuff. I showed him everything I'm carrying. I think he was quite impressed with my set-up. He certainly took a fancy to my knife! Haha. All this time, I did not know, if I'd be allowed to cycle through the tunnel. I wasn't sure if I dared to hope anymore. 
"Yalla. Hæ!" I was suddenly told to get on my bike in the direction of the tunnel. I didn't dare to clarify could I really go? I just moved. We came to a second checkpoint. New faces. Another presentation of my passport and UN letter. What did all of this mean? No one told me anything! Was told to come inside and sit down. 'It's the first time we have someone doing this. And it's a woman'. 
My heart jumped. Could it be? I got all emotional. 'Shukran! Thank you!'. It was a solemn moment. I believe I was even shaking a little as I got back on my bike and set the course for THE TUNNEL. It was unreal. Still couldn't fully believe it. I said to myself I wouldn't until I actually cycled into its depth. But now I was hopeful! And now I saw the opening of the tunnel approaching me! 
'STOP!!!!!!!!'. 'No, no, no, we have permission'. 'No, it's not allowed to cycle through'. Three armed army soldiers in uniform blocked the entrance. The police in the police vehicle shouted something to them in Arabic. And then they turned around! 
'What are you doing?' I said incredulously. They drove off, leaving me stranded right there, five metres from the entrance! 'What is happening?'. Was I not allowed in the end, after all this?! Would I get arrested? After much confusion and more waiting while curious cars and trucks passed this blocked lone long distance cyclists in front of the tunnel, a police vehicle from the other side of the tunnel came through. This was the one that was going to escort me. And my three new armed friends had been filled in meanwhile - she is good to go.
The Ride Under the Suez Canal
I am forever grateful to EVERYONE involved in making this possible! I can't believe my luck. They could all just have said no. What an experience! It was with a whirlwind of emotions as I cycled through it. Disbelief. Gratitude. Defiant joy. "Hell yeah!!!!!'" Tears. Fear of getting a puncture down there. That I wouldn't be able to breathe because of all the exhaust. That I wouldn't be able to cycle up the incline at the end. Typical;-) When I saw the light in the end of the tunnel, I started waiving to oncoming cars. I had the biggest smile. I heartedly laughed to the shocked and smiling army officer that greeted me as I came out of the tunnel on the other side. 'Hi! :-D'.

[Editor's notes: * "Fool" or 
 fūl, is a dish of cooked fava beans served with vegetable oilcumin, and optionally with chopped parsleygarliconionlemon juice, chili pepper and other vegetable, herb and spice ingredients.
The Suez Canal in Egypt is an artificial waterway that connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. "
The canal offers watercraft a shorter journey between the North Atlantic and northern Indian Oceans via the Mediterranean and Red Seas by avoiding the South Atlantic and southern Indian Oceans, reducing the journey by approximately 7,000 kilometres (4,300 mi).(Wikipeda)" There is some incredible history involving the canal and surrounding areas.]