Galal Zekri-Chatila is taking Sophia on a tour around Egypt. Their adventure covers a distance of 7,000 km over a period of four months. Their goal is to cover every inch of the country.
“I want someone to talk to on the road,” 21-year-old Chatila says. “Every now and then I will want to say ‘Sophia, darling!’” referring endearingly to his bicycle.
“I need someone I can worry about,” he explains, “and it’s a beautiful bicycle.”
On November 22, Chatila’s journey will begin in Cairo, and he will cycle through Ain Sokhna, Hurghada, Ismailia, Delta, Saloum, all the way to Luxor, Halayeb and Aswan, and finally back to Cairo.
With a knack for maps, Chatila outlined his own route, sometimes seeking the help of Google Earth for roads less traveled.
Chatila will take off from where it all began: his school, the Jesuit in Ramsis, which he says enabled him to do something like this.
He will begin his tour accompanied by 40 other cyclists from the school on the first 100 km.
He recalls this sense of adventure being infused in him as a student when his school organized trips where students would walk to Suez, or cycle to Ismailia.
“They introduced me to this kind of thing,” he says, explaining that it was then that he decided he wanted to do it on his own.
Over the past four years, Chatila would embark on cycling trips to Ain Sokhna, Nuweiba, and through the Oasis: Bahariya, Dakhla, Kharga, Farafra, as well as through Suez Minya and Assiut.
“I discovered that since the bicycle is a means for transportation, then why not travel on it?” he said.
Chatila spoke about a relationship he developed with the road. On every trip he took, he says, the road would leave him “gifts,” that he would collect and keep as memorabilia.
“On my way to Ain Sokhna, there was a point when I wanted to give up and take a taxi,” he recalls, “only a few minutes later I found a ‘taxi’ sign on the side of the road.”
“It was a sign,” he says, “I picked it up and put it on my backpack and continued my journey.”
Chatila also speaks about the “spirit of travelers,” which he noticed and acquired on the road.
“This spirit is common between me and the truck drivers who pass me by,” he says, “we salute each other and smile and we in turn give each other the boost we need to continue our journeys.”
Chatila says he made several friends on the road that he keeps in touch with until today.
“On this coming tour for example, when I pass through the Western desert, I know whose house I am going to spend the night at,” he says.
Chatila is taking a semester off college to tour the country. Describing himself as an “adventurer” rather than a “cyclist,” he hopes to relay to Egyptians a different side of their country through this tour.
“I want to show where we started, a different side rather than the traditional stuff we all know about, like the pyramids and Luxor and Aswan,” he says. “You can stay in this country for years and years trying to discover it.”
Amid all the chaos, he wants to show the true face of the Egyptian people that he slowly got to discover through his past journeys.
“All those clichés we know about Egyptians, that they’re welcoming and generous and kind, they’re all true,” he says.
Chatila also wants to encourage people to start using bicycles as a means of transportation.
“I never thought I could use a bicycle to get around Cairo, but all of a sudden in 2010 I found myself in the middle of the street on a bike,” he said.
Now, Chatila says, he knows the city’s streets by heart, “with all its drains and the bridges with all their separators.”
People think that using a bicycle is a luxury – a misconception Chatila hopes to change.
“The guy delivering the bread, the guy delivering the milk, everyone uses bicycles,” he says.
An overhaul of the city’s crowded streets to carve bike lanes is unnecessary, he says. “If bicycles increase on the street then eventually people will abandon cars.”
With the attention his adventure is getting, Chatila ensured that the government is on board.
His tour is in coordination with the Tourism Authority and he approached the relevant bodies to acquire all needed permits.
The process was impeded by the shooting in Farafra last July, when 22 soldiers were killed in a military checkpoint, as the roads he was supposed to take were closed then.
He has been strategic in outlining his route, leaving areas where there has been unrest until the end of the journey in order to buy himself some time for things to calm down.
Behind Chatila is a team of volunteers, as well as a handful of sponsors, as he takes on Egypt’s less familiar roads.
He however remains unfazed.
“I’m just a guy on a bike who wants to tour Egypt,” he says. “It’s not a big deal.”