With only 450 km2 to spare in the city centre people and enterprise are stacked like jenga blocks. Space is a commodity that in Cairo goes up and then out. Official estimates - often gloriously off kilter - sit at 11 million in the heart but an urban planner we're introduced to, by a mutual friend, explains that one of Cairo's slums 'an area about 9 km2' has a population alone of 2 million. By comparison London covers a 1570 km2 expanse and supports 9 million people.
We wake, ahead of Friday Prayers and the Imam's weekly sermon, to news that protests have erupted at the French embassy. If an Iranian News photo is to be believed - the demonstration is already sizeable. Hundreds have gathered. In contrast, active twitterati suggest 10, maybe 12 protesters have grouped. It's odds on the twitterati are correct but out of respect and perhaps a glint of irrational concern I make a matter of wearing a headscarf when I leave the hotel. As we stitch our way hesitantly through the tall warrens of Down Town and Islamic Cairo apprehension gives way to thanks as we're re-connected with the experience of experiencing anew. There is nothing more invigorating than being forced to recalibrate your understanding of the minutiae of life. How to speak, where to buy things, which hand to use...how to cross a road. Welcome to Cairo Senorita. Welcome. And relax. Did that lad just move an unmanned car back two feet to make parking space for a hovering minibus? The protests blow over before evening prayer. And then, then Cairo really comes to life.
Men line up by blue plastic chairs to cast an inquisitive eye over a backgammon board. Propped up by the wisdom of sheesha. Mixed groups of young Cairenes dot themselves across the roundabout to share juice and exchange blushes. Women shop in tribes. Dimly lit nostalgic bars swim in smoke and carry political conversation. People eat late. And together. 8am till 2am - this city, in all it's unapologetic glory puts most capitals to shame. Join in or get out the way.
For us it's a humbling evening with a colourful table of expatriates atop the Odeon Bar. A couple of the group have been here since before the revolution. One actively engaged in supporting it. Despite clamors of a frustrating lack of fluency all speak decent Arabic. Among them is Khalid who has just returned from Syria. A short, gentle but spirited musician whose hometown is close to Homs. Khalid is a bundle of energy, a chunk of it nervous. He speaks with the conviction of someone who doesn't just know but who has seen. Our discussion turns to Syria. Where the situation is quickly getting worse and more complicated. Dozens of Syrian people are being killed every day by security forces. Whilst the outside world looks on or perhaps chooses not to. That doesn't mean we need you to intervene, he says, we need help to establish a no fly zone but then get out, leave the rest to the people. People are struggling without food and basic supplies. Fighters from Europe, Yemin, Pakistan arrive now on an almost weekly basis. Stoking the fire of a more radical islamist politique. Muscling in on the great unknown of what and who might replace Bashir. The longer this stretches on the greater the chance the views of the more radical islamist fighters become normalised. They're operating in a vacuum. And tell me, if you have no food and are struggling to survive and someone hands you a gun and asks you to fight? you fight. If it's fight or die you fight, right? we all would.
We pause, discuss and order more drinks until the wee hours. And I realise that the parameters of this trip have changed. A process set in motion in Athens. Among the ruins of a financial crisis which has left dignified people scavenging from bins. I feel awake. I feel angry. And I feel inspired in a way that I haven't for years.
It feels right to be out from behind the newspaper. And I wonder when and why 'apathy' became not just accepted but cool in Britain. In the shadow of young Caireans nothing could, frankly, look less cool. On the day we landed the municipal authorities began white washing graffiti around Tahrir Square. Within hours people had turned up to document and shame the operation. By dawn street art had sprung up over the new white wash. A goading green tongue and a reminder that history cannot be erased. Though Tahrir has resumed business as usual small, single issue protests are still alive. Anti privitisation/IMF, wage demands, education policy etc. But these people are greedy Ahmed chastises as we pass Cairo's equivalent of Speakers corner. They want everything now, no yesterday. I disagree - to me these are signs of a burgeoning democracy. But this doesn't help us feed our children Hannah, it hurts tourism, where are the tourists? Ahmed, our jaded Giza guide, is right there are very few tourists here. It's sad and challenging for the people who rely on what was once a vibrant trade. But Egyptians fought hard and lost there lives for the space that speaker now stands in. And in the long term democracy and stability are tourisms true friend. The sporadic protest gives me hope that Egyptians will eventually get the Government they deserve.
For us it's time to roll out. We've started to bite our nails a bit over the next three weeks ahead. We've over 1400km to cover through the desert, with long stretches between towns. If all goes to Stan we'll reach our first town in 4 days time, after 400km. Having been on A/C retreat for the last week we've no idea what it'll feel like to cycle in +40 again. And we've never had to carry this much water or food. Riiiiight. Bust us that map just one more time...
But before I go...HELENA and CAOIMHE. THANK you. For spoiling us, indulging our chaotic flurry of purchase and pack, for trading Irish rain for Grecian rain without fuss and for restocking product ranges and moral support. Really - thank you. The hill you organised though cannot pass without mention.
Relieved to have finally reached Athens, Helena had booked us all into a lush apartment with a roof top view across the city. It sounded and looked perfect. Encumbered with about 68 kilos of bike and pannier between us we set out to find this joint. Look at that hill we'd chuckled half an hour earlier dodging through the bonkers Athens traffic. It was mon-u-mental. After a fair amount of farting around and some surprise help from a posh restaurant - whose staff looked at Diarmaid like he was ferral - it dawned on us that the illusive pad was not just up that hill. But up a chain of 6 just like it. 2km away. And I later discovered, up a 24% gradient. whhhhhhhhhhhhhaaat. was about all, among a chain of less salubrious exclamations, we could and can still muster. Seriously, I reckon an Mountain Goat might have feigned an old ankle injury at the sight of 81 Giannitson St. But we got up. Diarm on his bike. Me in a cloud of goodgodlonemeadonkey and out onto the roof for sundown. Atop Athens. With a view of the Acropolis. Europe - I completely underestimated both your beauty and your brilliance.
*Some names have been changed here to protect people’s privacy