On Two Wheels

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Galal Zekri-Chatila Takes us on his Bicycle Across Egypt

By Nahla Samaha

“I’m planning to cover every inch of our dear beloved country,”

For most of us, adventure can entail driving across town for a bite to eat, changing our brand of shampoo, or staying up past 1 am. For a very special brand of people like 21 year-old Galal Zekri-Chatila, adventure entails leaving the comforts of home (and car), and taking it upon himself to singlehandedly promote Egyptian solidarity and tourism armed only with a bicycle and a dream.

About to embark on a five-month journey across Egypt on his bicycle, Zekri-Chatila sat down with Cairo East Magazine to chat about his insane passion for his country and the road, as well as his upcoming grand adventure.

A Bicycle and a Dream

Zekri-Chatila’s love for the desert road began in early childhood on travels with his parents, “I always imagined myself riding a horse mounted with my camping gear for a long adventure travel,” he recalls. His first foray out of his comfort zone came at school age when a young Zekri-Chatila hiked from Cairo to Suez on a school field trip, “a year later I was one of the co-leaders of the scout team, and I joined a cycling journey from Cairo to Ismaeleya,” he says.

Three years later, 17 year-old Zekri-Chatila found himself cycling to Sukhna just as political events were taking a dramatic turn during the Jan 25 Revolution. Despite the threat of road thugs, Zekri-Chatila went ahead with his journey with the intention of proving that Egypt is safe and beautiful, and that there was no reason to feel unsafe.

Fast-forward to a year later, Zekri-Chatila accomplished another milestone with his cycling journey to Nuweiba. Completing the trip to Nuweiba inspired his touring Egypt dream, and so at age 19, he began with a 19 day, 1650 Km journey across the Western Desert; a feat that further fueled his confidence and determination to traverse Egypt corner to corner on his bicycle.

“I’m planning to cover every inch of our dear beloved country,” says Zekri-Chatila of his upcoming five-month journey, “I’m planning to go west as far as Saloum, and Siwa, and south as far as Shark Owaynat, Abou Simbel, Shalatin and hopefully Halayeb, then north up to Port Said,” he says. A journey that Zekri-Chatila calculates will cover a distance of 8000 Km over a period of five months.

Seems like a lot of hard work and a lot of hassle. A lot. But for Zekri-Chatila this is what living is all about, “For some this is the trouble, for me this is life itself,” he asserts. “I’m willing to risk my life for a happy moment in the middle of nowhere. A life that is out of the book, far away from what any lens can project. This is where we actually belong, in Mother Nature,” he fervently contends. “We are now living in a chaotic city, ruled by political turmoil, affected by environmental issues that have destroyed our spirit. We encourage each other not to be productive, not to dream big, we kill the possibility of realizing our dreams or believing in the impossible,” he solemnly says.

Nuweiba & The Western Desert

Taking to the road is not without its obstacles and obscurities, “In some towns people thought I was a foreigner,” he says of his 1650 Km tour of the Western Desert, “Even when I spoke in Arabic they still wouldn’t believe me unless I showed them my national ID.” After being mugged while on the road, Zekri-Chatila’s emergency response team managed to replace all that was stolen. “On the other hand, one day I lost 300 pounds at a police checkpoint, the following day the man called me to inform me that he found 400 not 300 pounds, and he delivered the cash via the Egyptian post office.” It’s situations like this that reaffirm Chatila’s love for Egypt, and further encourage him on his mission of elevating Egypt’s image and uniting its people.

Zekri-Chatila also managed to gain some fans along the road that would cheer for him and show their support, like truck drivers and travelers. Some police checkpoints allowed him to pitch his tent on their premises, while others went as far as offering him food and shelter indoors, “I must say that I was never rejected by any ambulance station, they would always host me after making sure that I was clean,” he fondly recalls.

Obstacles lay at every turn for Zekri-Chatila. Road encounters and natural obstacles like weather conditions including high winds, uphill roads, and lack of water, “But we must learn that every problem has its solution,” says the adventurer. While cycling to Nuweiba a police officer at a checkpoint warned Chatila against proceeding any further, “he said the village I was about to pass through didn’t have an ambulance station, or a cafeteria, and that it was controlled by a gang of thugs who had kidnapped and killed some people and dumped their bodies,” says Zekri-Chatila. But Zekri-Chatila’s passion and determination trumped any fears he may have fostered, “I went ahead anyway because my main objective of these trips is to break free from the fears that are limiting our dreams and productivity,” he says confidently.

Not one to lose sight of his health while on the road, “To stay hydrated is the key factor for a healthy outdoor adventure,” he says, “I usually eat lots of carbs and proteins on these trips to stay energized.”

Five Months on Two Wheels

Zekri-Chatila has been preparing for his upcoming five-month journey for more than a year. He planned out every single day of the entire trip, studied weather patterns, wind statuses based on wind behavior of the year before, “this is to plan the direction I shall I be heading in order to estimate the time I’ll need to cover a certain distance,” he says of the exact science it takes to plan his trip. “I also study my maps on a very intensive scale, I locate all the potential stops on the road, all the telecom towers located on the roads as well so I can have an idea of when I won’t be connected.”

Zekri-Chatila is also training with coaches from Train for Aim, as well as Revive. He has been undergoing physiotherapy to ensure that his joints and muscles are in the desired shape. And while he’s getting fit, so is his bicycle, which is getting a custom overhaul at Ain Bicycles.

Seeing Egypt Differently

Cycling to distant locales in Egypt has given Zekri-Chatila a brand new perspective on the country. Certainly one that you can’t attain from the comforts of city living.

“After touring around the Western Desert of Egypt, I realized that the Egyptian personality is so unique, very respectful, and very kind,” he lovingly says. “Egypt is a great place to live, the only issue is that people limit themselves; they don’t chase their dreams because they think it’s impossible. We end up all living in the same way, which is quiet boring. I rarely see Egyptians who know the map of Egypt for example, which is a shame.”

“Traveling isn’t about the North Coast or Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt is full of unseen heavens,” says Zekri-Chatila.

His travels have also deepened Zekri-Chatila’s philosophical views, “I started to believe that everything happens for a reason and that with your power, you can turn the bad moments into good ones,” he says. “One of the biggest lessons I have learned is to follow my heart,” he admits. Chatila’s views on money have also changed, “You can never buy your youth, or good times. Working for money in order to achieve happiness is a crazy equation that would control all your moments, and you will never get enough from saving money,” he says.

Zekri-Chatila had the chance to inspire many other young potential adventurers when he spoke at the TEDx Youth Talk, “I went on that stage with Cheetah my bicycle, and she was standing there, cheering me on after carrying me for 1650 km across the Western Desert,” he happily recalls.

You can follow Zekri-Chatila’s journey across Egypt, which will commence in October, through Cairo East Magazine, on the trip website www.egypton2wheels.com, and through www.facebook.com/galalzekrichatila as well as @galalzekri on Twitter.

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