Valentina Primo meets the 23-year-old traveller who took on the Cairo-Alexandria road on foot in an astounding three-day journey where shared meals, decaying hostels, and countless human encounters forever changed his perception of Egypt.
When Andrew Youssef told his acquaintances that he wanted to take the 180 km route from Cairo to Alexandria on foot, their answer was conclusive: you can’t. So the young programmer, driven and eager to smash barriers, joined forces with his friend Milad Magdy and turned their answer into a fearless challenge that resulted in three days of continuous walking, over 6,000 participants following their venture online, and dozens of people they met on the road.
Having reached Alexandria and proven their prowess, the adventurers founded a startup called The Campers, which sets out to organise sports and camping events for young travellers between 18 and 35 years old - following up on the initiative they had founded prior to their monumental walk, the one that catapulted their names and consecrated their pioneering spirit: Walk-pedia.
In a talk with CairoScene, Youssef shares the moments during the journey that overshadowed his imagination, and explains why the hazardous trip changed his perception of Egypt.
Tell us first, what is Walk-pedia?
We first came up with the idea to walk to Alexandria almost a year ago and created a Facebook page dedicated to it, which was Walk-pedia. It was a crazy idea but we decided to do it, and we went through with it without thinking a lot about how we were going to make it. We didn’t have a lot of experience on how to resist the elements, what we should take with us, and what to do when were tired. So we began training by walking from Cairo to 6th of October or Maadi, increasing the distance every day. We finally set off to Alexandria at four in the morning on June 6th. We walked from dawn to sunset, as long as there was light, for about 15 hours per day. At night, we stayed at whatever location we ended up in until 4 AM, and then we continued our journey.
Did you do it again? Where else did you go?
I did the same trip to Ismailia alone, and during Christmas and we dressed in Santa Claus costumes and walked across Cairo giving out gifts to people. The first trip - going to Alexandria - was a bit of a risk. We divided the route: 80 km on the first day, 60 km on the second day, and the last day would be about 40 km or less, but we didn’t think much about the process. The second time, when I went to Ismailia on my own, it was a lot easier since I already knew what to take, what not to take, the necessities, and so on.
How did you know where you were going to stop?
The first time we had people reserve hostels or lodges for us beforehand in certain areas like Tanta and Damanhur, but that brought us a little bit of trouble because at times we would have 20 km ahead of us and only three hours, so we had to sort of power-walk or run sometimes.
We estimated our arrival using Google Maps. For Ismailia, though, I didn’t book anything and just decided to go couch-surfing or spend the night at any place, but I didn’t end up doing it because I got scared. I was alone on the way to Ismailia, but I met many people who invited me throughout the journey and they hosted me. I ended up meeting about 15-20 people every day.
The Alexandria Road is a highway with a lot of traffic. Where did you walk?
We took the agricultural road, not the desert road, but it isn’t for walking either, per se. So, we walked next to the cars. It was not easy at all, and it was actually the biggest argument between Milad and I. He wanted to walk on the side of the road opposite to the cars, while I wanted to walk alongside the cars on the same side, because the air flow would push us through. He didn’t like that because he was worried that a car might hit us from behind, so we ended up mixing it up and crossing the road every now and then.
The road to Ismailia was nice; it was mostly walking next to the Nile so the scenery was beautiful. When we went to Alexandria, though, the route alternated between the train tracks, the Nile, water canals, and agricultural lands.
Did people stop you on the way?
A lot of them. They couldn’t believe it; some of them were giving us money because they thought we didn’t have money for transportation, and many people invited us over to eat and drink in their homes. However, the Alexandria walk was during the summer in Ramadan, so that was pretty difficult because we needed about a litre of water every five km; all the shops were usually closed, so we had to knock on people’s doors and ask them for water. Our goal is to walk all around Egypt - not just to walk but to actually meet new people and hear their stories.
Who was the most memorable person you met?
A lot of them, to be honest. There was a man who insisted on giving me 10 LE even though I told him that I already have money, because when he was young he enjoyed walking and he once had to walk 50 km because he didn’t have money. Every time we wanted to meet someone new, we would ask them: how much further to Alexandria? They would give us a weird look and tell us: 120 km, why are you asking? After hearing about our journey, that would open up a long conversation.
While walking to Ismailia, I also ran into someone who was an ex-member of the Shura Council. He insisted on inviting me to his home for food and told me to drop by again if I was feeling tired; to this day, he still connects with me on Facebook.
Every time we reached our destination, a lot of people who were following us on Facebook tried to contact us to welcome us there. In Alexandria, a lot of people called us to invite us over for food; in Ismailia, when I was on my own, they welcomed me with gifts, cupcakes, food, and offered to let me stay at their homes because I didn’t have a planned place to stay. That was actually the best part of the journey.
How much money did you bring with you?
We brought 400 LE combined for both of us. We didn’t have a lot of money, and we ran out of money about two hours before the end of the journey to Alexandria. Most of the money was spent on water, as we needed about 10 to 12 litres a day. Accommodation was not expensive; we found hostels for 8 LE in Damanhur, but it was terrible.
Did you have any negative experiences?
No, and that was one of the strangest things on both trips. A lot of cars would pass by and stop to ask us if we needed a ride. We would tell them about what we’re doing and they would chat for a bit with us, take pictures and post it on our page.
On the road we didn't carry our regular phones - we carried little cash in case we ran into bandits but we didn’t come across that at all. There was a funny episode, though, when we were stopped by police once, 40 km before Ismailia, because I was taking a picture near the court house. I had heard them yelling, but I never thought that it concerned me, and suddenly I look around and see five soldiers, armed, running towards me, asking me to drop what I have in my hands. I only had my phone and earphones, so I put them on the ground and raised my arms, but as the wind was blowing the earphones were blown away. When I stepped on them to keep them, they suddenly took me in and began asking me questions, but they didn’t believe me. They began searching on Google for “Andrew traveler” and they said they wouldn’t let me go unless he found me on Google (laughs). They then took my IDs and made sure I checked out and they let me go.
There were a lot of people following you online…
Yes! We started that page to notify our friends of where we were in case of an emergency, so that they could reach us. But just a day after we left, we noticed there were already 2,000 likes, and shortly after 3,000 likes. We’re now about 7,000 fans, so people enjoyed that. When we were done, we asked these people who wanted to walk with us in Cairo and about 200 people joined us. We tried to get permits to walk inside Cairo but it was a little difficult; we needed security permits and clearance so that we’re not thought of as protestors, especially that we’re just walking instead of running. But on the highway, it would be impossible to do it in groups and I wouldn’t recommend people to do it because this sort of thing isn’t really safe.
Did something change in you after the journey?
Sure. I’m a talkative person, and I certainly learned to keep silent for a while. I always thought of people as bad because, you know, living in Egypt, it isn’t always easy to meet new people, knock on their doors and have them take you in. However, when I did that I realised that most people are beautiful. Now every time I take public transportation, I talk to strangers. They’re weirdly accepting of me doing this; you just need to find common ground to talk about and you will find there is a lot to learn from everyone.
Are you planning to continue with Walk-pedia?
We started off wanting to walk across Egypt; we used to be overweight and we loved walking, so we would always walk across Cairo, sometimes 25 km just for the hell of it. We want to continue doing that; but our next big goal is to go from Ismailia to Port Said.