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The Thousand And One Egyptian Sins

Syria becoming a bloodbath has rendered our plans to continue across the Middle East, towards Asia, obsolete. The only way out of Africa – a continent we are seriously thinking to adopt as home one day – is either west (Libya, Tunisia, then cheap Grimaldi ferry to Sicily) or north-east by ro-ro ship to Turkey. In Nairobi we pondered selling the bike (knowing it could become a financial disaster to overland Egypt), or doing like many do – drive back to South Africa, and ship from there to another continent. Confident that we can crack the egyptian mafia, we come all the way up, to concede that we can’t. On the 4th of july the libyan authorities have again suspended all visa services. We spent a day at the embassy in Cairo discussing our chance to obtain this visa before our carnet for Egypt would expire. Turns out there isn’t any. The info for the only boat taking travelers and their vehicles across the Mediterranean has been all this time in our weathered Moleskine. This boat leaves on Tuesday evening. So we decide to take it. Follows part two of what we had endured in Aswan.

The curtain rises to a scene of our bare minimum spread on the sidewalk in downtown Cairo. It’s Tuesday, not even 6 a.m., and police is frantically searching our panniers for something unruly. We are about to leave for Port Said, where we have an appointment in the office of AK Naggar Shipping. Established only due to the Suez Canal, Port Said doesn’t look like the most prosperous egyptian city, as the Human Development Index suggests.

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It’s Ramadan, most offices work only a few hours a day. We set to wait for Nabil, who heads the booking agency handling the infamous boat. He shows up an hour and a half late, but doesn’t shy away from scolding us for asking questions (do other people just pay?). Oh, the boat is yet to arrive tonight, then it’ll wait in the port until tomorrow to be unloaded.

We are asked to pay:

$200 per motorbike ($500/car)

$300 per passenger

$125 booking fee + ‘shipping order’ for Canal Shipping where the customs clearance is done

$205 customs clearance (1250 EGP)

That makes $1130 for us and the bike. Mind you, the cost for 1 bike + 1 person coming from Turkey (on the very same boat), all included, is $278, as opposed to $830. Prices for the boat are up 50% since April, customs clearance has almost doubled. Nabil has the audacity to say that we are ‘unlucky’ for showing up during Ramadan, when everything is more expensive. For a while he tries to intimidate us into paying 1500 EGP for customs clearance. We ask why, when he initially said 1250, already more than the 750 EGP recently paid by others? We are told to pay our tickets and go clear customs in the office of Canal Shipping, which is a block away. You might think that for over a grand we would be politely invited to wait on a couch. Well, because we ask questions, we shall suffer.

In Sayed Saleh’s office, Nabil is on the speed dial. Here a working day is even more fun: chatting with friends, checking sports news online, and mostly playing with a coin in your empty ashtray while staring spaced-out at the streetscape. After working for years to come to Africa, this doesn’t leave us unimpressed. Assam has a short temper and poor english, Mohammed doesn’t speak any. These employees of Sayed are supposed to do the actual customs clearing work. We ask how much we need to pay and why. Everybody is appalled of our ‘curiosity’. We are sent with the two stooges to ‘ask in the port’. A useless trip: in the port we aren’t even allowed to wait by the gate as random bums walk freely in and out. The two stooges go someplace to ‘ask for us’. Of course they return with the news that we should pay 1300 EGP. We reply that we are prepared to pay not more than what we did in Aswan for the same bogus customs clearance, so 505 EGP. The same ‘merchandise’, the same country, right? Assam, the rudest and most aggressive of the lot, starts shouting that they made a mistake in Aswan and this is the CORRECT amount, and walks away. Back in Canal Shipping office, back to square one. Hours pass, we realize we cannot break the chain of middle men. Finally we figure that customs clearance is still 750 EGP (whatever that means and whoever gets bribed), 50 is for storing the vehicle in the port (why should we do that when the boat is not even accessible until tomorrow?), the rest is ‘commission’. We look at each other. We admit we don’t have the balls to attempt Syria. And we don’t’ have enough money to make a point and ship ourselves out of here. For us it’s too late, we cannot go back. So we agree to bloody pay. We take another useless trip to traffic police, where supposedly the officers must ‘see’ me to issue a certificate that I haven’t been involved in any accident. Of course, I am told to wait outside while the two stupid dogs xerox my egyptian and romanian driving licenses. Nobody comes to see me, no one bothers to inspect the bike, or ask for documents containing any actual data about the vehicle being ‘cleared’. Check out what is written on the egyptian carnet, which goes in my file, along the above mentioned photocopies and a form.

This mess plays out as if Assam and Mohammed are doing it for the first time. A few hours into the process, Mohammed asks candidly if we have a car or a motorbike and where is our boat supposed to go. Back at the booking agency, we empty our wallet into Nabil’s hands that start to shake with gluttony. His voice changes, his eyes glisten, his back arches under the weight of a thousand and one egyptian sins written in his DNA. It’s over, and this is the only evidence we will ever have:

Port Said is a city of booking agents, shipping companies and custom people. Why have we all come to the same booking agent, blatantly in cohorts with the customs? These shady characters will party hard with our money. We don’t have any energy left to enjoy our last Iftar in Africa. We buy tomatoes, cheese, bread and figs. The market is great, the people seem nice, and in the night everybody will feast on shrimp and squid. But we are spent. We curl into our Hotel de la Poste lair, and sleep.

The next morning we drive to Sayed, where we wait for a couple of hours until Assam remembers we must take the bike to the port and start collecting stamps in my file. More mambo jumbo ends in me having to leave the bike in storage for a few hours. The boat awaits us, departure is scheduled for 6 p.m. At 4 p.m. we are still in Nabil’s, numb of waiting, each with our own departure thoughs to digest. Ana walks to the market to spend our last pounds on more tomatoes, cheese and bread. And figs. And dried dates. We save a bill of 50, what if they will ask for a storage fee for the bike? we say. A turkish driver shares our waiting couch and people are discussing furiously something. The driver turns to us: ‘problem’, he says. ‘What problem?’ I ask. It turns out he doesn’t have a CpD. We tell him how we got one from the Saudi club in Aswan. Nabil and his employees seem bewildered by this information. We give them the contacts of the club and the fixers, they discuss, but we don’t know the outcome, because suddenly a guy from the office informs us we must literally run to immigration to get our passports stamped. There everybody is busy distributing Ramadan packages. We get the stamps, then we run some more to the guy’s car, and drive back to where our bike is stored. They ask 150 EGP for storage. I laugh and I tell them I have only 50 left. I can’t explain my honesty. I mount back the luggage and I drive it to the boat, but we must wait for someone who will inspect our bike and the file. In the meantime Sayed, Assam and Mohammed start and end a few fights, and hours pass. Finally the inspector arrives to make sure we are taking our dubious vehicle out of his bureaucratic life, and we cannot wait to do so. In the end, crossing Egypt with this vehicle costed an astonishing 1750 US dollars, 3 times more than 22 other African countries combined, including the ferry from Europe to Morocco! Egypt overland, never again.

On the boat bearing the logo of Scanlines under Moldavian pavilion, it’s just us, three turkish drivers with their trucks, the russian and ukrainian crew and a turkish chef. After 9 p.m., we budge. The dinner is typically turkish, not bad.

The cabin is spotless, but scalding hot.

We struggle all night to sleep, and in the morning we discover that the boat is back in the port, in the same place we were the night before. Lunch passes, hours pass, we hear a rumor that we are waiting for a passenger. Late afternoon trucks start arriving: the boat fills up with russian and turkish truck drivers and their vehicles bearing the ‘transit’ plate we fought in vain for.

It’s Thursday and sun is setting over Africa as the boat finally exits the Suez Channel. For us, Africa ended two countries ago, but we are still heartbroken. We’ll come back!

The next days were a blur of sweating, showering and waiting for the next meal to happen, while Ana discovered that she could still speak rudimentary Turkish.

Carola’s account of her own trip is spot on. Unfortunately it also says that there is no other agent for this boat. What can you do to avoid this scam? If you have more time, wait for Libya to resume visa services, drive the coastal route (check Temehu.com for news updates), ferry from Tunis to Italy (roughly 150 euro for 2 people + 1 motorbike). Or cross Syria. Or, if you have more money, ship from Port Sudan or Alexandria and fly out. Your choice. We are sorry for the wonderful village people we met in Egypt, but their country is perhaps not the best ending to a tour of their great continent.

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