Borderline retarded

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We knew that Friday, May 30, as another long travel day, was going to suck. We just didn't know yet how badly it was going to suck.

Over dinner the evening before, Ra'ed had broken the news to us that there would be yet another change in our travel plans. It seems the tour company had not booked our return tickets on the morning ferry to Taba soon enough, and the earliest ferry with berths still remaining would not be until 7:00 pm. That would get us to Taba far, far too late to make any bus that would reach Cairo at any remotely reasonable hour.

The solution foisted upon us—dreamed up by that same favorite benefactor of ours in Cairo who only days before had failed to get us from Hurghada to Sharm al-Sheikh by boat—was overland travel. It seemed fairly straightforward, if tedious, on the face of it. Ra'ed would drive us back to Aqaba, hand us seventy American dollars, and drop us off at the border crossing to Eilat, Israel. Once in Israel, we would take a cab to the Egyptian border, where a driver would be waiting to spirit us south to Dahab to catch our bus.

It sounds so simple, doesn't it?

As it turned out, the crossing into Israel went just fine. There was only one dicey moment, when a large and scary immigration officer demanded to know the origin of my family name. ("I—I don't know," I said. "We're American or Canadian on both sides going back two hundred years." Now, I do know that my roots stretch back to England, Scotland, and Wales, but who can recall that when confronted by a hulking Israeli soldier who probably thinks your name sounds Aryan? Laura, obviously French in extraction, had no problem.) This, by the way, was the only man among all the border personnel we encountered on our adventure in Israel. The women were generally much more pleasant.

Once we made it through passport control, a border guard hailed a taxi for us, and we were on our way. The cab driver sped us through Eilat, pointing out with pride such consumer temples as Zara and Club Med. He seemed a little offended when I asked him if his accent was French, but I think I managed to smooth it over by saying we knew Israel was like our home in New York City, full of people who've migrated from all over the world. At the Egyptian border, the driver charged us $25 American. I gave him a fifry, and he gave me back 50 shekels in change. (Two shekels to the dollar!)

Our exit visas ended up costing us, much to the amusement of the woman at the exchange desk, 50 shekels plus 20 dollars plus 2 dinars. That meant our transit had cost us, thus far, approximately three dollars more than the travel company had spotted us at the outset. And there was still one more border left to cross.

Leaving Israel was perfectly pleasant. We crossed the long barren stretch of pavement between Israel and Egypt and entered the Taba border station. In all innocence, we strolled right up to the Egyptian passport control officer, handed him our passports ... and were denied entry to Egypt.

Let's back up over a week, to the day we flew into Cairo. The very first person to meet us there was a travel facilitator from our tour company. His job was to provide immigration with a "guarantee" for our stay in Egypt—proof that our travel was all prearranged and would be supervised by the company for the duration of our time in country. This allowed him to purchase our fifteen-dollar entry visas for us. Without such a guarantor, the only way for us to enter the country would have been for us to acquire visas at an Egyptian consulate before leaving the U.S.

The passport officer at Taba pointed to the visas in our passports, which had been closed out when we left Egypt for Jordan two days earlier. "If you don't have a company here to purchase your visas," he rather impatiently explained, "then you can go back to Eilat and apply for visas at the consulate there."

Of course, it was a Friday, and in that region of the world the weekend is Friday and Saturday. The consulate in Eilat would not be open until Sunday.

"We were probably in a rush, and missed our tour guide," I said. "We'll go back and find him. Sorry."

It turns out that in our hurry to reach passport control we had strolled right past a small group of tour guides inside the border station. We went back to them and asked which of them was from our company.

Ahem. None was.

The tour guides were as helpful to us as they could be, though. They got on the phone to our accursed travel agent in Cairo, who, when the cell phone was passed to me, seemed utterly mystified that we hadn't been able to waltz through the border like Fred and Ginger. "You don't need another visa," he said.

"Um, yes, we do. Now, where's the guy who can get it for us?"

I won't detail the further phone calls and mounting anger and frustration we experienced over the next couple of hours, stymied at the border as we were. A driver was waiting for us on the far side of the crossing, but he wasn't authorized to make the kind of guarantee required by Immigration. A helpful and friendly tour guide explained to us apologetically that there were guides who could be bribed to provide such a guarantee, but that his was a reputable company which could not assist us in that regard.

Eventually our nimrod in Cairo called with a brainstorm. "Do you have e-tickets for your flight out of Cairo?"


"You have your flight itinerary handy?"

"Yes." I had taken to a certain measure of curtness in my dealings with him.

"Take it to the passport control officer. Explain that you've been in Egypt already, and you need to enter again in order to leave."

Next to the currency exchange, there was an office marked "Immigration." The door was open. I shrugged, and Laura and I walked over to peek through the door. Inside was a tall, stern-looking man in an immaculate white uniform seated behind a desk. His hair was steel-gray and receding, and his nose was a thin curving blade. I sat down, laid the itinerary before him, and explained the situation—adding that our travel agent in Cairo was an obvious loser with a camel and a donkey for parents. (Okay, maybe I only said I didn't know why their man wasn't there.)

The immigration officer said, carefully, "I am only immigration officer. I am sorry, I can do nothing. But perhaps I have possible solve for you."

He went on to explain, as the reputable tour guide had, that certain companies would provide guarantees to tourists for a fee of $35 American. He pressed a button and went to the door. After a moment a fellow appeared in the doorway. The immigration officer raised his hands, palms forward. "I am only immigration officer. I know nothing of these things."

To truncate a long story, the man at the door wrote out a travel guarantee for us, purchased two visas from the bank, walked us through passport control where the same officer who had denied us entry stamped our visas with a cynical smirk, and walked us outside to the parking lot beyond. That's where I forked over 380 Egyptian pounds, the equivalent of 70 bucks—30 for the visas, 40 for the grease.

And that's what it took. We were back in Egypt.

And hopping mad.

We met our driver and set off south in his van. It was now 1:00 pm. We had missed our 12:30 bus from Dahab. The next bus would leave Dahab at 2:30. It was a two-hour drive from Taba to Dahab. By now we were impervious to terror on tortuous, twisting desert highways. Our driver got us there in ninety minutes. We barely had time to pee, and then our bus was off and rolling.

It was a large, comfortable coach-style bus, but with no restroom on board. We tried not to drink much water for the duration of the ride. We'd been told the trip would take six hours. Actually, it took eight. Having traveled south down the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, we then drove west across the Sinai Peninsula, back north up the coast of the Gulf of Suez, and then through the tunnel back underneath the Suez Canal. There was one rest stop in the middle of all this, but it was only a quickie so the men on the bus (Laura was the only woman) could have a smoke and pee in the sand. I held it, in solidarity with Laura.

Here, Laura interviews me on the bus:

We reached Cairo at 10:30 pm. Our guide Shiko was there at the bus station—had been, for a couple of hours—with a van driver. Our dear friend the travel agent was waiting to meet us at the hotel. Believe me, when you haven't peed for eight hours, the man who put you in that situation is is the last person you want to find standing between you and the nearest plumbing.

The idiot didn't even realize that we had another full day in Cairo ahead of us. He tried to tell us that our van would be there at five in the morning to take us to the airport.

Koshary (yum!) in Cairo, Egypt Okay, let's fast-forward past the discussion that followed. It was past midnight by the time we managed to get rid of the tour people and get settled in our room. That's when Laura and I set out in search of food. All we had eaten since breakfast seventeen hours earlier in Jordan was a banana apiece and some of those crumbly chocolate-creme sandwich cookies that come in a tube. I had spotted a sidewalk cafe a couple of blocks away on the way to the hotel that looked inviting, and it wasn't difficult for us to walk there. Our waiter was funny and nice, and I ended up eating a dish called koshary, sort of a kitchen-sink affair built from lentils, chickpeas, tomato sauce, rice, pasta, chunked meat, and assorted other ingredients. It damn well hit the spot. Laura had chicken shawarma, and we took turns feeding bits of meat on the sly to the two stray cats that prowled up to our table from beneath a parked car.

It was a good way to close out an interesting but ultimately shitty day.

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on June 11, 2008 3:55 PM.

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