Grant and Susan in Egypt

May 13, 1997 - The Egyptian customs saga (beware, this is a very long story!)

We arrived at the Libyan side of the border at 2:00, and were through in only 20 minutes - assisted by Sharif of course. The border officials even refunded some money we'd paid when we came in! The guards were friendly and waved good-bye as we headed towards the Egypt crossing a short distance away. Thus we had quite high expectations of sailing through the Egyptian side. After all, Egypt is the modern, pro-Western, English speaking country compared to Libya, right? WRONG!

We pulled up behind a line of about a hundred cars and buses and taxis, many heavily loaded, even for this part of the world. i.e. grossly overloaded. I pulled up on the side, bypassing a number of cars to end up as 6th or 7th in a 5th line that didn't really belong, not that that meant anything here. There were fences across the front of the lines and nothing was happening. Guards were slouched in chairs at the head of the line, chatting casually. We pulled off our helmets, and got prepared for a wait. I tried to find out what was happening, but got nowhere with anybody in the line.

I finally decided to try one of the guards who looked a little senior. I asked, in English, when we would be able to cross.

"Hello, Welcome!" he said, and gave a big grin and shook my hand. "Close," he said.

"When does it open?"
"Close, Welcome! Tree hours!"
"Shukran," I said in despair.
"Speak Arabic?" he said, delighted.
"No, English, Francais, Espanol?" I replied hopefully.
"Ah, Welcome!"

Oh dear, no English. Oh well, back to the line. He seemed very friendly, genuinely delighted to see me, but totally useless to me. Closed, I got, but did he mean three hours before they opened? Or 3 o'clock? Who knows.

Egyptian customs area.

Egyptian customs area

The waiting area for the border was - interesting. On one side of the road was a tumble-down old shack about 40 feet long, in 2 or 3 sections for different vendors, one a restaurant of sorts, the other a snack bar for candy and soft drinks. Toilets? Behind the restaurant, someone indicated with a grin. I went around back, and discovered the "toilets." The whole area, about 10 metres to the wire fence and the whole length of the building, was one giant toilet / garbage dump. It was over a foot deep in crap, plastic bags, boxes, old newspapers, and overlaid with an incredible stench. Everybody just dumped everything and anything there, including refuse from the restaurant. Men and women were using the "facilities," nonchalantly hiking up skirts or dropping pants and squatting. Since the Arabs don't use toilet paper as a rule, preferring to wash, and there were no wash facilities of any kind, I didn't hang around.

I went back and told Susan. "I'll wait" she said, and imbibed no further liquids until we got to our hotel that night.

The garbage wasn't restricted to the toilet area either, it was everywhere.

Finally, after about 45 minutes waiting, there was a little activity among the guards, so we got ready to go, ever hopeful. After 10 minutes or so, my welcoming friend suddenly pointed right at me, and waved to me to come! We jumped on and drove around the cars ahead of us, and he just waved us through to the customs buildings ahead, calling "Welcome!" and waving as we drove by. Well that's a good omen I thought. How wrong I was.

I pulled up at the gate, where we got off and were asked for passports by someone dressed in civvies. He said "Canada?"
"Open please," indicating the top box. A cursory glance inside, "What is dis?"
"Camping stuff, tent, bedding"
"Okay, dis please," indicating the right saddlebag.

Another quick poke through, and "Okay, finish!" making a horizontal wiping motion with his hands, and he waved us through the gate.

"Where to next?" I said.
He pointed to a building on the right.
"Shukran," I said.

I drove through and parked in the only clear space I could find, amidst over a hundred people standing around, waiting, a few running back and forth, and the ever-present Arabic shouting.

There were three main buildings that we could see, one in the centre of the road dividing the two lanes of the road, and one on either side of the road. All were filthy, decrepit, ancient buildings long past their useful life, rising out of a sea of discarded paper people had to wade through to get anywhere.

There was no apparent first stop, no sense of an orderly queue, just utter and complete chaos. The goal was clear - to get out of there with our passports stamped and whatever forms or stamps were required for the bike, but it's entirely up to you to figure out who you need to see and what you need to do to accomplish that goal. I grabbed somebody in uniform rushing by, asking "Where to next?"

He pointed to the centre building, "First," then right "Passport", the left, "Customs" and rushed off.


I took my carnet and our passports and all the documents I had, left Susan guarding the bike and prepared for battle. This didn't look like it was going to be easy. Passport first, okay, up to a window with a dozen or more people all trying to squeeze in at once in the normal fashion - you stick your hand holding the papers in through the press as close to the window as you can get, and eventually they will be taken from you. You then have priority rights to squeeze in a little closer, while you watch what is being done, and so does everybody else.

Passport man looks at the passports, looks at me, stamps it. Looks at Susan's, looks at me with a questioning look, "One moment" I say. "Susan!" Susan came in while I watched the bike, he stamped her passport and said "Finish! Welcome!" making the same horizontal wiping motion with his hands, obviously washing his hands of us.

"Where to next?" I ask.

He pointed to the small building in the middle of the road. Leaving Susan with the bike again, I entered. Half a dozen men were standing in front of a desk, several shouting at a man sitting behind a desk looking at somebody's papers, while the others waved their papers in his face - which he completely ignored. I joined the group, and eventually got him to look at my papers. He took the carnet, said "No no, there."

I went to the desk indicated and handed the carnet to a man, who opened it, looked at it, shouted at somebody else to come over, who looked at it, they jabbered at each other, hollered at somebody else who came over to have a look, jabbered some more, then the first one took it and started to write in it - in the wrong place. "No!" I said, putting my hand on the carnet to stop him, realizing that he didn't have a clue what it was or what to do with it.

He looked at me, and then at the second guy again, they jabbered some more, then the second guy took the carnet and indicated to me to follow. We went to the customs building, and he handed me off to somebody else sitting behind a grotty, old - but slightly tidier desk than the previous office had had.

"Aaaah, Welcome!" he said, looking at the carnet. Then proceeded in Arabic to talk to another man sitting at the side of the desk, who then said to me "You from Canada?"

"You want come to Egypt? You have automobile?"
"No, a motorcycle."
"Aaaah, motosic. Okay."

He said something to the guy behind the desk in Arabic, who proceeded to fill out a long form, with frequent references to the carnet for numbers etc.

He handed me the form, and said something in Arabic. The guy at the side of the desk said "go to Traffic, there," indicating around behind the building on the right side of the road, "Take this with motosic."

Off we went with the bike to traffic. This is even worse than the main buildings, obviously they were the new ones, this was the old original building - a low, tin roofed concrete building with 8 or so barred wicket type windows, all but one closed, and there was nobody there. I went to the open door, which seemed to be where everybody else was going, waved my paper, and was totally ignored. Eventually, after several tries, I got the attention of somebody who looked halfway important. He looked at it and waved me to somebody else. Hmmm, too important. Okay, let's try again. He looked at it, went outside, and waved a guy over in greasy filthy coveralls, and handed him the paper.

We went over to the bike, and dirty coveralls got down beside the bike, surprising me by going straight to the correct location for the frame number, and produced a small piece of paper, which he then placed over the stamped serial number, and proceeded to make a rubbing of the number with a pencil. Then around to the engine number, which on a BMW is in a very inaccessible spot down low in the front behind the hot exhaust pipe, under the cylinder and my pushrod tube oil leak, which dribbled steadily over the number, covering it in a thick, grimy paste of oil and road dirt. He looked at it, his displeasure obvious. I had a sudden great idea, and produced a couple of tissues from my pocket and handed to him. He grunted and took them, wiped off the offending dirt, and, while I leaned the bike over as far as I could to make it easier, he lay down in the filth and took a rubbing off the engine numbers. He stuck the two rubbings onto a paper form, which he then handed back to 'halfway important.' He grunted, and we filed back into the office.

"Carnet" he said, which I handed over. He then spent a lot of time copying in all the information in the carnet onto the form, including the serial numbers, carefully checking to make sure every number was exactly matching.

He wanted some money, which I dutifully gave him.

He handed me the form, said "Customs," and waved his hand out of the office. Here we go again. Maybe back to the guys across the way. They did indicate that I was to come back with something. Maybe this is it. Trot back. Closed. Everybody's at prayers. Ah yes, I did hear the mullah's wailing.

Stand around and wait with a bunch of others, all obviously not good Muslims since they're not praying.

Finally the office reopens, and we jam our way in again. I get looked after right away, but of course am sent elsewhere again. Another form, "10 pound," he says, back to the desk, he fills in the carnet - correctly! Hey, now we're getting somewhere, I think.

"Cash," he says, pointing to the cashiers wicket, and handing me a small form, while retaining the carnet. Off to the wicket, arm and paper shoved through the crowd.

"120.00 US dollars" he says.
My eyebrows go up; "Wow are you sure?"

He looks at me and hands the papers back.

Back to the desk and the guy who speaks a little English sitting beside the desk.

"What's this for? I ask. Politely, although I'm feeling pretty outraged.

"For paper," he says.
"You must pay this, is for us to do this, and to make okay."
"Okay," I sigh, I'll be back in a minute, "I need to change more money - where can I do that?"
"Over there," he says.

Off I go to change more money.

That accomplished, I return, pay the cashier and go back to the desk for the carnet.

'A little English' says to me, "Money is for insurance also. Very important!"

"Okay, Shukran." Resigned. "Next"

"Finish! Go traffic." Again, washing his hands of me.

Off I go back to traffic. More standing around, until finally I'm led off by a young guard of some kind, who says, "I show," and rubbing his fingers together and indicates himself, says something in Arabic. We go back and forth for a moment, trying to figure out how much, which is eventually solved by him taking some bills out of my hand, "Okay," he says.

He leads me around behind the traffic building, past what is obviously the local toilet area, and up to a construction site style trailer. He knocks loudly on the door and shouts something in response to the bellow from inside. The door is eventually opened and in we go. A look at the papers we have, a new piece appears, more Arabic scribbling, and "10 pound," and we're off again.

Back to the traffic office. An officer looks at it, says "wait."

More standing around. My freshly hired guide argues with him a little, looks unhappy, shrugs, we wait. He goes off, indicating to me to wait there. I visit with Susan, take a break on one of the benches.

My guide comes back, and off we go again, to another construction site style trailer, this one in front of the traffic office, and a little newer. He knocks, deferentially, quietly. A few words from inside, we wait. And wait. Eventually the door is opened on the first clean and tidy office I've seen so far, and the man inside looks fresh out of the shower, in fact is still tucking in his shirt. He looks at our papers, writes on a couple, signs with a flourish, stamp stamp, "20 pound." Of course, his office is clean.

Back to traffic, another form, "wait."

We wait, almost an hour. I get a little antsy, chase down my guide. He looks frustrated, says "Comter" or something like that. Eventually we figure out "Computer," but what that means or entails I have no idea. He talks to somebody, we go off to another, newer building. He bangs loudly on the door, shouts at somebody inside, and is clearly told to go away.

We go back to the traffic office, he indicates "wait".

Half an hour later, I'm really frustrated. I finally get a guy who speaks a little English. He gets my guide back, says something to him, and off we go to the newer building we were rejected at before. He bangs on the door, yells some more, and we are let in. We are led into a small room, and all is revealed! There is a guy sitting in front of a computer, with an HP laser-jet printer to one side. There is a "Printing...." message on the screen, and the hourglass. On the floor, are a dozen or so pairs of license plates, with forms lying on top of them. They jabber back and forth, shouting and gesticulating, my guide pointing to me, down at what I take are my license plates, at the computer and back to me. All the while, nothing is happening on the computer, just the hourglass showing. Finally, the printer spits out a small card, and the computer guy takes it and puts it in a laminator, hands it and a set of plates and a form to somebody, who goes off with it.

The computer guy smiles at me, indicates 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, sets of plates, points at me, at a 7th set of plates on the floor, back to me. Oh shit, I'm 7th and this thing takes 15 minutes or so per plate. A big grin, he picks up my form off the plates and makes a big show of putting the paper in front of him, and starts to enter my data! Yeah! We wait, and wait some more. Finally the card comes out and is laminated. He hands my guide the plate, shakes my hand and goes back to work. "Shukran," I say.

Back to traffic. They look at the card, check the numbers on the plates, the forms again, a signature. "Finish!" The usual horizontal wiping motion with the hands.

Yes! All right. Two (incredibly grungy and beat up) license plates don't work, no place to put the front one, so I put the two together and stick them underneath a bungy cord on the back of the top box. My guide isn't too impressed with the security, runs off and comes back with some bailing wire, which we use to tie the plates to each other and to the bungy cord.

We're off... to the exit gate.

"Passports." The armed guard looks at them, indicates that I am to go into the office behind him. Shit, what now, I think.

Into the office, there is a young guy in uniform behind the ubiquitous grotty old wooden desk, and three old guys, one fat one in uniform, on a bench to the side. Nowhere for me to sit, it's hot, I'm tired and frustrated, and I have to stand there while all of them take a good, long look at our passports, passing them on to the next guy in line.

While the old guys are looking at one them, another guy comes in and starts haranguing the young guy behind the desk, who still has one of the passports. The yelling gets louder quickly, and they get into a shoving match! I'm expecting a full on fist fight any second with me in the middle of it in this tiny office, afraid the passport is going to get destroyed, until the old fat guy in uniform barks at them, and they back off. Then one of the combatants laughs at something somebody says, and soon everybody is laughing at the joke, even me. Whatever it was.

Old fat guy says, "wait." Okay, I'm getting good at this, you're giving me lots of practice. One of the young guys leaves with the passports, and eventually comes back with an old guy in civvies. They all jabber a bit, then he says something to the guy behind the desk, handing him the passports. He writes something down on a form, then hands the passports to me and says, "Welcome, Finish!" making the usual horizontal wiping motion with the hands. Everybody smiles as I say "Shukran," they shake my hand, and I leave. Back on the bike, I start to go, the armed guard at the gate puts up his hand, "wait", oh no, now what, but he just looks back at the last office, gets the okay, and waves us through.

We're actually finished, in Egypt. It's 7:15. It took 5 hours. A new record. During the last hour, it was obvious we were being speeded up compared to the poor Libyans, most of whom were still there when we left. They waved good-bye to us, giving us the thumbs-up. We had prevailed!

An amazing note is that all the Libyans have to get temporary Egyptian plates when they come into Egypt, and vice versa. Think about what it would be like if every time you drove between Canada and the U.S. you had to spend several hours undergoing that process, including putting on temporary plates, and posting a bond or providing a Carnet de Passage to guarantee you didn't sell the vehicle in the country without paying customs duties! The mind boggles at the border lineups it would cause.

May 22/97 - Cairo

Well, we've landed up at the Pyramids, which are actually within the Cairo city limits and surrounded by urbanization and hotels right across the street, unfortunately. However, they're pretty impressive to see anyway. We haven't got into serious sightseeing yet, as we're sorting out transport and visas going forward.

Nine pyramids at Giza, Egypt.

Nine pyramids at Giza, Egypt

Marsa Metrouh was a pleasant interlude, and as usual we stayed rather longer than planned. We drove from Marsa Metrouh to Alexandria, then stayed overnight only before heading on to Cairo. Trying to find anything is a nightmare, and we got lost both going in and getting back out of the city. The wonderful road signs on the road from Libya were an aberration, it seems.

The traffic was making Grant pretty antsy, too. However many lanes there are officially, there are at least two more unofficial lanes of vehicles. The taxi drivers are very friendly when they're not trying to kill you, though. "Welcome to Egypt!" is a very popular refrain. Unfortunately, the drivers think we are like a moped, and can easily get out of their way. Also, they can't imagine we expect to take up an entire lane for just us, so they squeeze in on you from all sides. In Cairo we sensibly parked ourselves half an hour from the center of town at a hotel that has a free shuttle bus, and are leaving the bike here at the hotel, where the security guards have put large barriers around it so no one can mess with it. (We probably gave them too much baksheesh, but better too much than too little!)

We were in a taxi yesterday, which, along with 4 lanes of traffic, was trying to cross at a 45 degree angle, another 4 lanes of traffic. No lights, traffic police waving everybody through from all directions, when we were hit, not hard, but a definite fender bender, by a car coming the other way. Not a word was said, they just backed up, and we continued inching our way through, a lane at a time, in a giant game of chicken.

Egypt seems pretty familiar after Tunisia and Libya, I guess we're getting used to North Africa after 2 months here. Actually Egypt, once through the border looks to be pretty easy in comparison with the other two, especially as English is the second language here. As for the males in North Africa, they have a very interesting reaction to me. When in my motorcycle leathers, I seem to fall into an unknown category for them. I'm not an Arab female properly attired, but neither am I a European female (a.k.a. sex object) in shorts or short skirt. And with my short hair (very unusual) and in a leather jacket, they aren't completely sure I'm even female! (I did occasionally get referred to as Monsieur in Tunisia and as Sir in Libya!) So, the stares are curious rather than overtly flirtatious or aggressive, and I do nothing to enlighten them as to my gender!

Egypt definitely shows more U.S. influence than Tunisia or Libya. For example, along the highway between Alexandria and Cairo, we stopped at a Shell station which had a Shell Shop, and it was fantastically well-stocked with a lot of U.S. origin stuff. It was almost as if the folks in Shell headquarters said "OK, here is your standard Shell Shop stock". Whether the natives buy any of it is another matter! And, the toilets were wonderful. This was also the place where Grant became officially famous. One of the station attendants asked for his autograph. Maybe we'll use some of his excess visa pictures to give out to his fans!

We'll be in Cairo for several days to a week while we sort out our transport options for the next leg. It's not looking very promising at this point. Sudan is the problem, as we don't want to go through there and it doesn't seem possible anyway, even for the short distance to Eritrea. But, getting to Eritrea from Egypt by boat is also a problem. Today we were informed that although many boats go through the Suez Canal from everywhere to everywhere, they aren't allowed to embark or disembark passengers in Egypt. We also talked to overland companies in Britain - none go through from Egypt. The usual approach is to send the vehicles up from Kenya to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, then return via the same route.

So, we have a dilemma, and the next step may have to be to fly the bike and us to somewhere in southern Africa, either South Africa or Kenya, depending on what is possible. In the meantime, we're gathering information on the options, and that's taking some time. First they tell you it's not possible, then they give you a name and address of someone else to check with, who may or may not have a different answer. Complicating the process is that there isn't (according to the hotel) a phone directory for Cairo (with 20 million people). You're just supposed to call the operator and ask them to find the number for you (assuming you know the name of the company you want, rather than just the category, like boat transport). Talk about job security in the telephone company!

May 27/97 - Cairo

We've about given up on overlanding through Eritrea and Ethiopia to Kenya. Sudan seems to be impassable, and the last contact possibility we had for a boat to Eritrea dashed our hopes today on that score. So, most likely scenario now is us and the bike on a plane direct to Nairobi, then head south from there. We've got details and prices, and it only remains to set the date, probably June 23. We have to be back in Cairo at least 4 days ahead of that in order to get the bike ready for shipping, including paperwork, which Egypt seems to be very good at generating! So, that gives us a couple of weeks to do some diving at Sharm el Sheikh on the Sinai.

We were into the Canadian Embassy today and got the Canadian equivalent of the US State Department Advisories. The word from them is that you should only go to Luxor by plane from Cairo, not by road. The US advisory doesn't suggest this, but does mention that the upper Nile regions are a bit dodgy. Evidently there are a reasonable number of Coptic Christians in the area, and the Muslim fundamentalists are frequently clashing with them. One thing is for certain, the area will be crawling with military, as is Cairo itself. There are numerous military guards at embassies, hotels, government buildings and tourist attractions. Not sure they're very effective, though. There are metal detectors at the entrances to most hotels, for example, but even though we always set them off (cameras, Swiss army knives), they just wave us through, don't ask to look at the bags. I guess they are not expecting European / North American terrorists.

May 29/97 - Cairo

Well, our plans are now fairly firm. We got our visas for both Kenya and Tanzania today - luckily those are the only ones needed for southern Africa, as they charge like wounded bulls for them - almost $200 for the pair. They must think Canadians are rich or something! Anyway, we've also got our flight reserved for June 23, both us and the bike. We have to be back in Cairo by the 19th of June to get the bike ready for shipment. Grant has to help build a box for it, as well as the paperwork here in Cairo. If we had to, we could change dates on the flights if we needed to, but since our permits for the vehicle will be expiring and trying to renew them is problematic, to put it diplomatically, we'll try very hard to make that date.

We got all the slides processed for North Africa while we were here (41 rolls), so we're also busy culling and entering slide information, and will continue doing that when we're not diving in Sharm. But, it will be very nice to be out of Cairo - you can practically see the air in this city, and my lungs are definitely noticing it after a week.

Jun 14/97 - Sharm el Sheikh

Grant and the bike in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt.

Grant and the bike in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

After a VERY HOT drive down the west coast of the Sinai peninsula, we arrived in Sharm el Sheikh late in the day. And it was STILL HOT! This is a very hot place, 35 C in the shade when we stopped for a break around 4:00 p.m., and only down to about 27 by 10:00 p.m. Didn't think it was possible to be that much hotter than Cairo, but at least it's a very dry heat.

We had a lovely time in Sharm el Sheikh, which could be transplanted anywhere from the Caribbean to the Yucatan to southern Spain as a beach resort. Quite relaxing, though, and lovely and cool in the water. We thoroughly enjoyed the scuba diving and snorkeling. We actually saw our only shark while snorkeling not far from the hotel, a white tip reef shark, quite small (5-6 feet). Unfortunately, I think the sheer numbers of scuba divers have frightened away most of the big fish in the area - in some places there were as many as 10 dive boats each with 15+ divers on board, so there's almost as many divers as fish down there! From the boat rides up and down the coast to the dive sites we were able to observe the pace of new resort construction, which is phenomenal. There is more capacity under construction than currently exists. Either they're going to be overbuilt for the demand, or the place is going to be a zoo in a few years.

Jun 15/97 - Cairo

Well, we drove back up to Cairo today, the same way we went down, through the Sinai. The trip up the Sinai was very hot. Although about two thirds of the trip is along the Gulf of Suez, the other third goes inland, and the temperature is about 10 C hotter when you get away from the coast. We cope by driving an hour, then taking 1/2 hour break, pouring water all over our heads and down our shirts (the locals think this is hilarious, almost as funny as the fact that we're dumb enough to be driving in 45 C+ weather through the Sinai). Then we drank a litre of cold water each while resting. The 5 hours of driving thus translated into an 8 hour trip, but at least we survived!


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