Monthly Archives: April 2016

HITCH HIKING IN EGYPT – PART I

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© Unbound Ether Photography, 2015

“Not possible,” the soldier said.

I set my bags down at the gate and faced the Egyptian soldier. “Nothing is impossible.”

“Where is your bus?”

I looked around for the cameras. Nope. This was real. “I don’t do buses.”

 

The two truck drivers that were at the gate were also scratching their heads. Again, I went through the long process of trying to explain how I travel and why. As soon as I said, “Car,” the soldier asked for papers.

“No, I don’t have a car.”

“Motorbike?”

“No I–”

“Bicycle?”

“In this heat? No, I get lifts on trucks –”

“Ah, you truck driver.”

I blinked. Do I look like a fuckin’ truck driver?

“No driving.”

“You kadari?” he pointed to his legs and walked on the spot.

Sigh. “Aiwa, kadari.”

“Impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible. Can you please let me in?”

“No key.”

This had to be a joke. The gate to the great land of Egypt was locked and the guy with the key was off on his tea break or sleeping in.

I had managed to go through the comedy that is the Sudanese border for the last two hours, walked past trucks with their drivers sitting and chatting in groups in the shade of their cabs. I greeted them in Arabic. They seemed confounded that I was walking. I’m guessing this doesn’t happen often. That everyone is either in a car, bus, truck, bike or bicycle.

After an hour’s wait, two cars showed up behind me packed with families and luggage. A short fella on the Egyptian side looking every bit the Egyptian in an Egyptian movie opened the gate.

“50 pound,” he said.

“No, I already got the visa,” I showed him on my passport.

The guy checked my visa and grinned up at me. “50 pound entry.”

What is this, a club? An amusement park?

“I don’t have 50 pounds,” I said.

“Yes, 50 pound,” he continued to grin.

I searched my pocket. I had 60 Sudanese pounds. “Can you change currency somewhere?”

“Yes,” he continued to grin, enjoying the torture. “In Sudan.”

Sigh. “You take dollars?”

“No. Egyptian pound only.”

The driver of the first vehicle had stepped out and I approached him, asking if he could change some money with me.

“What do you need?” he asked with a helpful smile.

“50 pounds.” I didn’t even know the exchange rate. “I’ve got 60 Sudanese to change.”

“Here,” he handed me an Egyptian 50 pound note. “Don’t worry about it.”

What?

This guy just offered to pay for my entry into Egypt? “Shukran! Shukran shadida!” I thanked him and gave the short fella the money. He gave me a ticket, tore the end of it and directed me to a window.

“30 pound.”

Huh? “Shu, 30 pound? I just gave you 50.”

“50 entry. 30 customs.”

I blinked. Egypt was my 20th country in three years and I had never come across such a system. I paid $20 USD for the visa in Addis and now I was also paying at the gate. But everyone was lining up to pay. My time was short as I had to beat the bus crowds otherwise I’d be stuck in a line from here to Cairo.

I approached the window.

“Do you take Sudanese pounds?”

“No. You can change dollars in the cafeteria.” He took my passport as collateral and I headed over.

“One dollar is eight pounds,” said the kid.

I handed him a $5 note. He seemed to struggle with the calculation. “Arbaim,” I said. 40. He handed me two 20s and I high-tailed it to the customs guy who gave me 10 pounds change.

I was then directed to the security check, my bags going through an X-ray machine, the first time since Singapore that my bags went through such scrutiny. I was body-searched and collected my packs.

“Where do I go?” I asked the bag man.

He pointed to an area across the tarmac. I headed over to a closed window. A bus had pulled up from the Sudanese side and people were pouring out, clambering around me and the window. A silver-headed Egyptian man lightly conversed with me.

“I am Mustafar,” he introduced himself. I saw him fill out a card and grabbed one “Don’t worry, you are first. Number one. Welcome in Egypt.”

I grinned. He was from Giza and told me how he had climbed the pyramids, sat on the top and read a book while observing all the tourists below. Another bus had pulled in and more people were clambering around the still-closed window.

I bumped into the gentleman with the striped purple shirt – Abubaker. “We meet again,” I grinned as he smiled back.

A line of about a hundred people had formed and I was number one, at least according to Mustafar. We waited by the window for about an hour. When it finally opened, the customs officer took his time to wipe down his desk, brush off his uniform, receive a glass of tea from a colleague, check that his stamp had the right date, stare at me and then take Mustafar’s passport.

Mustafar told the officer to take mine next to which the officer grinned. He did as requested and looked at my photo then at me. I was wearing my gamcha, a colourful Indian fabric I was using as a head wrap (it’s amazing how fabric can really block out the sun’s heat), sunglasses and a beard.

In my passport photo I have short hair and I’m clean-shaven.

He indicated for me to remove my wrap and sunnies. I did as commanded and smiled. He looked at the photo and then at me and then back at the photo before he grinned and stamped my visa. I breathed.

“Wait five minutes,” he said, taking the next passport, putting mine on top of Mustafar’s.

Five minutes? For what? I sat by the wall. Mustafar had disappeared but found me.

“Don’t worry, they give it back,” he assured me.

Sure enough, ten minutes later I was handed my passport.

“Welcome in Egypt!” Mustafar slapped my hand firmly.

I grinned, grabbed my packs, got his number and arranged to maybe visit him in Giza and headed off for the gate where four uniformed cops sat with Ray Ban knock-offs looking like they had stepped out of an Indiana Jones movie.

I handed over my passport.

“Where is your bus?”

Not a-fuckin’-gain. “I don’t do buses.” I went, for the seventh time that morning, through the long process of trying to explain how I travel and why. As soon as I said, “Car,” they asked for papers.

“No, I don’t have a car.”

“Motorbike?”

“No I–”

“Bicycle?”

“In this heat? No, I get lifts on trucks –”

“Ah, you truck driver.”

I blinked. Do I look like a fuckin’ truck driver?

“No driving.”

“You kadari?” The cop pointed to his legs and walked on the spot.

“Aiwa, kadari.”

“Impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible. Can I please go?”

“La wen?”

“Aswan.”

I was handed back my passport and stepped through the gate. I took five steps before I was called back.

The cop spoke fast Arabic but I picked out, “Majnun,” Crazy and, “Hamsin kilo,” which I took to meaning 50 degrees. He gestured that he would arrange a ride for me and that I sit in the shade. It was better than walking through the desert in this heat.

After an hour an officer showed up and asked the cops why I was sitting there.

“He’s crazy, wanted to walk out in this heat. It’s 50 degrees. I said I’d get him a ride,” the movie star explained.

After an hour and a half a van pulled up and I was put on it. I’m not exactly sure what the cop was telling me but I’d figure it out once I hit the highway.

And boy, did we hit it.

The speedometer on Raus’s van showed 140 K’s an hour. Luckily, the roads were smooth. But the road abruptly ended on the banks of the Nile River. Unlike in Sudan, the Nile here had absolutely no greenery around it. It was simply desert and then water.

Strange, I thought.

A barge came to dock. We drove on and I was greeted by Zakaria.

“My cousin in Aswan has hotel. He can help you,” he said after I explained how I barter. I took his cousin’s number.

“What’s his name?”

“Mohammed.”

Of course it is.

img_1780The barge began to leave the sand bank and we were already a hundred metres out when we reversed back. A bus and truck had arrived.

Ah, I looked at the truck, there’s my hitch. The bus rolled on and its passengers emptied. Mustafar and Abubaker among them. We conversed and I explained my travels and philosophy. He was quite taken by it and then Raus came up to me and said something in Arabic.

My new friend translated for me. “He said he will get you on the bus. No payment.”

I tapped my chest to show my gratitude and shook his hand. “Shukran!”

Then Zakaria demanded I bring the guitar out. He took me up to the captain’s bridge to play for him and Ahmed and Captain Zibodi while they took photos and shot video. I came back down and waited for the men to finish their prayers and played some tunes. Cameras were whipped out and I was videoed from all angles.

I even got a man on crutches to dance. The vibe on the boat was amazing. So much positive energy it was incredible. Everybody seemed to be chattering about me in Arabic. A kid even gave me an ivory carved necklace piece.

Not that I do ivory. I wasn’t sure how to take it but I couldn’t refuse. I’ll have to give it to someone on my travels.

Who just hands over ivory like that?

Finally the driver and conductor were approached by the crowd and I was given a seat on the bus.

I couldn’t believe it. The way the day had started and how everything turned out once I switched my focus to positivity. We reached the port town of Abu Simbel where the temple of Ramses II is located and rolled off the barge. As we pulled out some soldiers came on board and a shouting match happened between them and a couple seated just before the back door. I looked out the window so as not to draw attention to myself.

They grabbed the woman which got the man up and the driver and conductor had to intervene. The soldiers seemed extremely pissed off. A bit of tension was left in the air when they debarked from the bus and we drove into the town and stopped for lunch.

“Twice a year the sun comes in at just the right angle,” Yasser, a local restaurant manager was telling me about the Ramses temple. “We have a big festival here twice a year. People from all over the world come for it.”

It was a UNESCO heritage site on the banks of Lake Nasser, the world’s largest artificial lake. Created when the Egyptians built a dam back in 1954, the world had united in coming together, thousands of archaeologists, architects, engineers and labourers had worked day and night, from 1959 to 1980, to move and relocate 22 monuments between Aswan and Khartoum to save them from the rising waters created by the high dam.

“Twice a year, on October 22 and February 22 the sun comes in and lights the temple at a very precise angle,” Yasser continued to explain.

It used to be on the 21st of each month but after they moved the monuments it had changed.

As we conversed Abubaker joined us. “We’d like you to join us for lunch,” he pointed at a table covered with fried tilapia (fish from the Nile), rice and salad.

“I’d be honoured,” I said gratefully. “What happened back there on the bus?”

“They said the woman took photos of the military post,” he explained.

One way to piss off soldiers in a country that is ruled by the military is to do just that.

After lunch, I chatted a bit more with Yasser before we got back on the road. “You must come and see the temple,” he said.

“I gotta leave something for next time,” I waved.

The ride to Aswan took about three hours. I was seated in the middle of the back bench and could see the entire bus. It was like a school camp trip. Everybody was singing, clapping, laughing. A Sudanese comedy program was on and I enjoyed the slapstick of it.

Towards our approach to Aswan, Abubaker came and sat with me. We talked about how Western values had become materialistic, how capitalism was disconnecting us.

“I used to live in the UK but life there is so stressful,” he said. “I came back to Sudan to be more free.”

Now that’s saying something.

“In the West people are lead to believe that they need to consume more stuff,” I pointed out my observations of the last three years. “That they need a big house, a fancy car and high walls to protect themselves. No one knows who their neighbours are. In Sudan I noticed that the doors are always open.”

We talked for almost an hour about the obvious truth. “Only a handful of people control the world,” I said. “We are 7.4 billion. We need to start a revolution, take back the power so we can live freely.”

We arrived at the bus terminal in Aswan where I called Mohammed, Zakaria’s cousin.

“I’ll come get you in my car,” he said.

I waited with Abubaker and the man with the crutches who I had gotten to dance and air-guitar on his support and his family. He suffered from a kidney issue and had come to Egypt for medical treatment.

“I will take a holiday in Alexandria for a month,” he grinned.

He was such a joyful bubble of life and contagious about it. He had his whole family with him, three kids, the wife, the wife’s sister. We were taking photos while talking about the Sufi as he was from Omdurman, where I had been staying.

“You know, it’s amazing,” I said. “I never thought of Islam as a happy religion. The West always portrays it as such a closed off, evil thing but everybody is so open, so welcoming. Although, I’ve been to Indonesia and Malaysia and they were a bit more closed off.”

“We have a saying here,” the crutched man said, “Bin hibele haya – I love life.” He was grinning. “We are African Muslims. Africans love to laugh, to sing, to be happy. We love life.”

He wasn’t wrong. I’d been in Africa over two years now and I’d never come across a happier people. Peaceful, respectful, open, warm and welcoming. Africa is amazing and I’ll be sad to leave it in 19 days.

I had started the day ready to throw my bags down. And now, reflecting on the last 14 hours, I couldn’t stop grinning.

“Welcome in Egypt,” echoed Mustafar’s voice.

Indeed, welcome in Egypt.

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HITCH HIKING IN SUDAN – PART VI – THE FINALE

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© Unbound Ether Photography, 2015

“Inshallah we help you,” Assad kept repeating in the morning when I arrived early to what was now a bus-filled, people-crowded terminal.

Mohammed was nowhere in sight and my predictions of his unwantingness to help turned out to be right. When Mazin appeared I asked him to translate to Assad that if he can’t assist with a ticket, could I please get a lift to the border.

But the kid struggled to understand the word ‘border’ and in the end I thanked him, grabbed my packs and stormed off into the desert.

I was pissed off. My packs were heavy, I was drenched in sweat and there wasn’t a single car on the road. I asked directions for the border not knowing how far it was and began to hike. I stopped for some water stored and cooled in clay pots and continued on. I must have hiked 4 Ks in sweltering heat before the police pick-up picked me up.

“Mas’ir?” I asked. Egypt?

“Tfa’del,” grinned the officer. Please.

I hopped in the tray thankful for the wind that dried my shirt within five minutes. The ride was almost an hour through the desert.

Jesus, they really know how to put a border out in the middle of nowhere.

The Goustol border crossing between Sudan and Egypt was one of the most complex borders I’ve ever crossed. Every border I’d been through I’d get stamped out of one country, stamped into the next and off I went. A matter of half an hour.

But here?

Oh here is where the fun begins.

“Salam al-yekum,” I cheerfully greeted an officer. “Where do I get stamped?”

He directed me to a window. I placed my gear down and whipped out my passport. Sudan is the first country out of the 19 I’ve been too in the last three years that I’ve had to walk around with my passport on me at all times. It’s quite annoying but I’d grown accustomed to it after 11 days in the desert nation.

At the window I greeted the officers in the caravan office and waved my passport. The officer pointed to the next window.

At the window was a photocopy machine. A voice behind me spoke up. “Where are you going?”

I turned around to the tall Sudanese in a striped purple shirt. “Mas’ir.”

“Go through there,” he pointed at the door in perfect English. “You are not Sudanese. You don’t have to pay an exit fee.”

An exit fee? Mo was right. I mean, I wouldn’t have to pay an exit fee but the locals did.

I was directed into a large hall packed with people and luggage strewn all over the tiled floors, Arabic thrown around at every volume. It was as though chaos was leaning against the wall, watching it’s handy work unfold.

I was taken to a counter where I filled out an exit card. The tall striped purple shirt gentlemen appeared again, like some guardian angel. He translated some of the Arabic the customs folk were throwing at me. I was then directed to another counter where another card was filled out for me and my passport was finally stamped. I then headed to the door when an officer blocked my way.

“Where you go?”

“Mas’ir.” I think it’s pretty obvious if I was heading in that direction.

“Where is your bus ticket?”

Bus ticket? “I don’t do buses.”

As I began the long process of trying to explain how I travel, the officer simply blinked with a blank look on his face. As soon as I said, “Car,” he asked for papers.

“No, I don’t have a car.”

“Motorbike?”

“No I–”

“Bicycle?”

“In this heat? No, I get lifts on trucks –”

“Ah, you truck driver.”

I blinked. Do I look like a fuckin’ truck driver?

“No driving.”

“You kadari?” The officer, with raised eyebrows, pointed to his legs and walked on the spot.

Sure. “Aiwa, kadari.”

“Impossible.”

Sigh. “Nothing is impossible. Can I please get to Egypt?”

“Go over there. Check luggage.”

I looked over where a hundred people where shoving their luggage forcefully onto the counter where one, single, sunglass-wearing customs official walked up and down, grinning like Pablo Escobar, feeling bags and placing little blue stickers on them.

I turned to the officer that was seated on the beach. According to his shoulders, he seemed to have some sort of rank. “One guy?” I said. “Wahad?”

He shrugged.

I shook my head in disbelief. This had to be some sort of movie. I moved in, trying to be polite when a guy cut in front of me.

Sonofa –

Seeing how all pleasantries went out the window I followed suit and shoved his bags aside. “There’s a line, habibi,” I said without smiling and pushed in. Everyone who had luggage on the counter had their bags open. I’ll be an elephant’s testicle if I’m about to unpack my gear. I opened my small pack. The officer came by and felt up my guitar case.

“Oud?”

“Guitar.”

He touched my large pack. “Clothes,” I indicated my T-shirt.

He almost touched my small pack (watch it) before placing the tiny blue stickers on each bag. Breathing a sigh of relief I then headed for the door.

“Go there,” an officer pointed to a small office. “Search.”

“I was just searched.”

He touched his pants pockets. “Search.”

Ah, body search. I headed over and was searched with the lightest of touches on my pockets. I could smuggle an elephant across this border if this was the level of security. I got a tiny blue sticker on my passport and finally – I think – made it to the door.

“Thank you visit Sudan,” said the officer at the door I had tried to go through three times.

I grinned.

I stepped into the baking sun and saw a couple of buses parked and as I looked around a bit lost, the same officer from the first window came to me.

“Where is your bus ticket?”

Blink.

Did we not just go through this? I repeated my mime. He called over another officer.

“Bus ticket?”

Was this some sort of Just For Gags special?

I repeated the mime and even though he didn’t seem too convinced he made a few calls to get an officer to unlock the gate for me.

“Shukran,” I said. “Sudan kiff tam’am.” Sudan is great.

I was sad to leave this desert land. Yes, it was unbearably hot and I had almost broken down this morning but my good friend, The Universe, as usual, had crossed my path with the right people.

Even if they struggled to understand my concept.

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HITCH HIKING IN SUDAN – PART V

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© Unbound Ether Photography, 2015

“La wen?” asked the just-arrived officer in plainclothes.

“Wadi Halfa,” I said and for the 15th time that day explained my travel ways.

“You eat?”

“No.”

He turned to the woman that was running the roadside shack restaurant where I was hiding from the oven conditions of the sun and ordered me a plate of ful (fava beans) followed by some tea. This was the shift I needed in the energy that had gone from positive to the edges of negativity. The day had started great, as most do with me. Ahmed had showed up around nine and took me to the highway, dropping me off at the police checkpoint.

It was here that I’d break my record for the longest wait in the three years I’d been on the road (and a sea and ocean crossing). Standing in the 45-degree heat of desert sun for the next five hours, having tea and breakfast with the police who struggled to find me a ride to Wadi Halfa.

Not a single vehicle had stopped for me. Not even to ask me where I was going. Not even the buses.

When I saw two trucks on the horizon I was joyful, knowing they had to be heading to Wadi Halfa. But eight buses suddenly appeared – full-sized coaches – and parked for a police check right in my hitching area – right as the trucks went by.

Merde.

The buses pulled out after an hour, my fourth, and I knew that I needed a shift if I was going to get out of this desert. That’s when the new officer arrived, fed me and decided it was time for me to reach my destination. I felt renewed and as I was sipping the tea I saw the trucks.

And no buses to block my way.

I shot the hot tea, almost burning my throat, handed the glass back to the lady, thanked her and hurried to the road just as the officer stopped a truck. He waved me over, indicating to bring my stuff.

Finally!

I hopped on, thanked the officer and off I went to Wadi Halfa with an Egyptian trucker who didn’t speak a word of English and was enjoying what sounded like some imam quoting phrases from the Quran over the radio.

After almost four hours of driving we stopped for dinner in the middle of nowhere, eating some overcooked chicken and bread and then sipping tea. The driver brought out a waterpipe (houka) and smoked some tobacco through it before we continued on into the night.

We arrived late at the police checkpoint of Wadi Halfa where I hopped off. A cop sleeping on a bed outside stirred awake and tried to intimidate me to go to town for a hotel.

“No sleep here,” he said angrily.

I smiled and said, “Ah-huh. Lemme go talk to your chief.” Asshole.

The chief was more than delighted to provide me with a place to sleep. He called over an officer who had a twitch and he took me to where the water jugs were. He pointed to the matted area. It looked like a praying spot and the Quran books proved my detection to be correct. I took my sandals off before stepping in and was about to unpack my bedding when another officer showed up.

“Muslim?” he asked.

“No.”

“Then cannot sleep here.” He pointed to where a tuk-tuk and motorbike were parked. “Sleep there.”

I moved and rolled out a mat that was on the wall and shut my eyes. At about three in the morning I was stirred awake by what sounded like a large, stadium sized speaker in distortion.

In my ear.

I quickly realised what it was.

Back in Oz, as I was driving through the Kakadu National Park in the Northern territory in the second month of my nomadic travels, I pitched a tent by Jim’s billabong (a billabong is a watering hole. May or may not contain crocodiles). As the sun had set, I was swamped by mosquitos. The noise was deafening and I thought that they would collectively carry my tent off with me huddled inside.

I covered my face with my gamcha and could do nothing but wait it out.

At 04:30 about six buses pulled over and the passengers spilled out. All the men headed over to where I was supposed to initially sleep.

And began to pray.

But then some women came and hung around me.

“They want to pray,” said a passing police officer.

And I was on their mat.

I got and packed up my gear and the police provided me a free ride on a tuk-tuk – to the bus station.

For fuck’s sake.

The tuk-tuk driver was overly eager to get me to the station and when we almost flipped I almost slapped the guy.

“Shwaeh-shawaeh, ah?” I said angrily.

I didn’t just survive five hours of desert sun and a night of mosquitoes to be taken out by an overeager tuk-tuk driver. He calmed down and plumped me at the station where I managed to call Mo from Hassan, an Ethiopian with a juice bar. Mo explained to the guy who didn’t seem like he was too keen to even direct me in the right direction until his friend showed up.

“Come,” I was escorted to the bus ticketing office where I again called Mo and he translated for the bus guy my concept.

“So he says because it’s Friday the borders are closed,” he explained as I took back the phone. “But he’ll try to help you with a ticket tomorrow at seven.”

The guy, Mohammed, didn’t seem too keen to help.

“He’s afraid that you’ll have trouble at the border because you have to pay to leave the country.”

What? “Pay to leave the country?” That’s a first. “Tell him not to worry. I’ll be fine.”

Mo translated. Mohammed didn’t seem convinced and I asked if I could hang out in the shade for the day.

“Aiwa.”

Towards the afternoon prayers I found myself surrounded by Egyptian bus drivers. I chatted some Arabic with them and then a kid asked me to play music. As soon as I strummed Folsom Prison Blues five cameras were whipped out and I was videoed from all angles.

One stall had a speaker I could plug Ol’ Red into and so I fired her up and echoed around the empty terminal, the mosque intimidatingly just across the way. But I managed to time it right and unplugged the guitar just before the afternoon prayers. I packed her away and by the evening met Mazin, a young 20-year-old kid who spoke English.

“Where are you sleeping?” he asked. “Have you eaten?”

“Groosh mafi,” I grinned. “And I don’t know where I’ll sleep. Maybe here,” I pointed to the bed he was using as a bench.

In three years of travel I’ve never once worried where my head will lay. I know that if Ol’ Red didn’t help provide something then the energy I was very observant of projecting would help guide me to a safe bed.

He blinked. “Wait,” he said and disappeared.

He returned about an hour later and told me to follow him. Straight into a restaurant. He fed me grilled chicken with rice and a bottle of Sprite and then told me to grab my bags.

“I’ll organise a bed for you.”

I couldn’t believe it. I’d been waiting the whole day for some sort of sign from the Universe that things were heading in the right direction and it presented itself in the form of this generous kid on his way to Khartoum.

What a legend.

He got me a bed in a hallway of an over-packed hotel. I showered and hit the sack. I didn’t have an alarm but knew that the five o’clock call to prayer would wake me.

The hotel was packed with men and to my surprise, not a single one snored.

What a fuckin’ day.

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