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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Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Egypt, Hitch Hiking | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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