Egypt III - The final nightmare
Mediterranean vibes in Alexandria
I'm back, again...
Mediterranean vibes in Alexandria
...which brings us back to the beach in Dahab on the Red Sea coastline of the Sinai peninsula. Getting to and from Sinai by public transportation seems to be something most Egyptians don't do that much so our choice of route and time was pretty limited. At that, the prices for the buses to/from the Sinai are also markedly more expensive than the buses plying the western oases route. In all, it took us a gruelling 14 hours to get from Dahab, change in Suez and then to Alexandria, so despite our intentions to start early (07.00) we found ourselves arriving in a new city late in the evening. To add insult to injury we were dropped off in some god forsaken part of town which our [appaulingly substandard] guidebook had failed to mention. (The authors of our guidebook seem to be taking it for granted that anyone travelling through Egypt has their own car or goes by taxi... thus, public transportation is *poorly* covered.)
It took us forty-five minutes over late dinner at the KFC and some asking around until we found out we were close to the Sidi Gaber train station, ten minutes east of the city centre. So, a short train ride in to town and we were set to start looking for a cheap hotel at 22.30 on a Saturday night. After some walking without seeing more than one hotel (full) we finally hit the jackpot down at the central part of the corniche. The place we checked out offered us to use a two bedroom suite with salon & bathroom inside for the same price as a double. At eleven o'clock at night after 16 hours on the move, such an offer is hard to refuse!
We spent the entire following week in Alexandria, enjoying our cheap apartment and the more mediterranean atmosphere of Alexandria (although it felt busier than Cairo!). Our initial plans were to as quick as possible arrange for our departure from Egypt, preferrably by boat, and then go on to spend some days in the Siwa oasis of which we've heard so many superlatives being spoken. Unfortunately, due to the vagueness of the information on ships to/from Egypt we felt we had to remain in Alexandria the entire week while hunting around for our ticket (details below). Hence, we missed Siwa this time and will have to see it some other time. Perhaps as a short sidestep on a tour through Libya... only time will tell!
Now, apart from our ticket woes (details below), Alexandria was far from the worst place in Egypt to 'get stuck'. We felt far more relaxed walking around in the streets and got less harassment from the locals than in most places. There were also far fewer tourists than we'd expected but then most people go to Egypt to see the pyramids at Giza and the temples of Luxor so that might be expected after all. Our sight seeing in Alexandria extended only to walks along the corniche, a brief walk around the newly built library (which looked very much like some charter resort hotels I've seen except for the decorative alphabet soup on its facade) and an afternoon in the Royal Jewellery Museum.
The latter was quite interesting, despite its name, as it was located in a quite wealthy looking area some 45 minutes by tram, east of the city centre. The tram ride itself was made quite bearable, despite throngs of people, by some young local girls 'harassing' us. Foreigners with long hair seemed to be an interesting subject to them but they were too shy to speak to us directly so for 30 minutes or so they were, as much as we could pick up, discussing where we were from and whatever else... After some time one of the other passengers hushed the girls a little, probably warning them that we might actually understand what they were talking about but they continued more or less in the same manner until it was time for us to get off. As we were helped finding the right stop by the very same man who hushed the girls we thanked him - in arabic - by saying 'Shokoran' (thank you). The face of one of the girls took on a deep red colour and she then asked if we spoke arabic. Our answer was a vague 'shuey' (a little) as we jumped off the tram, leaving them wondering how much we'd understood...The jewellery museum was housed in an old palace style building which was as much fun to look at as the exhibits themselves (which, at times, were rather dull). The walls and ceilings in each room were decorated (rather unskilfully, but still) with biblical, mythological, royal and other scenes which didn't really seem to convey any coherent theme or so. Interesting it was, though. The jewells on display were all collected from various royal, historical and otherwise famous Egyptians and the extent of the collection left us wondering whether the royals of today have any jewellery left to wear or if they've come to their senses realizing they really don't need any...
Apart from these small excursions we also spent a fair amount of money and time exploring the local coffee- & pastry shops which all where of excellent quality - and charging for it. Food was also high on quality but we were still missing our favourite place, El Tabei, in Cairo a little too fully enjoy that part of Alex. But, as I said earlier, a large proportion of our time and energy was taken up by trying to arrange a ship ticket from Alexandria to *somewhere else*.
Ferry ticket woes in Alexandria
Since arranging ferry tickets were our #1 reason for going to Alexandria in the first place (going to Siwa was #2) we set about asking around immediately on the first day in town (a Sunday, which is fine for dealing with companies that are run by the muslims who all have their sabbat on Fridays). This all turned out to be a nightmare, no less, so if you're easily stressed - stop reading HERE.
Still with me? Ok, here goes. First stop was of course the tourist information (conveniently located in the same building as our hotel). They didn't really think there were any boats running but the only company in town that would know would be 'Nasco Tours'. So we set of for Nasco Tours. At first, we didn't find it so we asked in another agency which immediately stated that 'there are no boats anywhere from Egypt, you have to fly'. Hohum.
We found Nasco Tours shortly thereafter (just about a block from our hotel) and were rather happy to see that the acronym was short for 'North African Shipping Company' and that their office was plastered with posters showing cruise liners, ferries and other sea related items. Unfortunately, we were informed, there were no boats at all at present since they don't run during the low season. The first boat was set to depart in early April but until then there was nothing to be had. We then asked Nasco Tours (in Alexandria, remember this) if they knew of any boats that might leave from Port Said. The answer was the same - 'no boats until April, sorry'!
[Remember now that the purpose of our trip is to travel to India from Europe by surface transport - flying is not an option.]
Rather stricken down we then went for a long walk west along the corniche while discussing the options we had. Getting the bus back through Jordan and Syria felt a bit pointless since doubling back is not something we like doing so we considered that to be our last resort. Another possibility would be to get a ship to Lebanon and from there get another boat to Turkey. The likeliness of finding a passenger boat to Lebanon was however just as remote as getting one to Cyprus.
Alas, we decided to walk over to the main port of Alexandria to ask at the port authority if they'd know of any ships departing (first rule; don't ever trust a travel agent) and if not, if it would be possible to get on a cargo ship. Before we got to the port authority we happened to lay our eyes on a big sign belonging to one of the numerous cargo shipping companies around the port area. This sign looked quite professional and the building well tended so we decided to take a shot by stepping inside asking them directly - bypassing the port authority. The receptionist of 'Star Shipping Corporation' looked a bit puzzled as we stepped into the empty office but motioned us to sit down and wait. After about ten minutes a man came and asked us how he could help us. We briefly explained our situation and our thoughts about getting on a freight boat to him and got the expected reply that his office only dealt with cargo and nothing else. However, being the chairman and acting manager of the company (of some hundred employees) he offered to help us out by calling some friends at the port authority and in Port Said.
While he was doing this we were both offered something to drink and felt rather out of place but thankful that someone would want to help us out. His friend in Port Said later called back and told that there indeed was a ship sailing on Wednesday next week but he couldn't give us more details as the shipping office was closed on Sundays so please come back tomorrow and we might be able to get you some tickets. With this knowledge we walked away happily discussing whether to take this chance or try to go to Siwa once we had more information on the subject.
As we returned to the office next day it was far busier than on the Sunday. We were shown into the boss' office and served 'German coffee' while we were waiting for his friend to call back with the much coveted information. After about an hour or so - feeling rather embarassed about taking the time of this apparently very busy man - his friend finally called back. This time we got to know that the first boat of the season would be sailing next Sunday, not Wednesday, and that prices therefor would not be known until Wednesday afternoon. So if we could please come back then... Leaving the office this day we felt a bit disappointed and confused as to whether we should now count on getting the ticket for Sunday and spend some days in Siwa before heading straight to Port Said. We decided to stay in town until the ticket matter was settled - with the help we were getting from our friend at the shipping company we'd be stupid to mess it up now.
Returning on Wednesday afternoon we are informed that our friend is not there at the moment but after about 30 minutes wait the guy from Port Said calls and I get to speak to him myself. Unfortunately the prices are still not set but on Sunday afternoon, as the ship will sail, the prices will definately be known. I get the telephone number of the guy in Port Said and he tells me to call him first thing as we arrive in Port Said and he will then help us out with the tickets. So we have now wasted some three days and still are no wiser! We now decide to make sure we get to Port Said on Friday to have some days to sort out the details in case something else pops up.
Ferry ticket woes in Port Said
Said and done. We catch the afternoon bus to Port Said and arrive in some god forsaken part of town that we absolutely can not locate on our map (stinkin' guidebook for not detailing transportation better). We soon find ourselves walking around in a quite strange area of town. The first hotel we find is rather grotty but for two nights it'll do so we check in... not... the hotel owner won't let us stay in a double unless we can prove we're married! That's a first on our whole trip and in secular Egypt we wouldn't have expected it at all! Next place is even weirder and the giggles from the guys sitting around in the reception when we check out the rooms (no water - and dirty) gives us the impression that this is the kind of place where you ask for hourly rates! Move along... and check into a rather dirty but OK place two blocks away.
First thing next morning we call our friend on his cell phone. He instructs us to be at our hotel in an hour or so and he'll call back with the details from the ticket office. Sounds good to us but we've been in Egypt for too long to just believe that anything can be that simple. We set out to double check some details ourselves, just in case. We take a short walk to the port authority where we're not let in. Instead, we're told, we should take to a shipping agent who'll then be willing to endorse our trip on a cargo ship and *then* we'll be let in to finalize our papers if we want to leave by boat. Aha! This is what's going on with our friend here in Port Said, we gather, and return to our hotel in good time for his phone call...
...only he doesn't call! For two hours we wait in the lobby in case he's just late. After that time we figure we'd better do something constructive instead of losing time so we decide to call our friend again. As we call him again - from the phone office at the corniche since the hotel phone was locked for outgoing calls... *sigh* - his colleague answers his phone and informs us he's in a meeting for another 30 minutes but if we could just get back to the hotel he'll call back in another 45 minutes. Hohum... we now start wondering if this is some kind of scam but decide that can't be the case since *we* walked into a cargo shipping office by chance. Too far fetched.
Back to the hotel, this time waiting in the room after telling the guy downstairs that we're expecting a phone call. Another 1½ hour passes without any phone calls so we decide to go down and call again. Downstairs we find another guy, not the guy we spoke to, and of course our friend has called several times but the receptionist didn't know we were in! Aaaaargh! Rush out to find a card phone (the hotel phone is still locked since grand dad has the key and doesn't trust his sons with it, or some such). I finally get hold of our friend again and explain the mistake at our hotel. Our friend now tells us he'll call us back in another ten minutes but now I'm getting impatient and ask him where exactly *he* is calling for info on the boats: 'Nasco Tours Office'! Well in that case we might as well check it out ourselves but we decide to sit down and wait once again.
Fifteen minutes later the phone rings again. It's the secretary of our friend who informs us that our friend is now sending out one of his staff to pick us up in 45 minutes to bring us to the Nasco Tours office. We say thank you and wait a little longer while Bettina calls Nasco Tours on the phone to double check (in case it's a scam). Bettina returns (from the phone office, damn telephone lock!) with the info that ships will sail on Sunday & Tuesday, only cabin tickets available but prices will not be known until 14.00 tomorrow so please come back then. As the guy from our friends office doesn't seem to be showing up we decide to call him and tell him that he doesn't have to bother - we'll go down to Nasco ourselves since we now know where it is. As I call the guy he sounds very stressed at my suggestion and insists that he come and pick us up since otherwise 'his boss will be angry at him'. OK, fair, if that's how it works we'll wait for another ten minutes for him. After 25 minutes of further waiting we decide to leave on our own since we're now rather hungry, instructing our hotel guy to tell our friend - if he shows up - that we waited but couldn't wait forever. As we later return that night we're told that our friend eventually *called* but that our hotel friend told him 'time is time' whereafter the other guy hung up abruptly!
Last day in Egypt - all hell breaks loose
As we check out of our hotel just before noon our hopes are not too high for actually getting a ticket but if we can't we'll just head for Jordan again. Guess if we feel relieved as the first thing we see at the far end of the street is a huge cruise liner at bay in the harbour! We half *fly* down the street and see that there actually are *two* passenger boats in the harbour today; the 'Salamis Star' and the 'Princessa Marissa'. Both are registered in Limassol, Cyprus, so this definately looks promising!
With close to a full two hours before the 14.00 o'clock time Nasco gave us we decide to enjoy this our last day in Egypt by walking along the corniche for an hour or so. Just as we set out we are approached by another backpacker - the first one we see for some time - who also is trying to get the hell out of Egypt by boat but have had as little success as we. We can tell by his eyes and facial expression that he's as weary and battle scarred as we are - but we're two and he's alone! Hard!
As we walk up along the harbour part of the corniche we immediately pick up two young local men who follow us at a distance while trying to get sneak pictures of Bettina. They don't harass us - a welcome change - but if they want pictures they could at least ask instead of stalking us. Therefor we walk quite fast up to the part of the corniche that runs along the mediterranean sea before stopping abruptly (despite the ugly smell at the beach) to let them pass us by. This manouvre succeeds and we find ourselves strolling along a very ugly beach lined with egyptian style beach cottages (concrete garage style). Bettina picks some shells and we then decide it's time to return back to the harbour to be sure we don't miss our appointment at Nasco Tours.
Just after we've started walking back along the corniche I happen to lay my eyes on a guy that was previously sitting on a bench overlooking the beach. He is now standing, half hidden behind a concrete stairway, showing his pride and joy to us while tugging lightly at it. He probably thinks we're two nice looking foreign chicks that'll be duly impressed by this and take him for a ride... Well, we do... kind of... At first we just pass the guy laughing at how pathetic he is but then, something clicks when we realize just how much harassing and shit we've had to put up with in Egypt. We decide that we'll not just pass him by but give him something to think of. So I turn back and quickly walk towards the guy who is still looking as happy as ever while tugging away. It's not until I'm about five metres away or so that he realizes his mistake and zip up but by that time I'm already in his face asking him what the f**k he thinks he's doing. He smiles sheepishly and try to just wave me off like 'sorry, sorry' but I've now got so much of Egypt to get out of my system that I give him half a kick in the groin.
The guy now starts running (understandably) but I run after almost catching him but stumble in the sand. I brush off and get back on the corniche and continue to walk back towards town decided that maybe it wasn't meant to be. The stupid idiot of a flasher doesn't seem to take too seriously to the whole matter though as we can see him just half walking/jogging slowly down the beach while gloating in our direction. I'm not having none of that and jump down on the beach again and start chasing him again. *Almost* (again) get him but I'm just not fast enough. By now being firmly decided to get this idiot I decide to escalate the whole thing to DEFCON 1; I cry "POLICE". This gets the attention of a young guy out jogging at the beach and he immediately gets hold of the guy and grabs him firmly by the collar. My friend the jogger doesn't speak english but as I - by rather obvious body language - explain what's happened the jogger looks like he's about to kill the now *very* pale flasher. He beats him repeatedly with his fist and as he drags him up on the corniche he even bends down to pick up a big stone! He stops at using his fists though but gives the guy quite a few good bruises as the flasher tries to talk his way out of the situation (which just makes the jogger even more violent). Shortly thereafter a pickup with some civilian police officers show up and throws the flasher in the back while asking us if we'd care to come with them for a statement.
Of course we will! We're almost exstatic at having finally gotten back at one of those FUCKING IDIOTS that seem to proliferate throughout Egypt. [Excuse my language but our mental health after ten weeks in Egypt were really that bad and there's still some scares to be healed, those who know me will know that it takes *a lot* to provoke me even to using harsh language but Egypt... worst so far, by far!] So, we get downtown with the police and watch them push the now shaking, pale and sweating flasher into the locker. We get to sit down in an office, show our passports, tell (extremely briefly) what happened and have a cup of tea while exchanging pleasantries. The whole procedure takes about 15 minutes and we are assured that they will now arrest the guy (who they say is a Burkina Faso citizen living in town permanently). We don't really care whether they arrest the guy or not, flashing your genitals around in public is hardly something that shocks a Swede (just visit a Swedish beach if you want nudity) but just to make sure that this particular guy (as a representative for all the idiots we encountered in Egypt) gets a hell of a scare. The last we saw of him he was still standing behind a glass window looking quite miserable as the police officers were laughing their asses off. My guess is that this guy will have to get a good stock of Viagra before any future escapades in be... sorry, on the beach, can take place!
Last day in Egypt - ticket woes continues
After this little intermission we were both pretty pumped up, tired, excited and would've needed a long break but we still had our date at the Nasco Tours office at 14.00 to finally get our tickets. So, straight from the police station over to the corniche and into the Nasco tours office. It turns out they're about as helpful as their branch in Alexandria - they *still* don't have any prices and can't even offer us tickets but the guy Bettina spoke to on the phone yesterday tells us to go to to 'Aswan Shipping Co', located on the 5th floor in the building next door. *sigh*
We get next door where the security guard at the reception looks like one of those huge question marks in the cartoons. Instead, he calls out another guy to help us and this man explains to us that, well, Aswan shipping moved to somewhere else. We step outside to look; the entire building from the 3rd floor and up is completely burnt out! How could anyone at Nasco Tours in the building 20 metres up the street have missed that? Incredible! Our friend in the former Aswan shipping building is very helpful though and provides us with a guide to find their new location (we would never have found it otherwise). The guys in the Aswan office asks us what we want and, upon hearing our wish to get on one of the nice little passenger boats in the harbour before hell freezes over, calls up a 'Mr. Mohammed Said' who they say is the one to speak to in such matters. As I speak to Mr. Said on the phone it is clear that this is the guy we should've found earlier; he knows prices and how many passengers are on each boat and even departures etc. Only one problem - we're now too late! Before ten o'clock this morning would've been OK but not after 14.30, five hours before to departure. I tell him about Nasco and their '14.00' bullshit but there's no helping it. Tuesday is the best he can do for us!
Leaving the Aswan Shipping office we're both hopping mad and head straight over to Nasco to ask them what kind of an operation they're running. Naturally the first guy is not there anymore but at least we find some other poor sod to yell at. He starts defending himself that he's just the cargo guy, not the passenger guy, but after some more head bashing (not literally) he agrees to try to help us out as good as he can. The only problem is that we're too late - Tuesday is the best he can do since, according to him, the tickets are printed and issued at the Nasco office in - hold your breaths - ALEXANDRIA! Now we practically explode on the guy and tell him he's most likely lieing since the Alexandria office told us just a week ago that they didn't even know of any boats until April! He gets pissed by our attitude but agrees that Nasco (not him personally) may have to take some blame for our predicament. He agrees to try to talk to the head purser on the Salamis Star (the Princessa Marissa is full) later tonight (first he tries Tuesday but we refuse) so that he might let us get a ticket on the boat. Knowing we won't get anything better we leave, highly irritated.
Just outside though Bettina gets the idea to try to get hold of the head purser ourselves. We step down to the customs gate at the ship and try to tell the grunts there that we want to get on the boat for a while to talk to the head purser. Not a chance - first we have to get to the immigration office for a stamp in our passport and maybe get hold of someone with a walkie-talkie who can get the purser for us. Said and done. We're now running on pure adrenalin far, far beyond our limits but we get to the immigration and get show in to the officer on duty. This guy immediately gives a relaxed feeling as he concurrently answers the phone, talks in the walkie, gives orders and listens to my four sentence summary without any perceivable effort. He nods knowingly about the run-around we've been given and calls out on the walkie. After a short while he tells us to come back at 17.00 since the purser is not availible at the moment. Bettina has the prescense of mind to ask if that is "with or without backpacks". The answer, "with", feels gooood!
This leaves us just over an hour and a half to get some lunch, buy provisions for the [possible] sea journey, pick up our packs and for a short visit to church for a short, short breather (turns out to be 2 minutes...). We actually manage all that plus a phone call to germany to get rid of our phone card from yesterdays phone mess before returning to the immigration office at 17.00 sharp. Only to find that the officer we spoke to is no longer there and the new one doesn't seem very sympathetic at all while listening to our story. He grabs our passports though and calls out on the walkie but nothing more seems to happen - until they bang a 'DEPARTED' stamp in our passports! And we don't even have a sure ticket yet... more shit to come is how we feel!
At 17.30 it is time for us to leave. An officer who's been doing some paperwork pertaining to the Salamis Star escorts us all the way to and *on* the ship while bypassing every single customs & passport check there is! This guy is obviously of high rank since even the deck boy on the landing straightens up as he passes by! On board the ship the head purser is nowhere to be seen but the second purser is highly unsympathetic and just yells "I know nothing!". We're, once again, told to sit down and wait for a while. This time in the restaurant/bar where we sit for half an hour watching the strange looking cruise guests arriving from their ONE-DAY trip to Cairo. As we're finally told to get back downstairs again we get to meet the head purser; a young greek-looking guy who hears us out and says: "Hmmm... I think I issued a ticket this morning. How much did I charge now...". YES! We get a ticket! Brutally expensive by our standards but by now we're so fed up with this country that we'll pay anything. And besides, we get cabin tickets cheaper than we expected to get deck chairs (according to the prices of Mr. Mohammed Said).
I get to be the last one of us that walk Egyptian ground for this trip (forever, probably) as I get permission from the immigration guy to run (yes, RUN) ashore to try to get rid of my last Egyptian £400. Turns out to be close to impossible as it is now 18.20 and Sunday night - nothing's open except a souvenir shop where a guy gives me a shit rate (to be expected, even at the xchg office) for changing to dollars and can only change half of my cash (after running off with it for 15 minutes while I nervously await his return).
When I get back on the ship again Bettina has finalized the tickets, changed some cash to Cypriotic pounds and checked out the cabin. I vigorously shake the hands of the immigration officer several times before we say goodbye and head for our cabin to finally sit down for a while. Sitting in this luxurious cabin (they even provide toilet paper and soap...) we both feel completely disoriented and hardly understand that we're finally leaving Egypt behind. Not even as we stand on deck watching the lights of Port Said fade away does it sink in. We're simply too stressed out and so far beyond our mental limits that we can't take any more... and then we find out we're going via Haifa, Israel! The country we've been trying to avoid all the time to be sure not to jeopardize our Iranian visa! Too late now though...
I hope these my accounts of our last week of hell in Egypt doesn't scare anyone from backpacking (but DON'T GO TO EGYPT!). Travelling on your own is usually not this horrible and I can honestly say that Egypt is by far the worst country I've travelled as a backpacker and on top of that, the last week there was one of the most taxing experiences of my travels so far. Our last day in Egypt (as described above) was also the worst one I've experienced so far while travelling. Mostly, things work out better and smoother than this and maybe it's our own fault by masochistically determe NOT TO FLY. A flight out of Egypt would have been cheaper and easier - but it's not by surface travel. We all have our obsessions ;-)
After this tour through hell I'll tell you about our one-day tour to Jerusalem and just how much of a contrast Cyprus was to Egypt. The words 'heaven and hell' just couldn't fit better!
Until then, enjoy!