I cannot explain the euphoria I felt sitting in the front seat of the taxi into the city of Alexandria at 2am. As we cruised down the long straight road between stretches of black water, even the lights bedecking the towers of the enormous refinery like a bald Christmas tree seemed celebratory, the dirty plumes of smoke beautiful. I was amazed and elated at my feeling of relaxation and safety: we’d arrived, we’d made it, all five of us! Nothing could dent my sense of achievement, not even the juggernaut of Post-Exertional Malaise that was going to hit me tomorrow. I hadn’t thought I could feel truly calm without the physical support of the truck – kitchen and bed in tow – but I did and that felt like an absolute triumph.
Monte was curled up on my lap, still groggy from the vet’s sleeping pills that hadn’t affected Lucky in the slightest. When the only hotel in Alex with “we accept pets” on its website said it was full, I remained unruffled. At 4.30am, after 3 more hotels had refused us, Wael the taxi driver, whom I’d liked and trusted instinctively on arrival, took pity on us, made a call and rented us an APARTMENT! Cheaper and so much better than any hotel room: loads of space, self-catering, separate bedrooms – and best of all, a tiled floor for the puppy to pee on.
I would like Wael to know that his compassion was fundamental to our love of our time in Egypt; that despite the piles of official bullshit that we had to wade through during the next three months, this selfless act of kindness on our first night gave Alexandria a heart-coloured tint that did not fade. For every painful piece of bureaucratic bollocks there was always a generous-spirited Egyptian ready to help get you through. Would that all weary travellers were shown such humanity on entering our countries.
When I was woken at noon, I went to open the balcony shutters and was greeted by this view:
There was a man wandering about below in long grimy robe – holy man or beggar, it was difficult to tell from way up here. I reflected on the way I was thinking about this local, my new neighbour: so happy at the prospect of getting to know him. I felt a sense of wonder at how much easier I feel about encountering unknown places and people since beginning our journey in 2013. How much more open I am to learning about cultures of which I am ignorant. How fond I anticipate being of Egypt after DRC, Nigeria, Liberia – all countries where a negative experience was expected but a very positive time had. I wondered how much more open I could be with application and practise – if I keep moving, could I finally arrive at being able to Love Everybody Unconditionally? Will that be how humanity evolves to be truly civilised?
* * *
Like many people with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (pwME), I can walk but if I don’t use a wheelchair at the beginnning of a longhaul plane journey, I may be desperately in need of one by the end. It’s not so much the walking, but the standing in queues waiting to board which exhausts me. pwME often have orthostatic intolerance (or POTS) which means that when you stand, blood pools in your legs, your heart rate rockets, you feel faint and your brain stops working properly.
To all the people who were bemused when I was wheeled straight to the front, then proceeded to walk up the ramp – please understand, just because you can’t see my disability, doesn’t mean I’m not disabled. I’d already started the day in moderate pain from PEM after three days’ intense activity before we got to the airport; standing in a queue for 30 minutes on top of that would have cost me a week in bed.
If Sampson didn’t strictly need an ‘emotional support dog’ at beginning of the journey, he certainly did by the end. We had no trouble getting both registered pets on the Athens to Istanbul leg, but as we were boarding the plane to Alexandria, an official arrived to say that air regulations stipulate that a dog and a cat are never allowed together in the same cabin. Two cats are OK, and even two dogs, but not one of each.
“Not even if they are both tiny and used to living together?”
I could see Sampson was getting in a state and about to lose it. After all the effort we’d gone to to get them on the plane, to be turned back at this point… I could see him trembling. We’d heard so many travellers’ tales, read too many online horror stories about nightmarish Egyptian customs processes crammed with officials eager to pounce on any excuse for extra charges… Sampson was scared that if we relinquished either of the pets, we might not get them back without some major baksheesh.
As he couldn’t bear to be parted from the puppy, Lucky was taken and put in the hold. I was concerned the carrying case I’d had her in on my lap wasn’t strong enough or warm enough, but made a deliberate decision not to worry. I had to save my energy, because I was bracing myself for a fight the other end.
But when we came to disembark, Lucky was waiting for us at the door being cooed over by a bunch of air stewards. PHEW.
The wheelchair was whisked across the luggage reclaim area, past a huge passport queue and straight through customs, with the Sampsons straggling in its wake. A uniformed bloke standing feet akimbo at the very end was about to wave us through when he caught sight of Monte in Mark’s arms and held up a quizzical hand:
“Oh yes,” I said, flourishing a folderful.
He took out the wad of documents, scanned the vet approvals and beckoned us on without checking for export stamps. I could have spent a day at the Acropolis Museum after all! But I was so grateful we’d made it through without a challenge, and relieved Sampson hadn’t been pushed to breakdown, I tipped my handler the first note I got out the ATM.
* * *
It took another four days to get Big Reg out of the port. This was three days longer than we’d been told, but at least gave me a chance to do nothing but rest and recover from the inevitable crash.
Every day, Sampson jumped on a taxi to Consolidated Freight Services (CFS) in town to travel with a fixer to the port. He described it as “some Orwellian nightmarish administrative hell hole”. They went through fifteen different offices and a myriad procedures: logging details of driver and visa, obtaining clearance for licence and insurance, checking of engine and chassis number, stamping a new number onto the engine, and issuing of a credit card-sized Egyptian licence for the truck separate from the carnet and his international driver’s licence.
At every desk, there were a dozen people doing one man’s job – and they were all men. It seems the state actively encourages this sheltered employment. There were no computers, and everything had to be issued in triplicate with carbons like a Monty Python parody of British colonial bureaucracy. Sampson was shifted from pillar to post and bounced back again: everybody had to have copies of everything else and every copy had to be stamped, signed then restamped and countersigned. Big Reg also had to have new Arabic numberplates and two compulsory giant fire extinguishers issued – even though we had two perfectly good ones already.
This is the breakdown of the non-negotiable €920 fee charged by CFS:
“Clearance: 260 Euro
Traffic (inc. Egyptian numbers & license, fire extinguishers): 220 Euro
Customs inspection: 150 Euro
Drivers inside port: 10 Euro
Port Yards & receipts: 150 Euro
Port permission: 25 Euro
Passport Stamps from Ministry of exterior affairs & carnet stamp: 105 Euro.
Rate EXCLUDE only vessel DTHC which is the discharging cost from vessel you can either pay vessel agents direct or we pay & charge to you at Cost.”
Not at any other border have we been obliged to pay to have a customs inspection or carnet stamp. Or get “clearance”. Sampson also dropped about another R1000 in photocopy fees. The extra “discharging cost from vessel” we had to pay to Marina Shipping came as a body blow as we weren’t expecting it to be so hefty: that $120 (€102) was the last of our emergency cash. For anybody else attempting this: the cubic meterage is the key unit affecting costs – we could have halved ours with a more conservative submission.
These fees were on top of the €1500 we’d paid to Minoan Lines to put Big Reg on the Grimaldi RORO ferry across the Mediterranean. It did seem insane that we had to pay 2/3 of that again just to get the truck out of the port of Alexandria. It came to over R42 000 in all (excluding flights). We absolutely couldn’t afford to break down or go to hospital for a few months.
On the positive side, Egyptian food was super cheap and super good.
And oh to be back where tomatoes taste of tomatoes!
It was also about 5 ˚C warmer than Greece. Alhumdullilah! The increased temperature really helped my energy levels. People were also warmer – Sampson made some helpful friends as soon as he set foot out the door: neighbour Mohamed Galil escorted him to register a SIM card; Mark Ashraf wrote restaurant recommendations on a paper napkin.
* * *
Having mild ME is like living your life on a tightrope. You advance gingerly through each day, you look ahead constantly, you weigh your every step. One wrong move could take you down. You are forever dodging the curveballs being thrown at you: a virus, a period, a shock. It’s the ultimate balancing act.
Having moderate ME is living your life floundering in the safety net, trapped by pain, an infinite struggle to get back on your feet. It doesn’t help being weighed down by the stigma and shame of disbelief.
Severe ME is lying smashed and broken on the floor, forgotten in the shadows below.
The people watching only ever look up and see the tightrope walkers smiling effortlessly under the lights.
It doesn’t look dangerous.
* * *
After pulling off the most outrageous act of the trip so far in managing the crossing from Greece to Egypt, I had fallen off the tightrope big time. I was thrashing about in the net.
For pwME, going to sleep is like going to war. You battle to get down deep enough to replenish your energy stocks. You dread waking drenched in cold sweat every hour through the small hours and feeling the raw pain of your PEM each time. All too often you wake in the morning more exhausted than the evening before because you feel like you’ve been fighting to sleep all night.
It took me three days to write an email to the WCED appealing their denial of Ruby’s Afrikaans exemption. In between Zola and me caught up with our Radio 4 podcast favourite Susan Calman’s progress on Strictly and discovered the Nicholas Brothers. WOW.
On Monday, when Sampson called to say the truck had finally been given the green light to leave the port, Zola and I packed up in half and hour so as to save the cost of another night. I was so proud of my son’s super-efficient kitchen clearing skills: we left the place immaculate. Good Samaritan neighbour Galil came to fetch us with his ginormous Rottweiler puppy Bolt and took us to wait in his 14th floor penthouse flat opposite.
Big Reg finally made it back at 4pm. The good news was that nothing had been stolen during the passage across the Meditteranean except the tiny Michelin Man off his keyring!
The bad news was that, despite Sampson having a 90 day visa in his passport, only 30 days had been granted on his driver’s permit. Despite the considerable fee we’d paid for handling, CFS said there was nothing they could do about it. The permit couldn’t be extended before the expiry date. Worse, it could only be extended from the port of entry i.e. Alexandria. Sampson was faced with the prospect of having to return to Alex twice during our 3 month stay as we travelled south across the country to keep the truck legal – an impossible task.
The first day back in the truck , I was dying to get back to our normal routine, but Zola was proving a nightmare. Being allowed to sit on constant wifi through the last week had got him into bad habits. We were already a week behind with schoolwork, but he was reluctant to knuckle down and for the first time was being so rude and disrespectful, he was reminding me of Ruby at that age! Getting his phone confiscated for 2 weeks till she arrived caused a massive strop and he sulked in his bedroom for the rest of the day.
On top of this upset, our sleep was disturbed because a local Mr Grumpy had moved us on from a quiet protected square next to Gabril’s block to the communal area in the middle, where Young Men With Cars came to smoke, show off and hang out in the cool evenings. On the second night, the Young Men With Cars started playing footie around the truck just after midnight. At 2.30am they were revving a broken down engine.
At 5am, Sampson was up to walk the dog.
Egyptians seem to dig all things German. It’s weird but Teutonic brands are so admired, spaza shops call themselves Aldi and drivers stick Mercedes logos on Chrysler bakkies. Most of all, Egyptian men LOVE German dogs. Every young man about town wanted a Rottweiler or a Dobermann as a status symbol. The hipper the owner, the bigger the dog. All the high-rise guardians loved Monte. Every time we stopped, a crowd of youths would gather round to ogle the puppy. Sampson was even offered 5000 Egyptian pounds (R4000) for him. He was terrified Monte was going to get stolen and ended up buying a thick chain to secure him to the truck when lying outside.
The SA Consul in Alexandria was away on holiday, so after several days failing to get through to the SA Embassy in Cairo, we decided to get out of the city for the weekend and try to find a quiet berth next to the sea. We drove east out of Alex, thinking that driving towards the Sinai was less risky than driving towards Libya.
(What ignorant fools. The following weekend, a bomb and gun attack on a Sufi mosque in Northern Sinai during Friday prayers was to kill 235 people.)
This was the same week CNN coverage of migrants being sold at auction outside Tripoli was causing an international outcry about modern slavery. Our only experience of Libya however was meeting Al Sayed, a super-friendly Libyan truck driver who makes his living smuggling petrol across the border, loves his mum, and, while in Alex to visit her, stopped to admire Big Reg. He proceeded to entertain us with his tales of his great passions – Great White Sharks, Mike Tyson and Greenland – and photos of his giant jet skis/bikes/trucks. His looks and charisma reminded me of Kieno Kammies and his constant refrain “No way maaan” was weirdly Capetonian.
Meanwhile, SA was quietly smouldering as the state capture shit began to ignite the fan.
Big Reg couldn’t get off the highway. We were looking for any road to the coast, but 50km out of town past a massive gasworks had still not seen a single turn off to the sea. As it was getting dark, we managed to pull off onto a road that crumbled then petered out into sand. Within five minutes a soldier appeared, then five more. We offered our Letter of Introduction in Arabic, and a superior officer was radioed. We were surprised when he arrived looking like a 20 year-old Freddie Mercury. It’s lucky Sampson is used to winning over hostile crowds; he soon had his new habibis grinning, and even got away with hugging them goodbye…
This became the pattern. In one weekend, we underwent appraisal by four sets of uniforms: two military, one border guard, one police. The second entailed a full shake down by three soldiers who were not aggressive but superbly efficient: within five minutes they had rifled through every cupboard in the truck. In 30 seconds one guy had found an oyster shucking knife so deeply buried in a storage net Sampson didn’t even know it was there. There was no sense of hustling for a bribe; these were implacable security checks – all extremely professional, but not terribly relaxing.
The last one took a couple of hours, featured five bakkies and a parade of automatic weapons and balaclavas and ended up with the senior officer parked off on one of our deckchairs while the young conscripts posed for selfies with Sampson.
Later that night Sampson’s solider fans returned to invite him back to the post for a smoke and a drink. “Shoo” he said, after finally shutting the door behind them, “You might hate Egypt, but you gotta love Egyptians.”
If you’d like to understand the background to this state paranoia, I found this article on the recent history of post-revolutionary Egypt very useful. (Please note the throwing into gaol of an innocent bystander to a political protest.) Our phones were definitely being tapped: when my Mom rang from South Africa, the call would be dropped after 30 seconds then when she rang back the rerouted number would show up as ‘Unknown’ and sometimes the recording of our conversation would be played back.
Various parts of the internet were blocked. I couldn’t get on to the Al Jazeera website, though whether this was permanently censored or just temporarily while AJ journalist Mahmoud Hussein is being detained by the Egypt government I couldn’t say (18 months and counting). At the time of publishing this blog, recently re-elected President Sisi had just extended the State of Emergency allowing this level of surveillance for the fifth time.
No matter how far we went, it seemed we couldn’t get beyond the military exclusion zone, or escape the choking clouds of crop stubble smoke or the hoards of flies. We couldn’t figure out where they were coming from, there was nothing but wind and sand outside. Seriously, if you want to make a quick million, start exporting fly-paper to Egypt.
Zola’s Hermionesque vocabulary was cracking me up:
“These flies are insufferable!”
“I’m baffled by frequency tables.”
“No, it was instantaneous.”
Too much hanging out with poncey Poms?
A bit further down the coast, we asked the next checkpoint crew if we could visit the mouth of Nile, and ended up being escorted down the road by two guys in fatigues. There were a few fishermen around but basically the whole stretch was deserted. Does Egypt really fear invasion from the sea so much that it restricts development of the entire Mediterranean coastline?
The pretty port city of Rashid (a.k.a. Rosetta as in the Stone) was photogenic but I was too sluggish to catch pics of the corniche. There was no shortage of men chilling with coffee/tea/shishas in the cafés lining the delightful promenade along the Nile.
Sampson bought palm heart snacks – vendors were chopping them out as if whittling tree stumps was easy. I remember being told about how people had survived on them during the civil war in Liberia. Zola described the taste as “Half white cabbage, half coconut” – spot on.
I wasn’t coping well with travelling; sitting up in the front seat was too rattling for my dizzy head, so I was mostly lying down in the back. We stopped outside a service station restaurant, and a leather-jacketed security guy was giving us grief until Chef Karim came out to greet us. Despite never having visited an English-speaking country, his English was fluent just through studying literature. We gratefully ordered a wonderful home-cooked meal from him, and enjoyed a quiet night without hassle.
Karim is the son and grandson of chefs but longs to travel, and to that end has “educated himeself online, via YouTube”. He was telling us that Egypt was far from being freed by the mass demonstrations that began in Tahir Square on 25th January 2011 (following other pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring) finally toppling President Hosni Mubarak. The autocratic excesses of President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government led the populace to protest again and gave the military an excuse to come back and implement a coup d’etat. The subsequent security crackdown – resulting in at least 1000 deaths on one day in August 2013 – seems to have left the country in a state of shock. Karim feels it’s more oppressed now than before; no one dares speak out against government policy and members of his own family had been targeted by the authorities following a Facebook post.
Nevertheless, Karim volunteered to be our Voice on the Phone from the Embassy were we to run into any trouble (as Hugo was for us in Angola) and has bravely given permission for me to include his opinions here . When I asked him what his dreams were, he said sheepishly “I just want a girlfriend”. He’s nearly 30 but he says it’s impossible to meet anyone stranded out here on the fly-blown highway.