Right, well, what with the relapse brought on by Euro winter 2017 and other challenges, I’m now a full year behind telling our story. Please pray I am granted time and capacity to catch up with the blog and make it home. If you have the patience to wait for the missing episodes, I have the persistence to deliver! It may just take a little while for me to get back into my stride…
It’s rare that having a chronic illness proves useful while travelling in Africa, but coming into Cairo last November provided one occasion. Just over a week before Ruby was due to fly into Egypt for the school holidays, we got up at 3am to drive into the capital. We have learned to do this as a matter of course to avoid rush hour traffic in all big African cities, but Cairo, second largest of all at more than 20 million, is renowned for its gridlock.
Driving from Alexandria on the desert highway the day before, a car had driven towards us going the wrong way in the fast lane. The articulated lorry in front of the truck had swerved, and Sampson had only avoided the lorry with his juggler’s instinctive flinch of the wrist. I was exhausted just being on duty in the passenger seat judging the speed of heavy duty vehicles zooming towards us every time Sampson attempted to overtake from the right hand lane.
That evening Zola had cooked because I couldn’t stand up to do it. Just as we were settling down after supper, the police came rapping on the door and told us to move on. The boys dragged themselves up to lock down and as we were about to set off I rolled off the bed and put my foot into Monte’s worst-ever pile of diarrhoeary poo. Aarrgh. Zola was an absolute star and mopped it up with half a roll of kitchen towel. I’d like to put on record how grateful I am to this day.
Big Reg sidled along to the next turn off and hid in the dark for a couple of hours’ rest before setting off on the 6 lane highway. When an aggressive Shouty Man in a booth at the second toll plaza took E£100 for a E£20 ticket and demanded another E£500, Sampson pulled over and came back to my bed to ask for diplomatic assistance. I was glad I’d slept in my T’ai Chi clothes in preparation for just such an eventuality.
I put on a headscarf and staggered out carrying our folder chock-full of documents, looking as pale as death. It was 4am and about 12˚C; I was so cold and in so much muscle pain, I needed help to get down the ladder and Sampson supported me on his arm up the steps into the booth. Looking extremely nervous at the prospect of me passing out in his office, Shouty promptly returned the E£80 change. I gracefully acknowledged his generosity with a nod. I hadn’t had to say a word.
The huge Cairo highways were busy even through the small hours. I sat bundled in a sleeping bag in the passenger seat. “The pyramids should be somewhere on our right” said Sampson, peering into the dark, looking in vain for triangles on the horizon. “There!” I exclaimed, as the grey mass against the skyline suddenly resolved itself into the right shape, dwarfing the tiny tower blocks in front. It was the first time on this journey I’d ever seen anything so huge you could miss it.
Big Reg headed for the diplomatic area, and squeezed into a space at the end of the SA Embassy’s road ready to get some sleep before it opened. But still there was no rest. Peremptory policemen kept knocking on the door. The second time I got up and confronted the young officer with my barefaced barely-covered-grey-haired-weary-old-mother-ness.
“Er…” he said, a little sheepishly, “Do you have a licence for this truck?”
“Yes we do,” I replied “but we’re sleeping now. Goodnight.” And shut the door.
The. Constant. Sleep. Interruptions. Were. Killing. Me. They were even beginning to take a toll on Sampson. Slowly but surely, getting up two or three times every night to take Monte for a wee was wearing him out; but at least he could get straight back to sleep. He’d bought a piece of wood as a ramp to help the puppy get in and out of the truck from the driver’s side rather than slamming the side door next to me, but even so I was woken every time and rarely able to drop back off within an hour.
At dawn, when Monte got restless, Sampson would take him for a walk and I would try get another hour’s kip to ward off the worst of the pain. After a couple of weeks of this pattern, I was beginning to get desperate. Without solid sleep, I could not begin to recover from the crossing from Greece; the exhaustion of that was being compounded by the torture of this long-term sleep deprivation.
On top of that was the oxygen deprivation. By our third morning in the most polluted city in Africa, the lack of fresh air and sleep was making me feel deathly ill. Those first 15-30 minutes on waking were sheer hell. Coming to consciousness gave a flight or fight shock to my system. Both noise and light became cruel. Nausea and pain everywhere, fingers, joints, back. But why the soles of my feet so tender? And. Can’t. Think. Speak. Striaght. (sic)
On standing, my heart was racing so much that it was becoming hard to do T’ai Chi. Just getting up, washing and completing 2 or 3 short forms would consume the whole morning. My functioning day time hours (when I was capable of teaching or writing) shrank to 2 in the afternoon. When Sampson complained he was feeling tired, I had to point out that it wouldn’t be cool to whinge about achey legs to a person in a wheelchair when you’d decided to stay up all night dancing. “Please don’t complain to me about tiredness, when I’ve been reduced to horizontal.
You chose to keep the dog”.
He came back from the SA Embassy with an Afrikaaner and an Egyptian woman, business partners Frans Visser and Abeer Elshemy. They were so friendly and thought they might be able to help with the truck licence conundrum after Embassy staff were stumped. Frans told us he has learned a lot about jumping through Egyptian bureaucratic hoops and put Sampson in touch with his legal advisor.
Vivacious Abeer had us in fits of laughter describing how her puppy ate her Raybans. She was in the middle of her second bout with breast cancer, a few months into chemo with a major op due in January. She told me her baby niece was inspiring her to survive it. One year on, I’m thrilled to say Abeer is still going strong.
That Thursday night we got to bed at 7pm and up again at 3am to travel an hour south east on the ring road around Cairo to arrive at Tractafric partner garage, global giant Manufacturing Commercial Vehicles (MCV). With 6000 employees in 24 countries worldwide (including UK and SA) and 1000 in Cairo alone, MCV leads the continent in Mercedes bus and truck sales.
Weekends flow differently in Muslim Egypt: Thursday night feels like Friday night, Friday feels like Sunday and Saturday is like a Saturday in Fish Hoek: everything shuts at noon.
The normally bustling industrial area was so quiet that Friday and empty apart from passing market lorries loaded with vegetables. I was still not up to walking but the boys got the bikes down for some exercise. Lucky was getting jealous. Stuck in the cab watching Sampson playing outside with Monte, she started mewling piteously. FOMO cat. When he started cycling big circuits with the puppy, trying to tire him out, she joined in!
When Fish Hoek Primary had finished writing, they sent papers for us to print off and Zola started his exams. I was amazed he was applying himself so diligently, considering his slackness during the transition from Greece to Egypt. But his curious mind never ceases to delight me; this week he asked for definitions of the following words: “quintessential” “promiscuous” “supercilious” and “omniscient”.
As Zola got down to exams, Sampson got down to cleaning the kitchen in honour of Ruby’s arrival. At the end of her first year back in formal school, I was proud of Ruby’s excellent exam results in English and History, especially as her favourite subjects are Maths and Science!
It was Ruby who told us about the appalling bomb attack in Sinai. This “deadliest attack in Egyptian history” killed 311 people and injured another 122 during Friday prayers at a Sufi mosque. The government declared 3 days of national mourning.
It went a little way towards explaining the police paranoia.
* * *
Sampson set off at 5am for his jaunt to Alexandria with Frans’s friend Lionel. After three hours by car to Immigration, he waited 45 mins for lawyer’s assistant 21 year old Mina, who pushed her way to the front of the queue of men. Within 15 mins, she had obtained a stamp in his passport confirming the extra 2 months’ residence permit that Consolidated Freight Services had said was impossible to extend before the expiry period. (We have to admit to feeling a bit disappointed in CFS; they came highly recommended, but as we were charged top dollar for their services, we felt they should have made more of a fuss to sort this out in the first place.) THANKS FRANS!
After his triumph at immigration, Sampson spent the night at our kind friend Chef Karim’s flat. Karim’s father and brother came to visit and they ate a supper of sausage and egg and bread and cheese together in circle.
While Dad was away, Zola did his last exam then cooked. We hosted visitors: dear Meriam from the MCV marketing department, and Mr Roger Maher, Director of Export Sales, who kindly agreed to sponsor a vital service for the Big Green Truck. At 4.30pm it was dark. The northern hemisphere winter was catching us up.
Wednesday 29th November 2017 was one of the most heavy going of trip so far for the Sampson family: all of us were pushed beyond our comfort zones. While 16 year old Ruby was taking three flights alone from Cape Town, Sampson was jumping through bureaucratic hoops in Alex – so Zola and I had to handle the garage service in Cairo.
Thank God Monte slept till 10 past 6. After T’ai Chi to thaw my stiff limbs, Zola locked down and I girded up my courage. It had been years since I had last driven the truck. But with Zola in the passenger seat giving extra muscle to help me change gears, I managed to reverse Big Reg out of the lot, around a huge black puddle of dumped water and engine oil, then drive triumpantly into MCV. It was worth the PEM pain in my arms the following day for the wide-eyed GOBSMACKEDNESS of two dozen greasemonkeys milling at the entrance who’d never seen a woman drive a truck.
Within an hour there were 8 guys checking brakes and nuts, adding radiator coolant and changing the engine oil. In between starting the engine a few times, I got chatting to Mr Diaa and found out he was emigrating to Australia the following month “for his family”. We were happy to hook him up with friends of ours in Melbourne who also have a new baby, in case he needed advice.
Zola and I tackled the last of the spring-cleaning while keeping up with Sampson and Ruby in transit via Whatsapp. Her Ethiopia Airlines plane from Jo’burg was 40 mins late boarding; this was worrying as she only had 2 hours’ change over time in Addis…
Monte’s self control was getting better; he did a couple of pees on the floor but was managing to poo outside. On our final walk around the MCV block, he was skippety-skipping alongside of me and I had to admit I was falling in love with him despite everything.
Meanwhile Sampson had been out at 6am to be first at the traffic dept, and meet a ‘consultant’ ex-worker Mohamed Ahmed, 70 years old with a crutch. Sampson described the fixer as “A fat Ken Dodd: bad teeth, bulgy eyes”.
First he had to get a pass issued to get inside the port. It took 3 hours, 10 processes and 5 copies of 4 different documents: licence, passport, visa and Arabic explanation ‘from the Embassy’. At 11am he was still not sorted and the office was due to close at 12. Sampson queued outside three differnet windows twice, then inside. When it started looking like it was not going to happen today, Sampson reported:
“Mohamed just had a complete hissy fit. He went inside the office to beg one guy to get us into the port in time. When arselicking didn’t work he started crying. He looked like something out of the Simpsons, Itchy and Scratchy going nuts. Some of it was real I reckon, but some was exaggerated to show he was earning the money.”
At 12 on the dot, they were told they needed one more copy, and Karim saved the day by running about like a headless chicken to get it. Finally Sampson had a pass, only to be denied entry to the port by a security guard who said he had to get a taxi to another gate because he was a foreigner.
While keeping me updated on the drive through, Sampson drily observed that ‘Walk like an Egyptian’ often meant ‘confidently headfirst into traffic’:
“People here don’t seem to have any fear or concern for their safety – either the cars will pause to let them pass, or they will get hit. Either way, it is the will of God, insh’allah, and their fate is in his hands alone.”
A mark of great faith it seems.
Inside the traffic department in the port, the process to extend the truck permit that Sampson had assumed would take an hour, took another 2 and a half: a Kafkaesque obstacle course of 15 procedures, involving 10 different men in 5 offices in 2 buildings, paying 3 times, E£560 in total. The fixer fee doubled it. The carnet had to be approved, photocopied, stamped and signed by 3 different people, including the Head of Traffic who was dressed like a General. There were no computers at all. When the process was completed, Sampson waited another half an hour for the printed licence card to be laminated.
Thanks to Karim, they celebrated obtaining the licence with a free meal in his former restaurant. The unecessary-if-communication-done-properly-in-the-first-place licence extension cost about extra R1000 in total, but 2 days and more than a few grey hairs.
Sampson then had to wait 2 hours for a 3 hour train back to Cairo because all the early ones were full due to the public holiday the next day. The station was filthy, but the train was glorious, only £E45 in 2nd class with a reclining seat; moreover it left on the dot and arrived on time. He took another hour in an Uber directly to the airport, then waited 4 more hours for Ruby to arrive, mostly sitting outside because of the high security alert following the Sinai bombing.
I’d crashed after my shower, aching all over from standing up so much of the day. I woke up when my phone died with a buzz at 2am and was panicking to get it plugged back in because Ruby was supposed to have landed at 1.20 – what had happened? I Whatsapped Sampson and got no reply; with my heart in my mouth, I called him and Ruby answered… It was the very moment she’d walked out into his arms, such was the delay. I heard Dad in the background “How did she know??!”
Beyond relieved, I messaged the good news to my Mom and best friend then lay down and listened to some calming Cabin Pressure but didn’t sleep till they got back at 4am and I heard her voice. She ran up the ladder, hugged me in a bear clasp, squealed in delight to see the puppy and pounced on him. Monte was so overwhelmed, he peed himself!
Ruby arrived on the Islamic holiday of Mawlid (which in Arabic means the birth of a child or descendant), a celebration originating in 11th century Egypt marking the observance of the birth of the Prophet Mohamed PBUH. We hadn’t seen her for 5 months since she visited us in France.
When finally Sampson, Zola and Monte crashed out, Ruby cuddled up next to me on the bed, talking nineteen to the dozen till she wore herself down. As we lay in the dark, her face at my chest looked just like my baby girl though I could hardly get my arms around her, and she calmed the same as I stroked her hair. We said goodnight as the morning call to prayer rang out.
Finally the whole family was reunited: both Big Reg and Ruby had returned to the fold. Now we just needed MCV to sign us off as safe and ready to embark on the east coast leg of the trip.
MCV gave us a full service, changing all fluids (engine oil, gearbox, transmission fluids in diffs and transfer box, hydraulic fluid in engine as well as coolant in radiator). They greased all parts, adjusted brakes and tick over speed to stop constant stalling. They sourced a new rim for our spare wheel, while our cracked rim was welded and kept as a spare. They removed the air compressor and found the leak, fixed the oil dipstick, replaced the water hoses on the heat exchange plate and bought a new fuel line to fit new filters.
The body shop welded the hatch, the tool box, Zola’s unicycle and fixed the side gutter ripped down by a tree, fixed hinges on roof box and added an all round waterproofing strip. They checked our leaking injectors and added silicone, gave us two new metal window winders and a spare plastic one. They also donated a dozen empty containers for onward oil collection.
We are so grateful to the team at MCV for their generosity and diligence, especially our friends Mr Nader and Mr Abdelhamid.
What more can we say about MCV’s level of commitment to excellence but: