2011. március 1., kedd

holiday does not equal holy day

Cairo express
From the Israeli border to Cairo in those „hard days”

I’m always laughing at my „holidays” in the Middle East. Last year I was freezing to death in the ranges of the Atlas in Morocco, and now I found 5-10 Celsius degrees with two-days of heavy rain and bitter cold wind – in Jerusalem. Fortunately, Egypt is much hotter, and in this case I refer not only to the weather. When I heard the first news from Cairo, I was happy NOT be there: no presence, no story, and no job. Then the news provoked my dormant interest and my adventurous mind and we couldn’t stay in Israel any more. After this two-days freezing weather, Egypt was our last asylum from the winter. We started our endless odyssey to Cairo.

Early morning, bus station, Jerusalem. Five hours to the border to Eilat, taxi ride, border crossing, taxi ride or walk to Taba, van to Cairo – not more than 12 hours in normal case. In our case 26, and even a bit more. To the border, the plan was working well, but on the other side everything turned wrong.

Before departure, I read that at the Egyptian border crossing I must have a valid visa. At the border you can get visa only for the Sinai Peninsula, though it is free. So we walked to the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv to obtain the papers. The consul received us with a wide smile, no warning, no dissuasion, but they are not giving a visa, because I can simply get it at the border anyway. Well, we got through the border easily, but we had to pay $50 per person for a "travel agency", which has issued an invitation letter to us in order to get a valid visa not only for Sinai but for the whole country for 1 month. On top of that we had to buy this visa for 15 dollars plus pay 15 dollars 'entrance fee' - why not $ 30 for a visa? And some € 25 had been collected by the Israelis for their exit fee. Now we have already spent more money on the border than what was the total budget planned for Egypt.

We asked the guards on the border about the recent situation in Egypt. They quieted down and said there is no problem for us because on one hand, but we can’t find any transportation to Cairo; and on the other hand the military closes the Suez tunnel under the canal so we can’t leave the Sinai on the same day. Of course, the place would not be called Middle East if everything would happen as the official authorities let us know. For safety (and for fun) we asked how many people have crossed the border on that day anyway, and not surprisingly they said we were the second ones.

Taba city is exactly the place where you want to spend as long as people are transferred to a taxi to another; you might send down a cup of tea, just to be sure that you’ll have something to remember. There are a few hotels, which have a view of the road, usually can not swim in the sea, and moreover, there is nothing interesting in the neighborhood. The touristic income of the city is they make you believe that from 500 meters from the Israeli border you’ll find the perfect Red Sea paradise, where grass is green and girls are pretty (for not Guns ’n’ Roses fans and Hungarians: the fence made of sausage). So whoever wants to go there on vacation, take at least one liter of seriously noxious alcohol to have some fun for those days.

There were no buses on that day and the most useful offer was an afternoon bus but on the next day. Not a good deal to wait there and enjoy the silence and the empty four-star hotels’ adventures. However, we found an old guy who wanted to take us for $150 to Cairo by taxi, but it was too much money for this ride. Finally, we have decided is worth to leave quickly for 100 bucks, rather than spending a full day and a couple of hours in a completely meaningless place, while anything can happen in Cairo. As the only one option, finally, we acquired a minibus for the triple of normal price. Sucked our teeth a lot, but I quickly found out that was worth it. The soldiers wanted to turn us back at the first checkpoint, but our very distasteful but useful driver promised to take us to Cairo. 100 bucks makes wonders: the driver convinced them in one hour that in possession of valid visas we have the right to go to Cairo on our own responsibility. They made some phone calls to the next checkpoints and they never hassled with us again. As we sat on the bus, the guys around learned that my name is Daniel so I immediately became Jack Daniel's. For them that was the joke of the week. Not for me, but at least they never asked: ‘Are you from Germany?’

Soldiers were not like Bedouins. They set their own self-protection because of the absence of police and serious military forces, while many groups of criminals were looting and fighting throughout the country. They tried to guarantee the security to keep the considerable revenue which they collect from tourism to the Red Sea safe. Near the villages and junctions they have established their checkpoints, they blocked the road by 4WD Toyotas and oil barrels, and everyone who passed through there was under their check. The soldiers arrived there only a few days ago, and no policemen was seen on the roads, so they were forced to defend themselves and their neighborhood. These guys were Bedouins in red and white kefiya with Kalashnikovs. At first they stopped us quite frequently, and then on the way to Cairo, it was becoming less common. Close to Suez we met the ‘real reality’ what authorities said when we passed the border, and ran into more serious roadblocks.

Our antipathetic driver and the other guys in the car fabricated a story: we need to get to the Cairo airport as soon as possible to catch our plane. Soldiers let us cross the roadblocks. Some shouting was going on for half an hour, and then they opened up the channel tunnel to cross - not just us, for everyone. We left the tunnel but we were not happier because there was no chance to continue our trip. Technically, we're stuck in a roundabout, Suez to the left, Ismailia to the right and straight to Cairo. Roads were blocked by tanks. Riots and gunfighting was going on in Ismailia, that’s why the army closed the road. After the initial befriending of the soldiers, everyone was ordered back to the vehicles, supposedly for security reason. Easy to make friends with the soldiers, everyone is quite a cool guy and everyone loves them, because everyone was a soldier, or has a relative in the army. Those who missed out on the military do so because they have a father who is older than 60, or he is the only boy in the family, and so he is the sole breadwinner.

Finally, about three hours of waiting at the roundabout, they opened the way - toward Ismailia. After 15 minutes of driving we bumped into the first checkpoint where they forced us to turn back. We were at the roundabout again, this time we headed to Cairo. Half an hour later we were stopped at another checkpoint. Reversal again... About six hours after we left the Sinai Peninsula, we were on the way back toward the Sinai. Mubarak was making a speech on the radio promising not to run in the September elections when we stopped at a roadside restaurant. The guys in the bus erupted in applause, but then after a few minutes, everyone admitted that it is just a small gesture. The driver said that we will continue 6-7 hours later so everybody should sleep or so whatever they want. We drank a couple of tea, and got back to the bitterly cold bus to sleep a bit on the seats. Of course, the Arabs were not only not awake, their sleep was very noisy, so I put music in my ears and I saved myself with death metal, which was too noisy so our new Arab friend’s snore didn’t make it through the earplugs. Finally, we arrived to Cairo in the morning. All the checkpoints bought our tale about airport, and usually they let us through ahead of everybody else. True, the driver was driving so aggressively and brazenly that in Europe someone would punch him between the eyes in half an hour...

It’s always nice to arrive to Cairo: it is warm and cozy - at least considering in a city where you had to go about 15 stops by subway. The city was quiet, no trace of the riots and the hundreds of dead civilans that have been fallen in the last seven and a half weeks, A bit like a run-down Paris, and this time there is no traffic and crowd, the streets are deserted because of the state of emergency. We stayed in the place where I spent a few excellent days a couple of years ago with good friends on the seventh-floor roof terrace, having the more recently infamous than famous Midan Tahrir Square just around the corner. And finally we could start why we came here. Let’s go to the demonstrations! The rest is history…

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