Day 59 - Free in Aswan

Trip Start Aug 07, 2007
Trip End Nov 07, 2007

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Thursday, October 4, 2007

I warn you: this is a tedious story.  It is not entertaining.  It is not amusing.  It is long.  It is repetitive.  If you read it those minutes you spend will have gone, you will not be able to get them back.  There are no pretty pictures.  There are no meetings with nice people in interesting places to eat exotic meals or happen amusing happenings.  The only thing you could possibly gain, aside from a little schadenfreude, is the bitter little moral:


If I'm very generous you could add the caveat "with a vehicle".

Consider yourself warned....

Andrew and I had planned quite a bit of slack in the desert travel arrangements.  In the end we didn't need any of the slack so we ended up spending nearly a week in Wadi Halfa, the Sudanese border town.  This is like many other border towns I have been to: dirty, impersonal and with a feeling of transience.  It is unlike ALL of the other border towns I have been to as it is not crawling with drunks and prostitutes.  Needless to say our stay was a little boring.

The immigration and customs proceudures were like watching England play cricket in Sydney: boring, hot, frustrating and spanning several days, although nothing actually happened till the last day.  We never made it to five either.  The most annoying part is the complete refusal of customs to deal with us personally.  Everyone said we must get an agent, who of course charges a hefty fee, but as we had so much time on our hands we thought we'd try it alone.  On our third visit to customs in three days we finally got the situation explained to us by Mr Top Sudanese Customs:

"Of course you can do this.  You have two choices:  1) We will do our very best to help you with your documentation and solve any problems you may have 2) You can get an agent, Mr Medat, who will sort out eveything for you."

to which we replied:

"Wonderful, all our paperwork is already done, so could you please check it over?"

to which he replied:

"We will do our very best to solve any problems we might find but it is better to get an agent, Mr Medat, who will sort out eveything for you."

still trying we offered:

"I don't think there are any problems with the paperwork, it was all done by Sudanese customs in Gallabat, could you have a look at it please?"

to which he replied:

"I will say it again, I do not think you are understanding me.  We will do our very best to solve any PROBLEMS we MIGHT find.  You should get an agent."

OK, end of conversation.  Thank you very much.  His parting comment a repeat of the agent he would like us to use.

But in the end we got on the boat (many arguments, much cash and much stamping of X, Y and Z later) and sailed off up Lake Nasser, cross theTropic of Cancer and into Egyptian waters.  Sudan was the only country I have ever been to that you have to pay to leave.  10 Sudanese Pounds for the exit stamp.  Very expensive ink. 

It was worth it.

I won't get into the hassles we had on the boat.  Suffice to say that the Egyptians even more than the Sudanese (and there were equal numbers of each on this boat) like to throw what little weight they have around.  In N Africa not only absolute power corrupts, a modicum of power will turn even the most reasonable bloke into an anti-white/colonial, unreasonable, judgemental, megalomaniacal, racist wanker.  We, the half dozen foreigners, were the only people on the boat not allowed to smoke, read, sleep, use lights etc etc.

But the frustrations of Sudanese customs was merely the warm up for the Egyptian fiasco which started a mere five minutes after alighting in Egypt....

No carnet, no entry.  I explained that it was not possible to get a carnet in Tanzania.  You should have got it in the UK.  I don't live in the UK.  The bike is not UK registered.  A carnet can only be issued in the country of registration.  You should have got it in South Africa <<Sigh number one of many>>.  I don't live in SA.  My bike has never been there.  There must be another procedure for people like me.  No, everyone must have a carnet.  But what about the 150 countries that do not issue them?  Eveyone must have a carnet.  So what can we do?  You need a carnet <Pause>.  You must go to Cairo to get a carnet.  Cairo is 1000km away, surely there is something I can do here in Aswan?  No.  What about importing the bike.  Not possible.  But you are customs, hundreds of people are importing goods today.  Not possible.  It is not possible to import a motorcycle into Egypt?  Not here.  You must take the bike to Cairo.  Ok, I will go to Cairo.  OK, show me your carnet <Sigh>.  How about shipping it by train?  That is possible.  Good, so how can I do it?  I do not know.  How much will it cost?  I do not know.  Who can tell me how to do it?  I do not know <Sigh>.  Perhaps there is some way we can sort this out...just between you and me?  Hmmm, yes, I think there have carnet? <Muffled scream>.  So I must go to Cairo?  Yes.  Can you tell me where?  Yes.  Can you write it in Arabic please?  Yes.  I can definitely do this?  Yes.  You know people who have done this?  Yes.   Is there anything I need from you to give them?  No.  

So I travel the 950km to Cairo.  It takes 12 hours on an overnight train.  I arrive less than fresh.  The office in question doesn't open till 10.  I wait.

Hello there, I would like a carnet for my motorcycle please <I explained that it was not possible to get a carnet in Tanzania>.  You should have got it in the UK.  I don't live in the UK.  The bike is not UK registered.  A carnet can only be issued in the country of registration.  You should have got it in South Africa <Sigh this all seems very familiar>.  I don't live in SA.  Can I have a carnet from you.  Yes.  How much will it cost.  565EP (100USD) plus the bond <Ouch>.  Ok, what do I need to do?  Give me the letter from Aswan customs.  The what?  The letter they gave you.  They didn't give me anything!  Then you must go back to Aswan <1000km> and get the letter <less muffled scream.  I think my head actually hit her desk>. 

The process:
1) A letter of valuation and details from Aswan Customs
2) A letter of guarantee from a bank in Cairo saying I have deposited the full value of the bike in the correct holding account (this is the bond for my carnet)
3) A fee of 565EP
4) Get the carnet
5) Go to Aswan, stamp carnet, pay 525EP customs fee
6) Go to police get inspection certificate
7) Take engineer to bike for inspection
8) Go to police get inspection validated and letter for insurance company
9) Go to insurance, get letter for police
10) Go to police and get licence plates
11) Go to customs and get my bike
12) Start enjoying Egypt
13) When I clear customs in Cairo, before exiting Egypt, I need to return to the office and get my bond back.  I checked this.  I clear CAIRO customs?  But how do I get to the border?  I just drive?  That's ok?  Yes, yes, yes, you have all the correct documentation by then.  So I can definitely get this bond money back before I leave Egypt?  No problem.

So I travel the 950km back to Aswan.  It takes 12 hours on an over night train.  I arrive even less than fresh as this time there is no seat and I must sleep on the floor.  I spend a fortune on a taxi to the port customs, as there is no public transport.  Why would there be?!  The customs man appears eventually.

Hi there, remember me?  Yes, of course, you have carnet?  No, they said I needed a letter from you.  Oh!  We don't give out letters.  I have never heard of that.  You cannot write me this letter that they need?  No.  Can I speak to your boss?  Yes, but he is not here.  Oh.  So what can we do?  We can ship it to your exit point.  Ok, how much will that cost?  I don't know <anything sound familiar?  I will skip the next hour> ...850EP!  That's a lot, but it includes everything?  Yes, everything.  All customs charges?  Well, to export they may charge you about 25 pounds.  OK, but that is all?  And there is parking fees.  How much?  About 350EP.  But that is everything?  Yes, apart from whatever you spend to transport it.  What?!  What is the 850EP for?  Customs charges.  And then transport on top?  Yes.  So it will end up costing 500 dollars to get it through Egypt?  Of course you must then pay for my transport <gurgling sound>.  I can't just import the bike?  No.  Why not again?  We are not in Cairo <grrr>.  Ok, lets go to  Now?  Yes, now.  Ummm, ok.  I will ask my boss.  The one who isn't here?  He is in my office.  Hello Mr boss, we want to go to Cairo.  Give me your carnet <froth, gurgle, spit>  I don't have a carnet.  My bike is from Tanzania <you know this bit by now>...So you must go to Cairo to get a carnet.  Yes, I have been, but I need a letter from you.  Oh, what letter?  You don't know?  This is your procedure!  <fortunately I have all the required details written down>.  Ok, I write you this letter <three hours later I get the letter, I really don't have the energy to go into all the ludicrousness that went into this but think of the Jaberwocky and multiply by David Lynch to the power of Monty Python>.

So I have a letter (on a scrap of A4 lined paper) and get back on the train to Cairo.  Third night in a row.  Will the letter be enough?  Official enough?  Detailed enough?  I wait for an hour in the office.  I need to see the boss.  Before I see him I have investigated the 'letter of guarantee' I need from the bank.  It is not possible to get unless you are an Egyptian resident!  This is going to be a sticking point.  When the boss finally arrives:

Hello, I would like a carnet please <standard 'should have carnet' spiel, much deliberation, shouting at secretary, angry glares at me, ushers us both out>.  Is everything ok?  Yes.  So I can have the carnet?  Yes.  What do I need to do?  <at this point we switch to French.  Mainly because the forms are all in French and the secretary who speaks good English has gone.  I have only room enough for one foreign language in my head so the bastardised French, English and Swahili that comes out of my mouth would make those chaps in Paris who complain about the spelling of onion wince.  My written French is worse so let's follow the example of 'allo 'allo shall we>.  Feel in ze form pleeze.  Pas de probleme.  You ave a bic?  Oui.  Wheech Addresse?  Ze one in Egyeept.  What eez zis 'divers'?  Per-aps you have ze air conditioning on ze motor?  'Poids'?  You want ze gross or ze net weight?  Eet doesn't matter....le blah le blah le blah...So you ave ze monee?  Ow much?  2320 pounds.  Zat includes ze bond?  Oui, all togezer.  You do not need ze letter from ze banque?  Non.  <sigh of relief, no problem with the letter of guarantee.  I tell you what, I am very glad zat the customs guy thought my bike was a piece of crap.  He estimated it's value based on a cheap Chinese motorbike...330USD!  Cheeky git I thought but now it seems it is for the best>.  So, tell me again ow I get my money back.  Well, when you leave the Eegypt, you weel get a stamp in ze carnet, zen you come back here and we give you ze money.  After I have left?  Oui.  So when I'm not in ze country.  Oui.  I come back here to zis office to get my money?  Ahh, I sink I see your point.  What appened to ze whole clearing ze customs in Cairo?  Zat is only eef you are flying.  So I cannot get my money back?  Not unless you come back ere.  <just when it was going so nicely.  le bollocks.  Well, thanks again to the customs chap's evaluation this is only 330USD I won't have with me.  And I can always get it in a year, or two, or three.  Can I see myself coming back to Egypt?>.

I think the main problem here is that they just do not forward plan.  Well they do to a certain extent, enough to fool you into thinking that they have thought it all out.  But then more than that they do not put themselves in your poisition, so they haven't really thought about it at all.  They answer your questions authoritatively but without thought.  You can ask the same question in a variety of different ways, which your average sub-Saharan African will politely  answer randomly to allow you to realise that they don't know what they are talking about.  But these guys have a consistent story (for arguments sake let's call it a lie) that fools you.  No matter how many questions you ask their answers are consistent and reasonable.  Killer.  It's the equivalent of getting a very lucid, detailed set of directions from a man on the street, who has only once been to the town when he was in nappies.  Why would you not believe him?

So, back to Aswan 7:30; 8:00 train to the port; 10:00 the customs guy turns up; 10:15 I finally get let past the idiot guard; 12:00 a million stamps and 100USD in custom fees (no other country has charged me anything so far) I leave to find a random police station; 5 separate payments and 10 receipts later I am told to wait for the engineer;  1:30 no engineer I am told to get in a taxi and go and find him - he is at the vehicle testing centre; 2:00 after more form filling me, the engineer and friend head back to the port; engineer does vehicle 'inspection' by getting small boy to stencil my chassis and engine number on application form; go back to first police station;  shut.  Come back tomorrow.

Tomorrow 8am; wait; boss stamps paper; wait; actually, can you be bothered?  I can't.  It took me 4 more hours.  I spent 200 more pounds.  I had to buy insurance even though I was already insured.  But, at just after midday I drove my pikipiki out of the customs compound.  Eight days after arriving in Egypt.  I have spent around 600USD.  I have travelled over 4000km in order to get the correct bits of paper.  I have spent 48 hours out of the last 72 hours, four full nights in a row, on a train with very little sleep. 

Even if I did have all the correct documentation at the off I still had to go to four separate towns.  Not four places in a town.  Four SEPARATE towns to complete the process.  And they are not close to one another!  The total distance travelled within the Aswan area (including the mandatory and ridiculous backtracking) approaches 100km.  All other customs have them in the same place!  Why does Egypt despise foreigners so much?  Well, Mr Mubarrak, the feeling is 100% mutual. 

During these eight days I have vented more spleen than I have ever done in my life I'd imagine. I like to think of myself as pretty laid back.  Maybe it was the heat?  Maybe the two years in Africa?  Maybe I was just getting on the Egyptian bandwagon?  I think it may be a combination of all of these but I think the overriding reason is that it is just so unnecessary.  In so many other countries you have bureaucracy, mindless systems, badly thought-out systems, chaotic systems but more often than not the red tape is caused by the people on the ground.  Deliberately, normally to get a bribe out of you, or just to piss you off.  This is understandable.  I don't get so annoyed with this.  At least there is a purpose.  The Egyptian one seems to be taking bribes.  All the money is going to the government.  Someone just made up the system for no reason.  That is beyond me.  More annoying is that these chaps seem unbribeable!  They WANT to follow the system.  They must.

In the end, if it hadn't worked I would have been beter to just drive the bike out of the compound and sell it illegally in Cairo.  By a long way cheaper.  This is exactly what they are trying to avoid but they very nearly forced me into it with their rigidity. 

The British Foreign Office website says the following about Egypt:

"Approximately 1,033,000 British nationals visited Egypt in 2006.  Most visits are trouble-free.  The main types of incident for which British nationals require consular assistance in Egypt in 2006 were for: hospital cases, especially in relation to psychiatric illness...."

For all other countries the main types of incident are dealing with lost and stolen passports!

So have I convinced you?
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