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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

INTO THE BELLY OF THE BEAST

SHAKEDOWN IN EGYPT

After the easiest double border crossing ever into and out of Israel, I arrived at the Egyptian border. [It will turn out that I spent less total time crossing the Israel border twice - and their entire country - than I spent in the Egyptian border control as they shook me down for more cash.]

In an interesting turn of events, an Israeli border officer did sit down with me and brief me on what to say to the questions that the Egyptian border guard guys would cross. I played a bit stupid (well, perhaps a bit more than normal) to see if he had any new information for me but he didn't. For those wondering what I was told - it's pretty much the same thing I tell you. Make it sound like your plans are cut and dried - your flight back to the ole USA is coming up, etc. Get in, take pics and leave is what they want to hear. I thanked him for his help and went on to Egypt. It was good to know I was lying to the border guards in the correct way.

For anyone thinking that you need 100 sheckles (Israeli money) to leave the country, no, it is 101. They make it like that probably to ensure you actually spent some money or some such there.

I had picked the wrong border to cross.

To get into the Sinai, you have to buy some sort of stamp for 100 EGP. On top of that, you need another stamp so that you are not just restricted to the Sinai for two weeks but can have full run of the country for a full month. The guards English is pretty rudimentary so this made getting a straight explanation time consuming and frustrating. This additional stamp can not be given by the guards. It must be given by a tour guide. The guards had said that it would be a 100 EGP pound charge. When we got one of these extortion experts on the phone, however, it turned out to be 250 EGP. Fifty dollars for your stamp? How about 'no'! [Little did I suspect that just saying "Sure, sounds good." would have been a lot less hassle.] I regard this as a rather obvious exploit to shake down tourists for yet more money. According to Egyptian officials, this is supposedly to help make sure you behave while you are in the country. Someone is taking responsibility for people entering the country. It's a sham though. They have no idea where anyone will be or what they are doing. When I hear people in Egypt whine about lack of tourism, this will be at the forefront of my mind. The weird thing is that this is not a recent thing. It's been going on for at least ten years because hey - none of the 'middle eastern' countries really like Israel.

Yes, I did try my various bribery techniques but they weren't having any of it. I got so frustrated I eventually put money into the passport and said "Can you please just make this problem go away?" But, it wasn't enough. They didn't take it. Very sad and frustrating.

Note that you get the two week 'Sinai only' visa whether you go via Israel or go via the ferry. I did check on this as it would have made me very angry had it been otherwise.

When you get into the Sinai, you will get to see a lot of military checkpoints with armored personnel carriers with machine guns mounted to them and lots of troops with machine guns. At one checkpoint, I even had a pistol waved about in my face. Note, the senior officer who had the pistol wasn't threatening anyone with it - it was merely in his hand while he was waving it around. Loads of fun. [I wish I could say I was exaggerating. My biggest fear was actually 'accidental discharge'. Gun safety isn't really taught here I suspect.] [For the people who were wondering 'where were the police - well, this was one of them. The rest had very old looking AK's.]

Eventually, I made it to 'Soft Beach', a beachfront resort.



SINAI BEACHFRONT RESORT - 'SOFT BEACH'

I went to 'Soft Beach', a resort hotel near the town of Newiba. Kamal (Egypt) and his wife Christine (Germany) owned it.

Actually, a lot of the bedo own the beach areas. They rent them out to operators like the soft beach people. Unfortunately, there is a huge split between those that have money and those who don't. The rest of the town of Newiba reminds me of stories I've heard about trashy Native American Indian reservations.

From what I've seen, the entire coast of the Sinai is a huge beach front resort place. Not what I was looking for at all. Just way too quiet for me there.

It is trying to be a much cheaper version of the tropical island vacation getaway. It does a decent job of it, but not great. As with everything, you get what you pay for. I've got to say that the water was as warm as a bath and very blue. True, they do have some 'trash issues' but I've heard that every sea coast in the world does now.

When I went to report that I had a horde of black ants on my bed, the person I reported it to didn't understand. He went to see what was up at my hut. He assured me they weren't dangerous and obligingly brushed them off of the bed. Not the kind of thing you get happening at many of the 'beach front resorts' I've heard about but I think those are more than $8 USD a night rooms as well. They play it pretty close to the vest with money. For example, only the first glass of tea is free with breakfast. The rest cost 5 EGP - which I can get a meal for elsewhere.

I talked to three very nice German people there (Beate, Juleanne and Dieter) who gave me some good advice on getting an Egypt wide visa as well as the owner Christine who gave me some other good travel advice. I made a lot of notes.

I had heard from someone (I can't remember who) that the best way to get the correct stamp for my passport so that I could access all of Egypt was to go back to Israel and go to the Egyptian console. Best yet, it was only five minutes walk away from the border!

This is what we in diplomatic circles call a 'lie'.

There is even a bus that I can catch that would take me there and back again.

The bus didn't happen either. Well, not in the way they thought it would.

So, I went out to the highway about 09:05. Just after hearing about the 09:00 bus. I figured it was a long shot but - wait - is that the bus? Ah! I waved my hand to get it to stop in the appropriate gesture for Egypt (patting the air). The guy pointed to his crotch and continued by. I was kind of hoping he didn't know the book of the rules of the road.

Some guy on a motorcycle approached and told me he'd call a friend to get me a ride. Note that by this he meant a taxi. I told him not to bother and got picked up by a passing bus. Believe it or not, the taxi came and actually got in front of the bus to make him stop. I let myself get hustled out of the bus which wasn't going all of the way and into the taxi. For $100 EGP he agreed to take me there and wait for me (indefinitely) and then take me back when I was done getting this stamp over the border. I knew he'd be happy to wait because I didn't pay him when I crossed the border. [Although Logan is indeed a dick, I did ask him if he wanted to be paid before I took off over the border. Because I am a dick (and wanted to be sure of the ride) I asked in such a way that implied 'no, of course you don't want to because if I do pay you it may spell the end to further business but were you wanting to get the money right now anyhow?' He said 'No, of course not' but I could tell he was thinking 'well, fuck'.

I'm pretty sure that the Egyptian guards are getting some sort of kickback from this. When one asked me why I wanted to go back to Egypt, I broke 'rule 1' and told him I was headed to the Egyptian consulate to get a stamp. Ah, one moment he said, he knew a travel agent - please let me get him on the phone. The first one wanted 250 EGP, the second wanted 100 EGP and me to take a taxi he would provide to Cairo. I thanked them both, hung up and returned the guard his personal phone he was so quick to get them on. No, I told him, I'm headed to Israel. He looked unhappy but didn't stop me.

So, I went back into Israel. Fortunately, I didn't put any of the various restrictions on myself I've heard of a lot of people doing. Won't fly, never go back into a country once they've left it, etc. I figured, hey fuck - what I'm doing is hard enough. I don't need to try to increase the difficulty.

I got a taxi and told him of my plan to stop by the Egyptian consulate. Could we make a stop along the way, I asked. Oh, by the way, what sort of soda do you drink? Super. We stopped by a grocery store and I bought him and myself a soda and we continued on. Thank you HTWFAIP (see #4, in the section 'Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking' - and if you haven't read this book yet even though it was mentioned in a previous blog of mine, you're fucking it up). That seven ILS soda saved me plenty of money later and made the journey much more companionable. Especially since it was a twenty or thirty minute drive rather than the five minute walk I'd been told earlier.

It turned out that unknown to me, I needed a picture. The cab driver, now my helper, knew where to get a picture and since he'd known the lady for twenty some years, he made sure I got a good rate.

After I got the picture and headed back, I spoke to the person who was having me fill out more paperwork. I managed to get him to glaze over the part where it required an Israeli address. What the fuck, thought I. Eventually, the paperwork was done and I triumphantly handed it over. Please wait in those chairs over there for one hour I was told. I was mystified at how a simple stamp could take an hour. That's what it takes, I was told. I gave the cab driver the last of my remaining sheckles (ILS). Though it wasn't enough, he didn't mind and took off. I'm telling you that

I'm going to estimate that I spent approximately $100 USD on this bullshit. Hence, if I manage to live on half my allowance for a bit under a week, it's a wash. With the hotel and such I managed to get in Luxor, it is possible. Given the amount of tourist shit I can see in Luxor, I'm going to rate it as 'unlikely'.

After getting my expensive and wonderful stamp - which cost me more than if I'd succumb to the evil tour guides - though I felt better doing it my way - I decided to hang out at the beach front resort place for an extra day. I was exhausted fighting Egyptian bureaucracy. Again, if you want to visit Egypt, fly into fucking Cairo - period.

I went to Newiba. I don't know if their was an 'Oldiba' but if there was, my guess is it rotted away. My first thought I had when I got to Newiba is "Not a nice place you have here."

After I'd bothered the locals into showing me where I could get food, I went and bought something called a 'computer dongle'. I'm not sure exactly what is up with it but you plug it into your USB port and it gives you internet. You are suppose to have a phone to be able to use this (as well as give up various information like your passport number and such but that can all be faked) but I just asked one of the guys who was working at the 'Soft Beach' place for his cell phone and had the code sent there to activate it. Time to download some counter Egyptian revolutionary things! Actually, no, I don't want to be responsible for that guy getting shot. So, I got emergency internet for Egypt. I had to for Soft Beach because despite what I was told when I was thinking about checking in ("You can borrow my wife's internet dongle any time you want!") it turned out to again be a 'lie'. ("You can sometimes borrow my wife's internet dongle for five or ten minutes.")

A quote from Christina on the Sinai: "The Sinai is more free than the rest of Egypt. You have space and the influence of tourists."

If you're wanting to just chill out and watch the ocean for a few days, you could do worse. If you want to be 'plugged in' at all, don't go there.

So, I prepared to go to Luxor via a fairly twisted route. That's when I ran into my first 'baksheesh beggar'.

I really thought he worked for the bus company. He seemed to know the bus guys and they him. He opened the door, I put my bag onto the bus and he closed the cargo door and to my surprise demanded backsheesh. I gave him one of the one EGP coins I keep for just such a purpose. He did the 'is that all I get' thing after getting it. I said "You opened the door, you closed the door. Get over it." He seemed satisfied with that answer.

After some waiting I got into the bus which smelled vaguely of mold and old piss. I had a sneaking suspicion that the ride would really suck and oh boy, was I right.



TRAVELER'S TIPS

If you wish to visit Egypt, always fly into Cairo. You automatically get full access to the country for a month. Never cross directly into the Sinai as it will get you a limited two week only visa. [For those of you who knew it, don't even say "I could have told you that" because I'd posted my travel plans and nobody said shit.]

Keep extra pictures of yourself in your passport. Take them out before handing them to someone or the odds are great that they will fall on the floor and the idiot you handed them to will just look at you while you try to gather them up. But if they're in your passport you'll have them for those completely unexpected situations that will arise. Also, note that you can get these pictures made for much less over seas than in the US where they are completely shameless about the price of 'passport photos' since a 'passport' is a rare thing. [One in five, according to the almighty internet, let us praise it.]

Use people's lack of English against them if it helps you get through borders more easily or to get what you want. If you think it is unethical, sneaky or underhanded - you're absolutely right. But be advised that many will use their 'lack' of English on you. I personally try not to use this too often as I'd rather make friends than have frustrated, pissed off border guards and such but when it comes time to cut a little red tape, this well help. Sometimes, they will try to get around it by putting you in touch with someone they believe speaks better English on the phone. This won't, naturally, help you. Unless the person is a native speaker (I haven't come across that yet) the connection is usually bad and they speak worse English than they think they do. Sometimes, I will even repeat back words which sound like the ones they are trying to communicate. Check might become 'chicken' for example. This sort of incomprehension is a good one in your arsenal against idiocy.

You can (and should) bargain for everything - I mean everything - in Egypt. If you don't like to bargain, you have three other options. You can be ripped off a lot and be seen as a chump by the locals, you can bring along someone mentally tougher on your trip or you can stay home. When I say 'everything', I recently was bargaining for a bottle of soda from a grocery store. I'm not kidding, a bottle of soda. The proprietor had inflated the price a bit (not much at all but it's still annoying) and so I bargained for it and a bottle of water. This got the grudging acceptance of the shop keeper who then became more friendly.

Carry a lot of one EGP coins for the 'baksheesh beggars'. That way, you can give them one after they do something nice for you - give you directions, open a door for you, whatever. Horde these coins. Find ways to get more - you'll need them.



TRAVELER'S LORE

There is a rumor that visa extensions may be easier to acquire in the 'Luxor Passport Office' in the south of the town center, virtually opposite of the Isis Hotel. Open SA to TH, 8-8. [I'll report on this when I find out.]

Despite the bad news I've read with Sudan, it is suppose to be a nice place to travel with friendly people. You can get a visa pretty easily from Aswan - it is much harder to get one from America or Europe. [It bears thinking about and possibly more research. It would provide a gateway into Ethiopia (or Somalia if I wanted to become a pirate or get my throat slit. I could go from Ethiopia into Kenya and go on some big game hunts. I figure if I'm going to eat, it should be a steady diet of endangered animals.] Now - and this is the important bit. While you're in Sudan, you have to go to the capital city and find a special office to get a stamp or something in order to leave Sudan.

Although this may be going away once the new government starts, it is possible to get a long term (1 year) visa for Egypt for 120 EGP. This is done only in Sharmm el Sheikh. In Cairo, they only give out 6 month visas.



TIDBITS

Apparently, the type of backgammon I play is called 'sheesh besh'. I don't know what the fuck that means.

There is a good bean food called 'fuul' (rather than 'fool' as I had spelled it before).




COSTS

Sinai beachfront resort huts - 40 EGP for the small room (stifling hot, no fan), 60 EGP for the larger room that came with a fan. [Because I know how to bargain, I got the small hut with a fucking fan.]

Laundry, 2 EGP/piece, ironed. Because I bargain with everything, 1.5 EGP without ironing.

Newiba to Sharm el Sheikh, not too expensive by bus, 60 EGP though the ferry I've heard is difficult to catch.

Going to get the special visa talked about above, 65 ILS for single entry, 110 ILS for multiple entry.

Bus from Newiba to Dahab (only at 16:30) 25 EGP.

Sampler platter of food in Newiba, 15 EGP. More meat (fuck eating most of it), an additional 8 EGP.

sharm el Sheikh to Cairo, 55-65 EGP. [Note, before you get too excited about how cheap travel on bus is, remember that it is complete hell.]

Taxi from Soft Beach to bus station, 20 EGP.

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PICTURES

{{2011}} London, GB | Rail N Sail | Amsterdam, Netherlands | Prague, Czech Republic | Budapest, Hungary | Sarajevo, Bosnia | Romania | Chisinau, Moldova | Ukraine: Odessa - Sevastopol | Crossed Black Sea by ship | Georgia: Batumi - Tbilisi - Telavi - Sighnaghi - Chabukiani | Turkey: Kars - Lost City of Ani - Goreme - Istanbul | Jordan: Amman - Wadi Rum | Israel | Egypt: Neweiba - Luxor - Karnak - Cairo | Thailand: Bangkok - Pattaya - Chaing Mai - Chaing Rei | Laos: Luang Prabang - Pakse | Cambodia: Phnom Penh | Vietnam: Vung Tau - Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City

{{2012}} Cambodia: Kampot - Sihanoukville - Siem Reap - Angkor Wat | Thailand: Bangkok | India: Rishikesh - Ajmer - Pushkar - Bundi - Udaipur - Jodhpur - Jasalmer - Bikaner - Jaipur - Agra - Varanasi | Nepal: Kathmandu - Chitwan - Pokhara - Bhaktapur - (Rafting) - Dharan | India: Darjeeling - Calcutta Panaji | Thailand: Bangkok - again - Krabi Town | Malaysia, Malaka | Indonesia: Dumas - Bukittinggi - Kuta - Ubud - 'Full Throttle' - Gili Islands - Senggigi | Cambodia: Siem Reap | Thailand: Trat | Turkey: Istanbul | Georgia: Tbilisi

{{2013}} Latvia: Riga | Germany: Berlin | Spain: Malaga - Grenada | Morocco: Marrakech - Essauira - Casablanca - Chefchawen - Fes | Germany: Frankfurt | Logan's Home Invasion USA: Virginia - Michigan - Indiana - Illinois - Illinois - Colorado | Guatemala: Antigua - San Pedro | Honduras: Copan Ruinas - Utila | Nicaragua: Granada | Colombia: Cartagena | Ecuador: Otavalo - Quito - Banos - Samari (a spa outside of Banos) - Puyo - Mera

{{2014}} Peru: Lima - Nasca - Cusco | Dominican Republic | Ukraine: Odessa | Bulgaria: Varna - Plovdiv | Macedonia: Skopje - Bitola - Ohrid - Struga | Albania: Berat - Sarande | Greece: Athens | Italy: Naples - Pompeii - Salerno | Tunisia: Hammamet 1

{{2015}} Hammamet 2 | South Africa: Johnnesburg | Thailand: Hua Hin - Hat Yai | Malaysia: Georgetown | Thailand: Krabi Town | Indonesia:
Sabang Island | Bulgaria: Plovdiv | Romania: Ploiesti - Targu Mures | Poland: Warsaw | Czech Republic: Prague | Germany: Munich | Netherlands: Groningen | England: Slough | Thailand: Ayutthaya - Khon Kaen - Vang Vieng | Cambodia: Siem Reap

{{2016}} Thailand: Kanchanaburi - Chumphon | Malaysia: Ipoh - Kuala Lumpur - Kuching - Miri | Ukraine: Kiev | Romania: Targu Mures - Barsov | Morocco: Tetouan

{{2017}} Portugal: Faro | USA: Virginia - Michigan - Illinois - Colorado | England: Slough - Lancaster

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