Pyramids Good, Bureaucracy Bad!

Mark it down folks--August 14, 2005.  What date is that, you say?  The day that I finally, after eight months of living in Egypt, got to go visit the pyramids in Cairo!  This was something I have been wanting to do for a long time (and I'm talking "long time" as in even before moving here), and I was very glad to finally get the opportunity! 

But first, I have to tell you about another eventful trip I took to Cairo--this one on August 9.  (By the way, I definitely do not recommend going to Cairo twice in one week...unless you're already insane.)  I had to renew my Multiple Re-entry Visa since it was only good for six months.  I got up at 5 a.m. in order to catch the 7 a.m. train out of Alex.  The plan was to get to Cairo and the Mogamma (the government building where the visa renewal place is) as early as possible.  If you wait until too late in the day, they won't have your visa ready on the same day and you have to go back the next day for it.  Well, I did not want to do that--I just wanted this to be a one-day affair (as a general rule, I like to spend as little time in Cairo as possible).

I made it to the Mogamma at about 10:30.  I can only describe the Mogamma as a nightmarish maze of bureaucratic inefficiency being incompetently navigated by a large number of people--who, by the way, are all trying to do pretty much the same thing.  You have to push and shove just to get from one place to another, and then push and shove your way up to the window or desk you want to get to.  Oh, and did I mention that there's no AC in the main area and that August in Egypt is hot?  =)

When I got there, I first had to go to the window marked "Re-entry visas" to get the application form.  I told the lady there that I wanted a Multiple Re-entry Visa, filled out the application, and took it back to that window.  That lady said I had to go to the stamp window and buy the appropriate number of stamps.  So I went over to the stamp window, where, after pausing for about half a second to cast a glance of pity at some foreigners who were attempting to form a line, I did the Egyptian thing and pushed my way to the front (with all the Arabs), completely ignoring the "line."  (It must have been the first time in the Mogamma for some of those poor souls in "line"--I guess they'll learn soon enough that Egyptians aren't too keen on the line thing.)   When I got to the window, I pointed to the Multiple Re-entry Visa currently in my passport, and said I wanted one just like that.  He said it would be 51 pounds.  51 pounds!!!  Last time it was only 16!  51 still wasn't that expensive, but it was quite a price hike, and I wondered if I was being had.  So I argued with him a bit, making sure he knew what I wanted and telling him I had only paid 16 last time, just in case he misunderstood which visa I was asking for.  But he said he understood and that the price had just gone up.  He even asked the guy next to him behind the window to confirm that it was 51 now (as if that proved anything).  I still didn't believe it until I saw another Arab come up asking for the same thing and they charged him 51 as well.

So then I paid the 51 and went back to the lady with my application.  She also confirmed that 51 was the new price, and said I had to put the stamps on the application and then get the policeman to sign it. probl...wait.  Policeman?  What policeman?  This was a new step since the last time I came.  I asked her where this policeman was and she waved her hand somewhere in the direction of left.  So I walked that way and approached the first Passport Policeman I saw and asked him to sign my application.  He had no idea what I was talking about.  I told him the lady had said a policeman had to sign it, and he said, "Which lady?"  So I took him back to the window with the lady, and they sorted it out.  Turns out there was a desk farther on down where I could find the policeman that needed to sign my paper.  I finally made it to that desk and once again pushed and shoved my way up to the front.  The policeman looked over my application and signed it.  Then I returned to the lady and asked her if that was all I needed to do and she said yes, now it was done.  I started to breathe a sigh of relief and began thinking of how early I would be able to get out of there and back to Alex, when she looked at me and said, "You'll just need to come back at 2."  DOH!  So much for getting back to Alex early!  It was 11 or 11:30 by that time, so at least that wasn't going to be too bad of a wait. 

I called up some of my friends in Cairo to see if they were free, and I ended up hanging out with them until it was time to go back to the Mogamma.  When I got back to the Mogamma shortly after 2, my visa and passport were ready.  I was very glad to be done in one day.  As I walked down the stairs to exit the building, I thought maybe I should check to make sure they put the right visa into my passport.  I looked in there and what did I see but a Single Re-entry Visa, not a multiple!  I marched right back upstairs to the window with the lady and told her that wouldn't work, that I had specifically asked for the multiple.  She said, "But you only paid for the single re-entry."  Well, I didn't know the new prices since they increased them, and the man at the stamp window had said it was 51 pounds!  I pointed to the price list on her wall, which still showed the old prices, and asked her how much it was supposed to be, and she said 61.  I asked if I could just pay the 10-pound difference and get it fixed.  But she said no, they couldn't do that, I just had to use the one I had been given the next time I re-entered the country, and then come back and buy a new one.  Basically what this means is that if I want to leave the country more than once in the next 6 months (which I may very well do), I will pay 112 pounds instead of just 61.  I was not happy, but I did manage to smile and thank her on my way out.

After that semi-waste of a day, I wanted nothing more than to get back home to Alex.  I hadn't bought a return train ticket yet, since I wasn't sure when I would finish at the Mogamma. 
So when I arrived at the train station at about 2:50, I didn't even go to the ticket window, since I was in no mood to wait until I could get a ticket.  I just walked straight toward the 3:00 train and got on that sucker.   (I am really liking this "no ticket necessary" policy.)

As I was standing there in a hallway between two of the cars and just trying to breathe, a group of four 20-something Jordanians got on.  There were three guys and one girl.  They were laughing nervously and generally just looked confused.  I smiled and said to them, "You don't have tickets, do you?"  They said no, and I said it was okay, I didn't either.  They asked if they would still be able to ride the train, and I said sure, people do it all the time, I had done it before, etc.  Well, they were still nervous, and two of the guys got off the train to see if they could find when the next train with tickets available would take off.  Well, I bet you can guess what happened next--the train took off before those two got back on!  Then the remaining guy and girl were really nervous and were frantically calling their friends on their cell phones.  I told them to calm down, and that their friends could just catch the next train.  We were speaking half in Arabic and half in English.  They said it was kind of hard for them to understand the Egyptian Arabic (I had heard before that the Arabic in other countries was different from Egyptian Arabic), so I had to help "translate" for them a little when the ticket guy came by.

When he came, we paid for our tickets and then he said he'd look for seats for us.  We happened to be on one of the sleeper-type trains, with private compartments instead of rows of seats.  Eventually he found one with an empty bench on one side where the three of us could sit.  As we were walking to these seats, the Jordanians started asking me how much they should tip him.  I told them, but then they paid 3 times the amount I said!  I asked, "Why did you pay that much?"  They were so nervous they had no idea what they were doing and were still not very familiar with the Egyptian currency.

Anyway, throughout the ride we talked a bit more, and every time we passed a train station, they would ask me if that was Alexandria.  I was like, no, children, we're not there yet.  As we got closer to Alex, I asked them if they knew which of the two Alex stations they needed to get off at.  They immediately started panicking and calling their friends.  I said not to worry, the stations weren't all that far apart and it was no big deal.  I asked them where in town they were going, figuring if I knew where their end destination was, I could advise them as to which station would be closer.  Well, they named some place I had never heard of, so I said maybe they should ask the guy sitting across from us.  They discussed amongst themselves and then turned to me and said, "Could you ask him for us?"  What in the world?!?  Well, that was just too funny!  I wanted to say, "Arabic is your native language...just ask him!"  But I asked the man for them, and once I had begun the conversation, the Jordanians finally joined in.  Turns out that the place they wanted was not actually in Alexandria, but in a suburb east of town.  (See, I didn't know it because I don't do that boonies stuff.)  So I told them the best station to get off at would be the one where I was getting off, and that I'd help them.

As we got off, the ticket guy helped them get their bags out of storage and wanted a tip.  This was the same man who had helped us get our seats and that they had overtipped before.  The Jordanians looked at me questioningly, and I told them how much to give him, and this time they followed my advice.  The man of course wanted more since they had "spoiled" him earlier, and they started to get out more, but I told them to stop.  Then I basically told the man, "Look, they already gave you a large tip for helping us find the seats.  This is a fair tip, you don't need any more, and you know it!"  Then I told the Jordanians to follow me off the train.  The man didn't argue anymore about the tip. =)

I helped them get their bags to a place in the shade where they could wait for their friends.  They weren't going to end up having to wait too long, so they just decided to stay at the train station.  I showed them where to go to catch a taxi.  (The man in our compartment on the train that we asked for help had already told them what to say to the taxi driver and how much to pay.)  I then gave them my cell number to call if they ran into any difficulty.  I never heard from them again, so I guess they were okay.  Needless to say, this was one of the most bizarre experiences of my time here!  Afterwards, I shared this experience with some of my friends here who had lived in Jordan previously.  They said it was funny, but they weren't that surprised, because many Jordanians were hesitant about approaching strangers and got out of sorts when they didn't know what was going on.

Anyway...on to the pyramids!  The Mogamma trip was on a Tuesday, and I went to the pyramids on the following Sunday.  This day also started at 5 a.m., since I again needed to catch the 7 a.m. train.  My friends who live in Cairo knew of a microbus driver that we could hire for the day to take us to the pyramids, lunch, and then the Khan-el-Khalili (yes, I'd already been twice, but no matter...the Khan rocks!).  This was a good option, since there were about 10 of us going and it would have been a hassle (and much more expensive) to catch taxis everywhere.  So I met them at their apartment, and we all piled in the microbus and headed off.

Now I had seen the pyramids from the road before, and they are really big.  But as we actually drove up to the plateau where they were, they became incredibly big!  And when we got out and actually walked up to them, they were gigantic!  It was one of the coolest experiences to actually be able to touch them, and to be standing at a site that so many people throughout history have visited.

I didn't get to go inside any of the pyramids (which costs extra, by the way) on this visit.  They usually only open up one or two at a time, and somehow we were never at the right one at the right time.  But I did get to go underground inside another burial chamber (for free!), and that was neat.  We also had a great time riding camels around the pyramids.

Then we went over to see the Sphinx, and after that we went to the Pizza Hut/KFC across the way for lunch.  It is a three-story restaurant, and from their windows you can get great views of the Sphinx with the pyramids in the background. 

After that we went to the Khan-el-Khalili, where we did some shopping and where I visited my "co-worker" friends again.  They were all there and still remembered me, so that was good.  But again, I did not have time to stay and sell with them since I had to be getting back home.  (One day....)  Oh, and you will be glad to know that this time I actually got a ticket for the train before it pulled into the station, rather than just jumping on the first one I saw (however, I always retain that as an option).

View from the microbus    Click here to step off the microbus and take a tour of the Pyramids!

I know this is already long, but I must share one other story in the "bureaucratic nightmare" category.  (Well, this one wasn't so bad...maybe it's just in the "bureaucratic very bad dream" category.)  This one comes to you courtesy of the U.S. consulate here in Alexandria. 

I needed to get two documents notarized, so I checked online to see if the American embassy would do it.  They would, but a consul only comes to Alex the last Sunday of each month.  If you miss that time, then you have to go to Cairo.  Well, I figured I had already been to Cairo enough for one month, so I decided to go over to the place here in Alex on the last Sunday in August to see how that would go.  I saw online that it was open from 9 a.m.-4 p.m.  I arrived at about 12:30.  As I entered, they gave me a number and told me to take a seat with everyone else and wait for them to call my number.  I was number 64.  What follows is a little narrative of what was running through my head as I waited.

I sat down, and after about ten minutes I heard, "Number 27, number 27."  DOH!  I didn't even hesitate...I just got up and left the room.  I wandered around the building for a while to kill some time, then went back to the room to see what number they were on... "Number 31, number 31."  Oh man!  This was gonna be a long wait.  I hadn't even thought to bring a book and had not yet eaten lunch!  "Number 36, number 36."  I wondered if I should leave and go get something to eat.  But I didn't want to miss this one chance for the month!  "41, number 41!"  At least this was better than Cairo.  Yes, that's it! "Better than Cairo...better than Cairo..."  I just kept repeating the comforting mantra in my head as my life was slowly being sucked away.  "Number 47, 47 to the front."  I looked around and noticed that there were quite a few Western women there with Egyptian husbands half their age and much better-looking than their wives.  Could it be that some of these Egyptian men had ulterior motives?  Like obtaining an American green card?  Nah...I'm sure that wasn't it..... "Number 52, number 52."  Some people were paying with US dollars.  I hadn't seen a US dollar in a long time...and I stared at the green pieces of paper as if they were a rare piece of art.  The coloring looked so nice and it crazy to miss a particular currency?  "Number 55, 55."  I was starting to get a headache and wondered if the baby in the back would ever shut up.  I think he started crying around Number 33 or so.  "59, number 59."  I fingered my slip of paper and stared hard at the magical number 64, as if I could will it to come more quickly.  "Number 62."  Just a few more minutes...come on 64...come on 64.... "Number 63."  Almost we go...  "Number 62."  Wait a minute...what?!?!?  62?!?!?  You already called 62!!!  No way was this happening to me...please just say 64 for the love of... "64, number 64."  Whew!  Finally!  =)

I went up front and showed them the documents I wanted notarized and they said, "Leave the documents and your passport with us and take a seat.  Then wait for your name to be called."  More waiting!  But this time the wait wasn't nearly as long, and they called me back up shortly and notarized the things.  Then it came time for me to pay.  The website had said the notary fee was 180 Egyptian pounds.  So I had that money out and ready to pay, but they said, "No, it's 180 per document."  Well, this was just not my day.  Thankfully I had brought enough money to be able to pay for both documents.  (By the way, I think I now know where the embassy gets some of the money to pay for the lavish Fourth of July parties!)   Anyway, I finally got out of there about 3:30.  I won't complain too least the system was orderly and they had an air-conditioned room (with cushioned chairs!) for us to wait in.  That was much better than I can say for the Mogamma.

Oh, but do you want to know the best part?  About a week after getting those documents notarized, I was notified that they were not actually going to be needed after all. 

All you can do is laugh....

...after you scream for a while.  =)

I can comfort myself with the fact that my 360-pound "donation" probably went to a good more pieces of paper with numbers printed on them, or free Doritos for Canadians at the Fourth of July party......on second thought, maybe I'll just scream again.

But there really was some good to come out of this visit, because at least I found out where the American Cultural Center was located.  And I picked up a schedule of events--turns out that they offer several free programs each month (like movies, lectures, "how-to" seminars, and book discussions).  I think I might actually go to a few of these things.  After all, I paid for them, right?  =)

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