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. Okay...no 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
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"
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
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
"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
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....one day....) Oh, and you will be glad to
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).
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 classic...is 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 there...here 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!
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
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 much...at 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 cause....like 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,
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