Can’t a Guy Just Get Out of the Sinai Peninsula? Please?

Moses was not the only one trying to get out of Egypt…  There are three travel stories of mine that family and friends greatly enjoy, remind me of, and ask to re-tell.  One is easier to tell than the other and it involved a monkey and me in Tanzania.  But that is for another day…  The second one is about a public restroom in a French train station and getting locked in.  Also for another day.  I almost forget these stories until out of nowhere, in some group gathering, someone will bring them up.  The third and longer story is the one I will tell you here.  It is not that it is ROFL-funny, nor I-was-in-serious-danger-scary.  But it has a little bit of many things…

Picture this:  Sharm-el-Sheikh, the Sinai Peninsula, 1998 

I’d gone to Egypt with 4 friends on a whim.  They had planned the trip a few weeks in advance (planning meaning they had a plane ticket and knew the parts of Egypt they wanted to hit).  I suddenly had availability to take off from work and planned on joining them like 2 weeks before the trip.  I love that stuff.  But, because I joined them later, my travel differed from them.  On top of that, I had decided to go see a friend in Istanbul afterwards.

We get to the Sinai Peninsula by flying from Luxor after exploring Nile-hugging Egypt.  Well, 4 of us, the 5th took a bus to Hurghada and then I-don’t-know-what.  (He told us he severely regretted taking the long painful bus ride…)  Sharm-el-Sheikh, to be more precise, was our destination.  Sharm is a popular resort town that many foreigners come to sun and scuba in; some don’t even hit Cairo when they come from Europe to vacation in Sharm.

The others in my group were scuba divers and I wasn’t so after a day of snorkeling, I was ready to explore other things.  So I went to the St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai from Moses, burning bush and 10 commandment fame.  We also did some off-road fun roading in a Hummer through red canyons in the area.  And, I took a flight to Aqaba, Jordan from which I would take a 2 hour bus to see Petra.  Phenomenal day trip but long.  And with implications…

It’s the Little Glitches…

There was one little glitch in my independent travel.  Specifically, the one to Jordan.  You see, the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt is surrounded by extra security that you are told it’s “because of the Israelis” except that seaside towns on the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula are flooded by Israeli tourists so clearly their military are not about to invade.  It is probably more because of the Bedouin who live in the remote areas of the peninsula and who do not get along with the central government from Cairo or its representatives on the peninsula (trust me, this matters to my story!).  So, the area around Sharm-el-Sheikh in the Sinai Peninsula is actually a special zone.  Special for military, special for foreigners.  Europeans are a big market for this resort town and come in charter flights from everywhere in Europe.  To attract them and make things easier, the visa requirement to get to Egypt doesn’t apply to get to Sharm-el-Sheikh.  But if tourists who enter Egypt DIRECTLY by flying to Sharm want to go elsewhere in Egypt, they need to get a normal Egyptian tourist visa to cross through the checkpoints around this special security/tourism zone.

A Stereotype Helps Me

When I boarded the little plane to Jordan, I invalidated my entry visa into Egypt (I had entered through Cairo).  No problem, I was returning to Sharm where I did not need a visa to get in (it was not that I had had one already for Egypt; that one was now invalidated when I left the country).  Except no one told me as I cleared immigration at Sharm’s airport that there was this thing and that if I were going to Cairo, I would need a new visa to enter “mainland” Egypt which I could get right then and there.  So, with this background, you can understand the setup and where this is headed.

I had to return to Cairo to catch my flight to Istanbul.  So, I get instructions from the hotel on where the bus stop is, they hail me a taxi and I wait at the stop with other tourists and locals.  I get on the bus, happily and ready to get back to Cairo.  Not 10 minutes later we hit the first military/security checkpoint.  They come on board and want to see everyone’s papers so I provide my passport.  A few minutes later, I am made to get off the bus with my things.  I am a little shocked but don’t want to challenge anyone with big guns.  They explain to me I need a visa to “enter” Egypt.  I say that I have one but they tell me that was voided when I left the country (they could see my Jordan entry/exit stamps – such efficiency I am sure is rare in Egyptian bureaucracy, except at this checkpoint!).  So I ask if I can get the visa there but it is just a checkpoint on the road so I am told I need to go back to Sharm to the port (or the airport) to get the visa.  They proceed to stop the next car coming the OTHER way and tell the guy he has to take me to Sharm, to the port.  I have no idea what they literally said as I don’t speak Arabic.  All I know is I am being told to get in this stranger’s car and that does not please me.  Stereotypes can be valuable:  this guy had a few dry cleaning items hanging from the backseat oh-shit handle so I took some measure of reassurance that maybe this guy was not a serial killer.

Re-Directed at the Port

He didn’t speak English so he just drove on with me in the car (I guess they do what they are told) and dropped me off at the port’s entrance (I offered him money which he refused – talk about setting me straight!) where two 18-year old guards with big guns greet me.  They don’t understand me much but one takes me to the office building but only if I leave my large backpack and shoulder bag (with my more important valuables!) at the gate.  Well, no choice but to comply.  Off I go to the office, where I am told I need a stamp.  I reply questioningly of the official:  isn’t that what I am there for, to get the visa?  The official says yes but the visa requires a stamp be bought from the bank; the stamp indicates that I paid for the visa so he can then stamp the passport.  They don’t sell the stamps at the port so I am told to head into town to go to the bank and get the stamp and come back.  Off I go, to claim my belongings hoping they are still all there.  They are.  The entrance to the port is on this little circle of a street off the main road in the middle of nowhere beyond the west end of Sharm, and not close to the main road.  But providentially a taxi with a passenger is passing right by and I stop it.

The passenger is one of the many expats who live in Sharm who work in tourism.  In her case in the boats that take people out to scuba.  She is Italian and tells me she is trying to get to the drugstore intown and for some reason they went through this side road (it still makes no sense why as it is only a half-circle with nothing else but the port entrance).  So we head intown and they drop me off at the bank.

Sorry, No Cigar at the Bank

I go to the big dark door and it is locked.  I knock and eventually someone opens up and tells me they are closed for the rest of the day.  I beg and plead that I just need this one stamp and would they please.  No way.  So I stand there going “what the heck” and he tells me to try at the airport where the bank’s branch there is likely open (I can’t remember if it was a Friday or just lunch hour break).

So, the airport is at the OPPOSITE end of Sharm-el-Sheikh.  And I am running low on Egyptian pounds.  Remember I was supposed to leave Egypt the next morning and my only expected expense after getting to Cairo would be dinner and hotel which I could pay with credit card so I was trying to not withdraw more local money.  I hail a cab who takes me to the airport where, if I need to, I will withdraw more money thinking I will have a lot left over if I get money…  At the airport, I face what looks like two tourist buses about to offload into the little security area to enter the terminal so I forget about the money question.  I am itching to get back to catch the bus to Cairo before it gets too late.  The taxi drops me right in front of the buses so I manage to avoid most people getting off and their drama.

Victory.  I buy the darn stamp no problem and get another taxi to take me back to the port.  I get to the port and my, by now, good friends at the gate are waving at me and smiling as they see me get off the taxi, as if seeing an old friend (I wonder what they were really thinking!).  I know the routine so I drop the backpack but manage to take my shoulder bag with me to the office accompanied by one of the friendly soldiers.  A clerk tells me his boss, the official I had spoken to earlier, had left for a few hours and that I should go and try later.  At that point, I am taken over by a mix of outrage and acting skills.

Acting up at the Port

I huff, sit down on a chair and say I would wait as I need to make it to Cairo that night to catch my flight the next day at the crack of dawn.  The clerk seems taken aback by my reaction and insists I need to leave and come back later.  To me, that is the stupidest thing for many reasons.  Where would I go with luggage and little cash (I had not withdrawn money at the airport)?  What if I missed the official again when he came back? etc.  So I said I was intending to wait and that was that.  Immediately, I pull out my book (“History of the Arab Peoples”!) and plop down even further into my chair which clearly exasperates him.  He goes off to his little desk and gets on the phone and starts what sounds like yelling and gesticulating.  In Egypt that could be he is angry or just that he is telling his wife he loves her.  It is hard to tell the difference.  Time passes and I am flipping the book’s pages furiously as if I am actually reading it (I am not as I can’t focus at this point) and as if the book’s pages are to blame for this little chaos in my day.  I wasn’t angry – but I was close to tears not for fear but for sheer frustration at what I could not control and at being in this situation because I didn’t research and because immigration at the Sharm airport had not offered information I could have needed…

What seems forever-later but probably was just 45 minutes, the official comes back not quite in his full uniform (official may make him sound too mundane a goverment person; he seemed to have a position of power in the port).  He talks to the clerk and calls me into his office where he reviews my passport.  He asks me “Did you give him money?” referring to the clerk. I realize I am at a critical juncture here.  So I go with the truth and a twist.  “No, should I have?”  He shakes his head no, stamps the visa on the passport, and waves me off.  I start walking out of the building faster with each step before anyone thinks of anything else for me to comply with.  I smile at the guards, they are smiling at me, I pick up my stuff and wave these friendly guys goodbye.

Success Breeds the Need for a Plan to Get Out

Now to find a taxi with my luggage in this remote corner of Sharm.  Nothing in sight.  Not the random luck of the first time leaving the port.  I start walking towards the main road when, around the bend and behind this massive rock, there in the shade is a taxi parked.  Its driver is off to the side by the rock, with a pail of water cleansing his face and arms.  I can’t believe my eyes (and I wish so badly I had taken a picture of this).  But there he is and he is willing to take me back into town!!

I don’t quite know if the bus stop is the best place to go as it is barely a stop.  I need to know when is the next bus to Cairo though I begin contemplating heading back to the airport and catching a flight and be done with the military checkpoints on the road – I don’t want to give bad luck a chance!  But a flight would set me back money-wise a good bit.  I decide it would be best to head back to the hotel (the Sanafir) since they were so helpful.  They immediately get on the phone, make a few calls, and tell me a bus to Cairo is about to be at the bus stop in less than 10 minutes!!  So they run outside with me, hail a cab, tell him where to take me, and tell him to do it fast.   I like how they took ownership of helping me out!

I make it to the stop and get on the bus.  Praying nothing else comes up at the checkpoint.  It doesn’t.  I am on my way to freaking Cairo to leave Egypt almost like Moses and his people.  The main story ends here but let me drive it all the way home until I am at my hotel in Heliopolis.

The Bus Ride and the Finish Line

Since this stop is after the intown stop(s), the bus is pretty full.   The bus was mostly Egyptians with a smattering of tourists (funnily, mostly towards the front).  I sit near the back next to a fellow maybe my age that spoke some English.  We speak a little bit until the movie started to play in the little overhead TVs:  Speed.  Let me tell you, that is not the movie you want to see while your bus is careening up the Sinai with ever-so-slight movements side-to-side…  It eventually gets dark and I miss seeing the Suez Canal with any clarity so I can’t say I’ve seen it.  But I don’t care at this moment.  The guy and I pick up talking as we approach Cairo and I ask him how far my hotel is from the bus station.  He tells me not far and that he will get his brother, who is picking him up, to drop me off on their way home.  I cringe at getting into another stranger’s car but besides being close to out of money, I just don’t care anymore.  I’ve had a long and action-packed day and I don’t care.  I ask him for his address to send him a post card from Atlanta (which I did send) and proceed to take the ride to my hotel.  I say my goodbyes and happily enter my hotel for a nice shower and bedtime as I have an early flight out.

So ends the story of my leaving the Sinai Peninsula.  Had my friends been with me, it would have been a little more fun for sure.  But I am glad I am tenacious and able to think things through on the spot.  I just don’t like HAVING to do it like I did that day!!

One observation:  I did not meet one single person that day that was rude to me.  The bank guy was not rude, he was just neutral and did not care.  The port clerk?  He was probably going to be reprimanded for making his boss come back to the port from his afternoon break but he probably understood I needed the visa to leave and hence called him to come back.  Most Egyptians along this experience were friendly and helpful.  That (which matches experiences in Aswan and Luxor) is why I always think fondly of Egypt and its people.  But lesson learned:  traveler beware of visa requirements as they could vary WITHIN a country!!!


Photo(s) of the Week – Going down the Nile in a Felucca

Many moons ago I went to Egypt for the first time, deciding -on a whim- to join several co-workers who had planned to go for 7-10 days with no plans other than a plane ticket.  Among the many things we did, we hired a felucca to take us around for 24 hrs from Aswan to a point downriver where we would catch a caravan towards Luxor.

One of the neat things about this approach was the ability to get away from the crowds, the noise, the everyday (for us!) and get a little closer to the Nile and its surroundings.

Captain Bob, our felucca captain, and his assistant cooked for us on the felucca and we slept pretty much under the stars (it got cold!!!).  Though they brought bottled water for cooking, the cleaning of utensils and pots happened with river water with the associated impact to my stomach the next morning.

But, you know what?  I’d go through it again just to get to experience the Nile like this for the first time.  Now, I would NOT suffer that again for a second time.  The second time, I will be more picky with my source of food but I highly recommend doing the felucca ride for 24 hours.  Just peaceful!!!

In the end, it was about getting to awesome Luxor.  Though the caravan was required due to safety concerns in the area south of Luxor and it felt odd to us, we made it to the destination – Luxor has a lot to offer so don’t miss it!

Temple at Luxor

A younger version of yours truly in Luxor with my OWN private sphinx

Read my funny story about trying to get out of the Sinai peninsula to get to Cairo.

Photo of the Week – New for the Blog!

A new add-on to the blog… I have so many pictures from the places I have been to… since pictures sometimes say more than 1,000 words (or “1K” words to be more modern…), I’d thought I’d share them.  No use just having them on my laptop!  Though I will not be able to post the next couple of weeks (I may post a second one this week to make up for it), no sense waiting to kick it off!

This is from a trip in 1998 when we took a felucca down the Nile for a 24-hr voyage.  We slept on the felucca, outdoors (a first for me).  It was cold in the evening and we had blankets that probably dated to the 1950s when they were last washed.  But they were heavenly given how cold it was…  Waking up to this in such a unique place in the world was a great experience and one of my best memories.

Visiting Old Cairo – and Feeling Cairo

I am fortunate to have visited Cairo two times:  once in 1998 and then in 2007.  The first with friends and the second for work.  However, while we hit some of the key places to see in Cairo in the first trip, one grave mistake was not to explore Old Cairo…

A First-Timer in Cairo in 1998
Let me take a step back and tell you about the first visit to Cairo.  For that trip, I joined 4 friends about 2 weeks before they were to depart due to an opening in my work schedule in between projects.  There were no pre-defined itinerary or arrangements except the plane ticket and the hotel for the first night in Cairo as we were landing at night.  I didn’t fly with them as I was using miles to get there so I flew from Atlanta via Newark, Paris, and Istanbul to get to Cairo (I was going to visit Istanbul after Egypt).  The first thing that struck me as I got off the airplane and walked the steps was the smell of burning wood, followed quickly by the sense of being in a dry place!

My friends and I were supposed to meet at the airport (I was arriving after they did) but, when I got there, my friends were nowhere to be found.  Eventually, I was taken by a customs (or was it immigration?) official eager to take me to his cousin’s taxi business (funny how that works…).  I got his “cousin” to let me use his phone to ring our hotel in Cairo – my friends were already there!  What happened?  The airport had 2 different terminals and we had landed on opposite ones so they ended up going to the hotel.  I ended up riding with the customs official’s cousin who, try as he did, could not hit a pedestrian…

I will admit that I was uncharacteristically anxious being there my first time.  It was the year after the massacre of tourists at Queen Hatshepsut’s temple in Luxor where many were gunned down execution style.  It took the first full day of being in the city to get past this initial anxiety.  People’s friendliness made me feel welcome and comfortable and pretty soon I was back to normal mode:  ready to explore!

We decided to not spend too much time in Cairo but did want to see the essentials. As happens to most tourists, we were offered a camel ride to see the Pyramids “from behind” by first being taken to someone’s store or house (hard to tell the difference) where we were swayed to hire them with tea and plenty of smiles and friendliness.  Riding the camels was a fun ride but they ride differently than horses…  However, we did not see the Pyramids up close so we were left still wanting to do that. We tried again the next day to get close to the Pyramids by hiring horses to get us there.  I emphasized to our guide that if I didn’t touch the Pyramids, I would not pay – I really wanted to make sure we didn’t get cheated again from seeing them up close.  So he made my horse gallop super fast either to pay me back for being demanding or to make sure he could get us further than he had planned in the time he had!

Yet ANOTHER picture of the Pyramids!

Next on the list:  The Mohammed Ali Mosque in The Citadel ( which was spectacular (as was the Citadel itself).  For sure, one of the best places to see!

Dome of Mohamad Ali Mosque at the Citadel in Cairo, Egypt

Mohamad Ali Mosque

We visited the Egyptian Museum which, as you can imagine, have some neat things to show from pharaonic times for those who enjoy the topic.  We also hired a car to drive us to Saqqara, a step pyramid south of the city.  The site was worth the trip but the drive to it also allowed us to see life outside of the city (e.g., bread being made on a wood burning “stove” by the side of the road).

The end of our stay in Cairo came quickly and we took the overnight train which would take us to the southern city of Aswan.  So ended my first visit to Cairo back in 1998…

Cairo Re-Visited Almost 10 Years Later

I returned to Cairo on business to attend a conference with colleagues from around the world.  Having gone once and checked out the main sights, it was actually very nice to return and not feel the pressure of visiting a must-see list of places.  Instead, we discovered hole-in-the-wall places to eat at, hired a boat for a group of us to cruise up and down the Nile at night, visited Khan el-Khalili (the bazaar or souk), etc.  It was a very nice way to enjoy Cairo and just be.  In fact, we return to el-Khalili another day not only to shop but, again, to sit and watch life go by – so enjoyable!

Around one of the entrances to Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

Around one of the entrances to Khan el-Khalili

Exploring Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

Exploring Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

An alley in Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

I did add to my list of visited sites the Old City which I missed the first time there.  What a tremendous miss on a visit to Egypt!  The Old City is a phenomenal corner of the large metropolis and full of neat architecture and history…  I am glad I got to “re-do” Cairo so I could correct my rookie mistake from 1998!

We first visited the Amr Mosque (Mosque of Amr ibn al-As), first mosque built in Egypt (and Africa) initially built in the 7th century but built-on and expanded over the centuries.

Mosque in Old City Cairo

Mosque in Old City Cairo

…then the Church of St. George (originally built in the 10th century but completely re-built in 1904)…

Church of St. George in Old City Cairo, Egypt

Church of St. George

Church of St. George, Cairo, Egypt

Light in the dome of the Church of St. George

St. George slaying the dragon in St. George Coptic Church in Cairo, Egypt

Detail at the entrance to St. George Church: St. George on his Arabian horse slaying the dragon

… thenthe Hanging Church (St. Virgin Mary’s Church, largely rebuilt in the 10th century but originally built on the 7th; the main nave is built over a passageway, hence the name “hanging”)…

Mural in the entrance to the Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt

Mural in the entrance to the Hanging Church

First entrance to the Hanging Church

First entrance to the Hanging Church

Facing out from the front porch of the Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt

Facing out from the front porch of the Hanging Church, a narrow entrance in a crowded part of town!

Doorway in the Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt

Doorway in the Hanging Church

Interior of the Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt

Interior of the Hanging Church

and the Ben Ezra Synagogue.  However, this was not a matter of just visiting important sites as I had always been curious about Coptic Egypt.  I really liked the Old City as it was loaded with history and meaning:  just about anywhere you look, there is an interesting site or alley!

Crypt of the Holy Family under St. Sergius Church in Old City Cairo, Egypt

Crypt of the Holy Family under St. Sergius Church

Cairo – Always Something New to Experience
My second trip differed significantly from the first in many ways.  However, Cairo offered me great experiences both times. The city itself awes you (or intimidates you!) as it teems with so many people, so many cars, and so many sounds (and do watch out for those cars!).  Some of my favorite images are those of the people I interacted with or saw in their day-to-day life.

Tea server crossing street in Cairo with a tray full of tea

The world’s most dedicated and daring tea server: crossing the crazy streets of Cairo with a tray-full of tea!

Taking bread from the bakery around Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

Taking a load of fresh bread from a bakery around the suk in Cairo, Khan el-Khalili

Tea drinking at Khan el-Khalili, the suk in Cairo, Egypt

Sipping tea while watching others play a game in Khan el-Khalili

It can be initially daunting but then, if you let yourself wander a little and soak life in, say, at a local tea shop, you can begin to see beyond the main things that draw us to go there in the first place – really get a feel for the tempo of and life in this ancient and fascinating city.

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