Coffe Table Photography book out now!
999 Days Around Africa: The Road Chose Me
The following morning the story plays out much the same, and again I find myself standing at the law courts, clutching a small piece of paper that is my number to wait in line. It’s 9:20am, and I’m holding number 192.
How long could that possibly take?
Over the day we drink coffee, talk strategy, and wait in a room with many hundreds of other people trying to deal with the government. It staggers me that regular Egyptians have to deal with this every day of their lives, and Ayman explains everyone has just learned to live with it, though they are obviously not happy about it. Occasionally someone blows up at the workers behind the counters, though everyone else just waits glassy-eyed. I join the latter.
At 2:50pm our number is slowly approaching when we learn I need a stamp in my passport indicating I’m “legal” in the country before we can do this business with the Power of Attorney. We almost run for ten minutes to get to the other building, where the guards at the entrance won’t even let us in. The boss went home at 3pm (it’s now 3:15pm) and nobody can stamp my passport. Ayman tries to plead in Arabic, but they’re having none of it.
We walk dejectedly back to the law courts and wait our turn anyway, though very quickly we’re told nothing can be done without the all-important stamp.
It has been an entire day on our feet and waiting in a crowded building to achieve literally nothing. Talk about disappointment.
At 5:30am the next morning when my alarm sounds, groundhog day has become very real.
After battling the same old traffic, I go directly to the law courts alone, hoping to get a number to again wait for the day. I arrive before the office opens at 8am, and so my name is taken and put on an informal list, and I’m told I am number 79. Over the next hour hundreds and hundreds of people arrive and push to the front, yelling, shoving and smoking. When the doors do open some people are allowed to shove through, while the rest of us wait. Eventually a man starts calling out names off the list, though everyone is yelling so loudly we can’t hear anyway. It seems people from the list are going in, but then the guy on the gate just lets in a wave of ten other people randomly, which causes everyone to push and yell more. This continues for 45 minutes before it becomes obvious waiting is a waste of time, and I will never get in.
I don’t like to, but I play the foreigner card on the insistence of other people I have been waiting with. I push to the front and when the guard sees my passport he immediately lets me inside. Without a word of Arabic I have to insist repeatedly I need a number from a particular section, and I’m finally handed number 123, much to my relief.
The yelling and screaming involved up until this point have been insane, and I can’t fathom why people behave this way. I’m tired and over-caffeinated (and sick of all the cigarette smoke) and can’t understand how anyone thinks this is an intelligent way to get things done.
Nevertheless I have my number, and so I walk across the city to get the stamp in my passport that caused failure yesterday.
In that building I find my way to the right place, and the girl behind the counter stamps my passport without a single question in less than five minutes. The stamp is in Arabic, and I hope I’ve done the right thing.
Later back at the law courts a translator arrives just before our number is called, and hilariously he speaks very bad English – much worse than Ayman. At the desk copies are made, stamps are stamped and fees are paid before we move to another window to duplicate it all into a computer, another window to duplicate it all for I don’t know why, another window to duplicate some of it, and then, finally, to the window of the boss lady.
Every single piece of paper in the entire building must pass her desk, and I stare blankly for thirty minutes as she hovers her big stamp above every single document in the building, either giving the stamp, or waiving disappointed people away.
I have to wonder what happens when she is away sick.
By some miracle we get what we need, pay the translator (he translated nothing), and feel we have finally achieved what we needed to in the law courts, after almost three full days of trying.
I secretly hope I will never set foot in the building ever again.
Again I’m moving before dawn, and again I’m battling traffic for longer than makes sense. I think I’ve gotten used to the driving already. That, or I just don’t care anymore and use the Jeep to push in more than I usually do. Most cars are smaller than me anyway, and clearly the law of the road applies – the biggest vehicle has the right of way, no matter what. I also don’t try to swerve around pot holes like I normally would. The Jeep can take it.
I bring the Jeep to a gas station and over the next three hours it is meticulously cleaned from top to bottom, inside and out. I don’t think it has ever been so clean, and finally I’m satisfied. Hopefully Canadian customs will be satisfied too.
Ayman and I head back to the port where we complete the process for me to enter, then drive around to the main entrance where I’m allowed to drive the Jeep in. Even with my new entry permit the guard still wants some “backsheesh” (a bribe) to let me in. We take the Jeep over to the traffic police to be inspected and for some of the paperwork to be checked and cancelled. Again they have a hard time finding a VIN on the Jeep, and eventually settle for the one on the base on the windshield. Next I drive over to the Customs inspection building where more paperwork is shuffled and more inspections are completed.
It’s now late in the day and Customs are going home, so we leave the Jeep inside the customs building deep inside the port, and head home for the night. I feel extremely strange leaving the Jeep behind, and don’t enjoy the ride home on a public bus without my trusty companion.
I’m back in the city at 8:30am, the frantic pace no different on a public bus. I notice the driver pushes in a lot more than I do in the Jeep. Soon we’re back at the port entrance, and this time a guard makes a big deal of not letting me in, even though I have my permit – again he wants backsheesh, and again I feel like telling him to stick it. My patience is wearing out, but I’m too exhausted to do anything.
At Customs we set about waiting, and waiting, and waiting until sometime after 3pm when we’re given the all clear. Ayman and I now drive deeper into the port, to an area where containers are stacked high on all sides and trucks are frantically slinging them around while men on forklifts load and unload goods from them. Sitting on it’s own is a shiny 20 foot container, which I’m told is all mine.
The Jeep has new suspension, taller solar panels and slightly different size tires than the last time it was in a container, so I measure everything four times before I’m satisfied it will fit through the door by about three inches.
There is no need to air down the tires.
Again the waiting begins, and the shadows are growing long before Ayman’s man comes back with the all important papers we need. I’m given the all-clear and reverse the Jeep into the container, the final time I will drive it on African soil. I manage to just squeeze out the drivers side door, and while I’m disconnecting the battery a couple of guys chock the wheels and lash the Jeep to the floor of the container using massive ratchet straps. This is to prevent is sliding around inside the container during the long voyage home. Hopefully it’s sturdy enough.
They’re in such a rush they already have the door half closed before I squeeze out, snap a quick cell-phone photo and the door is slammed shut.
Suddenly, my Jeep is gone.
I have spent virtually every day of the last three years within sight of it, and I feel like a limb has been cut off. I’ve spent thousands of hours driving it, sleeping in it, cooking in it and feeling safe inside my house on wheels.
Now I can’t even see it. All I can see is a huge steel box, among millions of other steel boxes.
Another thirty minutes later we’re issue an official customs seal, which we put onto the container door latch, and our work is done.
I keep my fingers crossed the container won’t get lost, or dropped, or fall off the ship as it crosses the Atlantic.
But there is nothing I can do about that, I just have to trust the gods. Inshalla as they say here. (God willing).
I bid farewell to my new friend Ayman, and feel triumphant on the bus ride home.
In the morning I sleep late before wandering the streets on foot. I sit to enjoy a coffee, and order another as the sun starts to warm me. It’s winter in Egypt, and the nights are surprisingly cold. For the first time in a long time, I can actually step back and see the forest for the trees. In fact it dawns on me there actually is a forest, and in fact maybe even other forests. I’ve been the trenches for so long it’s a very strange sensation to take a peek outside.
I feel immensely calm, and I can’t help smiling at what I’ve done, and the new adventures in the months to come.
At 6pm I catch a taxi to the airport, and watch my final breathtaking African sunset.
From the time I first dreamed of Africa until now, tt has taken almost a full decade to fulfill my dream.
After 999 days and 53,400 miles around Africa, I step onto a plane and bid farewell to the continent that has forever changed me.
P.S. New adventures are not far away – check back for more updates very soon!