Day one in Egypt; one for the books. So much happened and at different ends of the crazy spectrum. Where else can you be exfoliated, temporarily blinded, rescued by a mirage, greeted by a ghost, and conned by a wanna-be doctor to the tune of appetizer, main, and sweet. ..times two.
My entry through the border into Egypt had, in hindsight, seemed like the most normal of events. No drama, no bribery, no unnecessary body searches. The whole process completed without care or friendliness but with a result both efficient and satisfactory.
In Sands of the Sinai I wrote this paragraph and now it was time to pay. “The border guards fit perfectly into this environment. They were gruff, unfriendly, and even though I suspected untrustworthy I had nothing at the time to base that on. They were efficient though and let’s face it, that’s all we really want from a guard at the entrance to any country that is not our own”.
As day two in Egypt began and the sun came streaming over the rubble mountain outside my window, I opened my passport. There, among many other visa stamps was my entry permit to Egypt. I could immediately see a slow toothy grin emerge through sweaty stubble and spread itself over the faces of each border guard.
In bold blue letters “ENTRY VISA – DAYS 3”.
I was legally bound to exit the country tomorrow. I had just arrived. I hadn’t even had my first breakfast yet. The closest I had come to anything even resembling local cuisine was the gyro sandwich I had tossed out the car window the night before.
My only hope to continue my journey through Egypt was, well, I had two choices really. One was to just blow off the visa issue and face the consequences upon exit. The second was to face the Mogamma Building and its infamous reputation as being the worlds greatest bureaucratic nightmare.
Having mental flashes of spending weeks in an Egyptian holding cell was not appealing so I opted for number two and prepared myself.
The Mogamma Building is a monolith that casts a dark and foreboding shadow over Cairo’s central plaza. It is grey and solid concrete. The steps leading to the double door entry are reminiscent of medieval times. You know, when the marauders try to breach the barricade and are held at bay.
Only this time I was the one fighting the good fight; semi-confident that I would not be thwarted in my efforts and that the days end would find me happy, clutching a 30 day visa. The 3 day entry permit nothing but a bad memory.
The darkness of the Mogamma enveloped me like the Death Star.
On any given day the Mogamma Building houses in excess of 18,000 workers. Most of whom show little interest in being there and even less for helping you solve a problem.
From the moment you enter, any semblance of personal space you may have possessed on the outside is gone. You are now one of throngs. A mad-house of chaos, noise, heat, sweat, bad breath, strong smells, and pent-up frustration.
I needed to find the Visa Department but no-one knew where that was. The only visible sign was to the information desk. That was unattended and offered up no other information other than the fact that no-one was in attendance.
I asked as many people as I could who looked like they might know; in full knowledge that the answers would vary dramatically. “Straight ahead then left, third door on right”, “Go back this way, up stairs, second door on left”. You get the point. My strategy was to amass this information and extract the answers in order of most common.
I eventually arrived on the sixth floor.
By comparison this area was blissfully peaceful; it lulled me into a false sense of calm. After sitting on a small wooden bench for two hours I was seen by Danny DeVito’s character from Romancing the Stone. Right down to the beige suite, white sweat stained shirt, and a balding mans comb-over. I could tell this was going to be a breeze.
He advised me of the obvious. I would have to leave the country by tomorrow at midnight.
“Yes, but I would like to extend my visa to 30 days in order to travel through your country” I said as I tried to beam with confidence.
“No, you have a 3 day visa. You must leave the country by tomorrow” was Danny’s reply.
I asked is there some way to extend the visa. He said no. I asked if he was sure. He said yes. I asked if money could possibly help smooth out my problem. He nodded in confirmation and smiled. It was the same smile I had imaged earlier when thinking of the border guards.
At this point you would think that with the exchange of money it would be a simple process of visa extension and I would be on my way to enjoy pyramids, oasis’, the Nile both blue and black, and whatever else I would happen across in this fabled land.
You see there is never just one bureaucrat involved in a bureaucratic process. Rarely is there just one department. Here I am in a massive over-populated building full of both with everyone eager to pass the problem, me, onto someone else.
Shunted from office to office. By the end of the day I felt almost molested and very dirty. I had been lied to, jostled, spat on, yelled at, ignored, and ridiculed.
It was not my finest hour.
What was worse still was the news that even though the process was underway I would have to return tomorrow. I assumed that to mean I have to run the red-tape gauntlet in its entirety once again only this time I at least had an edge; I knew which office and on what floor to start. I felt defeated but it was only a battle; the war was still mine to win.
Day two began as expected. It is amazing how quickly a person can adjust. I must have seemed more accustomed to the cacophony, more at home in this environment, more at peace with my dilemma. People didn’t shun me but instead, offered tea.
The tea-wallas were combing the building and the golden liquid flowed everywhere. In clear glasses half full of white sugar. People broke from their “duties” and sought out the company of friends. The Egyptian version of the water-cooler at work.
I approached the window walled office. The place of my dejection. The six-foot by six-foot chamber that held either the key to unlocking my Egyptian adventure or the notice of my eviction from the land of pharaohs.
Juggling as best I could the scolding hot glass of tea…have you ever put hot tea in a glass, it’s not the smartest idea…I was greeted with smiles from Danny who, with puffed up chest, was proud to offer me a 30 day visa extension in his homeland.
I left the Mogamma elated, excited, and exhausted; marveling at the fact that this kind of chaos can ever produce a desired result. But it does. Time and time again.