Cheque Points

293661_10150349543930815_6933405_n (1)I went for another ‘Visa trip’ to negotiate the minefield of Egyptian security cheque points (this confirms British English has it over USA English) and obsolete British system Egyptian bureaucracy that allows me to live here in Dahab. Now this is complicated, so pay attention!

As foreigners we are lucky that we can get Visas that allow us to live here for years as pseudo tourists. Some of us work in small time jobs, earning a pittance like most Egyptians that allows us to rent an apartment and buy food and bring what is left of our foreign exchange to pump in to the bleeding Egyptian economy.

I had been to visit my son in Europe the previous month and leaving Egypt had invalidated my year visa that would have expired in six months. When I re-entered Egypt, I had to purchase the only visa that is issued at airports, a pretty hologram silver sticker which is stamped valid for 30 days and costs US$20. (Even the Egyptian government doesn’t trust its own money!) I had intended to leave again before this 30 day Visa expired but delayed my departure which meant I had two options; I could apply for another year Visa or be up for the 150Le fine for overstaying when departing Egypt.

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Clinging on for dear life in Dahab.

The fine is not exorbitant but as I planned to return to Egypt in a few months I would then have to purchase another 30 Day US$20 visa, and then apply for another six month /year Visa within those 30 days. Are you with me so far? We haven’t even left Dahab yet… “Complication and confusion are the weapons of corruption” (yours truly); they give power and money to those in the know. That’s why it pays, literally, to be ‘in-the-know’, closely followed by ‘in-the-zone’.

STOP HERE and don’t read this section if you want to avoid confusion. Skip to…

There is also another visa available to visitors who just want to come and lie on the beach in mainly Sharm el Shite oops, I mean Sharm-with-no-Charm – get it right! Sharm El Sheikh! The all-you-can-eat-and-drink-and-make-yourself-a-dick type without actually spending any money that will enter the Egyptian economy because some crony of the higher powers has managed to wangle it so money spent in a resort is immediately siphoned off into private pockets or foreign owned companies. The type who arrive, get a taxi to the resort, drive through the security guarded gates (another Egyptian oxymoron?), plonk themselves on a sun bed for a week, stuff themselves  at the resort restaurants because they are too scared of contracting food poisoning outside (that they are more likely to get from eating the rice on the hotel’s day after day buffet unless the hungry Russians eat it all first), get back in a taxi, drive to the airport, fly home with a tan saying they were in Egypt for a week.

For these types there is the South Sinai visa which costs nothing and allows the tourist to visit Sharm’, Dahab, Nuweiba and Saint Catherine’s Monastery area. However… should one of these types become a tourist, venture out of the resort and fall madly in love with Egypt within two weeks (it does happen) and decide to extend their stay, this visa does not allow a trip to El Tur, the small town which is the government administration centre for South Sinai, and where one needs to go to get a new visa!

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Indication of driving attitudes here – and this is a rental company!

This now tourist has to go back to the point of entry, usually Sharm’ to purchase the pretty 30 day all Egypt visa sticker, get it stamped, then within those 30 days go to El Tur. One friend with the South Sinai Visa just tried to wing it from Dahab to El Tur hoping he could just skip the pretty 30 day visa and get one for longer stay. It was easier times, so he made it through the check points but El Tur office was above bribes (or he didn’t offer enough) so he returned to Dahab, decided to overstay and pay a fine.

…after skipping, RESUME HERE.

Anyway I was on my final days before departure so was attempting to get it all done and tidied up before I left.  El Tur the government administration centre doesn’t have many foreigners visiting, other than those renewing visas or the occasional one who lands in the jail awaiting trial. I had originally planned to go on Wednesday but then realised it was the second day of the contentious voting for the “New Egyptian constitution”.

The passport office in El Tur is at the rear of the Police Station and had already suffered blown out windows from a bomb attack some months before so I guessed correctly that the office was closed on Election Day. I was also concerned that it might be closed on the Thursday just for good measure, as Friday and Saturday are Egyptian weekend. I was not concerned about bombs – unless standing next to security personnel.

“Thank Zucker” for Facebook, I was able to join four other women wanting to share transport to El Tur so we arranged to leave Thursday morning at 9am. This would allow us to call the passport office before leaving just to make sure it was open. It was. Clarify and confirm, clarify and confirm – the only way to survive in Egypt – then say in sha allah (God willing).

“I’m a good driver. I’m a good driver” Rainman

We travelled in a minivan, an official Dahab taxi – not a private car – driven by a Bedouin called Sabah who was a reliable and calm driver, el hamdol allah (thanks to God), not hooting the horn at every passing car or pedestrian like some nervous locals are inclined to do.

The trip to El Tur normally takes just over two hours. We negotiated three police check points with no problem between Dahab and Sharm’ but got stopped at the larger official looking check point on the west side of Sharm’ ; the one with the big ugly concrete monstrosity that stretches overhead that is probably meant to look like an impressive gateway but looks more like a bridge to nowhere.

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Priceless. Says it all really. Such honesty.

Of course there were no explanations when we had to pull over, just surly men standing around looking bored and suspicious. I counted more than 20 doing nothing in particular, sitting outside behind desks, in cars, leaning on walls staring at us five stranded women. I had to stop myself from physically snarling – the Fb quiz did say the dog I am most like is a pitbull.

A request to use a toilet was of course, rebuffed as I knew it would be: I just wanted to annoy them. It could also be some hours on a bare desert road at this rate, so best be prepared. We were told to go to the petrol station back across the roundabout, so three of us wandered over. We were given permission to use their toilet el hamdol allah but was told there was “No water”. Not sure what that was about though, as the tap ran water and the toilet flushed. On a scale for disgusting toilets in Egypt, I gave it a 5/10.

The petrol station over the roundabaout. I didn’t photograph the toilets but you get the picture.

On returning to the van we climbed in and Sabah did a 180o turn to park facing Dahab. For about a minute of long faces we thought maybe we would have to return to Dahab but then the police said something to Sabah and we did another 180o back to the direction of El Tur. Psychological torture maybe? We were on our way again about an hour late but still able to make the office providing there were no more holdups. Let’s not be too literal here.

Sabah muttered something about “Egyptians not good”, essentially expressing his dislike for Egyptian Security Personnel.  They had been trying to tell him he didn’t have the correct car to take tourists to El Tur but who knows? Egyptians are not allowed to drive their cars of different licence everywhere –there have to be special licence plates to do different things and go different places. For example, only certain cars are allowed to enter the Sharm’ town roads so if you get the wrong car from Dahab, you effectively have to get another car to enter Sharm’ or break the law or pay a fine or pay a bribe, or all of the above.

This used to be a small bank branch with policemen guarding outside. The branch has closed but the police still sit here.

We were stopped again at the cheque point just outside El Tur. Oh no! So close but yet so far… A young (looked early 20’s) policeman asked to see our passports. There were three “Katherine”s in the van and he mixed up the passports; we didn’t correct him. He also missed that one of them had an expired visa; we didn’t point it out. After lots of false smiles (on his and our parts) and leering (on his part), and probable desire for silver to cross his palm (unrequited), he allowed us to continue to El Tur.

The Police station was a hive of inactivity – just the usual police and military men hanging around looking for a war. The patriarchal inverse big guns, small penis syndrome – facetious yawn.

I have been applying for these Visas for six years and every time is a little different; part of the confusion technique. This time we had to have our names and passports registered at the outside gate; the extra security measure incorporated after the last bomb. When will it ever occur to these people to fix the problems that are encouraging these people to blow themselves and others up? Easier than trying to catch them when they are already past desperation; not rocket science really (she writes with tongue in cheek).

Let there be light in Sinai …

There is one polite happy lady who works in the passport office. She was sitting behind clean new windows, the previous ones having been blown out – saves on window cleaner I guess.  We all went to her window to get our forms. I was applying for a year visa of residence and a re-entry visa that would be valid if I left and returned within 6 months. You can only get the re-entry valid for the first six months of a year – outside that you have purchase a new re-entry before you leave or just go through the whole process I was going through…

The updated bureaucratic process now dictated that all passports would not be returned until after 1pm so with an hour to fill, Sahbah to dropped us in the souq shopping area. El Tur is not a tourist town so everything was authentically less expensive. I bought some shoes for M and we all had sandwiches for a lunch – tamaya and fool – cost me 2.5Le – about 25 pence; same food in local Dahab area would have been 5Le, tourist Dahab maybe 10le. Doesn’t seem much in foreign exchange, but convert this to percentage on all goods and you get the picture of the of a tourist town rip off; happens all over the world.

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… and peace in Dahab.

We returned to collect our waiting passports, paid our money – 152.5Le for visa with re-entry – and headed for home. The same young cop who had stopped us on the way into El Tur, stopped us again; at least this time all our visas were current. All the check points now have a mixture of police security and soldiers – most ‘packing’ as they say in the movies. If only they were ‘boys with toys actors’ but these real machines designed to kill humans in the hands of… shall we say, unworldly lads? We had to negotiate more than 14 check points to get to El Tur and Dahab return. Oh, I felt so much safer in the Sinai for that!

 

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