Egypt, Part 1: Alexandria's Port and Intro
— Egypt — 9 min read
May 7, 2011
I arrived on the African continent by my preferred way of entering new continents: by sea. I love the notion of having to cross water bodies in order to arrive in a new land. There is something romantic about that, harking back to the original explorers in our past. And I guess it's especially poignant in today's age of instant transportation by aeroplane. Long live slow travel.
The three day voyage from Venice abroad the vehicle ferry, Visemar One, gave me sufficient time to focus on and get excited about arriving in Alexandria and entering Egypt. Besides the deeply entrenched bureaucracy (thanks to its colonialists), I was a bit apprehensive to see how the situation would be on the ground of this recently liberated nation.
At the beginning of 2011, as I was getting ready to leave South America, I was eagerly following the people power movement of the Arab Spring. After Tunisia's success in overthrowing their long-time autocratic leader, Egypt picked up the torch and surprised everyone by successfully overthrowing their autocratic leader, Hosni Mubarak, that too after just 18 days of protest that began on January 25, 2011. He had led Egypt for the past 30 years and like every other charismatic leader of the peoples, after the first few years in office, he got more and more self-obsessed until he was ruling like a dictator. But a new age has arrived of information transparency, thanks to social construction of knowledge that empowers oppressed citizens to act leaderlessly in the hope of a more democratic society.
On February 11, 2011, Mubarak stepped down and no one (inside and outside the country) knew what would happen next. Egyptians never thought the day would come where they could vote freely and now the country is slowly progressing towards elections. The population has been reinvigorated by the collective power they hold over traditional authority.
Egyptians are known as a friendly people and therefore, the security situation wasn't a concern for foreigners after power was given to a military council that was tasked in leading the country through this transition. The revolution scared off most of the tourists, who generate income for a large number of Egyptians. Now the country was eager to let the world know that they were open and ready to show off their historical and natural treasures.
I got confirmation from other overland travelers and the CouchSurfing community in Cairo that things were back to normal and it was completely safe to travel through Egypt once again. I also felt like I was doing my part in showing the world that things were indeed safe on the ground by choosing to travel through Egypt in such a fresh, political climate. Actually, I didn't have much choice after the door to Morocco was closed to me, but yeah...
I took a lot of pictures over my four weeks through Egypt and the first installment covers my processing through Alexandria's port and pictures of life in the city from that first day in a new country and culture.
Getting ready to ride off the Visemar One and realizing that the customs officials had dropped sanDRina while looking for the chassis number and broke her windscreen. This happened while we were still upstairs being processed through immigration and initial customs procedures. This was already the second incident, in my few minutes of arriving in Egypt, where the customs officials did me wrong. A careless officer wrote the information of a Mercedes car in my carnet (customs passport for the bike), rendering one page of this very expensive document useless. I took a few breaths and let it go, but then came down to see this. What irritated me even more was their reluctance to accept responsibility for this damage. I had read all about Egypt's corrupt and incompetent officials and told myself not to let this affect my first taste of Egypt.
In case you're wondering what that sticker is on the front of the bike, it's a graphical representation of a Mandelbrot set with fractal properties of self-similarity. That means that this mathematical equation creates shapes on its edges that are a replica of the larger image and this goes on to infinity. I like it because I think it represents a model of how our Universe is structured, as in the model of an atom resembles the structure of our solar system, which resembles our galaxy and so on. We just happen to exist on this particular plane, where I have to deal with customs now.
Rolling off the Visemar One and into the port of Alexandria. The next set of pictures are captures from my GoPro helmet camera since photos aren't allowed in ports, due to security reasons, but bikers are exempt.
Lining up next to the ship for...
...a scan from a mobile X-Ray unit. They're supposed to check for hidden compartments in containers for weapons and other contraband. Glad they didn't find my machete :) Don't worry, I moved away before the rays got me.
And then a sniff from a German Shepherd for a drug scan. Good thing he's not trained to identify curry powder, cause that's a no-no across borders (quarantine issue).
Riding off with Martijn on his BMW F650. He and his friend, Ralph, are traveling from the Netherlands to South Africa and they have about three months for their trip.
Our port authority escort to make sure we wouldn't ride off without being processed through properly.
We realized the port complex is a huge area and now we're entering the customs declaration area.
Back near the water and that's the Mercedes, a CLS500, whose info got wrongly put in my carnet. Belongs to an Egyptian, living in Switzerland, who's driving to Saudi Arabia for business. We were chatting on the ship and it sounded like he wasn't too fond of the recent revolution, obviously because things were well-suited to the rich during Mubarak's time, but now the common people have taken back the country.
Our customs handler, making us sign forms that we had nothing to declare.
Having a quick look at our belongings. My machete is at the bottom of that pannier and no one has found it through the numerous police searches that I've been through since Bolivia. I figure I'd say it was for cutting up chickens.
Done with part 2 and riding by some customs officials, dressed in all white. They must use a lot of bleach.
And finally the last part, being processed through at the vehicle import facility. This was the head of the customs office and I tried to get him to compensate me something for his boys rough handling my sanDRina and breaking her windscreen. But I didn't want to put up too much resistance as my carnet was a little dodgy with extra stamps on it for Egypt and had to let it slide.
There was lots of waiting around. Ralph and Martijn admiring sanDRina's large presence and all the extra tubes at the back. For a place that gets very little rainfall, the clouds looked quite ominous and we even felt some rain drops but luckily it stopped there. There was a new country to enter outside the port and lots of new information to process, which rain would just add to the complexity.
Ready to roll out and checking out my temporary Egyptian license plate, zip-tied over my US plate. Egypt is the only country that I know of that still requires temporary foreign vehicles to get local license plates. I think they hang on to their deep bureaucracy because it allows for more fees to be collected and opportunities for bribery, as in 'oh, you lost your license plate, that's a $100 fine...'
Finally leaving the Port of Alexandria, a city unto itself.
"What, you want to see my papers? But I just got processed through, it's raining, I'm running out of fuel..." "Ok, ok, just go."
Rolling on the streets of Alexandria. I love the feeling of the first few kilometers in a new country, especially on a new continent. So many new things to process: how do people drive here, do they respect motorcycles, what are the rules of cutting through traffic, how do pedestrians act, etc.
Crawling through traffic and seeing these guys buzz by on a scooter with both of them looking at this strange motorcycle and its alien pilot. Ok, this tells me helmets aren't enforced and you don't really need to see where you're going in Egypt. I would follow them, but I like to give myself a day or two in a new country before riding like a hooligan.
Brave chap for cutting through traffic with his metal cart and just a hand raised.
Hello, ladies. While Egyptians are predominately Muslim, they're a bit more moderate than their neighbors in terms of covering up their women. These girls are wearing either a hijab or shayla. A niqab or burka is the full body covering for more conservative people.
We rode around town until we could find a place to park the bikes. Martijn's bike was suffering from an electrical problem (bad rectifier) and since he couldn't work on the bike while at sea, this had to get taken care of right away. I also had to wait a few hours for my CouchSurfing host to be done with work. I parked my bike in such a way to create a space for some street repairs.
If you subscribe to the 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' philosophy, then going on a bike trip means knowing how to fix most of the problems with your bike. Martijn was prepared with a spare rectifier and he prepped the wires on the ship for a quick job.
That's the rectifier hanging lose. Its purpose is to bleed off the excess current that comes from the engine's generator, before it damages any of the other electronics, so that's why this is an important repair job.
Final connections for a healthy electrical system.
Of course, this whole repair job was going on in the midst of crazy Alexandria traffic and its cacophony of sounds. And we sure drew a lot of attention. Only later did we realize that this was the main square of the city, Raml. Friendly locals were coming up and asking where we were from, where we were going, etc. Ralph is mimicking this guy's excitement while Martijn checks to see that his bike is running fine now.
Looking out across Raml square to the open sea behind there. And yeah, my first impression of Alexandria was that it's not really a clean city. They had garbage cans everywhere, but they were over-flowing, maybe a feature of the post-revolution times, where government workers cared less now that authority had been usurped.
We were starving and I got us some chicken shawarma sandwiches (like gyros). This is stacks of meat roasted on a turning spit by a fire lamp that is shaved off in thin slices and wrapped in pita or a sandwich bun.
Ready to roll as it got dark. Yeah, we realized that we parked right in front of the KFC, yuck.
We met up with my CS host, Manuel (on the left) and I asked him if it was ok to bring along these two Dutch bikers, which was cool with him. Manuel is a French engineer, who's working here for a company that produces roofing material.
After showering up, we went out to grab some dinner, but first, some fresh orange juice.
Meals on wheels and hooves.
This donkey was dragging around some fuul, the staple of quick Egyptian food.
We would eat that pretty soon, but for the first night, we went for some store-bought food.
The friendly faces at GAD, an Egyptian fastfood chain serving up...
...little sandwiches of falafel and fuul along with roasted aubergines (eggplant/brinjal).
The cats of Alexandria. I noticed there were no stray dogs around and in their absence were...
...lots and lots of stray cats. This kitty was just sitting on a busy sidewalk and not perturbed a bit by the nearby stomps.
Walking back to Manuel's place with some beers and noticing his car, a Lada Niva. It's a Russian built 4x4 that was very popular from the late 70s onwards for being a cheap, robust, off-road vehicle. When it was launched, it was one of the first vehicles to feature a unibody and independent front suspension. However, quality varies a lot and Manuel's Niva was in need of some repairs. He said when it was running fine, he could it get it up to 160 kph (100 mph), with bolts and doors rattling to break free. Ladas are produced locally in Egypt and that's one of the reasons for the high vehicle import fees, to protect the local auto industry. That was a good first day in Egypt and I was looking forward to trying more of the local food and meeting the friendly Egyptians that I'd heard a lot about and putting away the sour first experience at the port customs. I was also eager to find out how things had changed on the ground after the revolution that was showcased to the whole world.
While I was thrilled to finally be on the African continent, Egypt to me is part of the Middle-East and is geopolitically part of North Africa and Arabic culture. I was already putting my Arabic language lessons from Michel Thomas into use.