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Archive for September, 2009

Getting Home

Egypt to Cyprus

You presumably have never been on a cruise and you never intend on going on one, so I’ll tell you what it’s like. It’s like going on a ferry, but the meals are included in the price (which is bigger). So it’s like going on a ferry and buying expensive meals. Also, if you go on a cruise by yourself then you have to sit on a special losers-table-for-one in the restaurant where everyone can see that you’ve taken two puddings to compensate for your lack of friends. On the plus side, I made it to Cyprus which is in Europe. People in Cyprus drink alcohol, they wear their hair out in public even if they’re a girl, they eat food in the street in Ramadan and they generally behave like English people. In fact most of them are English. That was nice for me, being a little England-starved as I was, but not as nice as actually getting home, so I went across to the Turkish side to get a ferry to Turkey. Something I didn’t know about Cyprus is that it is a country of its own and it is split down the middle by a green line where UN troops hang out and stop the northerners from bothering the southerners. The south is Greek and the north is Turkish and they don’t really like each other very much. The Greek Cypriot policeman at the green line (which goes right through the middle of Nicosia – the only divided capital in the world, possibly) asked me if I was going to “the occupied territories” and I said “Yes, I’m going to the Northern part.” He said “No, we call it ‘the occupied territories’ here. You see the Turkish have invaded our country and stolen our homes from us” and I slightly guiltily said “Um, yes, then I’m going to the occupied territories”. Although the Turkish bit is in the north, so I was right the first time as well.

 

Cyprus to Turkey

Despite the tourist information and travel agencies in the South telling me that there was no way of getting off Cyprus by boat and that I’d have to fly, there is regular ferry service from the North to Turkey going about 3 times a day. When I asked the Greeks if I could maybe, possibly, in the case of an emergency, get out of Cyrpus from the North they just shrugged and said “Whatever, dunno.” Although there’s not much killing and violence going on, there’s still quite a feeling that everything you say is politically loaded.

After I paid for the ticket, got to Turkey, bought another Turkish visa, paid a mystery €5 tax to a guy in a booth and got to an area where I wouldn’t need any more visas, I had €10 left. That was on Friday night and over the next four and a half days I squandered the whole lot on food. By Sunday night I had hitched to the Bulgarian border with Turkey, so I left Muslim territory just at the end of Ramadan. It would have been disappointing to leave before then because on Eid (or Bayram in Turkish, which is the Muslim version of Easter) they celebrate by giving away sweeties at petrol stations.

 

Turkey to England

On Monday I waited by the border for half a day thinking “Gru. This is going to take ages and I want to get home.” But then a Turkish guy with an English number plate saw my sign which said LONDON and he thought “I’m going to London, and furthermore, this guy could do some map reading for me.” He was not wrong. We belted it across Europe stopping only to: pay the Serbians £100 for special Serbia-insurance (Shah only had Europe-insurance which obviously didn’t include Serbia); have our car thoroughly searched by the Serbians (this stopped after half an hour because Shah had the brilliant idea of giving them two packets of cigarettes); sleep for four hours; pay a €150 fine to Slovenia for not buying a motorway card; swap drivers (I did a bunch of driving, probably legally – even the Serbians weren’t bothered by the fact that I don’t have my licence); pay tolls and buy petrol (loads of money); get on a ferry from Calais. We arrived in England at 1.30 on Wednesday morning when we parted ways, me to a tent in a churchyard and Shah to London. This morning I hitched on home.

Now I’m free for the rest of my life. I’m going to make a plan soon.

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Waiting in Cairo

An Attempt on Libya

The Libyan border gave me the impression that Libya runs on bribes. No one specifically said “Give me a bribe now” but there was quite a lot of holding my passport and slowly examining it by different officials before I was kicked out of the country and I may be wrong but I suspect that if I’d had some spare cash and known how to discreetly palm it into someone’s palm, I could have got through. But that didn’t happen, so I went back to Cairo with the instructions that I could get a visa from there.
Luckily I was picked up by Ahmed who not only was going to Cairo but also was happy to let me stay at his house and even alsoer was happy to drive me around the next day and wait in embassies, which isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. First the Libyan embassy, who apparently said that my passport (which is English and written in English) was too English. Ideally it would be Arabic, but since I had to make do with what I’d got, they’d accept a translation of it if I got one from the British embassy. And after that I’d need a passport photo and then it would be a two- to four- week wait for the visa. Another slight whiff of bribe-me was wafting round the room. We went to the British embassy and they said “Here’s the form you have to fill in, and it’ll cost you 105 pounds and the translation will be ready tomorrow morning.” At that point I decided not to bother with Libya. 105 Egyptian pounds is only about 15 English pounds, but I can’t hear an amount which sounds so big without feeling a little pale. And that was just for permission to wait for “two to four weeks” to then be probably rejected by Libya (the Hebrew in my passport, it seems, says “Not welcome almost anywhere”). So I cut my losses at having paid £2.50 for 12 passport photos (which came with a free postcard-sized print of me looking grim and passporty, surrounded by pink flowers and hearts and framed) and decided to pin my hopes on getting to Cyprus by boat.

After a whole bunch of fruitless research I eventually managed to book a one-way ticket on a cruise to Cyprus (that’s a cruise, not a ferry and in case you’re too plebby to know what the difference is, I think food is included in a cruise and it costs more) but that leaves on Tuesday. Which left me with a whole bunch of waiting to do in Cairo. I’ve spent most of that waiting time at Rafik’s house (he’s from couchsurfing), hiding from the world.

Perfume and Papyrus

When I first got here I had to go and do some shopping and since I didn’t know my way around I couldn’t effectively pull off the eyes-to-the-floor-tight-lipped-hussle which stops people from chatting to you if you look foreign. One of these people shook my hand and said “Where you from, friend?” and he didn’t let go for a while. A bad sign, I find. “Ah, England. I like English. I know York, Birmingham, Manchester.” Lots of smiling and friendliness from this guy. “I’ll give you my card.” People give me their cards quite a lot which I normally think of as an olive branch but smaller and more convenient. I have a bag full olive branches and a pocket full of other more crumpled olive branches. He pulled me towards somewhere where I wasn’t going, and I raised an eyebrow. “Just round the corner, my shop.” And he smiled at me in a confused sort of way as if to say that it was such an obviously good idea to follow him that it was a little bit quaint that I was resisting. In his shop, which had perfume bottles all over the walls, I was told to sit down without being offered a business card. I sat. Then I was offered tea and, since I wanted to get my shopping done and go and eat some food, I said No. I also had a suspicion that I was about to experience the Hard Sell, and I was not disappointed. “You have a wife? Girlfriend? Hm. This, very nice, smell-” I became slightly impatient and I think he noticed. “Only two pounds, very cheap. Smell- one bottle is… ok, ok. But smell this one.” I became very clear at this point that I wasn’t going to buy any perfume. “Why not?” After he’d eventually admitted defeat he said, in a resigned and deflated manner “Oh, ok. Then I’ll just show you some papyrus then.” No, I did not want papyrus, possibly I have even less use for papyrus than for perfume which is none at all. No papyrus, please. Normally in these kinds of situations I wait to be excused before I leave but I got the impression that he would have kept me there all day, so I got up and left. The business card was never mentioned again.
A little bit later, and with a fairly heavy bag of shopping, I met someone else who also took an instant shine to me. “Ah! England. I know England a little. I have been to York. I’ll give you my business card.” Naturally I squinty-eyed him a little bit for saying exactly the same thing as the guy from a few hours ago, but he did a face of total innocence and wonder, so I said “OK, let me have your card” and held my hand out. He looked at me as if I was crazy and then led me towards his shop. At the door I started to put up a bit of resistance, partly because I felt a bit like I’d been through this before and partly because I literally had been through this exact door before, and the previous shyster was sitting outside smiling at me as if he hadn’t tried to rip me off and as if his brother wasn’t trying to do the same. I pointed all this out to my new chum and he waved it aside as if it were a road marking (which are very conscientiously ignored by everyone here – the driving is absolutely mental). Once again I found myself inside the perfume shop and being told to sit down, but I had a card up my sleeve “Where’s the business card?” “You want to smell this?” “Could I just have the business card?” “Mmmm [ecstaticly, and as if for the first time] rose! Aaaah. Smell-” “No, I’ll just take your card and go” “Yes, of course, how about this one?” “Sorry, do you have a business card or not?” “A moment… have a look at this papyrus.” “I’m absolutely not going to buy any papyrus, but I’d like to have your business card if that’s OK?” “Yes, of course, papyrus is a good souvenir though, just have a look.” “NO! Sorry… No. Thank you.” And he just looked at me and waited for me to go. “Could I have your card then?” He waved apologetically at his desk as if he’d done a thorough search and only managed to find the empty business card box and a post-it saying “Get more business cards ASAP” and that was it. Well, almost. Before I’d got back to Rafik’s house a couple of teenagers said to me “Ahh, England, my father has been to York, you want to eat with me tonight? Come, I’ll give you my card.” I had to put all my effort into not ending up in there a third time but he got me to the door and he was so limpitlike I had to walk away from him while he was still talking to me.
Later another old man offered to give me his business card and I said “NO. I HATE business cards.” and walked off. I’m becoming such a badass.

Religious Birthmarks

On the ferry to Egypt I talked to someone with a big awkward brown birthmark thing on his forehead. I stared at it a bit when I thought he wasn’t looking but I didn’t comment because that might have been rude. Then, a bit later, I saw someone else with a similar thing and I thought maybe it wasn’t a birthmark but some kind of branding, like they were both in a gang or were criminals of a particular nature or something. And now I’ve seen loads of them all over the place and it turns out that the official explanation is that they are bruises you get from praying a lot. You know, when you bow down to Allah and put your forehead on that special little carpet you have to carry around with you to stop your forehead from bruising, that’s when you get the bruises. With the undertone of “obviously you wouldn’t understand that because you don’t pray as much as me”. The weird thing is that I didn’t see any of these bruises in Turkey or Syria or Jordan. Only in Egypt, and here they’re everywhere. Perhaps they have very hard carpets here.

This is some fundamentalist prisoner I found on the internet with the kind of forehead bruise you can see all over Egypt.

This is some fundamentalist prisoner I found on the internet with the kind of forehead bruise you can see all over Egypt.

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Leaving Jordan

Here’s my plan: Amman – Aqaba – Egypt – Libya – Some other countries – Morocco – Spain and you can guess the rest. Pretty much no problem there, 800km a day and a few extra days for unforeseen circumstances, and I’ll be home in a couple of weeks I reckoned? Well this is how I started. Getting down to Aqaba, across the sea to Egypt and up to Alexandria was the work of two days. I cunningly used the night to cross the sea, saving time and meaning that I got a free night’s sleep. ‘Free’ in that I paid quite a lot of my 200 Euros for the whole thing and ‘sleep’ in that I slept on various floors, decks and benches for small stretches of time in each. But I was moving and that was definitely good.

To Greece

In Alexandria I investigated the possibility of getting a boat from there directly to Europe, cutting out the middle man of those other North African countries. It seems that legitimate ferries have been suspended for a while now but I luckily made friends with a man who worked in the cargo port who presented me with the possibility of crossing to Greece illegally in a container ship. The way he said it made it sound like there was literally no danger of anything bad happening, so I became persuaded. The plan was, he’d take me past the port police in his car and do some bribing (he needed 300 Egyptian pounds for the purposes of bribery, not for him, he was quite clear, but for bribing the others) so they wouldn’t mind. Then he’d put me in an empty container and close the door and I’d hand over 150 of the pounds. Then I’d wait (but I’d be able to open the door from the inside because you can when the containers are empty) and after a few hours I’d be hoiked into the container pile. Then I’d wait some more (he stressed the importance of taking water with me, food was advisable but water was essential) and the ship would start moving. Then I’d wait for maybe 24 hours and we’d arrive in some place in Greece I’d never heard of. Then I’d wait till the containers were all unloaded, wait a little more to be sure the coast was clear and I’d just amble out after giving the other 150 pounds to some other guy (this part of the plan was less clear). And if I saw any police I was to present them with sheesha tobacco and say ‘This is a gift from Egypt’ and they would be sure to kiss me on both cheeks and not to ask for my passport. That was the plan as it was outlined and I accepted. Before you get all hindsighty on me, I want you to know that I weighed up all the probabilities correctly, took a calculated risk and I made the right decision. However, he did turn out to be a con artist.

Jimmy

After escorting me to various travel agencies to establish the non-existance of my other options, all the time pointing out how people were saying Hello to him and that that proved he was a good person, we went to a bank because I was a little short of Egyptian pounds. I should mention that the total price of this enterprise in English money was going to be about 45 quid, assuming I didn’t end up in jail with a big fine. Just before we got to the bank he stopped me, handed me some sort of ID card and asked for the money so he could change it for me. I said No thanks, I’ll do it myself and he appeared to take umbridge. Still, he was anxious to maintain English-Egyptian relations so he put up with my little slight. In the bank, after a little struggle, he managed to prise my money out of my hand and he changed it for me. I kept my beady eyes on him and it seemed like I got the right amount of money back, however my obvious distrust was beginning to upset him. The next stop was the sheesha shop where I managed to persuade him that I didn’t want 10 packets but only 5 and I had to be quite forceful to be able to pay for them myself. And he still took the change for me and then counted it into my hand. By this stage my distrust level had gone up and his umbridge levels had also gone up. Did I mention that his name was Ahmed in Egyptian or Jimmy in English, and that he was slightly paralysed in one side? I should have because the last time I took against someone for having a gammy arm, he turned out to be really nice so I was well disposed to ‘Jimmy’ from the start. Specially since his paralysis made him dribble constantly, although in retrospect it could have been the prospect of ripping me off that caused that.

We went to a cafe (he wasn’t observing Ramadan because… he had some good excuse but all I can remember is that he liked to smoke – he surely had a better reason than that) to meet his accomplice in human trafficking and we took our third taxi. When he said “You pay” I started to suspect that possibly something was rotten in Denmark. You know something was rotten in Denmark because I told you earlier, but at the time I wanted to believe that he was just a friendly crook who wanted to help me in one of the coolest ways that anyone has ever tried to help me. But making me pay for a taxi, well, there’s a limit. In the cafe I decided not to have a tea this time because I could see the way things were turning. So I watched Jimmy drink his and then he said “I’ve got 60 pounds but I need another 40 so I can go and bribe the police”. That seemed a bit rich. I was meant to pay him when I was on the boat, not in a cafe, and I said as much. This, in his eyes, was an outright demonstration of bad faith, and he said as much. I think he raised his voice. I pointed out that I was quite scared and he went too far – he questioned my masculinity. By this stage I had spend 45 Egyptian pounds (about 8 quid or something) on sheesha tobacco so I was pretty heavily invested in the plan, but when I’m asked “Are you a boy or a man?” I feel obliged to take serious action. I said “Half and half” and as I was thinking “Maybe I should just cut my losses and bail” I noticed the guy behind the bar was catching my eye and shaking his head ominously. That was enough for me and I pulled out of our venture, but Jimmy thought that I owed him for the time he’d wasted trying to con me. Outside the cafe we created a spectacle which gathered a small crowd. He was shouting at me that I owed him 25 pounds for various imagined reasons (the tea, the taxis, some sort of commission on the money he changed for me in the bank) and insisting that we go to the police. The crowd were in favour of me just paying up because after all, it was only 3 Euros. When I refused they said I should just go to the police and that would be the end of it, but I was quite rattled by Jimmy’s certainty. I thought maybe he was chums with the police or something. Well I didn’t know what to think, voices were being raised. It was confusing. In the end I went with him to the police station and it turned out to be a pretty bold bluff. As we were walking along he came up with more and more implausible threats, ending with “You’ll go to prison for three years for trying to sneak into a cargo boat” by which time I’d stopped replying to him. He didn’t follow me into the police station, and that was how I dealt with the menace of Jimmy.

When I was pretty sure he’d gone I went back to the cafe to say thank you to the bar man. He met me on the street and said “Jimmy’s in there. He said you paid him.” Well that’s what you get for trusting someone who dribbles.

A Night in Alex

Wandering around in Alex (as they call it here), some old guy spotted me and asked if I wanted to stay at his house. I said Yes, naturally, and when I got there I noticed that he didn’t have anything. Some basic furniture, but no clothes, no cutlery, no food, no pen, no lighter. It was almost as if he didn’t live there. Then he gave me a key and said “Will you be going out?” I assured him that I would not be leaving my valuables alone where he could get his conman’s hands on them and he smiled aimiably and left me to it. It turned out that he was renovating the appartment and living in another one and that he didn’t have any intention of robbing me. In fact, he gave me a couple of sandwiches and was thoroughly nice.

Ghadaffi

I hitched to Libya the next day, found that I should have got a visa before I arrived at the border and headed back to Cairo. That’s a small detour of 600km or a day’s hitch-hike to me. That’s where I am now, having had a proper Iftar with a family like you’re meant to in Ramadan. Oh, it’s Ramadan. Did I mention that? Well I’ll expound the hilarious implications another time. Tomorrow I’ll encounter more beaurocrats from the pocket of that wacky funster, Ghadaffi and I’m slightly anticipating bad news. I wish I knew how to bribe people, I’m sure that would be the answer.

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Photos of Syria

Close inspection of my shirt will reveal that I do, in fact, look like Jesus.

Close inspection of my shirt will reveal that I do, in fact, look like Jesus.

Head towels, full length robes, eating off the floor. This is Syria where Arabia really starts.

Head towels, full length robes, eating off the floor. This is Syria where Arabia really starts.

This is the NCD. A distinguished person tried to run me over as he was leaving and the guard almost had a heart attack at the idea that I might hold up someone so distinguished by bloodying his wheels. I have a feeling that you can become distinguished by being related to the president.

This is the NCD. A distinguished person tried to run me over as he was leaving and the guard almost had a heart attack at the idea that I might hold up someone so distinguished by bloodying his wheels. I have a feeling that you can become distinguished by being related to the president.

This is the president of Syria. What a massive chump. Here are some signs of his chumpery: His neck is way too long; he has jowls; his eyes are too close together; he appears to be deliberately extending his neck; he has a didnt-get-into-the-police moustache; he has, in this picture, A HALO; theres another picture of him in the background; these pictures (and where theres no halo there are other things like Reddy Brek glow or flowers or doves) are all over Syria and lots of them are clearly paid for by the government; he loves dressing up - in this photo hes in his power-messiah suit. But you cant help feeling sorry for him when you find out that hes only president because his older brother died in a car crash. Before that he was planning on being an eye doctor, and thats what hes trained as.

This is the president of Syria. You might think, by looking at him, that hes a massive chump. You might notice, for example, his jowls which he has failed to conceal by craning his neck; his neck which is freakishly long and which he has accidentally accentuated while trying to conceal his jowls; his tiny little moustache; the other picture of him in the background; HIS HALO; the fact that he looks like someone who didnt get into the police or any number of other features. You might also know that these photos and others with even more messianic imagery are plastered all over Syria, and yes, it does all point to chumpery. But did you know that he never wanted to be president? His older brother was going to inherit the title from their father (in the standard democratic tradition) but accidentally died in a car accident. Bashar was going to be an opthalmologist but was thrust unwillingly into politics. So who can blame him for making a few concessions to chumpery?

This is the president of Syria. You might think, by looking at him, that he's a massive chump. You might notice, for example, his jowls which he has failed to conceal by craning his neck; his neck which is freakishly long and which he has accidentally accentuated while trying to conceal his jowls; his tiny little moustache; the other picture of him in the background; HIS HALO; the fact that he looks like someone who didn't get into the police or any number of other features. You might also know that these photos and others with even more messianic imagery are plastered all over Syria, and yes, it does all point to chumpery. But did you know that he never wanted to be president? His older brother was going to inherit the title from their father (in the standard democratic tradition) but accidentally died in a car accident. Bashar was going to be an opthalmologist but was thrust unwillingly into politics. So who can blame him for making a few concessions to chumpery?

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Israel Speaks

From: consul-assist <consul-assist@amman.mfa.gov.il>

To: Mikey Lear

Date: Wed, Sep 2, 2009 at 9:08 AM

Dear Mikey,

I’m very sorry to inform you that your appeal request was denied.

 

I wish for you only the best at the rest of your trip.

Amit Djerassi – Israeli Embassy, Amman

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This footnote confirms that this email message has been scanned by
PineApp Mail-SeCure for the presence of malicious code, vandals & computer viruses.
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My Wait is Over

I just got this email and my first reaction was “Oh good, there are no viruses or vandals in this email” but then I looked at the bit that Amit had written and I saw that there was also some bad news. Now I need a plan. Right, I’ve thought of one. Richard has completed our pilgrimage – did I mention that? Did I prove it? I can:

Richard, stick and Jerusalem. The end of our pilgrimage

Richard, stick and Jerusalem. The end of our pilgrimage

Well, that’s good enough for me. I suppose waiting around so I can get there too is just vanity. Richard got there, my stick even got there. I’d be celebrating if I hadn’t had this bogus shadow of hope cast on me from Amit, after all – we’ve made it, and we needed each other to do it – just like in My Cousin Vinnie and probably in the Bible somewhere. At any rate I’m glad to have a definite answer from Israel, so now I can make a definite plan. And I’ve already made it: Go home. Go to Egypt via the Red Sea, then get home however I can. I’ve got more than 150 Euros in my pocket so I should be able to at least get out of Jordan and pay the fine I’ve accrued for my overdue visa. Who knows, there maybe be some left over to buy myself some bread or something.

So, for the optimistic slash generous: We’ve finished our pilgrimage, I’m blazing home in glory. For the cynical slash realistic: We’ve both given up on our pilgrimages in different ways, I’m slinking home in shame. I’ll probably carry on using this blog to write about my journey back, but for the pilgrimage purist, this is the end. I’ll see you soon, Insh’Allah.

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