“Dark and at times surreal, The Castle is often understood to be about alienation, bureaucracy, the seemingly endless frustrations of man’s attempts to stand against the system, and the futile and hopeless pursuit of an unobtainable goal.” Wikipedia’s description of Kafka’s novel might as well be describing our last few days.
Iskenderun to Port Said. Turkey to Egypt. One ferry, 40 truckers, 4 travellers with 4 passports and 2 vehicles, one purpose: get into Egypt.
We drove to Iskenderun after having called the shipping company, UN Ro-Ro, who said the ferry will sail on Saturday and we have a chance of being on it. On Saturday morning we got ready for the big adventure across the water, left our campsite and drove to Iskenderun. The misadventures began right there: the port is not sign-posted anywhere on the main road. We know the port is down by the sea, but how do we enter it? Which one of these roads leads to the right entrance? We accidentally almost drove into a military port, circled around twice, finally made it into some part of the port, had to get a security guard to help us find the right office. After much faffing around we finally got an escort to drive us to the customs office, who then pointed us in the direction of the office we needed.
“I remember during preparation for the trip that another traveller had posted a map with the entrance marked on it (Liman C). If my feet weren’t busy driving I’d have been kicking myself for forgetting to look that up again.” Jonathan.
As we drove towards the office, we spotted another over-lander vehicle. This must be the place, we thought. Soon after we were introduced to the boys in the Catoni office, and the people of the other over-lander came by: Humperdinck Jackman, travelling around the African continent to stop poaching with the charity Africality, and his travelling companion Cynthia Gibson. At this point it was still morning, everyone was smiling, Jonathan had to clear customs for the vehicle, and so on. We were told that the UN Ro-Ro has suspended its activities, but they have another boat they can put us on, which incidentally was not sailing to Damietta, as we had been told before, but instead to Port Said.
What followed was a whole day spent sitting around in the blistering sun, waiting for things to happen. But nothing was happening. We couldn’t even see the 40 promised trucks, or the truck drivers. The ferry was there but nobody else was, just us and some port officials. We spent the day talking, eating snacks, drinking coffee and juice, and waiting. Around 6pm things started happening, some trucks were being loaded onto the ferry, and around 8pm we were told we could drive on as the last vehicles. The ferry was definitely not luxurious: we were first given passenger rooms, which were spacious with a sink and bunk-beds, but the toilets were communal, needless to say, they were squat toilets.
The ferry didn’t leave shore up until about 10pm. That evening we were moved to “crew cabins” which were smaller, also with bunk beds, but they had private toilets. Soon after that we were told that dinner was being served, consisting of sliced tomatoes, olives, bread, cheese, and tea and coffee. Not bad for us, vegans (minus the cheese)! However, we soon discovered that the private toilets reeked badly of old plumbing. We flushed it several times with hot water, and that worked for a bit.
The next 36+ hours were quite miserable. The private toilets started reeking of rotten eggs the next morning, so we had to rescue our things from it and put a towel under the door. The ferry was very hot, outside and inside. The rocking motion soon became a bit much for my stomach, as I got quite nauseous. The food only got progressively worse. We were served various lumps and scoops of stuff, most of it creamy or with meat. Jonathan and I lived on bread, rice and our own tomato packet soup for the rest of the ferry time. I was juggling being nauseous and starving.
Monday morning we arrived in Port Said. And by “arrived” I mean we spent the day anchored nearby while we waited our turn to be docked. Finally as the sun was setting, we made it to shore. By “shore” I mean all the people were let out from the ferry onto the ferry ramp and the little area around it, to be attacked by people selling sim cards that semi-worked and charging ridiculous amounts of money for them. Everybody needed internet at that point, so we fell into that trap. We still didn’t have our passports by the way – and nobody knew exactly who or which authority had them. We sat around on the hard steel for hours in the dark, waiting for something to happen. Eventually a guy called Sherif showed up and tried to help us by figuring out what was going on and phoning people. We met the immigration people by chance for two seconds, and were told there was no problem. Then we were told to drive off the ferry. The real nightmare began then.
We drove off and had no idea where to go, we were getting directed by people who had no idea who we were, through the shipping container yard, full of screeching trucks, towing trucks, cars, screaming people, mopeds, all done in semi-darkness and without any signs of anything around, just containers upon containers. We were directed into a gated area full of Turkish trucks (not the ones we were on the ferry with), a very very dark ominous area with no lighting, no shelter, no food or water, no toilets, nothing at all. Forget being spooky, this was a place people get thrown in to be shot in movies. Or refugees get thrown in to rot forever. We still didn’t have our passports and we had no idea what or who had them and when we would get them. We couldn’t leave the port, we had no idea where to go, and nobody spoke any English or any other language that any of us combined could understand. The mood hit ultimate low for me at this point. I am not going to lie, I broke down and cried in the front seat. It was the worst moment of my entire life. Writing about this and reliving the memory is bringing tears to my eyes as I write this.
Eventually somebody came by and told us there was a problem with our visas: we couldn’t get visas upon arrival at this port because it wasn’t a tourist port. This is of course a complete lie, because every port of entry to Egypt must provide visas upon entry. I lost it a bit on this particular guy, and I am sorry to say, on some of our companions also. The guy told us we could go sleep on the ferry and we might be shipped back to Turkey the following day. At this point anything was better than that gated container yard. We drove back to the ferry, but it was being loaded with new trucks and we weren’t allowed on it until they were done. We decided to sleep in our cars just outside the ferry, at least there were more people around and more lights. Still surrounded by containers, homeless looking people, rabid scary dogs, massive trucks… I don’t think anybody really slept that night.
The next day nothing improved. We still didn’t have our passports for hours. We had no one to even call or ask what was going on. We had no shelter other than our hot cars, barely any shade, no water or food, again no facilities whatsoever. We could go up to the ferry for toilets but that was about it. The mood was beyond low at this point: it was frustrated, annoyed, angry. Sherif appeared out of nowhere and told us that the Admiral was phoning the shipping company to help us out, or something of that sort. Perhaps Jonathan can explain this all better. We were still lost Westerners with no hope of getting out. Somebody took pity on us and brought us water and some snacks, and then turned out to be an absolute angel helping us out with customs later on.
“I’m not going to go into the details of who played what part here, as some of them went beyond the call of duty and put themselves in vulnerable positions to help us out. There was basically a battle between reason and extortion going on, between friends and enemies, and meanwhile we were left in the dirt and rubbish of the container port to bake in the sun. If it weren’t for a few good people, we might still be there, or be heading home due to deportation or being bankrupted by the vultures.” Jonathan.
Some guy came up to us with passports and our visas were stamped into them. Each visa cost $25. He was asking for $100 for each passport plus $500 for who knows what, and that was even before the agent for customs clearance announced how much he wanted from us. Thankfully the passport guy was kind of dumb, because I managed to trick him into giving us our passports but then we just held on to them and didn’t give him the ridiculous amount he was asking. One small win in the big battle. Eventually we got rid of both of them and our angel friend showed us where we could go to start clearing customs. We drove around the extremely confusing port, stopping and asking and going back and forth. Eventually we found the correct office and Jonathan and Humperdinck went in to try and sort some stuff out.
Some time after (no idea how many hours…. hours have turned into days by then) we finally got out of the port (without our cars, we can’t get them still) and found a hotel. After days of no food, no facilities, all of the human stress imaginable on our shoulders, we collapsed on the beds and I slept for 12 hours. I didn’t even want to get up to get dinner, even though we hadn’t eaten properly in days.
The next day was a holiday so there was nothing we could do to get out of this hellhole, so we just waited. The day was spent walking around, scavenging for some food (Ramadan is still in full effect, and in Egypt it is very strict. You can’t find a single restaurant or cafe open or serving food), playing cards and drinking non-alcoholic beer. In the evening we tried out an Asian restaurant which served real alcohol, and we had our first full real vegan meal in probably a week. It was a strange night: there were two Russian men who worked for some shipping company or some such, basically they spend most of their time at sea. They were offering vodka (of course) and advice. The vodka was vile and probably shouldn’t have been drunk, but the company was pleasant enough.
The next day Jonathan and Humperdinck had to go back to the port, leaving the “women” behind. Probably for the best, because I spent the morning dry heaving over the toilet, and I don’t think the vodka was the only culprit here: eating a large meal after half-starving for a week was probably not the best, plus the stress and the agony.
“Yup, throwing up in the hotel room was luxury – I was similarly afflicted but found myself trying to discreetly chuck in a corner of the ubiquitous decaying rubbish outside the police station we were at on some wild goose chase. For me it was just vodka and the hot sun.” Jonathan.
The day spent at the port was not any better, the nightmare did not lift one bit. The problem is that nobody knows what fees we should be paying, they seem to be making up numbers and fees on the spot, and doubling and tripling after confirming the original price. The whole thing is just absolutely ridiculous and there seems to be no end to this. We paid yesterday some crazy fees (not as crazy as we originally were asked), but the cars are still at the port and we are still at the hotel. Today is another holiday so nothing will get done. Tomorrow, hopefully tomorrow, we can clear customs and drive out of here. But as in a Kafka novel, I think there might be no end to our nightmares.