[edited to add photos]
My second attempt at Cairo got off to a frightening start. I left my flat in Jerusalem late at night on the 6th in what seemed plenty of time to make the bus. (My flatmates and I had discussed going to the housing protests but they were too tired from their own move and without them I wouldn’t have made it back in time.) Anyway, so I take my walk to the bus station at about 2300 for a midnight bus. Most of the time one buys a ticket on the bus, and buying it in advance only saves you a little cash.
However, this bus had sold out before I even arrived at the station! D’oh! I waited patiently to see if there would be free spots — the guy directing inflow and taking tickets insisted there wouldn’t be any, but you know how that goes. As it happened, there were two, and I got the second and last. There was a young soldier (and several others behind him) tried to squeeze their way past me (Israelis do not queue, they shove and cut — the aggressive get served first every time), but I was bigger and wanted it more so he got left and I made it on. Yay!
The ride down was much better than the first, being blissfully free of obnoxious laughing hyenas. All the same, I couldn’t sleep. Dozing in public is extremely difficult for me, and I need to be wasted-tired to do it. Since I can stay up for a few days, this doesn’t happen often. Anyway, I got to Eilat at close to 0500 with more than four hours to kill. I therefore set out on a long walk.
Last time here I had seen the marina, so while my route started similarly I cut right as I approached the Red Sea and headed towards the harbour. This had me passing through a lousy neighbourhood and then onto a truly lovely stretch of highway, Mitzrayim Street, which goes all the way to the Taba border crossing. They had created a wide pedestrian and bicycle way along the seaside of the street, in order to give morning joggers (of which I later saw plenty) and bicyclists a long stretch for their business. Walking in the dark was cool, and while I missed a bit of detail in the port, I walked all the way to the end of it and a little beyond. The way forward to Taba was still waaaay long, though, and there were several beaches and resorts still along that road, so I stopped past the port and turned around.
By this point the sun was rising so I dug out my camera and went to work. My father works in the port of LA/LB, as I used to, and as my grandfather and great-grandfather did. So, there’s a bit of fun in seeing harbour facilities in different parts of the world. This was also interesting in that it was not a containerized terminal — they were still using break-bulk cranes, lifting pallets out of the ships directly. There is space for two simultaneous off-loads, each with five cranes working. There is one small container crane at the end of the dock, but the only cans I saw anywhere in the port were stacked at the end as a wall. They did have a huge number of cars in storage lots, so this is clearly a major entrepôt for Japanese cars, etc.
So anyway, this is where the fun began. I was stopped once and spoken to about taking photos — this was close to border, it was a military zone, and so on. I explained my story as to why I was doing it, and he asked a lot of questions based on my name (asking to see my passport first is pretty standard). Having an Arabic surname is a pain in the arse, even when you’re not actually an Arab. (Damn the Germans for having an identical name, and damn the Irish in my family for stealing it!) Either way, the questioning wasn’t bad and he left quickly enough, and as I was headed back away from the border I took my chances with more photos of the harbour. Yeah, I’m stubborn.
Of course I noticed that I was being watch by security in various places — across the street, down in the port, etc., and sure enough another man came along, this time a friendly blond Russian fella. He chastised me for taking harbour photos and asked me to delete them. I’m rather clever about this, though. First, I had a huge amount of duplication, taking a lot of pics of the same thing in slightly different ways, as you never know what’s going to come out well. Second, I was able to delete without doing much; I’m good with my hands and he was distracted from pushing me to delete more. So I lost the most recent shots but not the near-identical ones from before.
(Yes, I realise that Shin Bet might be reading this and know that this was foolish, but my pictures are perfectly innocent, my rationale was good, and I defy anyone to prove that I’m an actual security threat. *pfft* But I am going to be nice and not share them with you here.)
Anyway, the Russian fella told me not to take more of the harbour, but shots in the other direction were okay — i.e., toward Eilat and Aqaba. There may have been a miscommunication and he meant in that direction once I had walked fully past the harbour, but I confirmed with him twice that he was saying I could snap pictures of, e.g., the disused container crane coming up but not of the warehouses and ship behind. He said this was kosher and so, continuing forward, I resumed taking photos in only that direction. And very quickly, a third car arrived on the scene….
Observation is very good on that street, as is the coordination of officers. Both the second and third already knew my name and some of my story from the first guy. This third one corrected the misunderstanding/mistake/miscommunication from the previous officer, but this was not enough by that point — I had raised too many red flags by persisting to take pictures in that region. I can’t help it, I like to push boundaries I suppose. And I have perfectly innocent reasons for being interested in these things, and no ties to anything they could call criminal.
At this point I was detained. Another officer arrived, and both were coordinating with HQ on radios. I got a tonne of questions, including totally pointless ones like, have I spoken to any Arabs in the time I’ve been in Israel. For shit’s sake, 20% of the population are Arab. I can’t help it if I’m not going to paint in the same broad, racist strokes as everyone else. They did seem sceptical of the story surrounding my name, but didn’t pursue that. They asked about my passport and why it was a replacement. They asked about my previous trips to Israel, and about the Frankfurt stamp in the book. They seriously wanted to know if I had spoken to anyone in Germany, or if I had taken anything — the latter making some sense, but talking to anyone? come on…
Then they took me across the street to their car. Just before being herded in into the back seat someone changed their minds at HQ. We then re-crossed the street and I was led down a dirt slope and into the port, to a secured area. I was not allowed to carry my own bag, which definitely excited my paranoia (it’s nearly everything I had in there, including my computer) but I played it really cool and zen-like, both here and throughout the ordeal.
I then stood around while four or five people discussed my fate. I was able to follow a good bit of the conversation, picking up in particular on the references to my surname. This being a not-uncommon Arabic name, particularly in Egypt, has caused me no end of trouble; I definitely envy my adviser his nice obviously-Jewish name. They asked me a whole range of questions which you can file under racial profiling or outright racism, depending on your politics. I was asked again if I had spoken to any Arabs during my visits to Israel, including Arab citizens of the state. Obviously, I was not about to discuss visiting the West Bank.
When I threw them a bone and admitted to just two they grilled me on who they were, but I was able to slide out of that by noting that I was staying in Jerusalem where such contact is not entirely unlikely. This is a dangerous game, as I do not have the rights that exist in the ‘States and my associations can and would be used against me. With no formal rights to free speech or association, politics can (and has) become a basis for prosecution and harassment in Israel.
At any rate, I picked up on a lot of those references, and they were apparently significant enough to overrule my very comfortable rationale for being there and looking at the port. My father is particularly nostalgic for the days of break-bulk shipping, as opposed to the fully-containerised approach now ruling the West. And me, I find ships and shipping fascinating all around, so getting to see an Israeli port in action was intriguing. I did show my port ID cards, but these didn’t get me very far I suppose — at least, not with my name or whatever.
I was then taken into a tiny, one-room building which appears to exist for this purpose. Now came the search, and it was very thorough indeed. Everything was emptied from my bag — and I mean everything, every last scrap of paper. The stuff and the bag were all rubbed with a chemical-detecting gauze, and a good bit of it was put through an x-ray scanner, from the electronics to the boots to the walking stick. I was mostly stripped and frisked extremely thoroughly — the only part he didn’t grab at was my unit, and he ran a metal-detector wand in front of that.
Most of the time in that room I sat calmly, hands folded or steepled in my lap. They brought me a couple of cups of cold water, which was very nice of them. One of the men in particular, a fellow long-hair, was quite nice and apologetic for the whole affair. The others seemed very dispassionate and business-like about it all. Either way, I never felt physically threatened and took it all as pretty routine. Again, I have nothing to hide, and this has happened to me quite a bit in Israel by now.
After they were finished I laboriously re-packed my backpack; since I brought only the day-pack for a week in Egypt is was pretty carefully arranged. The long-haired officer then drove me up to the road and dropped me at the first corner. I think he would have taken me further up the road if I wanted, but I was still keen to walk. Of course I snapped no more photos until I was past the final fence of the harbour, but I then pulled it back out and took shots of the nice rocky beach just beyond it.
I had passed this beach on the way up in the dark and had been looking forward to seeing it in daylight, too. It’s really quite distinct from beaches I’ve known. There was nothing quite like sand on it, just rocks of varying size. The lower stretches were like a very fine gravel intersperses with larger rocks from the size of a quarter to the size of my hand. The water was extremely clear and you could see the rocks stretching off for some distance into the water, which was really quite cool looking. I don’t have time this morning or I would put up some pics of that. Anyway, I walked there for a little bit, picked up a few rocks, and then headed back up the road.
Rocky beach near the port.
Still on the beach, collecting rocks.
I walked all the way through the hotel and marina district for the first time. It was quite interesting in daylight, but I didn’t take the time to photograph it at that point. I was in a hurry to reach a coffee shop and video-chat with a friend. As it happened, their Internet was down so that would have to wait. I chatted for a bit using YahooIM on the phone, then I took a cab to the consulate.
Aroma café (photo taken later that afternoon)
Egyptian Consulate (last thing photo'd before the border)
Processing my visa would take them about four hours, and since I got there at 0945 I couldn’t come back until 1330. This left me a good bit of time to kill, so I walked back through the downtown area and looked for another Internet café, unsuccessfully for some time as it happens. Finally I located a Cup-o’-Joe in the mall, and while it left me no place to charge my phone, I was at least able to read the news while I ate breakfast.
After this I set out to walk the length of the marina and hotel district, and it was really quite interesting. This is kind of like Las Vegas on the seashore, or some kind of Caribbean resort (though I can’t speak from experience there, hehe). The hotels are huge and, typical for Israel, very oddly designed. There was a massive profusion of shops catering to the tourists, with overpriced drinks and pointless trinkets. The lower stretches of the marina, which I had not gotten to before, were amazing — some of the boats in there just blew me away. I will post the photos eventually in the gallery, so be looking there for the Eilat section later. I walked all the way to the Aroma location, where the Internet was down that morning but where I had now stopped for coffee two weeks in a row. From there I picked up a cab back to the consulate. I had managed to waste exactly the right amount of time (I was checking my watch and pacing myself).
Rocky resort beach in Eilat
Resort beach, with sunbathing girls. *lol*
An underwater restaurant.
Boardwalk, one of many such stretches.
Aren't these beautiful?
More cute boats with two big resort hotels behind.
From the consulate, visa in hand, I picked up a ride all the way to the border crossing, past a long stretch of resort beaches and the underwater observatory (I am gonna try and do that when I get back to Israel if I can time it right). The crossing itself was fun, let me tell you! The process is long and has tonnes of places to stop you. There’s a fee that you pay on both sides, which is interesting; that money must go into supporting the crossing complex, I imagine. They asked a whole lot more questions and spent a lot more effort in security on the Israeli side, which is funny since I was leaving the country.
Okay, I cheated. Border crossing.
Once on the Egyptian side I pulled my camera out immediately and no-one said a word. There was no security check, just a place to show my passport, and then an arrival hall where I showed it again and got my passport stamped. In that hall there was a single security check but there was no-one standing behind the x-ray machine when my bag went through — only one guy was working the gate. Inside the hall I used an ATM to take out some Egyptian pounds, noting in the process that my chequeing account was almost empty. Hrm. *shrug* Anyway, I passed through the hall and I was in Taba, Egypt!
I'm in Egypt!
Arrival Hall, Taba, Egyptian Arab Republic.
I’ll pick this story up from there next time. Once again, apologies for any typos; I’m in a hurry to reach the streets again. Stay tuned, my loyal droogs….