(This blog post is one of my real travel experiences)
I received an invitation to speak at an International Conference at Alexandria in Egypt. The Conference was organized by Professor Ahmed Hamza and his wife Samia Saad. My friend Jim Gallup from US AID had organized the funding. He ran the EP3 project that focused on Industrial Pollution Prevention.
I was very excited as I had never traveled to Egypt. Besides, I knew Ahmed and Samia very well and so the sponsor – Jim.
I was teaching at IIT Bombay. We had a Ph D Student from Alexandria. His name was Hamdi Saif.
When I told Hamdi that I have an invite from Alexandria, he was excited. “Sir, I will accompany you to the Egyptian Consulate and help you get the Visa on priority. Are you flying our national airline Egypt Air?” He asked.
Next week, Hamdi took me to the Egyptian Consulate in Mumbai. We saw the Counseller in his office. The Consular and Hamdi had a conversation in Arabic and I could sense that Hamdi was telling him importance of this meeting and how internationally sought expert I was (essentially marketing me!).
The Counseller got me a strong Egyptian coffee, spoke about how Egypt and India have great ties and how I will enjoy visiting Egypt and that I should not missing going to the Pyramids and taking a cruise on the river Nile. I told him that both these items were on my priority list.
Then in his loud voice and a friendly smile, the Counseller personally stamped Visa sticker on my passport page. After this was done, he pulled out a Mont Blanc pen from his shirt pocket and started writing in Arabic on the stamped page.
I asked “Sir, May I know what you are writing on the page (I thought I must know as it was my document!)”
“Oh, don’t worry – it’s for the good” –The Counseller laughed and handed over to me the Passport.
Next week, I boarded flight to Cairo on Egypt Air.
On the aircraft, I saw wife of one of another Egyptian student who studied at IIT. “Sir, what a pleasant surprise” she said “Where are you heading to?”
I said Alexandria. I told her that I plan to take the Desert Bus from the airport.
Shaheen, that was her name, said that queues at Immigration in Cairo can be very long. It could be simply exasperating. She was getting a friend, a senior official from Egyptian Army of the rank of Major to whisk her out. “Just walk with me and I will get you out of the turn through immigration and customs like a breeze.
“Oh this is just like in India” I said. I had seen many of VIPs going through immigration and customs at Mumbai moving out in a brisk.
Indeed, the queue for immigration at Cairo was “looong”. Shaheen smiled.
“Follow me” she said.
We were greeted by a tall handsome Egyptian Army man, flashing on his uniform a lot of decorations. Shaheen spoke to him in Arabic and explained “my case”. The Man from Egyptian Army asked for my Passport and disappeared.
In just five minutes, he returned with our passports duly stamped. Here you are Sir he said. All done and you are ready to go.
We exited the airport and Shaheen was kind to drop me at the bus station of the Desert Bus.
I reached Ramada hotel in Alexandria in the next 3 hours – the Venue of the Conference. Ahmed and Samia were there to greet me and Jim was around too.
The Conference was “standard”. We had more fun outside the conference room. In the evenings we used to go to nice places to eat and relax on the chairs next to the meditarian sea.
After the conference, we moved to Cairo and stayed at hotel “Pyramids”. After a day’s stay in Cairo, we flew to Aswan and got into River Cruise on the Nile. The Cruise was luxurious as it had its own golf course, a swimming pool, a bar and even a bus. There was in-house belly dancer too!
The cruise sailed along taking various stops for sightseeing which we used to do with our Bus. While on the Board, Jim had organized brainstorming sessions where we discussed the environmental business of the next 20 years. I thought it was a great idea. The discussions gave me a good insight about “tomorrows environmental business”. We took a stock of whats happening now, challenges faced and opportunities ahead. I haven’t come across such discussions or forums in India. We really need such meetings.
We reached Luxor where the cruise ended. I was to take a flight like most others from Luxor to Cairo and then connect to Mumbai.
Prof Hamza hugged me in Egyptian style before departing. “Come again my Friend” he said
Prof Hamza – a recent picture
Then as a matter of routine, he asked me
Prasad, hope you notified the Police station about your entry in Egypt
I said No, Was this required? I asked
Yes, you should have. And I suppose you are carrying the customs clearance certificate regarding foreign exchange you brought in
I said No, I don’t have one
How come? – Hamza said in a voice of concern. You must have been informed by the office of Immigration and Customs when you entered Egypt.
I explained to him the story of my VIP entry.
Hamza asked me his last question
Do you have telephone no of Indian Embassy in Cairo? You really need to have your Embassy contact as I see now a great difficulty for you to leave Egypt. Inshallah
I realized the gravity of the situation at once.
I went to the post office at the Luxor airport, found a phone, called my wife and said “I may be a bit delayed. Perhaps by a couple of days”.
Apparently, the Egyptian laws were very strict when it came to notifying police in time and declaring foreign exchange.
I reached Cairo from Luxor. That was just fine. But the issue was immigrating out of Cairo to Mumbai. I was to fly Emirates via Dubai.
I stood in the queue with my heart beating heavily.
Sir, a stern looking immigration officer asked me “Where is the stamp from the local Police station”.
Apparently, if you stay less than 7 days in Egypt, then you don’t have to. I was exiting Egypt on 8th day. I requested the officer to excuse me “Just a slip of a day Sir, I could not get earlier flight” I made most apologetic face.
The Officer did not like my defense.
Where is your Customs Clearance Certificate? He did not say Sir this time.
“I don’t have one as I did not bring in the country Foreign Exchange” I said.
Apparently, if you don’t bring in Foreign Exchange then such a certificate is not necessary. (Actually, I was carrying few hundred dollars in my wallet. A body search would have shown that I was lying blatantly).
The Immigration Officer did not like this answer either. He browsed pages of my passport. When you travel on the Cruise, stamping happens on the passport at some locations. He saw these stamps
“Carrying no money and travelling on the Nile Cruise Eh? He looked at me suspiciously.
Well, I said “I was sponsored by the US AID”
Now the Immigration Officer’s face became serious and grim
“Please fall out of the line. We need to talk to you. You cannot take this flight” He said in an icy tone.
He then got up, shouted in Arabic.
I moved out of the line.
A huge Egyptian Immigration Officer then walked in. He took my passport from the Immigration Officer who was interrogating me. His face was even sterner. He reached page of the Visa in my passport.
He saw the page and then looked at me. He looked once again at the passport page. He seemed to melt!
He shouted at the desk officer in Arabic. Then he turned to me and said in the most apologetic tone.
“Extremely sorry Sir, this was some mistake. You have been notified here as Government of Egypt’s Very Important Guest”
Oh, so that’s what the Counselor in Mumbai wrote on my Visa page with his Monte Blanc ! I realized the power of that pen. Wow!!!
The Big Immigration Officer then asked one of his colleagues to escort me to Egypt Airs business lounge and he said to him
Sir is an important Guest but has no money (that’s what I had said!). Please serve him some sandwiches and juice – this will be complementary from the airport.
I was relieved and embarrassed at the same time.
When I reached Mumbai, I met Hamdi and narrated the whole episode. He spoke to the Counseller and learnt that its very rate that Counseller has written such words on the Visa page. The Counseller told Hamdy “Tell your Professor, never jump the Queue again. You have been rather lucky. I would have expected a detainment at least couple of days to check out!”
This was a story in 1992. I visited Egypt after this “episode” at least two dozen times. The Immigration rules have changed and not that rigid any more. In each of my visits, I never jumped the queue – not just in Egypt but anywhere else in the world!
I always stood in long queues and with patience.
You don’t get to see or meet friendly counselors very often!! Do you?