Sunday, October 19, 2008

Leaving Cairo - Patience and flexibility are a must!

Is it possible to be patient and aggressive all at the same time? In any case, these are some of the traits that are required when one passes through Cairo airport. Flexibility is another one. The chaos starts at the parking lot. I had left my hotel on the Nile waterfront, Corniche el Nil, in good time and everything went smoothly on this Friday morning (Friday is the weekly holiday in Egypt and other Muslim countries, so the traffic was light) until we reached the airport. Unlike at most other airports of the world where the taxi drops off the passenger on the curb in front of the departure hall, in Cairo the parking lot away from the terminal building is as far as the taxis get. Already there, complete and utter chaos reigned with cars and vans gridlocked—horns blaring, needless to say—in the tight spots. Passengers with their loads of luggage fought to squeeze in between the cars towards the distant terminal.

Once in there, it got worse. The throngs were incredible. It seems that every departing passenger had brought along his or her relatives, extended family, friends, and probably a few strangers just for show, to wave them off to their destinations. The crowds were almost impossible to penetrate. There were very few foreigners, which is understandable as this terminal was exclusively for Egypt Air departures. Anyone with the wherewithal would do his or her utmost to choose some—any!—other carrier. The few Europeans who were there looked desperate. The information on the rare screens was confusing even to the initiated and airline employees were screaming instructions over the commotion. This wasn’t very helpful, as the details were provided in Arabic. At least I thought it was Arabic, although it was hard to hear over the general noise. Trying to penetrate the crowd and move towards my check-in area I suddenly hit a wall. The mob was so large and densely packed that it couldn’t move anymore in any direction. I estimated I’d still have a good twenty meters to reach the safety of the passengers-only area. For several minutes I did not move. Children started to cry loudly, although one little boy found it amusing to run between the legs of the waiting people, as if he were in a thick forest of big trees, in the process trampling on many feet. In front of me, several baggage trolleys were fatally interlocked. At the same time, I saw some important looking thugs ushered through the side gates without having to queue at all. I was fuming at this unfairness, while starting to despair at the lack of any progress. I do not do well in these kinds of situations.

Suddenly, a young Egyptian man appeared next to me. In good English, he suggested that he could take me through quickly, as he didn’t want to see me suffer inside the horde. I could thus become like those thugs who used their privileges and money to bypass the discomforts accorded to the commoners. Out of principle, I refused his services. But after several minutes when he found me again at precisely the same spot, I relented and handed my suitcase to him. Corruption breeds corruption. Miraculously, he managed to lead us through, the multitude of humanity parting in front of his determination like the Red Sea in front of Moses. It turned out to be a lucky decision on my part to sacrifice my principles. Namely, the fellow headed to an unexpected direction. Unbeknownst to me, it had been announced (in Arabic) that the flight to Abu Dhabi departs from Hall 2. Without the kindness of this stranger, I would have wasted the morning in Hall 1 only to find that I had joined the wrong throng. We breezed through the terminal scattering groups of people, sailing past lines, through gates that would suddenly be opened to us by uniformed officers who obviously were in this little enterprise together with my facilitator. I felt relieved, grateful that I had been born wealthy enough to afford this service.

Finally inside the check-in hall we separated and I joined a line behind the Egypt Air counter. This was not too bad. There were not so many people in front of me and the hall itself was only half-full. Of course, the decibel level was still well above internationally accepted WHO norms. There were what seemed like hundreds of children, seemingly belonging to only a handful of women. Those that were not running around and screaming excitedly at the prospect of travel were wailing in frustration because of the same.

I was in my thoughts and noticed too late that a few people had squeezed in between me and the man in front of me in the line. Nothing to do about that; the opening had been for grabs. In Egypt, one has to breath into the neck of the guy before you—and move strategically to block any sideline attempts—if you want to keep your place in a queue. The cutting is not even remotely subtle; it’s pure survival of the fittest.

It turned out that I had chosen the wrong line anyway. The large gentleman, traveling with what I assumed were his son and his wife and little daughter, was negotiating with the agent about the obviously excessive amount of luggage. From the scales I saw that the family had 146 kg of bags to check in. The negotiation—which alternated between loud and threatening shouts and sweet smiling cajoling—lasted a good fifteen minutes. Finally money exchanged hands as the portly man doled out the agreed sum from a thick wad of Egyptian pounds in his pocket. Whether these would actually go to the airline would never be known.

In the meantime, a fight was about to break out in the next line to my left. The situation looked menacing. The reason for conflict was apparently the same. I saw that the lone gent was proposing to check in 72 kg worth of luggage. I am sure he would prevail in the end. What they were doing was only negotiating the price. Third World people do not travel light. I was beginning to worry whether our old 737 would be able to take off with all this overweight!

The next hurdle would be passport control. Again, the lines did not look too bad, but looks were deceptive. The system ensured that it would take the required time. There were two people at every passport counter: a uniformed man checking and stamping the passports, and a lady wearing a headscarf entering the information from the departure cards into an ancient computer (a classic case of two officers of whom one knows how to read and the other how to write). Furthermore, they would occasionally allow women with children—did I mention that there were children?—jump the line, presumably on humanitarian grounds. From his high counter, the border official looked down judging all passengers. I hoped that I had filled in the departure card correctly, so as not to be sent back to the end of the line. I sighed in relief when I was handed back my stamped travel document.

Behind the passport control there was another counter where an elderly man was waiting to—get ready for this—check your passport. This was a more casual inspection and the uncle was glad to wave me onwards.

Now that I had been cleared through, it was obvious that what I had thought of as ample lead time I had given myself at the airport had been just about enough. Departure time was approaching, and I had made it. It was still only 9 o’clock in the morning, but it felt like I had done a day’s work. So when my hopeful eyes detected that the snack bar actually sold beer, I happily ordered a cold Egyptian Stella. The cashier produced the can. I said that I’d have to pay in US dollars, as I had given all of my remaining pounds to the facilitator. The man behind the cash machine said: no dollars, only pounds. This is the international airport of a world city and a major regional hub, and they only accept local currency, I thought with my mood sinking rapidly. However, if there’s one thing that I had learned, it was: be flexible and never take anything at face value. So I entered into a negotiation with the kind coffee shop employee. Naturally, we soon agreed and I laid down four greenbacks in exchange of the cool beverage. Smiling, we both agreed this was a fair price and, indeed, it was worth it. Life was starting look up.

No comments: