A little note for all of you who think my life is one long holiday – maybe it is – but often it’s a holiday in hell…
One of my goals in life is to never spend any time in an Egyptian jail. If not for that I would have killed the little kid who kicked the back of my airplane seat all the way to Cairo. The internal flight to Alexandra was uneventful except for an unexplained sharp and frightening dive to the right. The entire flight was completely turbulence free except for that moment. I had an image of The Three Stooges in the cockpit momentarily taking their hands off the wheel. Even though the flight was late, that mental image meant that sleep was impossible.
Customs in Alexandria examined my bags with a completely open x-ray machine that reminded me of some old fluoroscope device from the 1040’s. I’m sure that I received a lethal dose of radiation from this one (and hopefully only) visit. I’m surprised the customs officials didn’t look like extras from Zombieland. I was supposed to be met and taken to a hotel for the night, then taken to the cruise ship the next day. My non-English-speaking driver was having none of that. He hared around back roads, where it seemed that the terrifying custom is to turn off your lights as a car approaches. So when a pair of headlights appears in the distance you and the other car go into complete blackness until somehow you miss each other.
Since the ship had docked a half an hour before, at 1am, the driver insisted to take me to it and not the hotel where I was booked. I tried to point out that my cabin in the ship would probably not be ready until tomorrow but my Egyptian guide would not be turned. It made me wonder if Carter had this much trouble with his guides while looking for Tutankhamen. At the gate of the port we picked up another man carrying a clear plastic bag of pita bread and fruit. I thought he was a delivery person until he asked for my passport.
I then had to wait an hour in a customs office that even Bob Cratchet would have deemed filthy, while a customs officer had to get out of bed and dress. Eventually I was surrounded by my two Egyptians, two security/policemen and a grumpy/sleepy customs official all yelling at each other and pointing at me and my passport. I got the distinct impression that none of them had done this before. Finally, the customs man instructed me to open my bags. I’d never before been through customs leaving a country but he looked in no mood to argue. There was no one to translate but I imagined he said, “If you are f-ing going to get me up in the middle of the night I’m going to look through your f-ing bags.” So I opened my bags. As he stared at my pile of magic props he spoke the first English I had heard all evening. “What is this?”
I know from experience that there is no way to explain what a “magician” is without doing a trick – so did a couple of snazzy shuffles and said I was a “fakir” which was the wrong thing to say since it also has mystical and criminal connotations. Finally, after I made a card magically rise out of an unattended deck of cards, did the smiles and the laughs come. Then the customs guy got on his walkie-talkie and I had to wait another 20 minutes for all of the night guards on the dock to drive up so I could perform a 3am impromptu show on the Alexandria docks. Historians will tell you that The Lighthouse of Alexandria was one of the Seven Wonders of the World but me getting through customs that night is the eighth.
Eventually at the ship, I had to wake up the head of security to be allowed onboard, and then they had to wake the accommodations officer to get me a room. Everyone I met asked me why I wasn’t in a hotel. I finally opened my room to find the bed filled with a crew member who was temporarily using it for the night because he was sick. I had to go back and re-awaken the accommodations officer and finally get another room. When I finally put my head on my pillow I said one of the only phrases in my tiny Arabic vocabulary, “al hamdulillah” –which means – Thanks Be to God.
Tags: John Lenahan