By 11AM I had finally nursed the hangover caused by the pub crawl of the previous night. Murad, who had quit Microsoft 2 years ago and moved back to Egypt, had taken us to some of the few shady joints in Alexandria where alcohol could be consumed, and we overindulged, happy to break our travel habit of going to bed too early. Over breakfast the next day I remembered that I had to go to the post office to ship a parcel home – our sleeping bags, so helpful on the Inca trail and during the Africa overland trip, were no longer needed; they were taking useful space in the backpacks, which even now, after many packages sent home, were still too heavy – this time because of the many books we have carried from Africa and have not yet been able to trade or sell.
I went to the post office a few blocks down the road armed with a note written in Arabic by the hotel manager, who translated my intentions: ”I want to send a package to America”. The clerk managed to explain that international parcels must be sent from the central post office, next to the railway station. It wasn’t far; I walked the 10 minutes it took to get there and tried to find my way around by showing my little precious note to people who often spoke back to me in Arabic. Communication was obscure and broken, but somehow I made progress: I was first sent from the postal counter to the next door outside and from there to the third floor. The third floor was empty; a large, well-lit hall furnished with skeletons of cubicles, a few old wooden desks and chairs and, like almost everywhere else in Egypt, covered in mountains of rubble. At first I thought I got to the wrong floor; maybe they were just in the middle of remodeling this one, so I walked back to the second floor where I showed my magic note to some people who were congregating in the hallway. “3rd floor, but closed now” said one of them, “closed today afternoon; tomorrow, open 8 in the morning.” They were all rushing down the stairs to go home. Cautious, I wanted to double-check; back at the reception, the same people who told me to go to the 3rd floor admitted they were just closing for the day.
The next morning, spiffy and fresh, I skipped breakfast so I could be at the post office shortly after eight. On the way I picked up an empty cardboard box from a coffee shop; asking for boxes at post offices had previously been futile (except in Argentina). Once there, I headed straight for the 3rd floor. The large hall was still empty, except for two men sitting at an old desk, sharing some food. I showed them my wrinkled piece of paper and they made encouraging signs that this was the right place, but I needed to wait. Armed with patience I put down my box and bag and sat down on the corner of a desk. One hour later I was still sitting and not much had changed on the 3rd floor. There were more people around; trays with coffee and tea cups were being delivered, cigarettes were smoked, and more food appeared. As I sat there ignored by all, my patience fading, it dawned on me that the office opened indeed at 8 o’clock but people didn’t start coming to work until 9 or later. The person in charge of international shipping wasn’t there yet. Who was to say he or she wasn’t going to call in sick that day?
Finally at 9:30 a woman showed up, took her seat behind a desk, had her coffee, smoked her cigarette, and when the arrival ritual had been completed, they all beckoned me to go to her. She gave me the forms where I had to write the usual shipping data, names, addresses and a description of the contents. Then she proceeded to tell me something in Arabic, which sounded quite vital for the success of my mission; I made a helpless face and shrugged discouraged; two girls who were mailing a small package started giggling. The woman at the counter was now talking slower, as if that was all it would take for me to understand. Somehow, somebody found a man who spoke good English, a customer probably. “She tells you to follow her instructions and then come back here,” he said. “You must now take the papers and go to the 1st floor to get an approval from the department of explosives, then to the 13th floor, to have your books inspected.” Oh well, so this was the customs office, not the post… “And, you know, the key is patience. You’ll be in this for at least one hour. This is how things work in Egypt. Good luck.”
Explosives? What explosives? Of course, they wanted to make sure I didn’t have any. Going down the stairs, I couldn’t help asking myself whether she had meant 1st floor American-style (ground floor) or 1st floor as in the rest of the world. I opted for the rest of the world, but when I got to the 1st and showed my papers - which now made me feel like somebody who had solid, hard-earned credentials – to a friendly man who seemed to work there, he took me with him to the ground floor. The uniformed official sitting by the airport-style x-ray machine (he needed a uniform; he had, after all, to deal with explosives) didn’t bother inspecting my bag before he applied the stamp and his bored signature to the corner of my paper. Point scored, I gloated, making a mental note that the 1st floor had ended up being American-style after all… but purely by coincidence, because soon the 13th floor became the 2nd, where the same very helpful employee took me next. The 2nd was in better shape than the 3rd, and there was no visible rubble in the corners. A woman took my two books and inspected them, talking to me in Arabic. It was safe to assume she couldn’t speak or read English, but she looked at the books carefully nonetheless. The censorship, I started to wonder. This is after all a country ruled by a dictator, and the customs must have a list of banned publications. Maybe Khaled Hosseini’s two novels, which I was foolishly and innocently trying to ship home, were already on the black list, for their being mildly critical of Islam. Maybe she would call the police and I would be expelled from the country after spending a few nights in jail... She passed the books on to another man. That’s it, she sends them to secondary inspection; I’m screwed! But no, he only took some brown paper, wrapped my books, sealed them, and gave the small package back to me. A new stamp was adorning my form. I was feeling like an A+ student.
Back on the third floor, things went smooth. The woman looked satisfied at my painstakingly acquired stamps and instructed another man to wrap the package. We stuffed everything from the bag into the coffee box, and added the books; I wrote the addresses, he taped and wrapped. I now had a fully-approved, shippable package, carrying an imposing lead seal at the end of a rope and I was beginning to think that the world made sense. “Go to the post office down the road, past the mosque,” I was told by someone, and woke up in Egypt again… but I knew I couldn’t go wrong anymore, if I had been able to pass the customs inspection armed with nothing but a wrinkled note on yellow paper.
The office past the mosque wasn’t far. I waited in line for 15 minutes, and the clerk didn’t have to ask many questions when she saw the signed, stamped papers. “380 pounds, please” she said; “air mail, very fast, seven days”. “No, no,” I shook my head; “no air; ship please, I want ‘slow’!” “Slow”, as it turned out, was costing about 300 pounds, and had to be shipped from a different post office. It was 11 o’clock. My concentration was fading; I was feeling as if I was trying to answer the last intricate question of a long and demanding college exam which had gone well so far. I gave up. “Ok, fast.”Note: 1US$ = 5.5 Egyptian pounds
Posted from Dahab, Egypt.