I can’t begin to express my unbridled enthusiasm at the chance to return to Egypt after a hiatus of decades. Nothing in my experience can hold a candle to the great pyramids and the Sphinx, and I could spend hours just contemplating the lives those mummies and sarcophagus socialites must have led. So it was with anticipation that I boarded my very long plane flight to Cairo from Los Angeles via Vienna. Courtesy of the pandemic, we were asked to come an extra hour early for international flights. Crowds swarmed LAX, and TSA really had its hands full.
And then the trip began with lots of waiting. There were three to four hours in my home airport – and five hours waiting because of my delaying Egypt Air flight in Vienna. It seemed as if the day would never end. Or maybe it was two days. I lost track of time with hourly changes and strange light denoting day and night popping up here and there as we flew over the frigid ice cap. By the time Cairo came into sight from above, I’d racked up nearly 24 hours of travel time; and I was dog-tired from having done nothing but eat for all those hours. They do serve a full menu on Austrian Airlines.
Exhausted, I opted for a comfortable and relaxing wheelchair in order to ease the pain of walking miles with my carry-on bags, which probably weighed more than I did. I waited patiently for the airline to provide me with a wheelchair and someone to push me through the mobs of people arriving from all over the world.
In order to enter Egypt, travelers must purchase a visa upon their entry into the country. It is certainly a bargain at $25 and can be purchased right in the airport just before going through passport control. My wheelchair nanny asked for the $25 (U.S., of course) and scurried off to pick up my visa while I waited. I watched him go to the cashier and return with a small white card which he flashed in front of my nose, telling me it was my visa while he grabbed my passport to hand to the fellows at passport control. From my wheelchair, they were probably six feel above me.
I had originally planned to go to Egypt in 2020, but somehow a global pandemic got in the way: You know what they say about the best laid plans. I sent for my Egyptian visa in 2019, and it was stamped inside my passport. But, of course, I never used it; and it had long ago expired. In the midst of my journey through the airport, I was met by a representative of my tour company who was sent to ferry me to my hotel. After bidding my wheelchair and “driver” a fond farewell, we went to our vehicle to motor to downtown Cairo. Just after I got settled into the van, the tour rep asked for my passport so that he could scan it for the tour company headquarters who would be arranging my month-long trip. It was then that the truth dawned. Searching through the many pages in my passport, I was unable to locate that elusive visa that I had never really touched – and it turned out that passport control stamped the expired 2020 visa. My tour rep immediately contacted the company and told me the bad news. I had entered Egypt, but I might never leave due to the absence of legal paperwork
So off we went back to the airport to attempt to correct the unfortunate “mistake.” That was when I had the opportunity to meet the exemplary airport police chief and his crew. Everyone scurried about with maximum efficiency – and, lo and behold, they managed to locate my wheelchair nanny. It seems that he took my money and faked a visa which, in my worn out state, I never noticed – especially since, after all, passport control stamped my passport. The police were extremely upset by his treatment of a bona fide tourist, and they let him know it. When he tried to sidle up to me to apologize, they briskly shoved him several feet away.
Then, to cap off my unusual entry into Egypt, the bottom line rose to meet me. The chief told me that I must determine how the airport employee would be punished. It was then and there that I discovered one of the quirks of Middle Eastern justice. The victim gets to decide what happens to the guilty party. Try as I might – and more than uncomfortable because of looming cultural issues – I was “it.” Would he lose his job? Go to jail? Lots of thoughts rushed through my mind. What was an appropriate punishment for the crime? It certainly did not feel good holding a stranger’s fate in my hands. This was a middle aged man who probably had a wife and several children depending on him. But this was also a man who cheated me and had probably cheated multiple other wheelchair passengers (many who may have been handicapped or elderly). What to do?
Finally, I weighed the multiple factors separately and together. This was one of those surprising and unforeseen things that happens when you travel. I finally resolved my thoughts, made my statement (in Arabic and English), and offered up my solution to the conundrum. Travel is nothing if not broadening, but I guess that all’s well that ends well. What would you have done in my shoes? What penalty would you have offered?