“If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”-Milton Berle
“No, no, no, no, no, no. Noooooooooo!”
“Sir, please keep your voice down. Please remember that you’re in the Executive Lounge.”
Feeling desperate, I claw at the concierge desk, “You don’t understand. There has to be some sort of ship that can take me to Europe. You have to help me find one.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Giuliani, but I’ve double-checked everywhere, like you asked me to, and all the passenger ships traveling from Egypt to Europe have been cancelled for quite sometime now.”
My heart stops beating; my temper flares.
“You really don’t understand, you have no idea what I’ve gone through to get here.”
“I’m terribly sorry, Sir.”
“Over the past nine months I traveled over 16,000 miles by bus! I crossed the entire African continent – and my plan was to take a ship from Egypt to Europe so I could continue traveling around the world.”
“That is quite impressive, Sir, but there are plenty of flights to Europe. Cairo has a wonderful airport. Would you like me to book a flight for you?”
I push a marble Sphinx paperweight aside and lean over her desk insistently, (hopefully not threateningly), as if physical proximity will help me explain my story better. “I’m trying to travel around the world without the use of air travel.”
“Ah, I see, how interesting!”
Sigh. “Okay, well what about a cruise then? I’ll buy a ticket for the whole cruise and I’ll just get on the ship when it pulls into port somewhere in Egypt, and then I’ll get off as soon as it arrives in Europe.”
“I’m really sorry to say this, but there are absolutely no cruise ships, ferries, or boats of any kind that will take passengers from any part of Egypt to Europe.”
I’m getting desperate. “What about Cyprus? I met someone in the gift shop this morning that told me that ferries go from Alexandria to Cyprus.”
“The use to, but they have all stopped their service as well because it’s been deemed too dangerous.”
“Ever since the Egyptian revolution in 2010, our tourism industry has really suffered. And around the middle of 2012 most cruise lines took Egypt off their itineraries. Since then, all the other cruise lines have either cancelled a number of services here or just stopped coming all together.”
I’m impressed by the professionalism of the concierge – I’m probably a somewhat intimidating presence right now – but that does nothing to help my situation. I cup my face with my hands in defeat. Not another insane roadblock. Just this morning, while looking out at the Pyramids, I proclaimed that I’d officially completed my mission and successfully crossed Africa. I thought that my time here was done – and to be honest I’m more than ready to move on. Africa has beaten me to a pulp.
I lift my head, glance over her shoulder out the window at the Nile. We’re 22 stories up and I can see the river cut right through the center of Cairo’s Zamalek district, a shimmering blue snake nosing through sandstone buildings. It’s a magnificent sight, truly one of the reasons why I travel.
I’ve managed to book seven free nights at the Marriott in Cairo by using all the Marriott points I racked up while traveling for my old job as an educational consultant. I spent so many days traveling to schools across Florida while I worked at that god-awful job that not only did I earn a slew of free nights, but I’ve also earned myself the highest honor within Marriott: Executive Status.
One of the perks that comes along with such a status is full access to this beautiful Executive Lounge, which includes the most knowledgeable concierge service I’ve ever come across. I considered this week at the Marriott as a present to myself, a mini seven-day retreat where I wouldn’t have to worry about hustling my film and photography wares for a free room. A place where I could just stop, relax and catch my breath for a minute. The hotel itself is massive; there are over 1,000 luxury guest rooms in two towers that overlook pristine palace gardens and the Nile. When I first walked into my room yesterday and saw the Nile out the window, I was overcome with so much sheer joy that I jumped up and down on the bed like a five year old.
The Egyptian ruler Khedive Ismail originally built the hotel lobby in 1869 as a Palace. He built it to host Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, who was the guest of honor for the Inauguration of the Seuz Canal. Today the hotel is mostly inhabited by international business men and women, which suites me just fine because they couldn’t care less about me, and it’s nice to be able blend in and not be noticed for a change. But all that’s behind me now – and the only thing that matters is finding a way forward.
I ask the concierge if she can pull up a map on her computer, and she quickly obliges and flips her screen around so we can both see it. We zoom in on North Africa and Europe, and I run my finger along Egypt’s northern coastline.
“I can go to any port. What about Port Said or Port Marsa Matruh?”
“Only cargo ships are able to sail into those ports at this time.”
“Okay, well, that works for me. Can I get onto a cargo ship? Surely Egypt must export something to Europe. I’m strong – I could be a deckhand and help unload the cargo – or I could work as a cook. I’ll do anything. I don’t care what it is. I’ll even clean the toilets if I have to.”
“You won’t be able to clear immigration unless you’re officially offered a job and a credential as member of the crew. In order to do that you will need to obtain a work permit, which is a complicated process. First you need to get hired by one of the shipping companies, and then you can apply for the work permit through the company that hires you. Just completing the paperwork part of the process can take up to six months – and that’s assuming you even get hired.”
My heart – and I can’t help but think about the reoccurring dream I’ve had for the past few years. The one where I’m on my way to catch a flight, but I’m moving in slow motion like I’m running underwater, or through molasses. By the time I finally make it to the airport I find I’ve either forgotten my passport or wallet, and I’m unable to board my plane. Then the airport closes down and everyone inside the airport vanishes and I’m left standing there all alone.
I’m getting that feeling right now. My journey is fading away around me.
“What about the countries that surround Egypt? Can I travel overland to any of them?”
My finger leaves a smudge on her computer screen as I point to one option.
“Lybia is our neighbor to the west and I strongly advise against that. Since Libya’s civil war in 2011, the country has gone through a very violent period of unrest. It’s unpredictable and unstable. Currently a power struggle is going on between armed militias, and the central government is too weak to maintain any authority over the country. Just a few weeks ago Islamic State militants shot and beheaded groups of captive Ethiopian Christians.”
My eyes widen and she shakes her head before continuing. “Many Libyans are fleeing the country because of the current conditions there. Have you seen the news lately? They are one of the groups of people you see trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea on migrant ships. They are risking their lives to flee the country.”
“Can you see what the U.S. Department of State says about Libya on their website?”
I bite the skin around my fingernails while we wait for the site to load. (I know it’s a gross and a disgusting habit, but I only ever do it when I’m at the end of my rope – and I’m officially at the end of my rope – again.)
She confirms what I already suspected. “Libya has a travel warning, and the Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all travel to the country, and recommends that U.S. citizens currently in Libya depart immediately. Various groups have called for attacks against U. S. citizens. ”
“Okay, so Libya is clearly out, what about to the east?”
“Israel is our neighbor to the east – and I wouldn’t recommend that you go that way either. There is a border crossing and you could cross from Taba into the Israeli resort city of Eilat. But in order to do that, you would have to cross through the Sinai Peninsula, which is…” Her voice trails off.
“Which is what?”
“Dangerous. In recent years, Sinai has been the site of several terrorist attacks against tourist. Which is one of the reasons why cruise ships no longer sail to Egypt. Militants think that by attacking and damaging the tourism industry, they’ll force the government to pay more attention to their situation. About a year ago, a bomb was detonated on a bus, killing four tourists in Taba – and recently, militant organizations have increased their activity in the Sinai Peninsula. Some al-Qaeda linked groups are said to be operating there. So with you being an American and all, I would definitely not encourage you to go that way.”
“Okay, so no ships will take me north to Europe and your telling me that it’s to dangerous for me to travel east to Israel or west to Libya.”
Optimistically she says, “What about South? You could go to Sudan.”
I explain to her that I just came from Sudan and that that’s not an option for all sorts of reasons. The visa I had to get into Sudan was only valid for one entry, and that it would take months to organize another visa – and even if I did go back to Sudan, then where would I go from there? I would be in the same position I’m currently in and I’d just have to keep backtracking. I’d have to go back to Ethiopia, then Kenya and probably all the way back down to South Africa in order to find a ship that could take me to another part of the world so I could resume my journey.
The thought of having to retrace the past 9 months of my life and re-live all those agonizing bus trips a second time is out of the question. The thought of it makes my stomach churn.
I’m exasperated and depressed. I start laughing out loud like I’m crazy (because hey, maybe I am).
“So that’s it then. It’s over. I guess this is where my dream ends.”
The concierge has no response. She looks shocked at my inability to handle the situation, and the next minute becomes one of the most awkward of my life.
I should probably get up and walk back to my room now because I’m just sitting and staring at the concierge like I’m punch drunk, but I’m unable to move.
Gradually, my wits return, along with an awareness of how awkward this is. I end the silence by blurting out, “there has to be a way, there just has to!”
Ambition is a funny thing; I never ever had any while working for someone else. I would never go the initial mile, let alone the extra mile – and I couldn’t care less about things like performance reviews or the quality of work that was attached to my name. But if anything has changed inside me since I started this journey, it’s that I have this burning desire to complete what I’ve set out to do. I feel like this journey has taken over my Being and I’m no longer fully in control. I can feel that energy course through my veins – and at this moment it’s slithering around just under my skin, refusing to give up.
If I’ve learned one thing so far while crossing Africa, it’s that dead ends like this are here for a very specific reason. They’re not here to stop me. They’re here to test my resilience, and to give me the opportunity to show the world just how bad I want this. These dead ends are meant to stop people who don’t want this enough.
I want this enough.
I can feel that fire spark in my belly, and I’m reminded that I can’t just mope around and hope that diplomatic relations in North Africa and the Middle East magically clear up overnight. I can’t expect the world to roll out a red carpet for me and my dream, so I can continue to saunter along. The old me might have done that, but not the new me.
So I jump up and insist that we take one last look over the map. “Can you think of any other way for me to go?”
As she hunts for a route, I try to will an idea into her mind. I’m concentrating so hard on her that if I redirected my thoughts towards the pencil on her desk, I bet I could make it move.
A few seconds later she cuts the silence and says, “Ah!”
“What is it? Please tell me!”
“No – never mind. That’s probably not a good idea either.”
“What is it?!”
“No, it’s probably too dangerous as well, and I don’t want to be responsible for sending you that way.”
I beg and beg until she finally gives in. She zooms in on the map and moves her finger around the southern rim of the Sinai Peninsula, and then up and across to the middle of its eastern edge.
I squint and read the word just above her finger: “Nueiba.”
“It’s another Egyptian port and I think that there might be a bus that goes from Cairo to Nueiba. It’s still a risk, but the bus doesn’t travel through Northern Sinai, which is the most dangerous part.”
“Okay, so – you think this might be a way for me to go? What happens once I get to Nueiba?”
“If I remember correctly, a few months ago two guys that were staying here travelled along this very route…the bus gets loaded onto a ferry, crosses the Gulf of Aqaba and docks in Aqaba.”
She zooms in even further on the map – and there’s the sliver of land between Israel and Saudi Arabia that belongs to Jordan.
“Aqaba is on the southwestern coast of Jordan, and from Aqaba the bus continues on to Amman. That’s where those two guys came from; they traveled from Amman to Cairo this way. But again, you would still have to cross though the Sinai Peninsula and I wouldn’t recommend you do that. Plus I believe that the bus ride itself takes about 30 hours.”
I dry my palms against my shorts; they’ve begun to sweat at the prospect of finding a way to continue on.
“If you make it to Jordan, then you could cross into Israel. The Israeli-Jordanian border is much safer than the Israeli-Egyptian border and I remember seeing on the news that that one ship still sails from somewhere in Israel to….Turkey? Or was it Greece? But either way, I believe that’s the only ship in this part of the world that still sails to Europe.”
I stand up and anxiously pace back and forth in front of her desk. She watches me with concern.
“But I don’t want to get your hopes up, because I’m not sure if either the bus or ship are still running. Both might have been cancelled by now – plus you will need to get a visa to enter Jordan and since your American I’m not exactly sure where you can obtain one.”
I can’t help but get my hopes up. The possibility of finding a way excites me – my heart is about to beat out of my chest. I feel alive again. “This is great! At least there is an option.”
“I will check on all of these options for you and I will call your room as soon as I find out more information.”
I thank her about five hundred times and head back to my room, where I try to process all that’s just happened – an impossible task right now. Maybe one day I’ll be able to look back and see the shape of all of this. But not now.
Then I do something that I know I shouldn’t do, but I can’t help it. I flip my computer screen open and I look over what the U.S. Department of State has written about travel through Egypt, because I know that’s the first thing my parents will read if this new plan actually comes together.
“The U.S. Embassy restricts its employees and their family members from traveling outside of Cairo without prior approval and advises all U.S. citizens to carefully consider the security implications of travel outside the greater Cairo metropolitan area. U. S. Embassy personnel in Egypt are currently prohibited from traveling to the Sinai, except by air to Sharm El Sheikh. Overland personal travel by U.S. government employees anywhere in the Sinai outside of Sharm El Sheikh is prohibited. The security situation in northern Sinai area, which is generally defined as the area north of the Cairo-Nekhl-Taba and Sheikh Zuweid road, remains dangerous due to continuing violence. Travelers should be aware of the possible dangers of overland travel.
In November of 2014, a Presidential decree placed Egypt’s boarders under military control, substantially restricting, and in some cases prohibiting, movement of non-military vehicles and persons within those areas. The military zone along Egypt’s boarder with Libya is particularly extensive. U.S. citizens should not travel in these boarder zones.
Travelers must obtain permission and a travel route from the Egyptian Military Intelligence and the Tourist Police Headquarters via a local or overseas travel agency to access Egypt’s frontiers, including the boarders with Libya, Sudan, Israel, and parts of the Sinai off paved roads…”
The phone in my room rings.
Before I can even get a hello out, the concierge starts in on her findings, “So I have some interesting news for you – the bus to Jordan is available, but it only runs once a week and it takes 30 hours to get there like I suspected.”
“There is a Jordanian Embassy in Cairo and you can get a visa in one day for $85 dollars, they are open from 9-5, Monday through Friday.”
“Also, I was able to track down the cargo ship that I mentioned. It sails from Israel to Greece, but it only has room for 12 passengers because it’s primarily used to haul cargo. It leaves from Haifa, Israel and docks in Lavrio, Greece. That ship leaves once a week and it takes 4 days to cross the Mediterranean Sea and you can only buy tickets for that ship in Israel.”
I listen to her take sip of something before she continues. “What would you like me to do, Sir? Would you like me to book the bus to Jordan for you?”
I think about who I’ve become in the process of crossing Africa, and about whom I’m ultimately going to become. That person is starting to take shape and as I stare out the window at the Nile I can almost see a faint outline of his face. I know that if I fly once, I’m done; that what I’m doing then loses all its meaning and that I might as well just fly every time an obstacle comes up anytime thereafter.
She repeats, “Sir, the next bus for Jordan leaves on Friday, would you like me to book a ticket for you?”
No hesitation in my mind now.