Suffering the American Immigration System, Part 2: our arrival in Egypt
This is Part 2 of a series documenting, in retrospect, my family's long and difficult journey from Russia to the United States through the American immigration system.
We arrived in Egypt in the middle of the night, and it was too dark see anything through the window as we made our approach. I suppose I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the pyramids or at least the Nile but all we could see were the same city lights you see when landing in just about any other city at night.
We had chosen Egypt because both US and Russian citizens can travel there without obtaining a visa prior to doing so. In fact, visa requirements were perhaps the single most important factor involved in deciding which countries we would visit while waiting for our immigration petition to be approved. While US citizens can visit almost anywhere in the world without obtaining a visa prior to arrival, the same cannot be said for Russians.
Our daughter acquired her Russian citizenship by birth and her American citizenship through me at the US Embassy in Moscow, so she was travelling with two passports. Which passport she would use depended on where we were going. Technically, Egypt requires a tourist visa, but it can be obtained upon arrival for a small fee. However, if you do not know what you are doing when you arrive at the airport in Cairo, you may end up wasting a lot of time in the passport control line. I did not learn until I had been in that line that I had to buy our visas at the bank kiosk we passed on our way to passport control. I had to go back, stand in line at the bank, and then stand in line again at passport control before we got our passports stamped and were officially in Egypt.
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Until about a month before our departure, Egypt was never in my travel plans. I didn't feel the urge to avoid the country out of fear of terrorism or safety, and even though I had never been to a Muslim country before, I wasn't worried about culture shock. However, there was also nothing in particular about Egypt that put it on my bucket list. On the other hand, I wanted to visit countries like Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania because I have always had a great interest in Eastern Europe and the history of places like Troy and Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the Byzantine Empire.
We flew into Cairo but had planned to spend our first several days in Luxor, an ancient city about 400 miles down the Nile. We had planned to take the overnight train, but it wasn’t possible for us to buy tickets in advance of our arrival, or online, as there were special rules for foreigners buying train tickets which made the process more complicated than my patience would allow. It was after midnight in Cairo, so after we picked up our luggage, we made our way to the car rental kiosks. There we had our first experience as white, English-speaking tourists in Egypt.
The assumption was that we had a lot of money. Maybe we were taking a luxury cruise down the Nile on our way to a private tour of the Tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, or perhaps we were on our way to a safari in Kenya. In any event, we were white, English-speaking tourists, and the men at the car rental kiosks were thrilled to be at our service. Little did they know that we were charging our trip to a credit card we were going to use to buy furniture for the house we had just built in Russia, and that we were not rich tourists looking for adventure.
Let me rephrase. We were looking for an adventure, we just weren’t rich. After a little haggling, we hired a private driver from one of the nearby kiosks instead of renting a car, which was a little more expensive than I was willing to pay. He agreed to drive us to Luxor through the night. That would not only save us from paying a security deposit on the car (money which could have been held up for several weeks after we returned the car), or gas along the way, but it would also save me from having to drive all through the night. However, while it sounded like a good deal, the idea of getting into a car with a stranger in a foreign country and driving through the desert all night made me a little uneasy. Especially with a baby who had not even turned one yet. But with no other realistic options for getting to Luxor that night, we went ahead with the arrangement, although I discreetly took his picture, as well as that of his nametag, and later his car and license plate, just in case.
It may seem silly for me to say this, but as we were driving through Cairo, the first thing that struck me was that everything was written in Arabic. I wasn't surprised — Egypt is a Middle Eastern country — it just immediately caught my attention and reminded me of the first time I visited Russia and couldn't read anything.
It also reminded me about a national laundry detergent brand that paid for billboard advertising in an Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern country, but failed to take into account the fact that Arabic is read from right to left. The comical result was a billboard that showed clothes before and after a wash cycle, inadvertently suggesting that the detergent takes clean clothes and makes them dirty, as the ad showed before on the left and after on the right — as they would be arranged in English — when they should have been reversed to adapt the concept to Arabic.
Then I noticed the run-down exterior condition of many of the downtown apartment buildings, their close proximity to the highway that runs through them, and the occasional armed paramilitary police checkpoint through which we were waved without incident. But what really caught my attention was how the drivers communicated with each other by honking their horns. In fact, they seemed to use their horns more to alert other drivers that they were nearby than to warn them of danger. Thus, everyone was always honking at each other, and until I understood what the honking was all about, I thought our driver was doing something wrong.
As it turned out, this man wasn't even our driver. He was just driving us to an office on the first floor of an apartment building where I paid for the trip with my debit card ($350) and signed some other papers. This is when the man who was actually going to drive us to Luxor showed up and we switched cars. He explained that had not been at work all day because he was a night driver and was thus well-rested for the seven-hour drive ahead of us. I took a few discreet photos of the car and the license plate. Then we hit the road. Call it an abundance of caution, but I wanted to have some information that could be used as evidence in case we were scammed or, God forbid, naively kidnapped.
My worry stemmed from a 2014 trip to Israel when I was approached at the train station by a taxi driver. He easily picked me out of the crowd as a tourist and, being a nice enough fellow, convinced me to walk over to his car in the parking lot. There he tried to sell me an excursion to Palestine, promising that we would have no trouble at the border because he himself was Palestinian and the men at the border knew him. He wanted to take me to Bethlehem and a number of other historic sites mentioned in the Bible. When I seemed reluctant and politely declined his offer, he opened his glove compartment and pulled out a shoebox full of letters from what he claimed were other tourists who had taken him up on his offer. There were many letters and he let me read some of them. They all expressed great gratitude for all this driver had supposedly done for them. There were even pictures. It all seemed a bit staged, and as the driver became more and more insistent, I grew uneasy and suspicious. Needless to say, I politely, yet increasingly firmly, declined his offer. As I started to walk away, he got upset and muttered something about rich Americans, as if I wouldn't accept his offer because I didn't like the price. The price was actually very reasonable, but that, too, seemed too suspicious.
Thus, this private driver service in Egypt had me recalling my close encounter in Israel with almost being kidnapped by Palestinians. Or maybe he’d be driving around today with a thank you letter from me in his glove box. Either way, I wanted pictures of that driver and the car we were driving in before we left.