Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Where to Go - Ban Sabai

Recently, I have read more and more about beauty spas and massage parlours being shut down throughout Egypt and the Middle East. Often seen as 'inappropriate,' the perception of most massage parlours is one of quiet tips and off-menu services. This is not always the case however.

Ban Sabai is a wonderful little massage parlour located just across the road from Old Vic. Run by two ladies who moved to Egypt from Thailand, Ban Sabai boasts a wide array of traditional Thai massages, with all ingredients that are used directly imported from Thailand. 

I decided to splurge the other day and went for an Aromatherapy Thai massage. It was absolutely divine. Pisan, the massage therapist, was the epitome of professional. I would highly recommend anyone looking for a massage to check out Ban Sabai. 

Among massages they offer are: 

Thai massage, 60 min. for 200 LE. 

Thai salt scrub massage, 75 min. for 250 LE. 

Pain relief massage, 50 min. for 200 LE. 

Not to mention the traditional aromatherapy massages and foot reflexology! For more information or to book an appointment call: 0127 8392 336.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Game of Egyptian Customs

In today's connected society, shipping overseas is normally no big deal. Shipping from the US to Europe, where a letter would once take months to arrive, can now have a package delivered from the source to your door in under one week. With express air shipments and rush deliveries, this wait time is often even cut in half. In most countries you would declare the contents of your package, pay the pre-determined customs and taxes fees and be on your merry way. Egypt however, is not most countries.

I have tried my hand at shipping through the mail here only to have my package go missing. It is for this reason that when asked by people "can we mail things to you," the answer is almost always "no." The chances are high that your package will be lost in the mail, and in the event that it does reach you, you're going to have to pay close to 50 % of the value of the contents in customs. This means that when working with a rescue as I do with the Continental Rescue and Rehab, the many people who are willing to send horse supplies overseas are time and again told "sorry the Egyptian shipping customs make it too expensive." The option is usually to wait for someone travelling from the country of origin, and for them to pay excess baggage fees to transport the items back.

A single traveller transporting goods ended up not being enough for a batch of items that were scheduled to be sent to the CR&R from Switzerland. One volunteer gathered an astonishing 200 kg of items donated to be used for rescue horses in Egypt [Although the majority of these items never made it to the CR&R]. Through many telephone calls and e-mails, it was agreed upon with Swiss Air that the cargo would be delivered for a fraction of the cost, as it was intended for non-profit purposes. Not only this, but the cargo was earmarked as 'gifts and donations,' and the point of contact in Switzerland expressly stated "With this receipt of shipping you should be able to pick up the cargo from Cairo Airport and walk out."

Oh if only life in Egypt were that easy.

Now, I personally did not go to pick up the cargo. The following events are reported by my source who went to collect the items from Switzerland himself. We shall call him G (Name withheld for privacy purposes).

Upon arrival to the airport in Cairo, G asked where he should go to collect cargo items. Initially he was taken inside the airport by doorman number 1. He walks G to big-wig number 1's office. In this office, G again requests to know where he should go to collect cargo items from Swiss Air.

Big-wig proceeds to blow a lot of smoke up Gs backside, and instructs doorman number 1 to show G to doorman number 2, who will take him through to the cargo hold area. Doorman number 1 of course holds out his hand expectantly, as he obviously deserves a tip for taking G to big-wig number 1. G complies, and discreetly hands Doorman number 1 a 5 LE note.

Doorman number 2 ended up sticking to G for a significant portion of his journey. He takes him through to an office where a Swiss Air clerk is sitting. G tells the clerk that he is looking to collect a cargo sent via Swiss Air, and proceeds to hand the clerk his receipt. (Bear in mind, at this time G is only holding one piece of paper). The clerk tells him that in order to collect his cargo, they need photocopies of his ID, and a variety of other copies. Doorman number 2 interjects here and says "yes, and the photocopies themselves are 5 LE a page." To this, G turns away from doorman number 2, and asks the clerk how much he should pay. She informs him "2 LE per page." And so the system of corruption begins.

Once G has spent about 2 hours being bumped from one person to the next, he is finally taken to the cargo hold. He describes it simply as "looking like an outdoors market in downtown Cairo." There were boxes everywhere. There were people everywhere. There was no coordination, nor any clear indication of which cargo corresponded to which airline or delivery system, or which was staying in Cairo and which was being collected.

Finally inside the actual cargo bay, G is taken to big-wig number 2's office. Here, he is again asked to present copious amounts of paper. Big-wig number 2 tells G, "here is where we are going to determine the price of your customs." There was no set method of calculation. There was no percentage of the shipping that would be earmarked as customs. No, there was nothing of the sort. What there was, was a pencil-pushing accountant with a calculator, who was an "expert on assessing value of goods sent." Now, remember earlier I had mentioned that our source in Switzerland specifically stated there would be nothing to pay in Egypt? Yeah, okay thought so.

With that in mind, G keeps stressing these are gifts, these are donations, these are to help the horses. Big-wig number 2 says "Okay if these are gifts and not for sale I demand that you open all the boxes and show me everything." From what I have been told, many of the items were in such great condition that they appeared new, despite being donations of used items. The pencil-pushing accountant wanders up, takes a look at all the items in the boxes, and says "these items hold an approximate value of no less than 30,000 LE," and fair customs in their eyes can often be 25 % - 50 % of the items anticipated value.

Despite G's continued prostrations, big-wig number 2 does not want to hear any of it, and tells him "either you are going to agree to pay the customs, or we will keep your items in hold." Ahhh, and here's the catch. To keep your items in hold, you are charged the "land fee," as they politely referred to it. I should add, even if you are there, ready and waiting to collect your cargo as it arrives, you will be expected to pay this land fee.

When G inquired how much this "land fee" was, he was told "Ya3ni it depends. For the first day 100 LE, for the second day 150 LE, sometimes it is 200 LE." End all and be all, they will charge you whatever they feel is a fair land fee. [no comment needed here].

After a good few hours debating back and forth with big-wig number 2, G has at least 4 figures thrown at him for what the pencil pushing accountant sees as "fair figures" for a customs charge. Most of these figures total more than the actual cost to originally ship the items. In order to collect the items, G has to sign a receipt that also marks the cost of the customs fees. The first few figures he was thrown were not written down, merely verbally presented to him. By the last figure, big-wig number 2 grabbed the receipt, wrote down the final figure, and told G "if you want your things you will be paying us this."

Now, G had arrived to the cargo bay anticipating having to pay 'baksheesh,' but not anticipating having to pay an extortionate amount in customs fees. The closest ATM was back at the airport's main terminal, too far to walk after spending all morning on his feet. Luckily enough for him, there were taxi's roaming around ready to take him the short journey to the airport terminal. Let me make a note here, anybody who has taken a taxi into the airport knows there is an entrance fee of 5 LE. This fee, however, is a one time fee, thus meaning once the taxi is inside it does not have to pay the fee again. G's taxi tells him with a straight face, that for a 500 meter journey he wants 15 LE. Why? "Because sir I have to pay to get into the airport." After much fandangaling, G finally manages to get to the ATM and withdraws cash.

Returning to the cargo bay to collect the items, G had to provide the people who had been helping him throughout the day money "for their tea." I found this the most creative way to ask for under the table tips, that you should somehow feel obliged to pay for these boy's tea. Only in Egypt.

Once the boxes came out of the cargo bay, the madness began. Pick up trucks zoomed up to the area, with one box after the next being whisked away. G and his partner literally had to stand over their boxes to ensure that they would not get picked up in the confusion and sent somewhere else in Egypt. While they were loading their items onto the van, of course there were more boys there waiting to help in exchange for the cost of their daily tea.

When G finally had his cargo loaded onto the transport truck to deliver the things to Hurghada, he breathed a sigh of relief thankful that he could finally leave the airport. Oh if only it were really going to be that easy.

While attempting to leave through the main terminal, there were no less than 5 boys lined up, hands out, waiting for their tea money. The final obstacle was the soldier that sat at the front entrance to the terminal. As G approached, the soldier asked him "where have you been, and what have you been doing?" G explains that he's been dealing with customs for the better half of the day and is finally ready to leave. "Where is your receipt sir that proves this?" The receipt was upstairs in the administration office alongside the many other stacks of paper that had been shoved into his hand throughout the course of the day. The soldier, when realising G was not in possession of the receipt, said "if this is the case you must bring everything you just brought through customs to me, in order for me to inspect it and make sure you are really telling the truth." This is a door soldier...this guy has nothing to do with customs, it's just one more tier in the pyramid of corruption that is Cairo Airport's customs. Final result being, a folded bank note discreetly shoved into the hand of the soldier and a plea to "please just let us leave and be finished with this place."

I suppose at least that day, everyone had their tea paid for.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

High winds rattle Egypt

Egypt is known as the land of the sun, and most days this holds very true. I never imagined I would be sitting down to write a blog about the unusual weather patterns in Hurghada, as we have sun pretty much 355 days of the year, but such is the case.

Stepping outside this morning I felt like I had stepped back to Colorado in the thick of winter. A sharp bite of frost was in the air, and despite the sun in the sky winds caused temperatures to plummet. Now what we consider cold I know is nothing compared to what Europe has been experiencing, but for us it is remarkable. The temperature at our house today peaked at 16 degrees, but add the wild chill and you're down to single digits. Not only is the wind cold, it's blowing gale force winds.

Now, anyone who has previously lived in Egypt can remark on one thing. The slightest bit of rain causes Egyptian drivers to freak out. Put one small puddle in the middle of the road, and previously erratic drivers become down right dangerous. (Not to mention most cars don't have functioning wind screen wipers...I once drove in a taxi in a downpour and the guy was hanging out his window as he could not see through his screen. :p). Wind is an entirely different factor. High winds in the past few days have already caused Suez ports to shut down.

Gale force winds require a different technique of driving. You cannot break concentration, and you must account for the wind force on the side and undercarriage of the car. A string of road accidents in just the past few hours indicate that drivers here missed this in driver's education.

3 British tourists and their guide were injured in a bus accident, reportedly caused by bad weather causing the bus to flip. Translation? The driver was taking the hairpin turns near St. Catherine's at an already breakneck speed, but throw in there gale force winds and you have a recipe for disaster.

Another crash occurred this morning in Hurghada, where 2 were killed and 23 injured in another bus accident. The cause for this accident was not reported, but I would not be surprised to learn it is also as a result of high speeds in gale force winds.

Image courtesy of Youm7

These stories all come along with a story from the 9th of February, where 3 German tourists (2 adults and 1 child) were killed when their "submarine" sank off the coast of Hurghada. The reason for the accident? High winds and underwater tow caused the screen on the submarine to rupture, causing the consequent sinking.

I have to ask, why are these buses and boats being allowed to drive / sail in such poor weather conditions? Why is the bus driver not instructed to slow down on the journey due to the high winds? Why was a boat allowed to set sail with a strong under tow when those conditions are meant to be strictly regulated and monitored? Is it all about making that final dollar at the end of the day now? May the people who had to pay with their lives for shortcuts rest in peace.

If out driving at the moment in Egypt, take care. Remember to slow down with these speeds, remember your car can easily be flipped with strong gales. If you don't have to travel long open stretches at the moment, don't. Rain is forecast for the next two days in the Northern Sinai and Cairo. For all drivers, please take your safety at this time into the highest consideration. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What do to in the Event of a Carjacking

This warning came from the UN Department of Safety and Security for residents in Egypt. Car jacking and attempted theft are on the rise at the moment. Below are some very important tips on what you can do to avoid a car jacking, or in the event that you fall victim, how you are most likely to come away from the situation unscathed.

Unfortunately there are a significant number of reports of armed carjackings in Egypt. These incidents are not confined to the desert highways but also occur on the main roads in Cairo. They are also not confined to night time hours – but now at any time during the day time. Primarily the hijackers are targeting four wheel drive vehicles or luxury sedans. Sometimes they are ransomed back to the owner, sometimes they are sold on for other purposes. In the vast majority of cases the occupants of the vehicle are unharmed. The carjackings are not usually targeted at any group or individual or organisation – they just want the car.

An incident of a carjacking this morning in Mohandessin affected one of us and occurred in daylight in a busy main street. It is important for you to understand how to respond in a carjacking incident so the following provides some guidance that may help prevent this from happening again.

Usual Methods of Carjacking

• A staged accident at the side of the road and attempts to flag you down to assist,
• A staged accident in traffic where a vehicle may bump you in order to get you to stop,
• Blocking your driveway as you wait for a gate to open,
• A vehicle with two or more occupants following you in traffic and attempting to get you to stop by using the car horn or flashing lights,
• Shooting at the tyres of your vehicle.

Preventive Actions

• Don’t stop at an accident if it looks at all suspicious. Keep driving and use your mobile phone to summon for help from emergency responders.
• If you must stop because you are the victim in a vehicle accident then do so in a public crowded area even if you have to drive a little further.
• Phone ahead to security guards (if you have them) or a family member to ensure your gate is open as you arrive.
• Try not to stop AT ALL for someone who tails you on the road and uses horns or lights to try to flag you down. It is possible that after a time they will give up their attempts once you have driven past their area of operation or into a more public and well lit location. This has worked as an effective strategy for one of our staff members.
• BUT, if you hear a gun shot or see weapons then STOP. This means they seriously want YOUR vehicle. It is a complete judgement call if you decide to take action to evade possible attackers but often this does not turn out well.
• Keep your windows and car doors locked at all times. This helps to prevent an incident if you are stopped in traffic for any reason.
• Use your side and rear view mirrors to check vehicles around you. Be aware of your surroundings and traffic patterns.
• When driving keep your distance from other vehicles so that you have room to escape or manouvre in traffic if you need to.
• Avoid unnecessary travel after dark
• Keep your emergency numbers up to date in your mobile phone and record them so they are quickly available. The number to dial in Egypt is 122 to report an emergency or call for help.

Actions in the Event you are being Carjacked

• Always assume there are weapons involved.
• If there is no escape – STOP.
• Breathe and keep calm.
• Keep your hands on the steering wheel in plain sight.
• No sudden movements – take your seat belt off only when the attackers know what you are doing.
• Do not look at the carjackers in their eyes – this could be taken as an act of aggression.
• Respond in a non-confrontational manner.
• It is always best not to resist and to give the attackers what they want.
• The main objective is to get away safely.

After being Carjacked

• Get to a safe place before reporting the incident.
• Report immediately to the police and your security focal point or DSS.
• Try to remember the details of the attackers – what they were wearing, how many of them, accent, vehicle they were driving – whatever facts you can remember will be useful.
• Talk the incident through with relatives or friends. This helps to alleviate the stress of the event.

Remember these incidents are seemingly random – there is no particular pattern and no specific road of particular vulnerability any more – except to say that the incidents have mostly occurred on major thoroughfares.

Please share this advisory with your family and take precautions for your safety.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Spreading Xenophobia in Egypt

It's not a new excuse to hear recent unrest blamed on 'Invisible Hands,' which usually means the U.S. and Israel. But this has always remained part of political rhetoric, with few people actually believing that the state was completely innocent and the blood of the revolution is on the hands of the Western  nations.

I was shocked to see this picture today. Is this an indication that their continued plug of placing blame on the foreigners is paying off? Does this mean that more raids on NGOs will follow, or are people going to realise that this is a plan of sedition and to spread discord among the population? Only time will tell. 

Picture courtesy of Twitpic. 
The sign posted above reads: "No to the American/Israeli plan to divide Egypt." The propaganda wheels are in full swing. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Update on "Senzo Robbers"

The other day I posted a blog about an on-going arrest campaign against the gang responsible for no less than two armed robberies in Hurghada.

The gang involved in the robberies hit pharmacies and supermarkets and made off with not only money but goods. Eye witness reports indicate that they would storm the location with machine guns and automatic rifles, threatening to shoot if people did not comply. This is an entirely new trend for Egypt in the past year, as before the 25th of January Revolution armed robberies were virtually unheard of.

As the revolution progressed and civil disorder spread, a security vacuum emerged that has continued to grow in the past year. This was increasingly evident in Cairo. Police feared heading to the streets due to the animosity that has developed for them over decades of a police state rule. They hesitated to implement law and order fearing that in doing so they would put their own lives at risk. The end result was increasing crime rates as criminals no longer feared the state's system of justice.

I remember the feeling of almost relief that was felt when the police returned to the streets after their absence following the revolution. For me, it felt that 'okay at least some semblance of law and order' will return to the streets. But as I mentioned above, although they were back on the streets the police were extremely limited in their abilities to do their job. Hurghada being a huge tourist town did not feel the security vacuum this created as residents in Cairo did. There were isolated incidents of burglary and the occasional reports of guns fired but overall, Hurghada remained fairly quiet.

That is until these past weeks. Violent crime has seen a surge throughout Egypt, and Hurghada was no different. Hearing about the armed robberies in multiple locations, including such neutral locations as pharmacies and supermarkets, created a sense of fear and panic among residents. People were locking themselves in their houses, batting down the hatches as unease spread. Would the police in Hurghada actually be able to do something to put an end to this crime wave?

Thankfully in this story the answer is yes. Police were tipped off as to the whereabouts of the gang. Located in multiple suburbs of Hurghada, the raid carried out targeted these multiple locations at once. The end result was the arrest and detention of numerous members of the group and the seizure of weapons and stolen goods.

Police document the goods seized on the criminals
Image courtesy of Youm7

To read more on these arrests specifically, click here. The link is in Arabic, but Google Translate will allow you to get the gist of the story. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Breaking: Cops close in on "Senzo robbers"

I just received a phone call that there was a swarm of cops surrounding Shams cafe just down the road from me in Hadaba.

While driving past, K spotted no less than 10 cop cars milling around the outside of the cafe. When asked, police forces responded that they were in the process of rounding up and arresting a gang responsible for no less than 2 break-ins in Hurghada in the last few weeks.

Most recently, the gang hit El-Arabi Pharmacy close to Senzo mall, prompting residents to refer to them as the Senzo robbers.

More details will be provided as they become available. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Red Sea Jet resumes service

Having just come from Sharm a month ago and realising with frustration that the ferry between Hurghada and Sharm el Sheikh Port was not in service, I was very happy to read this today.

For all the local residents here, or even tourists, I have not previously heard of this decision so figure there are a great many others who are also unaware.

As per a notice from Mohamed Amin, the General Manager of the Red Sea Jet, he remarks that ferry services between Hurghada Port and Sharm el Sheikh will be operational from the 12th of January 2012. Finally! Is this an indication that things in Egypt will slowly return to normal? Bear in mind this ferry has been out of operations now for almost a year, having closed due to the 25th January revolution.

The schedule for the ferry is as follows:

    DAY               DEPART FROM HURGHADA                    DEPART FROM SHARM
SATURDAY                                    09:00                                                      17:00
MONDAY                                        04:00                                                      18:00
THURSDAY                                    09:00                                                      17:00

Rates per person for Egyptian Adult is 175 LE. Rates per Egyptian Child (3-12 years old) is 90 LE. Rates for Foreigner Adult is 250 LE. Rates per Foreigner child (3-12 years old) 150 LE.

For more information and questions contact: 065 344 9462.