Problems Plague Escape Plan From High Dam in Aswan, Egypt

I ask my taxi driver to pick me up early the first morning the insurance office is open and I can get to it. Armed with my letter from customs, some paperwork from the traffic police and my scratch-off image of Doc’s chassis number I’m the second person in line at the insurance office. Behind the counter and the glass that stretches to the ceiling with only a half-moon size opening about six inches at its highest a young novice paper pusher shoves a form in half English, half Arabic and hands me a leaky pen. There’s some confusion when he asks me for the payment, which amounts to about USD $50, but I give in. There’s no arguing, no negotiating, no nothing here. Then he wants copies of my passport which Ahmad, the self-described best taxi driver in Aswan, takes and then returns. Nearly an hour passed before I heard the thud of rubber stamps on my papers which he hands me and we take to the traffic police, about a fifteen minute drive through Aswan’s dusty streets.

I greet my old friend in the room crammed with dog-eared file folders. The stack to the ceiling. They’re on his desk. And couple piles on the floor. There’s not a window in the 6′ x10′ cubby and save a small oscillating fan, not much air either. He looks over the papers and shuffles them over and under a few times. Turns a few of them over then hands them back to me, “Where’s the letter,” his eyes dart to more papers on this desk.

“What letter?” I ask.

“The one you had before,” he tells me, “from the customs, the letter customs,” he repeats. I shuffle through the documents and sure enough, those guys at the insurance office didn’t give me back the letter. So it’s more back and forth and at the insurance office they can’t find the letter. I finally am sick of standing behind the glass and walk around and point to a huge stack on the novice worker’s counter. The second time he rifles through it I spot the letter and reach over and take it. He’s a bit pissed, but the old guy in the desk behind him asks to look at it. They need it. So we get another photocopy and then back to traffic police. Now you have to understand each time I’ve come into the main part of the building I’ve entered a side door where the cops enter. In the large room there are a half-dozen desks behind a counter which, like the insurance counter, is walled in by glass and a small opening for talking and passing of documents and money. On the other side of the desks are small windowless offices, including the one wallpapered with stacks of file folders where I once again get the rundown by my officer. Meanwhile, on the other side of the glass are at least thirty people all holding papers and trying to get the attention of other officers in the room.

After I’ve been offered and finish a glass of tea and endure the curious interrogation of traveling the world by motorcycle, I’m given two plastic laminated cards – which are all in Arabic except for my name and a few other English words such as the expiration date, the make of the bike and a few others. One of these cards I exchange for the set of license plates the old guy in the cubby hole outside is holding for me and I get my carnet de passage officially stamped and am able to pick up my motorcycle and ride again.


The infamous government insurance office.


More photocopies means more things to rubber stamp!


Ahmad holds up my license plate and the laminated registration card.
The things you have to do to ride your own bike in Egypt.
Know you’d think that my number was 17. But it’s not.
Those are arabic numerals in addition to the Arabic writing at the top of the plate which says “Aswan”,
so that police know where the vehicle originated. My number is actually 16 – the digit that looks like a seven is six, for sure,
I’ve been getting an education in Arabic. Selam.

I took the long nearly 30 minute ride to the High Dam and security wouldn’t let me in. Despite my display of eagerness and fistful of documents showing my motorcycle was in the port and I was officially cleared to ride it on Egyptian roads, I was asked to wait ten minutes. I kept busy chatting up the guards and a few port workers. After much more than ten minutes passed I tried to walk through the security gate which was like a revolving door only with a mesh of six inch diameter plates instead of a door. I was stopped and asked to wait again, “but it’s been more than ten minutes,” I reasoned. The laughed. I laughed. Big joke here at the high dam.

“You must wait five more minutes,” the quipped. I paced. With my riding jacket tucked under my arm and my helmet in the other, I wanted to move on. Five minutes passed and I pointed to my wrist as if I was wearing a watch and said “okay, now I go in, it’s been five minutes.” And as the gate was released for another worker I started walking. They tried to stop me, and of course they could. They had pistols hanging from their hips and all I had was a helmet. “No! I must get my bike. It’s getting late,” and with that whisked through. I guess they were as tired of me as I was of them and they just let me go. When I got inside the building I realized why I was waiting. The customs office where I first learned of baksheesh and received my letter was locked. And the other two offices, too. But I had my license plates and everyone in Egypt knows what a process it takes to secure these vehicle identifiers. So I found my motorcycle and started securing the plates. A police officer saw me and asked me to wait for customs. “No customs, ” I enlightened them. “Nobody here?” He wandered around, talked to a plain clothes guy while I kept working on securing the plate to my bike.

Then I started wheeling it out. I’ve learned in business and in travel that sometimes you just have to proceed with confidence and act as if you’re in full control of what you’re doing and anyone who doubts that is free to question it. I suspected someone would try to stop me, but I just wheeled it out of the building and onto the patio. Free, I thought. The only problem would be getting past the guards who’d given up by letting me in. One thing I knew could hold me up would be the cost of storing the bike. Yes. They’d charge me for the days that the bike was there despite that there were days insurance office was closed.

I turned the key and pushed the starter button. Dead. Wait! There’s something wrong here. The green light indicating that the bike was in neutral wasn’t lit. That’s weird. I played with the shift lever more to see if it just wasn’t locked in correctly. I still couldn’t get the neutral bulb to light. My spirit was slowly sinking. The bike has a safety switch that prevents the bike from starting when in gear. So I tried starting it with the clutch pulled in. Nothing. I didn’t need any problems at this point. I needed to get out of this port before somebody changed their mind and told me to wheel that bike back in.

Mind racing I grabbed my phone and looked to see if I still had Chris’s number from Jungle Junction in Nairobi, Kenya. When I got hold of him he asked if I could call him back and he’d look up the info in the BMW repair book. A few minutes later and we tried to diagnose the problem. The neutral light switch or the bulb. I knew it wasn’t the bulb. I had to be the switch or connection. He told me to remove the countershaft sprocket cover and look for a small wire connected to the back of the block under there. Before I could get too far along I ran out of phone credits. So I pulled the cover off and located the wire. It’s in a tough place to get but when I just wiggled the wire it came right off. Seems it had corroded or melted right through. The wire was in sad shape. I had some spare wire and a heavy duty shielding that I managed to get in — I test it and sure enough the green indicator lit and the started switch was now functional. I put the pieces back together and was happy now I could finally leave.

Not quite.

I pushed the started button only to hear the clicking sound of the solenoid starved for more power. That’s right. Getting the bike started that night required a push start. So I recruited some workers and we pushed the bike through a narrow gate to the top of a moderate incline. I hopped on and they pushed. Though it was a week effort and when I dropped the bike into gear and released the clutch it only chugged to a stop. “You must push harder. Faster,” I explained. Up the hill and we tried again. Same result. “Okay we go higher on the hill and push more harder,” I’d fallen into that trap of speaking in bad English thinking they’d understand me better. Longer downhill and with a push I yelled, “Go! Go! More faster!” and kicked my toe up and let go of the clutch and vrrrrrrrrmmmmmmm! Doc coughed up enough spark and fuel and turned over. The bike didn’t sound good. Rough running and it wouldn’t idle. I kept the revs up and waved, passed through the little gate and rode up to where my helmet, jacket and tools were still sitting. I kept the engine revving and then the bike died. I tried starting it again. But it wouldn’t kick over.

I was pissed. “What now!” I screamed at Doc loudly voicing my disapproval at the problems today. I went through everything and figured it had to be fuel. I knew the tank was low due to the request at the train to empty the gas. But there still was plenty. But most must’ve evaporated in these extreme desert temperatures. Finding gas at the port turned out to be a bit of a problem. Just not something they have. One of the cops siphoned a bit from his bike into a water bottle. But it was barely a 1/3 of a liter. No way the bike would start on that little gas. It was totally out. So I pay another guy to go into town, 30 minutes away, and get me some fuel. He comes back with a couple liters. But the bike doesn’t have enough battery power again to turn it over. Back to pushing it. Before I do this I settle up my storage bill with the guys at the guard gate and instruct them to just open that thing wide up when they see me blazing down the driveway, explaining that I won’t be able to stop, fearing the bike would die and I’d never get out of the port.


If I can just get my fingers in here, ah! Yes! There’s the bugger. Damn wire was barely hanging on!


But I tested it first with a new wire. Then threaded the new one in with much better shielding. Just hope it holds up!

Once again I wheeled to the top of the hill on the other side of the narrow gate and recruited a few maintenance guys to give me a push. That’s all it needed and started up much quicker this time, but still sounded bad. I blazed through the exit gate waving at my friends and continued riding over the High Dam. Something else didn’t sound good. There was a vibration that almost sounded like a bad or noisy bearing. It was happening only at certain RPMs and when I pulled in the clutch and let the engine rev down it seemed to disappear. I rode around trying to identify the sound. But couldn’t. So I scurried quickly back to my hotel and thought about what I was going to do next.

What a day.


Street vendor selling tradtional hats worn by the Muslim people.


A good smoke in the afternoon.


Riverboat goes whisking down the Nile as I gaze out the narrow window of my hotel room in Aswan.


It’s time to get organized. I’d like to get on the road tomorrow.

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