Nov. 19, 2007
By Ken Krayeske • 7:45 PM EET
A uniformed police officer poses with what I think is a customs' agent at port gate in Port Said, Egypt.
The Suez Canal should be called the Baksheesh Canal.
Almost every Egyptian we dealt with – from the crew on the pilot boat that led us into Port Said at the north end of the Canal to the customs' agents on the dock to the line handlers who we had to accommodate on our ship – wanted baksheesh.
Webster says "baksheesh" is a tip or gratuity in Egypt and India. I'd call it a bribe, usually in the form of Marlboro Reds, whisky, or cash (hard currency like Euros or dollars works best). But baksheesh can also be t-shirts, hats, or even something so mundane as Windex spray bottles.
The average cop in Egypt makes 500 Egyptian pounds a month. At 5.5 pounds to a dollar, that's less than $100 per month. That means the normal Egyptian makes far less.
The good ship Maverick II left Malta with at least 20 cartons of cigarettes. We had been forewarned. But after four days at sea between Malta and Egypt, we weren't prepared for how quickly the baksheesh calls would come.
I suppose we should expect that a $5.5 million luxury yacht has money written all over it, and in a poor country like Egypt, they see you coming miles away, literally.
That we managed to safely pilot Maverick II 5,000 nautical miles from Florida to the eastern mouth of the Mediterranean meant little to Egyptian authorities.
They demanded that we have a pilot on board to lead us into Port Said (pronounced sy-eed). We waited a few miles outside of Port Said for three hours while the port authority made room for us.
We weren't the only ones waiting. We made tiny circles, and tried to avoid hitting the dozen or so 1,000 foot tankers and container ships around us. About 70 ships a day pass through the Suez Canal daily, making it one of the largest revenue sources for the Egyptian government, and one of the largest job creation engines in the region.
It cost our 140-foot ship more than $12,000 in tonnage fees to pass through the canal. The huge container ships must cost much more. That figure is not counting the $1,000 electrician we needed on board to operate the spotlight.
Or the mounds of paperwork – like the 25 copies of our crew manifest we had to submit – or the permits we had to buy. And, of course, pilots usher every ship through the canal.
The orange pilot boat, maybe 35 feet long, rocked hard side-to-side in the three-foot seas. But the three-man pilot boat crew was undaunted. During the first failed attempt to put the pilot on board Maverick, we learned how the baksheesh game was played.
When the pilot boat was 100 feet away, a man stood on the bow shouting for his share.
"Captain, Captain," he screamed at me, thinking I was the boss because I had a polo shirt on. "Cigarettes. Cigarettes. Three cartons."
In my meager Arabic, I hollered back "Waahid," or one.
He stood firm at three. It really didn't matter, because he would take what we gave him once the job was done. But I only learned this later, towards the end of the canal passage.
This haggling occurred while the pilot boat approached from our port stern. I was holding a fender to prevent the boats, which were dangerously close together, from touching.
But the seas were too rough, and the pilot boat had to circle around again. At first, we thought they were leaving because they weren't happy with the baksheesh negotiations.
For the second try, the man on the bow started his shouting for cigarettes again, while the pilot boat was still 100 feet away.
I had the carton in my hand, and showed it to him. Despite the heavy seas, they managed to drop the pilot off on our port side, and I tossed him the carton of cigarettes.
"T-shirts," he said. "Captain, t-shirts."
"Laa, laa, laa," I said back in Arabic. In English, I said, "No, no, no."
The pilot boat sped away with their carton, and we headed into Port Said. More baksheesh vultures waited for us there. Five different men on the docks waited to handle our lines, and once they tied us up starboard to on the bollards, they all demanded packs of Marlboros.
Then, from our port side, facing the ocean, little wooden tug boats which provided zero assistance during our docking procedure, demanded packs of cigarettes, too. Our Egyptian agent, who was there to help us through the maze of paperwork, said we had to accommodate them.
Why, I have no idea. But when in Rome...