By Bill Longworth
October 19, 2011
We pulled up to the five star Fairmont Towers Hotel near the Cairo Airport and I slipped out of my chauffeur driven car with my backpack of money and ventured into the front passenger seat of an impeccably polished black Mercedes.
I didn’t know where I was going or who I was with, but the Mercedes driver had given my chauffeur a promise to convert my bag of Egyptian cash into real money in the form of American greenbacks.
I was returning to Canada after finishing my job assignment as Director of a “start up” International High School that paid me about as much as fifty Egyptian teachers and, despite living high off the hog, I had accumulated a healthy sum.
I had no idea how much Egyptian money I had in my bag...but it might well have been the equivalent of $15,000-$20,000US, and I knew that, if unconverted, it only had the value of last week’s newspaper once outside the country.
In retrospect, It’s frightening to contemplate the risks you’ll take when there’s money on the line.
Egypt has tightly regulated foreign exchange controls as the government attempts to lock up all internationally recognized currencies for its own use and for the use of its privileged insiders. Thus my money conversion was illegal and had to be done on the black market.
And neither my driver, nor the Mercedes driver, spoke much English so I had no idea of the specifics of the agreements or discussions they had.
I did know that my safety and security, and that of my bag of money, was in the hands of those I didn’t know and couldn’t communicate with. I was proceeding on blind faith....and a hope and a prayer.
Before hopping into the Mercedes, I had my driver write down the car’s license number, get the driver’s identification, and instructed him to wait until I returned. As if any of this would provide me security!
The Mercedes driver, a heavy-set guy with an olive Arabic complexion, was neatly dressed. His slick-backed hair and “hustler” manner distinguished him as not of the executive set. It appeared to me that his Mercedes was probably the result of criminal activity in this country where the best middle class salaries averaged $240US monthly---certainly not enough to afford these wheels.
As part of the criminal element, I wondered whether the guy was holstering a revolver under his jacket. I knew weapons were common to the Egyptian population. I once witnessed a guy sitting in broad daylight on the curb outside his residence cleaning his revolver.
And everywhere you look in Egypt, bus loads of heavily armed soldiers and police were waiting for immediate dispatch to trouble spots. Unfortunately none of these trouble-shooters were nearby. The only sense of security I got was from the hotel security guards, and who knows, they may have been in cahoots with the Mercedes driver hanging around the hotel parking lot. So it was not just my wild imagination wondering whether this stranger helping me break the law was packing some heat that might be used to do me in and steal my cash.
And I’d often heard rumours in Egypt about the proclivity of police and others to shoot first and ask questions later....a belief reinforced daily as my driver drove through heavily armed police check-points on my return from work, although we didn’t have to stop, perhaps because my car was somehow identified as “safe.”
It’s frightening how the need for practical action often causes you to throw caution to the wind...and this risky, foolhardy, and maybe even dumb-headed money exchange adventure seemed eerily similar to a perilous game of Russian roulette.
But to me, the amount of cash I had was no chicken feed, and I needed to convert it into something of value. Previous unsuccessful attempts to get the cash changed to American currency, had me shopping for Rolex watches as a last resort, but there was no guarantee even these would be real.
Anyway, despite my trepidations, I was in the Mercedes and it sped off through the streets to some unknown destination. After forty minutes or so through a section of Cairo that looked a little seedy to me, the car pulled up in a run-down high-rise apartment complex.
The driver handed me the keys to his Mercedes and gestured for my bag of money and we made the exchange.
He got out of the car and made his way to some unknown “out of sight” destination.
After what seemed like an eternity, he returned and gave me a sheaf of brand new American hundreds and I returned his keys.
Now that I had the real money and he had his keys, was he now going to drive me to some remote location to do me in and reclaim the money?
That question dominated my thinking until I saw the hotel and my chauffeur still there waiting for me. It was only then that I felt relief knowing that the transaction was complete, and I was safe.
I never even bothered counting the cash I got and didn’t care about the huge premium I probably paid, but I did applaud my alchemy at being able to convert my trash to gold.
And, oh yes, I did slip my chauffeur a few hundred for his collusion in this caper knowing that, if he was caught, it may well have resulted in jail time for him.
Now I feel better! This confession has cleansed my soul and absolved my sin! Hey! That’s so easy! Now, what other mischief can I get myself into?