I stamped the bearded stranger’s passport when he got off the long-distance lorry in Wadi Halfa, and then invited him to breakfast so I could practice my English. I spoke English a bit but I asked him to help with reading, which I was finding difficult. As I sipped my coffee the weekly train came in, bringing the ferry passengers – no doubt frustrated after being stuck for a day in the desert further south. I had to rush to my post while the stranger got in the queue to board the ferry.
The ferry from Wadi Halfa, in Sudan, to Aswan in Egypt, is actually three boats tied together in parallel. It goes slowly, taking 40 hours to cross the lake created by the famous Aswan Dam. As an Egyptian immigration official I have to accompany the customs officers on the journey. I saw the stranger a few times. An Egyptian friend of his helped him mark out a good place on the upper deck of one of the outer boats with his sleeping bag. A mini-colony of other Europeans, from the train, grew around him. They drank from the lake, tried to spot ancient ruins on the islands (none) and admired the endless and unchanging shoreline of sand and rocky mountain.
We always do the medical checks the morning before we arrive in Egypt. These were strict; we couldn’t allow people into Egypt who had yellow fever or cholera or other diseases, or who weren’t inoculated against them. The doctor always had to do a lot of injections on this journey, and those without cholera protection needed to wait seven days in a quarantine centre at the High Dam before we’d let them go into Aswan.
The stranger was hiding under a tarpaulin when we got to the deck where he’d been sleeping. When I asked after him he came out looking sheepish. We asked for his certificates and he handed us a small official-looking medical notebook with lots of stamps and dates and writing in English. I found it difficult to read. I smiled and handed it back, and crossed his name off the list. As we moved on his sigh of relief was audible.