June 2005 Egypt
|We spent just over a week in Egypt (mainly, Cairo)
with Carol Robinson. Our overall impressions: The pyramids were
magnificent and their grandeur really must be seen to be appreciated.
We sensed a layer of bureaucracy and police-state repression,
though thankfully we didn't have to deal with it directly. Cairo
was chaos - overcrowded, noisy, full of contrasts, fascinating.
The Egyptians were amazingly friendly, always asking where
|we were from and saying "America? America
good!Bush good! Welcome to Egypt!" Those with more English
added "Thank you for visiting us! Tell everybody to come!"
Everybody offered help, gave directions, and went out of their
way to make us feel at home. But the good will was undermined
by the persistent and ever-present efforts to sell us things,
especially in tourist areas and in the downtown commercial areas
of Cairo. Many times, the warm greeting was followed by a request
that we should enter a store or restaurant, or pay for some
tourist hustle, and we quickly grew tired of it. Of course,
we've seen this kind of importuning in other countries, from
the Caribbean to Syria; but in no other country we've visited
was it so blatant and insistent. In the end, this tainted our
otherwise favorable and happy impression of Egypt.
Our 24-hour sail from Herzliya, Israel to Port Said, Egypt was
uneventful. We expected a lot of commercial traffic as we approached
the Suez Canal, but it never materialized -- only a couple of oil
towers. The few ships were nothing compared the English Channel
or even the Chesapeake Bay.
We landed in Port Fouad, at the northern end of the Suez Canal
across the river from Port Said. As we approached, we were greeted
by a scruffy looking motorboat with "Pilot" hand-painted
on its side. Since we knew where we were going, we waved him off;
but he stuck with us, generally distracting us and offering "help"
while we were trying to anchor and get lines to shore. When we were
finally settled, he again approached and asked for "Baksheesh,
for the pilot help." We ignored him and he left, but this set
the tone for our Egypt adventure.
At the "Yacht Club" in Port Fouad, two men were on hand
to handle our lines. They represented Felix, the customs brokerage/canal-transit
firm used by the EMYR and by every cruiser we've heard of who comes
through Port Said. After securing our lines (with knots that looked
like bowlines but weren't - we immediately retied everything), they
took our papers and went off to get us visas. Also ashore was a
pair of local gendarmes who sat at a table under a large umbrella.
They never strayed from that table the entire time we were there,
and every time we left the boat they wordlessly and solemnly checked
to see that our visas were current (even if they had just checked
them an hour or two earlier).
After a good night's rest, we took the free ferry across the Canal
to the sumptuous Felix offices in Port Said. The owner/manager,
Naghib, asked us politely for our passports and ship's papers and
handed them to an employee, who left to complete our check-in paperwork.
Naghib offered us the usual tea/coffee/water/soft drinks while watching
CNN, answering no less than five telephones (2 landlines and 3 mobiles),
signing various papers brought in by an office girl, and talking
with us about world news, problems in Egypt, relations with Israel
and pretty much any other topic under the sun. Naghib also inquired
politely if there was anything he could do to make our stay more
enjoyable. We needed a place to stay in Cairo? He had a friend who
ran a luxury hotel in Port Said, with a branch in Cairo. What would
we like to pay? $100 a night, for 3 people? We'll see. A couple
of phone calls later, all was arranged: we were to stay at the Shepheard
Hotel, right on the Nile in Cairo. After we'd enjoyed several cups
of tea and lots of good conversation, the office boy returned with
our papers and we were officially in Egypt.
|Against Naghib's advice (he suggested
a $50 taxi), we took the $3/person public bus to Cairo. It wasn't
quite the chickens-on-the-roof experience, but it was an adventure,
and blessedly, an air-conditioned one, as the temperature was
over 90° F. The two Arab women next to Carol had 5 children
with them, the oldest about 8. They'd paid for just two seats,
juggling all of the kids. The kids were incredibly quiet
and polite, never making a peep or complaining for the entire
The bus ride took us along the Suez Canal for about an hour
before turning inland to Cairo. The road is literally alongside
the canal; we saw a number of ships right outside the window,
usually without seeing the water of the canal, which was weird.
We arrived in Cairo in the early evening in a total chaos of traffic.
After winding its way into the city, the bus stopped in the middle
of a wide street clogged with cars, taxis, horse-, donkey-, and
people-drawn carts. This was apparently the end of the line, though
there was no bus terminal in sight. We had no idea where we were,
but hailed a taxi and asked for the Shepheard Hotel. Two drivers
didn't understand us. The third wanted about twice what our Lonely
Planet advised was a reasonable fare, but we were tired and a bit
distraught at feeling lost, so we agreed and climbed in.
What a ride! Some Cairo streets have lane-markers, but no one pays
them the slightest attention, and stoplights are clearly only advisory.
Traffic is almost bumper-to-bumper, or bumper-to haunch of horse
or donkey, or pedestrian trying to cross the street. Taxis, and
there are zillions of them, weave though this chaos with death-defying
abandon, crossing 3-4 lanes of cars at all angles, with hardly a
glance around, meanwhile leaning on their horns. The noise of horns
is, consequently, incredible. We felt out of breath when we reached
the hotel, and grateful to be alive. Then we realized that the driver
had left us off on the wrong side of the 8 lane, 2-way thoroughfare
- no fool, he wasn't going to try to cross all of that for a fixed-price
fare! So, feeling as if these might be our last minutes on earth,
we stepped into the street, and obviously, survived.
The Shepheard turned out to be a five-star hotel; our 6th floor
room overlooked the Nile, on the other side of the street we'd just
crossed. We were thrilled. The Sunset Gin and Tonics (SG&Ts)
we sipped on the balcony, while we watched the feluccas glide by
in the sunset, restored our sanity and readied us to take on Cairo.
Cairo fairly bristles with uniformed security personnel. This was
especially notable around the Shepheard Hotel, which is just around
the corner from the U.S. Embassy. The hotel had a metal detector
at the door, with armed guards. Although we were always waved to
the side of the detector, often with a bit of an apology, Semitic-looking
people were carefully checked. Right down the street, near the embassy,
there was an armored personnel carrier with riot-geared soldiers,
and at all public buildings and museums there were armed guards.
And of course there were the Tourist Police, whose function wasn't
clear, since many of them spoke only Arabic and couldn't give directions
or information about the sites they were at.
We decided to start the next day with a visit to the Egypt Museum.
The museum was within walking distance of our hotel, so after the
complementary huge buffet breakfast, we headed out and promptly
got lost. A gentleman at a street corner offered us help, adding,
"Don't worry, I'm a doctor, I won't ask for baksheesh."
He then told us that the Museum was only open to guided bus tours
until 11 AM (it was then around 10) and said he'd take us to the
Information Bureau. As we walked, he explained that he wasn't a
medical doctor, but a PhD in agricultural science, and his family
owned and operated a farm in the Aswan area. Soon he was ushering
us into his cousin's store where they sold perfume extracts from
the plants grown on the family land. Still naïve, we accepted
the offer of hospitality (after all, the museum wasn't open), as
the cousin explained all the various essences, dabbing each on Carol
and/or Andi's wrists, adding, "this one is good for the nerves
this for back pain
this for ladies' problems
this for relaxation
" etc. Both men added that we were
fortunate that the shop was open, because they were leaving that
afternoon for Aswan for our host's sister's wedding the next day
(gesturing at the woman ghosting around the back of the shop). Suddenly,
or so it seemed to us, the tone went from informative to high-pressure
sales, and despite Carol and Andi's protests that we weren't buying
anything, thank you, two bottles got selected, placed in a padded
box, wrapped firmly in bubble wrap, and presented to Carol. "No,"
she insisted, "I never said I was buying anything." The
price got lower and lower, until we all stood to leave, again saying,
"It doesn't matter how much it costs if it's something we don't
want to buy." We eventually left, Carol and Andi feeling they
had been assaulted. The hard sell had been incredible, and all the
more annoying for the fact that we hadn't seen it coming. Of course,
the entire thing was probably a con - the doctor was no doctor,
the cousin no cousin, and the herbs, well, Carol noticed that the
one the said was "for skin, keeps away mosquitos" smelled
exactly like Skin-So-Soft.
Shaking off our anger, we easily found the Egypt Museum (which
appeared to have been open since 9:00), and spent the rest of the
day there. It's the home of the Treasures of King Tutankhamun as
well as an overwhelming collection (over 100,000 items) of artifacts
from ancient Egypt. The Museum is quite old, and is in dire need
of organizing, updating and curating. It's basically a warehouse
- but what a warehouse! We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, seeing
amazing artifacts and trying to remember the order of all the various
dynasties. Obviously, the highlight was the treasures of the Burial
Chamber of King Tut. We had seen the traveling exhibition and expected
that there would be little left of it in Cairo, but in fact the
traveling exhibition doesn't noticeably diminish the exhibit: the
sheer volume of the things that were in Tut's tomb is incredible.
There was never just one of any object - there were dozens of smaller
items (bows and arrows or socks (!)) - and three or four versions
of larger items such as beds and chairs. The whole thing was mind-boggling.
We closed down the museum and retired to our hotel room for SG&Ts
as we again watched the feluccas on the Nile. Cairo has several
bridges, so the feluccas, with their tall lateen rigs, can only
ply the Nile between the bridges. In early July, the evening air
was hazy with dust off the desert and virtually windless, dampening
our enthusiasm for actually hiring a felucca. We did enjoy watching
how well the skippers knew the river currents for docking their
boats, though they had to motor into their slips. We think we got
just as much, if not more, enjoyment watching 10 or so of them from
above, than from being aboard just one of them.
|We left early the next morning (well, after the
breakfast buffet) to catch the public bus (about $.30) to the
Pyramids at Giza, arriving around 10 a.m. Nothing quite prepares
you for the sight of these
|amazing and enormous structures,
out at the edge of the desert. There were ten or so tour busses
already in the parking lot, but there was no sense of crowds
in the enormous area around the pyramids. There also were numerous
Egyptian Tourist Police, many on camelback. Take their photos
and they'll ask for baksheesh. This seemed strange for policemen,
but we were told that their salaries are low and baksheesh helps
them to make ends meet. It does, however, leave a bad impression
when even the government employees have their hands out.
Then there are the men hawking postcards and other souvenirs, and
others on camels, asking us if we wanted a ride, or if we wanted
to take their pictures,. Rob kept asking, "Why would I want
to take your picture? I don't know you." "Yes mister,"
they'd respond, "sure, you take my picture. No cost."
Yeah, right. We understand that these camel and horse touts used
to swarm the area, hassling tourists unmercifully. They are now
limited in number and licensed by the Tourist Police, but they're
still an annoyance.
We paid the extra fee to go inside the largest pyramid, of Cheops
or Khufu, despite Andi's trepidation at the warnings to those prone
to claustrophobia. But the pyramid was closed from 11:30 to 1 p.m.
so the guards (what are they guarding?) could have lunch. So we
went to see the Royal Solar Barques.
Never miss an opportunity to see a boat! (That might define our
life philosophy.) A modern air-conditioned building houses one of
the several Royal Funerary barques (boats) used to bring the royal
remains to the pyramids. The barques were then buried in specially
dug pits that were lined with granite blocks and sealed with huge
granite blocks atop them. The Solar Barque (not clear why it's solar)
was unearthed in 1954 and was carefully preserved and restored in
remarkably good condition. It was constructed of lashed-together
frames and planks (no nails!). It took 18 pairs of oars to row this
monster (no mention of how many people simply bailed). But it's
a beautiful piece of workmanship, and at over 3000 years old, it
may be one of the oldest boats in existence.
From the Solar Barque it was a short but hot walk to see
the Sphinx, downhill from the pyramids. Compared to the pyramids,
the Sphinx seems quite small until you are near it. From a
place overlooking the Sphinx, you can position yourself just
right and lean over, and voila! There's a photo of you kissing
the Sphinx. Between giggles, we snapped a lot of these and
finally more-or-less succeeded with a couple.
Then it was back uphill to go inside the huge Cheops pyramid
to see one of the funerary chambers. Although it was just
| opening, a group of about 30 Americans
was just leaving. Both men and women were dressed all in white.
We passed them very closely in the long narrow entrance tunnel,
then in the 1 meter-wide ascent up a ramp with steps. These
Americans were chatting among themselves but none would respond
to our questions about where they were from. When we got to
the funerary chamber (a large gloomy rectangular room covered
in hieroglyphics too sooty to read), we noticed that it smelled
heavily of incense and the air was smoky. We decided that the
white-clad Americans were a cult, honoring some Egyptian gods.
On the way back to Cairo we stopped at an arbor-draped outdoor
restaurant and enjoyed a delightful dinner. When we arrived back
at the Shepheard, we found an Arab wedding celebration occupying
the sweeping open staircase leading to the mezzanine. The newlywed
couple was on the stairs with parents and attendants; the bride
in a white gown right out of "Bride" magazine, the groom
in his finest suit. Egyptian musicians in traditional baggy pants
and vests were singing and playing a variety of drums, tambourines
and whistles, while guests clapped and sang along. The women guests
wore gorgeous long silk sequined and embroidered robes in rich dark
burgundy, blues and golds. When the music ended, everyone headed
for the elevators to go to the rooftop banquet room for more celebrations.
In the elevator, we talked to a cousin of the bride. "Oh, everyone's
invited!" she happily exclaimed, "If you've never been
to an Egyptian wedding, you must come too! Everyone will be so happy!"
You know, she was probably right, but we didn't have the nerve.
Regretfully, we decided that the luxury of the Shepheard Hotel
was over our budget, so we scouted out a funky hotel, the Winsor
(note: no "D"), in old Cairo, and moved there. The Winsor
should have been in the Indiana Jones movies, if it wasn't. We were
taken to our 4th floor room in the rickety cage elevator, which
was operated by an attendant and never quite stopped at the floor
level on the lobby level - we had to step up. Our high-ceilinged
room was a long cheerless affair with three single beds along one
wall and a tiny semi-enclosed bathroom in the corner. The pictures
on the wall were crooked, the telephone from the 1940s, but there
was air conditioning, and the colonial-style bar downstairs could
have come right out of the movies.
Carol and Andi left Rob in the delightful Winsor bar and returned
to the Egypt Museum gift shop to check out souvenirs. As they were
standing on a corner trying to decide which way to cross, a man
began to approach them. Suddenly, he spun away as mutual recognition
dawned: the "doctor!" Andi vented her anger by yelling
after him, "How was your sister's wedding?" Of course
he didn't react, but she felt better.
We spent the next three days traveling around Cairo, visiting some
of the famous tourist sights. We tried to take public transportation
as much as possible, but were hampered by the fact that we couldn't
locate bus stops or read signs, which were all in Arabic. You'd
think at least it would be easy to read numbers - after all, we
use Arabic numbers, don't we? But in Cairo, even numbers are written
in Arabic script.
So, by and large, we walked, used the Metro, and took cabs to the
places we wanted to visit. Wherever we walked, we were constantly
accosted by English-speaking Egyptians who wanted to know where
we were from and where we were going. Some fell into step alongside
us and accompanied us for blocks, as they tried to engage us in
conversation, despite our efforts to discourage them. At one point,
a middle-aged man began to chat with Rob, who was walking a few
steps behind Andi and Carol. He professed to be a columnist for
a weekly newspaper, and Rob asked him about censorship. "I
only write social commentary, not about politics," he responded.
"So I don't encounter any problems." He suggested we join
him for a cup of coffee, but, leery from our experiences with people
trying to sell us things, we declined. Later, we picked up a copy
of the newspaper he had claimed to write for, and discovered that
there really was a columnist with his name. Did we miss a golden
opportunity to find out more about this strange country? Perhaps
- or perhaps he just wanted to sell us something.
We visited two remarkable mosques: the large Ibn Tulun and, next
door, little Sarghalmish. As with the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus,
Ibn Tulun features a beautiful courtyard; but unlike any other mosques
we've seen, there is no enclosed area, just a roofed-over section
with several mihrabs or prayer niches along the wall. Its perfect
symmetry was peaceful and beautiful.
|Sarghalmish Mosque, next door, had
a tall minaret that our guidebooks said we could climb. The
Muezzin or priest greeted us and insisted on showing us around.
Despite the fact that he spoke almost no English, he was very
helpful, even teaching us how to call out the first part of
the Call to Prayer. Andi decided not to climb the minaret in
deference to her arthritic knee, but Carol and Rob
made their way up the steep spiral stairs
with the Muezzin. The views over Cairo from the top were grand.
On the way down, the Muezzin pointed out doors to three different
madrasses, or Muslim religious schools. Carol and Rob entered
one of them, to find only bare rooms with no furniture, artwork,
or other signs of use. Unfortunately, the Muezzin's English
wasn't up to the task of explaining whether the schools were
on vacation or had been abandoned.
One night, we went out for a fine dinner, and after eating too
much we decided to walk back to the hotel, about a mile away. Despite
the time - it was after 10:00 at night - the streets were brightly
lit, and the population of Cairo was out in throngs. The sidewalks
were jammed with men, women, and children weaving through racks
of clothing and tables full of all kinds of things for sale, from
kitchen appliances to headscarves. Clearly, this was where and when
the people of Cairo shopped. For once, we weren't accosted at every
turn (well, maybe once or twice), and we just enjoyed the general
We enjoyed visiting Coptic Cairo, a walled pedestrian-only quarter
that we found to be very peaceful in contrast to the noisy overcrowded
streets of the main city. Coptic Cairo is home to a number of Christian
churches and also Egypt's oldest Jewish temple (9th century), no
longer an operating synagogue, but a beautiful and peaceful old
place. We also visited the 9th-century "Hanging Church of the
Virgin", so called because it was built or suspended over one
of the old city gates. A plexiglass section of floor shows the lack
of foundation below. We were guided through the church by one of
its members, a delightful gentleman who refused any compensation
and who, when Andi mentioned her interest in Saint Tecla, produced
a key from his pocket, moved aside a baptismal font and opened a
side chapel normally closed to the public to reveal a shrine to
Tecla, with a very old oil painting. What a treat!
We paid a visit to the souk (where we bought toy leather camels
for Carol's grandchildren, and flowing, embroidered galabayas for
Carol and Rob), and to the ancient cemetery, which is inhabited
- people live in and amongst the mausoleums. According to the guidebooks,
when somebody dies and is to be interred in a family crypt in the
cemetery, the inhabitants politely vacate the premises so the body
can be laid to rest, then move back in again. Even on close inspection,
however, we couldn't tell that the residences might contain tombs;
they looked like low-class apartments to us, though there were certainly
lots of tombs all around the neighborhood. After a cup of tea and
a visit to a beautiful mosque with a carved stone dome, we left
Cairo to return to Akka.
Back in Port Said, we went to the Felix offices to pay our bill.
We had exactly enough cash if we pooled all of the Egyptian pounds
and US dollars we had on us. As we were leaving, Rob commented that
we now didn't have enough change for baksheesh. Naghib looked worried,
and said that we really should give the two men at the yacht club
something for looking after our boat while we had been gone. Reaching
into the pile of bills we had given him, he returned $10 to us so
we could give the men baksheesh, which we did. These guys were,
of course, Naghib's own employees.
We left Egypt feeling that we had had a remarkable adventure, but
not feeling that we had cut our stay short. It was good to be back