Ismailia and Cairo
I know – we’re well behind with this – sorry – but we’ve not been spending heaps of time in marinas with shore power and running the laptop on board, well, it chews the batteries.
So I’m now sitting in the Iskele Restaurant in Orhanie, Turkey – wifi and power. Let’s see how much I can get written today. Sorry, but there aren't many pics for the first bit.
Ismailia and getting ready to go to Cairo
The last email left us in Ismailia, battling the usual corrupt Egyptian police to get fuel. We wanted 400 lts (at US$0.10/litre who wouldn’t?), and even after all the bribes we had to pay, it still worked out at just US$0.20/ltr. The first day we managed 200lts, the second we snuck our cans out with someone else for another 100lts so split the bribe.
The next day we planned to head off to Cairo so flagged down a cab to get the few miles out of town to the bus station to sort out our tickets. It was dead easy – just rock up, buy the tickets and the buses left every half an hour. And even with a tip, the taxi fare was just 5EP.
That afternoon, Jean called up the hotel that had been recommended to us by other yachties only to find it was full – but no worries, they gave us the telephone number of the hotel on the floor below so Jean booked us in there.
Our wonderful guide from the Nile trip, John, had recommended a guide for Cairo and Jean had already booked them from Port Suez. All we needed to do was just confirm our dates.
Since we were only going to be away for two days, packing was rattled off pretty quickly leaving us time to wander around the town for the evening before a quick beer in the George. We ended up there a little longer than planned when we bumped into an excellent South African gentleman who was a couple of months into a year’s contract to set up a irrigated farm over in the Sinai – and he wasn’t too sure if had been a good choice. As he outlined all the challenges he faced – especially from officialdom - we tended to agree with him.
Even so, it wasn’t a late night since we planned to catch the first bus to Cairo at 06.30 – and that meant leaving soon after 5.00. Another couple of yachties were going to keep an eye on Hinewai for us but even so we still left her all safely locked up and the sea cocks all closed. In good time, we climbed over the bow and walked up to the security gate – and then the fun started.
A moustache that would have suited Adolf and Saddam
To get out of the marina area, you had to pass through the Port Police checkpoint. It’s a road block of one of those red and white poles that’s balanced to lift up, manned by three young policemen, toting the ubiquitous well worn AK-47 and wearing the worst uniform we have seen on our travels.
It consists of baggy looking white trousers and shirt – not the designed baggy camo greens as you see our soldiers wearing, just badly fitting. Big heavy black boots, some resemblance of polish, a tatty wide black belt, no pouches. But crowning this sartorial elegance is the beret. It’s one of those really big ones and worn with no panache, pulled down one side – no, these are worn as if they’d been dropped from a high window and just happen to pancake land on the guy’s head. They are a sorry looking bunch – even the officers who just tend to smell a little less. But we tend to treat any spotty kid with an AK-47 with a certain caution.
Back to road block – we’d passed through it several times and all you normally did was just flash the front page of your passport going out, the visa page coming back. Sometimes they’d take your passports to compare faces with the picture, but rarely. But this morning was different – this kid took our passports, we were denied exit and taken into a small office with a desk, a couple of wooden chairs in front and an officer lounging on his padded chair behind. This guy was a shit – maybe mid 30’s, thinnish build, longish black hair and a moustache he seemed to have grown to be half way between Adolf Hitler’s and Saddam Hussein - he was the bribe king and was loathed by all the yachties.
Worst still, an older fatter man, wearing civvies, slimed his way in behind us. We never worked out quite who he was – he always seemed to be around, often just sitting is his car with the air-con running – but whenever there was a chance that a bribe could be extracted, he was always there.
The kid with the gun passed Adolf Hussein our passports and left. Then the party games started as he asked, “Where you going?”
“How you go?”
“How get to bus”
“How much you pay taxi?”
“No, no – taxi more. You use my taxi”
"Erm thank you but no. We’ll just walk up and wave a taxi down”
“No, more than 5 Pounds – use my taxi”
This was the start of a 5 minute cyclic discussion where it was clear he wanted money to let us go – and we had had enough and he could go hang. But the bugger still had our passports. Then the civilian sleaze started – same sort of questions, but being translated through the officer. They were trying to make it clear we weren’t going to be able to go unless we used “their taxi”. It did have its lighter moments though – at one point the uniformed sleaze grabbed a pad and a pen, plonked them down in front of Peter and demanded “Write Taxi”.
Peter obliged “Taxi”.
Getting away to Cairo
Then the civilian sleaze made his big mistake – he put our passports down on the desk – no black mamba has ever struck as fast as Peter did.
With Passports in hand, we moved into feigned “we do not understand” mode – standing up, thanking them for their concern and walking out. The 20 yards or so to the road block were a little nerve racking with the civilian sleaze shouting something at us, but we slipped round the end of the red and white pole and walked off down the street. We were to have another run in later with the uniformed sleaze, but for now – we were out of there, flagging a taxi down at the end of the street.
Twenty minutes later, we boarded the bus, tickets in hand. We guessed that the numbers hand written on the back might be seat numbers, but there were clearly a great couple of seats by the back exit – heaps of leg room – so we grabbed them. A couple of younger guys did look at us, look at their tickets but, as we smiled innocently at them, decided to sit somewhere else.
The trip was similar to the one we took from Hurghada – at first, we travelled through desert – not rolling sand dunes, but dusty rocky terrain – before gradually seeing more irrigated arable land the closer we got to the Nile. Slowly the odd huts alongside the road turned into dusty hamlets, then villages, town and finally continuous buildings. We were coming into Cairo.
Cairo – Day 1 – Bazaars and Light Shows
The bus trip ended at Cairo Gateway Bus Station, a vast bus station that resembles an airport – and like an airport, a long line of taxis. But we couldn’t see them at first - not from where our bus terminated – we had to wander about till we found a can dropping someone off. We leapt aboard, had a quick haggle over the fare and five minutes later drove past the taxi rank – why it was so far away we never worked out.
This trip was Jean’s first exposure to one of the world’s biggest cities – and she spent the entire trip snapping shots out of the taxi’s windows.
Cairo is vast, a sea of tenement style buildings – some once made of white stone, some of red brick, some a mixture of brick and concrete – but over the years, everything has dirtied down to a shades of a grey/brown hue with just hints of the original colours beneath.
Down the side roads are little markets, the stalls jostling for the same space as the cars that try to squeeze around them - and where there's no room for a stall, that's easy - just park a trailer or two in a main road. Or do home deliveries of bread.
And the traffic – as maniac as can be – packed roads with cars, vans, trucks and buses elbowing for space and cutting each other up as crowds of pedestrians take their lives in their hands dodging around these lumps of steel that are likely to dart forward at any moment with no warning to gain a couple of feet on the vehicle beside them.
The air is rent by the drivers leaning on their horns and has that grey/blue fog of too many poorly maintained petrol and diesel engines crammed into too small a space. Cairo has a taste – one that catches in the back of your throat and makes your eyes water.
And yet as we crossed the bridge onto Zamalek Island, the scenery changed – the island, set on the Eastern side of the Nile, is a more up-market area – indeed, it is considered one of the top residential areas of Egypt – borne out by the number of Embassies to be found there. The streets are a little wider - some edged with stubby trees hanging on in the slightly cleaner air – but are narrowed back by the solid lines of cars parked in every possible place. Many of the buildings are difficult to see, hidden by tall walls, broken by gated entrances often guarded by gun-toting soldiers.
Our hotel, the Horus House Hotel, turned out to be a little gem. Like many hotels in Egypt it does not take up a whole building, but merely a couple of floors. But it then seems to be interwoven with several buildings around it – we were constantly getting lost going up and down stairs and along twisting corridors to get to our room and back, but the room was clean and the quick breakfast we had when we arrived was great value.
Cairo – Day 1 –Bazaar, Headscarves and a show
Suitably full and having had a quick wash, we took our lives in our hands in the rickety lift to the street and hailed a cab to take us to the Khan el-Khalili souk. This, one of the largest souks, or bazaars, in Egypt, dates back to the mid 12th century when it was a caravanserai, a sort of Motorway Service Station, for merchant convoys – and like Trust House Forte, they tagged a few shops on.
Today, it covers some 20 acres, a rabbit warren of shops and stalls, some aimed at tourists with all the associated trash and others, the cloth, meat, spices, vegetables and street food vendors, being where the locals come to shop.
And interspersed throughout are the coffee shops, mostly small, intimate – and all offering the ubiquitous shisha waterpipes. Their smell, along with that of the coffee and spices, makes a head mix as you wander around. Indeed, for many years, this area controlled the flow of spices into Europe.
We spent a couple of hours just walking – sometimes we found ourselves in the tourist bits, the outer ring, or, when following an interesting looking alley way, right in the middle of the “locals bit”. After a while, Peter’s knee started to twinge a bit so we found a nice coffee shop where Jean left Peter people watching as she dived off with her camera, discovering many old buildings and much of the old walls of Cairo that have now been absorbed into the market and seeing the life of the market like the tea sellers who wander the streets
By this time, hunger pangs were starting to kick in again so we grabbed another taxi and went in hunt for the Windsor Hotel, once one of the old colonial hotels, and where we’d heard the food was superb.
The food may be, but first we had to find it – we knew roughly where to go, and that was a lot better than our taxi driver. After a fairly extended tour of the area, including asking several policemen (who were trying to direct traffic in the middle of intersections when our driver pulled up next to them), we bailed out and tracked it down on foot.
It turned out we’d actually driven past it a couple of times, but hadn’t recognised it with the boarded up shops on the ground floor. It was more faded elegance inside, but the bar on the first floor was spacious and welcoming, and full of mementoes from its many years as a British Army officer club.
The beer was cold, the food excellent – and for a bit when we considered staying another night in Cairo, we thought we’d try a night there.
But time was rocking on. The next couple of hours were spent wandering the streets trying to track down an English-Turkish phrase book – without much luck – heaps of Arabic-Turkish ones mind.
Then back to the Hotel where we spent an hour enjoying a couple of coffees in the first floor café next door, and people watching. Across the road is an Art College and the students were all finishing for the day. The boys all pretty much looked like bloke students, albeit a little tidier than you see I the west.
But the girls were fascinating. Remembering that Egypt is a Muslim country, they ranged from full burqa covers to uncovered heads and what any western girl might wear. Most, though, fell between these extremes, wearing western clothes that covered and head scarves. And their head scarves were their statement of individuality – often with more than one, carefully folded and pinned to blend the colours and textures. It was a good feeling to see these young adults who managed to blend a respect for their religion with a respect for themselves as people – and seemed to bode well for the future.
Back in the hotel, after a quick shower and a drink in the bar with a couple of other yachties staying there, we met our tour guides, Heba and Ranouf of GAT Travel Agency – the people who John, our guide back down on the Nile, had recommended.
In the air-conditioned minibus, we chatted about this and that, as you do, until Jean finally spotted the Pyramids rising out of the suburbs ahead of us. As we got closer, she quietened and the camera came out again until we pulled up just outside the Gaza complex.
The guides passed us our tickets and we entered the seating area, just to the left of the front of the Sphinx. There was enough light left for Jean to be struck speechless by the view – to our right, the Sphinx and up on the brow of the hill, the three great Pyramids. But we were here for the Son & Lumiere – or Sound & Light show.
I think the Cairo Son & Lumiere was the first, certainly in Egypt if not the world, but the concept’s pretty simple. Take an ancient monument or two, in this case the Valley Temple of Khafre and the Sphinx, and use these as the screen upon which to shine your light show. Tag in a commentary (and I’m sure it was Robert Burton here), then sell tickets.
But it is so so well done. Peter had seen it 20 years before and then it mainly used one of the lower temples and the face of the Sphinx, but now we have lasers and all three of the Pyramids are used. The Sphinx plays a major role as both hero and sometimes commentator and somehow, being at night, everything feels bigger and more impressive – the light show is somehow able to let you see how these massive monuments once looked in all their prime – especially when the lasers show you the decoration that used to adorn the Pyramids themselves.
Plus, you get live music. In our case, a bagpipe and drum band, dressed in Egyptian clothing, which was a little unexpected. But with a subsequent Google on “bagpipes Egypt”, we found that bagpipes were used in Ancient Egypt (and that they were the instrument of choice with the Roman Infantry Legions (the cavalry used trumpets)). (Remember this and you may never need to “Call a Friend”)
Cairo – Day 2 – Pyramids, Solar Boats and THE MUSEUM
The day before had been full on and unsurprisingly, we’d got to bed pretty soon after getting back from the Sound & Light show and woke early to gaze across the view from our room. We've never seen so many Satellite Dishes - and as ever, each building is a forest of rebar since then it's technically "not finished" and the owners don't have to pay the Completion Tax.
After a quick breakfast and a check with the Hotel’s internet on what the forecast for the Eastern Med was over the next 10 days, Heda arrived to take us to see the Pyramids etc etc in the day light.
Heda was intense, proud to be an Egyptian and proud to be a Muslim woman. Even after all the time we have been traveling in Islamic countries, we’d had little chance to chat with the professional women and Peter found it fascinating to listen as Jean and Heda talked about their lives. And, like John, Heda was everything you could ever want in a Guide – she had a deep knowledge about what she showed us, .and she used this knowledge, applied this knowledge, to help us understand the history of her country, and what it was, and it is like, to be an Egyptian.
We have been phenomenally lucky to meet John and Heda.
We drove in our minibus up the same roads that Peter had 20 years ago, but then he was in one of the locals’ busses, not in his own minibus. And that wasn’t the only difference – 20 years back, the area around the Pyramids was a free for all – with tourists the target for every scam imaginable. Today, the control is much tighter, the facilities are first class – and yet it is still so Egyptian.
If you want to know the facts and figures about the Pyramids, Google it. We did afterwards, but that day, we parked up and first walked over to the Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops), the biggest of the pyramids.
The Pyramids are the opposite of Stonehenge, which always seems so vast when you see photographs of it, yet in the flesh, is surprisingly small. No photograph can ever convey the sheer breath-taking size of Khufu’s monument. It soars up to the shy, each block of stone so vast you’d have trouble working out how to move it today – and it is estimated there are 2.3 million blocks weighing a total of 5.9 million tons.
It is possible to go into the Pyramid, following some of the original passages into the Royal Tomb, but Peter had done it 20 years ago and, knowing Jean’s dislike of small, hot, humid underground areas, he suggested Jean might not bother this time. She agreed and instead climbed a little way up to pose in her “Africa” T-shirt.
The heat by that time was building so it was nice to leap back in the bus and head up to the crest that overlooks the site. From here you get a feeling of the sheer size of the complex – it’s not just the three well known pyramids, but nine other small ones and a mass of other tombs – and how it must have dominated the ancient city. Today, to the east, the suburbs come tight up against the site, but to the west, the desert flows like water in undulating waves and outcrops of rock to the horizon.
The crest is also full of the Camel Corps – 20 years ago, they roamed free, hassling tourists, but now seem to be banished up here.
And, of course, we couldn't resist a little bit of perspective photography.
Next, after 5 minutes of air-con heaven in the buses, we decanted next to the Pyramid of Khafre, which although it’s smaller than Khufu’s, is built on a spur of rock so seems higher. It’s also probably the most photographed, retaining the top of the white limestone smooth casing that used to cover all the Pyramids until they were used as a quarry for medieval Cairo.
We walked along two of its sides until we reached the museum of the Solar Boat. And well worth it.
It was discovered in 1954 when someone building a road came across a few solid slabs of stone. When one was lifted and they peered inside, they saw a mass of bits of wood (like about 1200) which when they were laced together turned out to be a 120 foot 40 ton funeral boat – the experts are still arguing whether it was ever used or just buried as an offering. But it has no nails and few pegs; it is literally stitched together with cord and then becomes waterproof as the wood and cord swells when wet.
The climate controlled shed it is in lets you walk all around it, over it, under it but, ironically, its sheer size means that a model nearby gives you a better idea of what it looked like.
They believe that there may be another dozen of these boats buried around the site just waiting to be found.
With our apologies to Menkaure, the Pharaoh of the third and smallest Pyramid, we skipped him (as an aside, the Brit’s robbed his tomb to send his sarcophagus to England in the 1800’s – the ship sank in the Med) and headed down the hill to the Sphinx complex.
It’s odd to think as you wander past the giant paws that up to 150 years ago, all that showed of the Sphinx was its head – the rest was buried beneath the sands. Now long excavated, it beggars description – until you realise that the Sphinx was never built – it was just carved out of convenient spur of rock.
As you can see, Jean got up close and personal.
We spent just 4 hours at the complex and you know it’s just far too short a time to even get close to understanding this place. But even in this short time, we still walked away with a sense of awe at the achievement of these ancient people – even today we’d be pushed to build anything coming even close – but then we ‘d probably never raise the money. Religion can be a great motivator.
With half the day gone, we headed on for what must be one of the great museums of the world – The Egyptian Museum. Here there are over 120,000 artifacts covering predominately the history of the ancient aside of Egypt.
From the outside it’s a large pink Neo-classical style building, fronted with some pretty gardens. These gardens give you an idea of what waits inside since they are dotted with 2-3,000 year old statues. Sadly, they don't allow photography inside the Museum.
Once through the heavy security at the entrance, you are faced with a cornucopia of treasures, ranging from statues higher than a double decker bus, solid slabs of carved stone as big as the side of a bungalow and stone coffins big enough to carry a small car. But then there are the every day items, the needles used to make the delicate shoes and clothing, the cups and bowls used every day – and in between every item you could imagine.
The rooms are all stone floored, stone walled, lots of sweeping stairs leading you from room to room – each displaying their own set of artifacts.
Some are delicate, the gold necklaces with paper thin leaves, some are sturdy like the wooden cases that enclosed their sarcophagus, some are beautiful like the fainted friezes.
Heda lead us around, picking diamonds from the mass, explaining in detail while allowing our senses to absorb all the rest around us.
Then there are the two Mummy rooms – each with its collection of a dozen mummies. Some are famous, most you have never heard of. But to look at their dried out wizen faces, it can be hard to realise that once these were living breathing people who took this route because they wanted to live for ever. As Jean said “well, we are looking at them, we know who they are – they’re getting there.”
And finally, we have the Tutankhamen’s display, a couple of rooms in its own right. Everyone has probably seen a photograph of his golden funeral mask, and that’s pretty impressive, but it’s all the other bits that get you. His two thrones, his shoes, his bows, strings coiled alongside ready to be re-strung, his clothes.
We went there last – and it was a fine finish to a day that had stretched us – not just physically, but emotionally. Here was a civilisation that was the most advanced the world had ever seen – and now look at Egypt today – a backward nation – basically because it is so corrupt – yet still filled with exciting and forward thing people.
Thank you Heda for being so wonderful for us.
Swinging past the hotel, we headed back to the bus station and enjoyed an empty bus back to Ismailia. Back on the boat, we considered the last couple of days – what an experience. But now, we had the rest of the Suez Canal to face.
More of that next time.
All the best
Peter & Jean
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