Sunday, August 30, 2009

Celebrity Equinox - Egypt...Impressive and Depressing

As we arrived into the port of Alexandria, Egypt, the Celebrity Equinox seemed so out of place; being a beautiful new cruise ship in a huge, dirty, port filled with rundown freighters. But then we arrived at the cruise terminal which, to be honest, is probably the prettiest cruise terminal I have ever been at. It was, however, pretty much empty of shops or anything else. We met out private guide and were off on our two day adventure.


I will note at the outset that based upon the dozens and dozens of tour busses which arrived back to the ship late on the second day with well over 1,000 (probably close to 2,000) guests, I have no doubt that I could not have stood the 3 hour drive each way to Cairo in the Egyptian required caravans with security escorts. (I phrase I quickly learned about the authorities is that according to the Egyptians they are for “decoration”.)

Our guide was OK, but no more. I was more willing to accept his somewhat inappropriate comments because I have been reading a book which I will review in another entry which gives an American’s perspective on Egyptian culture. When I asked him about a tree, he said, “I am Egyptian. It if it is green it is a tree and if it flies it is a bird.” In other words, there is a script and that is what we will be receiving. Nothing more…and, I think, possibly less. Our mineral water and soft drinks amounted to four small bottles of water for two days. Our Costar van was a somewhat dirty minivan with cigarette burns in the seat. What I can tell you is that I suspect that Ramses Tours is no better or worse than any other tour operator. The guides float between them and, judging by the names on the various vans, so do they.

That said I am very glad we had a private guide and made it a two day overnight tour rather than a one day tour packed in both time and people. It afforded us, as you will read, with better information, better access and, overall (after speaking with people who took the ship’s tours) a more complete experience. Now, with that out of the way…

The first thing that hits you is not the history or architecture, it is the filth and litter and poverty. It is everywhere. As we left Alexandria I thought things might get cleaner as you got out into the countryside. It did not. Litter and rubble is everywhere. Partially built and abandoned buildings, from shacks to commercial, are omnipresent. (I do note that in Egypt there is a technique of not completing the top floor of residences, but living in the buildings, so the building is not taxed. I do not speak of these occupied buildings.) Rubble from old road construction is everywhere.

As we approach Cairo there was a partially built bridge over half the highway with no road even hinted to meeting up with the bridge. You can ask why or just accept it. I have found that the Egyptian way is to just accept it. (Just like the pipes I saw over canals attached to nothing and no prospect of anything being there either.)

Another thing omnipresent is traffic police. They do not seem to do anything, but you find them everywhere…including in the middle of the highway sitting in a plastic chair with no ability to stop a car or respond to an accident. What could their purpose possibly be?

Our real touring started with the Egyptian Museum holding so many antiquities. What was there was amazing, but the way they are not cared for (no air conditioning and layers of dust, for example) is shocking. Add to that the extremely limited amount of information provided and the poor exhibits and without a guide the place could be quite frustrating. The displays of Tutankhamen’s burial mask, sarcophagi, jewelry, etc. were impressive, but would have been more so with proper lighting and information. (At least the room with the most important pieces is air conditioned.)

After a bad “complimentary lunch” at the Hard Rock CafĂ© and an hour felucca ride that lasted 20 minutes with no explanation (as it sailed around downtown Cairo…not what I had asked for!), but with a very memorable old Egyptian “captain” with bad teeth and no underwear, we were diverted against my wishes to a papyrus “institute” that I also requested we NOT visit. It is Egypt and it is what it is.

Then it was to the Le Meridian Hotel with Pyramid View Rooms. The hotel was an oasis from the dirt and litter and I recommend it. We ate that evening at its Nubian Village restaurant and had a really wonderful meal with incredible Egyptian bread (I mean really good!), stuffed vine leaves, falafel, pigeon and other selections. I also tried an Egyptian white wine, Scheherazade made with vines imported from France. The wine was surprisingly all right. It wasn’t good, but it was far better that the Palestinian selection. The shisha (water pipe) was present again!

The next morning we were ready to go at 7:30 a.m. and then the local police decided that because we were American we needed police protection. Our guide said it was merely “decoration” and upon his negotiating with the police giving them a waiver of sorts, we were on our way. I figured it was a scam to get “baksheesh” which you might refer to as a tip or bribe, but in reality is virtually every person you meet expecting some of your money for doing nothing or next to nothing. Based on what I learned, I figure the police protection would have hit us up for at least $100 to allegedly protect us for the day.

After that we still arrived at the Giza Pyramids just before the 8:00 a.m. opening. This allowed us not only to see the very impressive Pyramids without crowds (and get some incredible photos), it provide us with instant access to entering into the Middle Pyramid – which was very cool…and which was greeted by a person inside with a tiny windup flashlight demanding baksheesh – rather than the normal queues of around 30 minutes in the hot sun, it provided us with our 15 minute camel ride (which I was convinced was going to be 5 minutes). A nice surprise was that with no other customers they gave us about 30 minutes and took as all around the pyramids and snapped a ton of photos on my camera for me. Once again baksheesh was demanded, but this time it was well worth it and I provided what I thought was a more than generous amount…only for them to press me for yet more because it was Ramadan.

We then traveled a short ride to see the Sphinx, which was too brief, but very interesting. Then it was to Sakkara and the Step Pyramid and the Teti Pyramid (which we were able to enter and which was more interesting because it contained lots of hieroglyphics…of course paying baksheesh along the way). The drive to Sakkara was disturbing because the road runs along a highly polluted canal which we say children playing and fishing in.

Just down the road is Memphis with its Colossal Statue of Ramses II and other statues. It was worth the journey. Some friendly tourist police offered to take a family picture for us…and then demanded baksheesh. I refused, maybe foolishly, but I had really hit my limit.

It was then a 2 hour ride back to the ship…since I decided to forego the Mohammed Ali Mosque because I just didn’t want to face downtown Cairo again and the mosque really wasn’t of interest to me. Guess what? The road back to the ship went right through Cairo and it was not 2 hours, but 3 hours plus. Just another ruse by the guide.

We made it back to the ship around 4:00 p.m. which I think was a good thing. Starting around 7:00 p.m. all the busloads of ship tour passengers started to arrive. Way too many people for me.

After taking effectively two showers to cleanse ourselves, our dinner onboard was open seating. The food was fine and the waiter was friendly, if he did make a few mistakes. What really bothered me was that both my evening’s wine steward (not my “regular” one) responded to my “thank you” with “Bless You”…twice and then the busboy did as well. Folks, I went to have my dinner and some wine, not to be blessed. Maybe I am being a bit overly sensitive because of the Jewish/Arab-Muslim and American/Arab tensions of the past days, but I considered it a major faux pas.

We were to sail away during dinner, but we didn’t. And then the fireworks began…!