My Egypt Adventure and Transit of the Suez Canal – Part Two: The Grand Tour and the Pyramids

Part Two:  The Grand Tour and the Pyramids

Part Two of my Egypt Adventure was the Grand Tour.  I was met at the hotel by the tour director and a guide.  They escorted me to what I expected to be a bus full of tourists.  To my surprise the “bus” was an old Volkswagen van with a driver.  I asked about the other tourists and was told I was the only one!  The tour director outlined the itinerary, which included the Egyptian Museum, the Giza Pyramids and the Zaqqara Pyramids.  In addition, I was told, the tour included a visit to a cartouche shop (classic Egyptian jewelry), a papyrus shop (paper used for scrolls) and a carpet weaver.  After the briefing we were off.  The first stop was the Egyptian Museum where I was guided through the main exhibits.  I was impressed with the tour guide’s knowledge of the museum.

Below are some photos I took at the museum:

Cairo Museum-7     Cairo Museum-2

Cairo Museum-3     Cairo Museum-6

After the museum, we went to the first of the shops, this being the cartouche shop.  The shop itself was nothing spectacular.  In fact, it appeared that the shop owner and the tour director were old friends and that I was meant to actually purchase a cartouche.  After I decided it was worth purchasing, I bought one.  Our next stop was the papyrus shop.  When we arrived and I saw that the tour director was also very friendly with the shop owner, I figured out the scheme.  I did purchase a papyrus scroll, as I thought it would also be a worthy souvenir.  On retrospect, I could have purchased these items anywhere.   But the way the tour was organized, it would have been very difficult to refuse purchasing these items at these particular shops.

After that, we went to the Giza Pyramids.   From my newsletter:

“One of the great contrasts [of Egypt] is the fertile land of the Nile Valley abutting the arid desert of North Africa.  The contrast is so stark it looks as if someone had drawn a line parallel to the Nile defining where fertility ends and desert begins.  It is well illustrated at the Pyramids, which, to my surprise were located right on that line, in Giza, just outside Cairo.  On one side of the Giza Pyramids is urban greater Cairo and the other side endless desert.  I always thought the Pyramids were located in the middle of desert (based on pictures I had seen).  Was I surprised to see that they could be in someone’s back yard.  The Pyramids, however, were impressive, and I was awed at such an engineering marvel that is more than 5000 years old.”

Below are some photos I took at the Giza Pyramids:

Pyramids-Giza-1     Cairo-1-eb

Pyramids-Giza-6     Pyramids-Giza-4

During the visit to the Giza Pyramids, I was offered a camel ride for $100.  I elected to decline the invitation.  (I had heard stories of people taking a camel ride only to find themselves in the middle of the desert with the guide demanding a “present” to bring them back to civilization.)  From Giza we proceeded to the Zaqqara Pyramids, famous for the Pyramid of Djoser or the “step” pyramid.  Zaqqara was about 30 km from Cairo and the road was full of contrasts, as illustrated below:

Road-3  Road-2

Road-1

During the trip, I asked for a stop so that I could photograph some scenery.

While stopped, the mule-drawn cart (see picture above left) passed us and part of the cart hit the van.  What ensued was something I did not expect:  an argument between the cart driver and our driver as to who was at fault.  This almost came to blows as now the tour guide joined in.  The tour director came to me to assure me that things were OK and that they could tend to themselves.  The thought of being stuck in the middle of nowhere and not knowing where I was made me a bit uncomfortable but fortunately the matter was resolved and we continued on.

After touring the Zaqqara Pyramids, the guide came to advise me that on the way back to Cairo he would be dropped off at his home and that he would really be happy if I gave him his “present” privately for being my tour guide.   The present was a $20 bill.

The below photos are (1) the picture I took that precipitated the encounter between the mule cart and the tour driver, and (2) the “step” pyramid.

Cairo-2-eb      Pyramids-Saqqara-1

After we dropped off the tour guide, now $20 richer, I was asked about seeing the carpet weaver.  My answer was an emphatic “no!”   I was certain that I would be prevailed upon to add a carpet to the already excessive number of souvenirs already in my possession.  After being dropped off at the hotel, I gave my tour director and the driver their “presents” and retired to the hotel bar for a well-deserved drink.

This marked the end of Part Two of my Egypt Adventure.  Part Three begins with my trip to Port Said, the entry port for the Suez Canal.  Watch this space!

End of Part Two

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My Egypt Adventure and Transit of the Suez Canal – Part One: Cairo

Part One:  Cairo

With Egypt being the news recently, I started recalling my experience there in November, 1990.  At the time, I was serving as Officer-in-Charge of a Naval Liaison Officer Detachment based in Bahrain in support of Operation Desert Shield.  The detachment briefed masters of merchant ships transiting through the Persian Gulf to Saudi Arabian ports with military cargo. These ships were part of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command that provides strategic sealift in support of military operations.  The ships were activated from a reserve force of cargo vessels or were under contract from civilian shipping companies.  As most of these ships originated in the United States, the transit to Saudi Arabia included passage through the Suez Canal.

During a lull in operations in late November, 1990, I managed to take some time to experience the Suez Canal transit.  I had heard so many stories about the transit from ships’ masters that I felt it useful to see for myself what it was all about.  I arranged transit aboard the S.S. Ashley Lykes, a C-Class break bulk cargo ship operated by Lykes Lines bound for Saudi Arabia from the US.

Suez-Ashley Lykes-1

S.S. Ashley Lykes

And so began my Egypt Adventure.

The plan was to fly to Cairo, meet the ship in Port Said, a port on the Mediterranean Sea that serves as the northern entry point to the Suez Canal, and ride the ship through the canal, the Gulf of Suez, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf to its destination port in Saudi Arabia.  On the scheduled date, I left Bahrain on Gulf Air for Dhahran, Saudi Arabia on the first leg of my trip.

Below is a description of my flight to Cairo taken from a monthly newsletter I wrote during Operation Desert Shield:       

“I left Bahrain on a Gulf Air flight to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia where I transferred to Egyptair to Cairo.  The flight to Dhahran was ten minutes at an altitude of 2500 feet.  No drinks on this flight – the flight attendants did not even get up from their jump seats.  Upon arrival in Dhahran I learned about changing planes in Saudi Arabia.  It is not like the States.

“I was met by an airport representative who seemed to know all about my itinerary who took me to (where else) the Immigration Hall.  At the time it was Prayer Time, and the “Call to Prayer” was being broadcast over the loudspeakers for the benefit of those waiting in the immigration lines.  Since I was not entering the country I bypassed that line but did have to wait for an immigration officer to inspect my passport and make a copy of every page.  

“After my passport was duly photocopied I had to clear customs, where the customs inspector searched for articles forbidden in Saudi Arabia, such as alcoholic beverages, non-Muslim religious materials, certain types of books, magazines and videotapes, etc.  From there I was escorted to the departure lounge, where the airport representative checked me in [for my next flight].  Finally, I was on my own.” 

The flight was uneventful and we arrived in Cairo on schedule.   While waiting in the immigration line at Cairo Airport, I was approached by a young woman in what appeared to be a uniform who inquired about the reason for my visit, which I said was business.  She asked if I would have time for sightseeing and I replied yes.  She said her company would like to give me information about sights to see and offered to escort me through immigration, which meant I went straight to the head of the line and through, after which I was escorted to an office that appeared to be that of a company providing tours to visitors.  I got the full briefing about what to see in Cairo.  Thinking that was it, I was surprised (really should not have been, though) when I was informed that the company was to be my tour guide for my stay in Cairo.   Dumbfounded, I said fine, and was given various options.  I elected the cheapest, a group tour of the Egyptian Museum and the Pyramids.  As I had two full days to myself, I opted for the second day to do the tour, which I shall call the “Grand Tour”.  I was asked to pay in advance – US Dollars were gratefully accepted – and a pickup time was set.

By the time I checked into my hotel, the Semiramis Intercontinental, I was ready for a drink, which I partook in the hotel lounge.

Cairo-Semiramis

Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel

Below:  Views from my hotel room of the Nile River.  The Cairo Tower is on the far right in the picture on the left.  Note the air pollution in the picture on the right.

Cairo - View from Semiramis       Cairo-Skyline-Nile-4

The next day I set off on a long walk around the city and its surrounding neighborhoods.  Again, from my newsletter:

“Cairo is a huge city, population about 14,000,000.  I stayed at the Semiramis Hotel, which was right on the Nile River.  The city appears to be on the verge of either greatness or a downfall.  From a distance the skyline looks impressive:  lots of large commercial buildings along the Nile.  However many are not totally occupied; in fact some are not even fully constructed (sic).  There must be an unwritten regulation in Egypt:  “Thou shalt not finish construction of a building”.  There are buildings on which construction had been halted in order to start construction on new buildings adjacent to them.  This scene was not only in Cairo, but also in other areas of Egypt as well.

Below:  Additional views of Cairo and the Nile.

Cairo-Skyline-Nile-2    Cairo-Skyline-Nile

          Cairo-Nile-1     Cairo-Downtown-3  

“Egypt is full of contrasts:  Modern high-rises (albeit some incomplete) abutting shantytowns of rundown shops (many of which for some reason, were selling automobile parts, especially wheels and tires).”

Below:  A couple of neighborhoods just outside Cairo.  Note the tire shop in the left picture.

Neigborhood-1       Neighborhood-3

The walk around Cairo took nearly all day.  I am glad I took that walk because it allowed me to see sides of Cairo that the normal tourist would not see.  There seemed to be people and cars everywhere and the air pollution was most noticeable.  But the sights that struck me most was the seemingly unfinished state of the city.  It looked as if whatever prosperity existed was pulled out from under.  I estimated that it would take an economic miracle for enough money to be generated to actually finish those unfinished buildings sitting abandoned and in some cases falling into disrepair.

In Part Two:  The Grand Tour and the Pyramids.  Watch this Space!

End of Part One