Voyage of Traveler / Blog

May 16, 2009

Traveler Postcard From Cairo and Suez Canal

Link to Traveler’s photos from Egypt

Hi Everyone,
We finally made it up through the Red Sea’s notorious headwinds and steep waves, and then our passage through the Suez Canal. We are now cruising in the Med!  And we’re sailing again, thanks to the wind gods, after motoring most of the way through the Red Sea, due to the strong headwinds.

We liked Egypt, but the Egyptians wore us down. Most of them, anyway (with a very nice exception mentioned below, in the last paragraph,) are on the take, either befriending us to get something or straight out hasseling us. Prices for tourists are typically doubled or tripled, and sometimes much more than that. In most markets and shops, hotels and restaurants, none of the items are priced.  You ask the price and get some outlandishly high price, then the bargaining begins.  It can take ten minutes just to buy an apple.  To provision a boat for several days can take a full day of shopping, with most of the time haggling over prices.  To the Egyptians, it is a game, a part of their culture, and they are proud to rip off a tourist.  The police are the worst.  They demand bakeesh (Arabic for “small gift”) for allowing you just to pass (meaning, just to walk by them), especially if you are carrying something to or from your boat.  Sometimes if you have nothing with you at all, they still ask for money or cigarettes.  Taxis are un-metered and the prices vary wildly.  Typically, a local would pay $2 and a tourist would pay $10 for the same ride. But first the taxi driver would ask for $20, and then after haggling for a few minutes the best you can get him down to is $10 and he still makes you feel either (a) like you have insulted him, or (b) like he is doing you a big favor, or both.  Touts (street vendors) walk up to you and try to sell you something.  If you politely say no, it just encourages them.  It really wears on you after a couple of weeks.

We enjoyed a wild and crazy drive into Cairo in a micro bus, 2 hours. After many connections between bus, subway and mini taxi, all smooth connections, we arrived at Giza, home of the Sphinx and Pyramids. Renting horses and riding in the late afternoon, enjoying the sunset,  we rode up the sand dunes and had tea at a bedoin camp overlooking the pyramids. Galloping back down through the dunes, Barbara lost control of her horse and her skirt. (Yes, a skirt. We had not planned this ride when we left the boat.) She had a wrap skirt on and which soon became unwrapped in the winds and wild ride. As she tried to control her skirt, the horse went in to “return to the barn” mode and flew! Our guide had not bothered to give Barbara a saddle with long enough stirrups so she was riding as if she were a jockey with her skirt riding up and flowing behind her and getting longer as it unwrapped! Too funny! Good thing she had bathing suit bottoms on although in this culture, the modesty of a woman is everything where even a bare ankle is considered exposure. She managed to get covered before leaving the dunes and entering the populated area around the pyramids. Upon dismounting, we went straight to a pharmacy for aspirin to sooth the aches and pains.  We ended the night watching the Sound and Light Show, narrated by Omar Sharif. Beautiful, and with modern technology of laser beams, the whole performance was awe inspiring. Now needing a place to stay, we lucked out with the Sphinx Guest House right across the way. From our windows in our room we gazed out upon the pyramids all night and woke to see them again in the early morning light. Camels were on their way to work. Spectacular! And we didn’t have to bargain much to get a good price! Leaving the hotel, we rode a camel around the base of the pyramids and got better with our bargaining skills. Finally, we departed for the Egyptian Museum. Our taxi to the subway broke down on the freeway. We ended up hitchhiking in the emergency lane, getting picked up by a bus. This sounds odd, but hitchhiking on freeways is actually common here, as the people try to flag down a bus going their way. We made it, actually quite easily given the breakdown and all, to the Egyptian Museum. We especially enjoyed the exhibit of King Tutanhkammun. Wow!

Our passage through the Suez Canal was interesting, scenic and memorable for the costly error our pilot made.  Each vessel, even small private yachts, must hire a licensed captain to act as a pilot, even though it is 99% just following the boat in front of you.  At mid-morning on the first day of a two day passage, a very small French navy ship, more like a patrol boat, re-joined the northbound convoy after doing something in one of the wide spots in the canal.  The “warship” basically cut in line about a mile or so ahead of us, with a ship or two between us.  The very strict rule is that all yachts of any size (the rule does not apply to ships, however) must avoid approaching or even appearing to approach (and that includes following a safe distance behind) any warship.  Our pilot should have stopped and pulled over to the side and given the Frenchies at least a couple of miles between us before resuming our northbound passage, following way, way behind him (apparently just a mile was not enough distance.)  Every mile or so along the 100 mile canal are military police observation posts.  The Canal Police pulled us over and lectured our pilot and made him sit in a room for four hours (while we waited onboard Traveler) before releasing him, so he was able to finish that first day with us (but not the second day–we were assigned a different pilot for that.)  When our pilot was allowed back on Traveler he said that he is still in very serious trouble and (although his English is not very good, I got the impression) that he believes he will have to go to jail and probably lose his captain’s license for this offense or pay some serious bakeesh to someone in charge.

In Egypt, there are many laws that everyone breaks.  Eventually, the police will stop someone, apparently at random, and point out that they are breaking the law.  It is all just a shake down to get a payoff.  Here’s a case in point.  The dockmaster at the Suez Yacht Club helps yachties get diesel by taking their empty jerry jugs to the gas station and bringing them back full, marking the cost of the fuel up about 10% for the effort, which is well worth the price for the convenience, especially since the fuel here is so inexpensive to begin with.  This has been going on for years, and everyone knows about it.  Well, apparently this is a misdemeanor, for some reason, and the dockmaster was jailed for it just the day before we arrived.  After several hours, he was released on bail pending a hearing.  Now the poor dockmaster is saving up for the bakeesh he will have to pay to the police captain to make the problem go away.  He offered to do our laundry, which he did after he got off work at the yacht club (five loads for $20, with everything ironed. $20 after Barbara bargained him down from $35.)

Some Egyptians that we met and loved were a sweet family in Suez, the Farouk Family, who are devout Catholics.  They were warm and generous and truly welcomed us to their home town.  Barbara met Mr. Farouk by chance at a small cafe at breakfast and within a few minutes he had her in his car helping her get a sim card for the phone, provisions, bread and fresh produce. As long as the money passes from an Egyptian hand, even knowing that it is a tourist buying the goods, we got good Egyptian prices. Amazing difference in prices! (Small bottle of water is 20 cents local price and $4 tourist price.)Upon return from Cairo, we called the Farouks and they picked us up and treated us to an evening at their shop in downtown Suez. We were treated like family with one family friend doing the translating.  While the women were chit-chatting and eating desserts they had just gone to the bakery for, Michael, Mr. Farouk and another male friend of the family were sitting around smoking a sheesha water pipe, with apple flavored tobacco, in true Egyptian style. We took pictures and went and made copies for everyone. One of the sisters of Mr. Farouk gave Barbara her first cross. Another gave her a ring she was wearing on her finger. They would not let us pay for anything no matter how hard we tried. Truly amazing after all our experiences with bargaining and paying bakeesh! This fun evening lasted until midnight, with the streets of Suez still wide open and full of people, music playing, lights flashing. When we finally made it back to the boat, Michael met with the agent and we finalized our transit for the following day. Up at 5 am, and with no naps and then up again at 5 this morning, it has been quite the long couple of days. It is great to be back at sea with a gentle 13-15 knots and flat seas. Time to get some rest!

Next stop, Marmaris, Turkey, in 3 1/2 days.

Livin’ the Dream, in the Med!
Michael and Barbara

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