A few weeks ago, we published a retrospective of Istanbul, which we visited for one day while we were on a cruise. We also stopped in Athens, Ephesus, Mykonos, and, the most-anticipated destination for most of the passengers, Cairo. Seeing the oldest structures on earth was not to be missed. We were stopping at two ports in Egypt, both on the Mediterranean: Port Said and Alexandria. Both are equidistant from Cairo (about 120 miles), but it seemed logical to go to Cairo and Giza from Port Said rather than Alexandria, an ancient city and tourist destination in its own right. The ship’s day excursion to see the pyramids and Sphinx was $350 per person, which is rather steep, but they had a captive audience. We first contacted an American travel agent in Cairo who had received good reviews for local tours for cruise ship passengers. We would need round-trip transportation to Cairo and wanted to see the pyramids. It sounded reasonable to us, and, if she came in under $700, that would be our first choice over the ship’s tour. She quoted us a total of $2,500! And of course, if you are late back to the ship, it will not wait for you unless you are on an official ship’s excursion. The cruise company will also likely charge a fine to your credit card for their delay if they end up leaving you behind. The road between the two cities is slow and congested, and we very well could have been late if we were “on our own.” So we took the ship’s excursion, on cattle-call buses, and you can see part of the line of 80 buses in the second photo!
It was quite frightening for the first 20 miles or so of our journey, as every 100 yards or so, there would be a guard shack with heavy machine guns pointing out. We were told it was to protect us, but it sure felt awfully strange, and made everyone feel more insecure than anything. The third through seventh photos were taken from the bus, and illustrate our first glimpses of Cairo. In the third photo, you can see rebar sticking up from the top levels of two buildings. That occurred everywhere in the city. The reason? Egypt doesn’t tax properties that are not yet “completed.” So when children marry, the top floor is built above mom and dad’s apartment, and the new apartment, in turn, has rebar sprouting from the top of the new addition! Everyone knows the game, of course. We have also seen this in other cities in the world. Cairo was very poor, and as you can see, laundry was out airing, and everything was quite dilapidated.
Our first destination that Thanksgiving Day (November 26, 2009) was the oldest stone structure of its size in the world, the 4,700-year-old Step Pyramid of Djoser. It was built in the 27th century BC for third dynasty pharaoh Djoser in Saqqara, about 20 miles south of Cairo. These photos are at the end, after those of the Sphinx. The Step Pyramid looks very crude and unsophisticated compared to the Great Pyramids of Giza, doesn’t it? It was our introduction to the desert, and we were offered camel rides by the dozens. Once we had said no, however, they did not want us taking photos of their camels. They put their palms out for tips if you tried to get a closeup! We don’t mind giving tips if we are taking an unusual photo, but there are no ATMs in the middle of nowhere, and we had no local currency. Also, we had been warned about their unscrupulousness in advance. The camel owners might offer you a reasonable cost for a camel ride out into the desert….say, $20 for two. Once you get out to the utter middle of nowhere, they then demand $50 or $100 to take you back.
So, after seeing the Step Pyramid, we drove back to Cairo, eager to see the Sphinx and Great Pyramids. Oh, but wait…our guide said, “Well, it looks like we have extra time!! We are going to stop at an Egyptian store where you can buy jewelry and items inscribed with hieroglyphics, etc. Afterwards, we will have lunch. You have one hour in this marvelous store!” Here it was. The dreaded forced shopping stop, where the tour guide and/or the cruise ship get kickbacks on whatever the passengers purchase. We were stuck. So, an hour at this store (being followed around by our assigned salesman), then an hour at a very nice lunch buffet (we were warned not to eat anything sold on the street), and two hours of our precious day trip were gone.
As we headed to the Great Pyramids, we were stunned by the entry road to the most important tourist site in Egypt. It had an open ditch filled with water down the middle, between the two directions of traffic. However, they never removed the dirt that was removed to form the ditch. There were piles and piles of dirt, now filled with rubbish. We saw a dead goat sticking out of it, at one point, and a bicycle, and then just all sorts of trash. It had become a city dump, and everyone heading to the Great Pyramids gets to see this, the most unsightly of views.
So now, we arrive after catching glimpses of the pyramids from the city, and they got larger as we got closer. We pulled into the parking lot, and the guide had the audacity to say, “We don’t have very much time! We are running late! Our stop here will only be for 20 minutes.” THIS is what everyone paid $350 for, not to go shopping in their store! And the best part of the Great Pyramids is that one of them has been cleared of everything inside, and you can walk down in and actually be in the farthest depths of it. There was a long line to get in. So we said to the others…this is what we paid for! Let’s take our time, get in line, and see the pyramid. They can’t leave without us! It was mutiny, but all the tour members were annoyed. So we waited in line, saw the pyramids, took pictures, and dawdled. We got scolded once we got back, but so what? We drove a short way to the parking lot for the Sphinx and got the same message – we are now very, very, late and you only have 15 minutes to get your photos of the Sphinx, so don’t be long, and don’t be late, yadda yadda. Once again, once off the bus, we all decided to do whatever we wanted and take as many photos as we wanted. It was the tour company who forced us into shopping first, so nobody cared. As you can see in the first photo, there are only two places where you can stand to see the Sphinx, and nobody can stand directly next to, or on it, as was permitted at one time. And, even with our group mutiny, we arrived back at the ship at exactly the time we were scheduled to.
The coda to this story is that that evening, there was a comedy show in the ship’s theater. The first thing the comedian asked was if everyone was doing okay, and people cheered. Then he asked, “So do you all want to return to Egypt anytime soon?” – and he got boos. Most passengers felt as we did…that it all felt unsafe, wasn’t very clean, and you would be fleeced if at all possible. This trip was before the “Arab Spring,” of course. Sadly, we have heard from more recent travelers to Egypt that the problems have only gotten worse. There is such a great history here, interesting edifices to see, and stunning desert landscapes, so it is a shame that our experience was mostly negative. But don’t get us wrong: we love travel, and we love every single day of seeing the world, even where it is more challenging. This wasn’t a “bad” day by any means, just seeing a different way of living and new culture.