Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cairo-Overnight Tour

We made it. Despite the naysayers, the cancellations, and the fears, the Norwegian Jade docked safely in Port Said and offloaded throngs of cruises eager to see this ancient land for themselves. The numbers in our group had dwindled a bit since Ben first opened it in the summer of 2010, even though we assured everyone that the cruise lines were always the first to divert elsewhere if trouble was anticipated. A stalwart 60+ stayed with us, however, and we were all well rewarded.

As with Israel, many opted for day excursions from both Port Said and Alexandria, but a busload of us packed our overnight bags again for the two full days of sightseeing in Cairo. Our guide Mohammed proved his worth over and again with his knowledgeable recitations of the history, religion, and culture of his native land, not to mention the current political landscape. Turns out he was among the leadership in the spring revolution and provided some interesting commentary on the return to the ship.

Egypt imposes a rule that tour buses from the port be escorted by tourist police. Apparently, there was police representation in a few buses in our caravan, but not on our bus. (Ironically, for the return trip, there is no such rule.) Our first stop was at The Citadel, a medieval fortress with a complex of mosques, tombs and museums. Under Ottoman rule, it served as a city in itself and was the seat of government for about 700 years, although it was never actually used for defense purposes. Dominating the grounds is the impressive Mosque of Mohammed Ali (also known as the Alabaster Mosque), but it also includes an ablution block, museums and smaller mosques.

By the time we’d left Israel the day before, the cool and clear northerly winds had shifted bringing both the warmth and sands of the Sahara with them. The same silt and slight haze remained with us in Egypt casting a surreal film over the Pyramids that loomed nearby. After a busy touring day under these new skies, our hotel in Giza, the Mena House Oberoi, was an especially welcomed site. Although we would have traded one of its lavish chandeliers for one good elevator, the hotel was beautiful and clean...and in Egypt “clean” cannot be taken for granted! This hotel has hosted many heads of state and celebrities over years and was chosen as the venue for the Egypt-Israel talks following Anwar Sadat’s peace initiative in 1979. Friends on our tour took advantage of a quick peek into the suite President Jimmy Carter stayed in. Our rooms weren’t quite that lavish.

As night began to fall, we headed to the popular Sound and Light Show at the Pyramids of Giza for a performance that brought to life the magnificent history and achievements of the ancient Egyptians through lights, lasers, and holograms illuminated on the pyramids and Great Sphinx before us. The open-air theater probably holds over 1000 people, but with tourism down now there were only about 100 patrons at this English-speaking presentation. (Did I mention what a great time this was to visit Egypt?) After the show, we drove to the Nile River for an evening dinner cruise with entertainment provided by musicians, a Middle-Eastern dancer, and a whirling dervish—not to mention the lovely views of Cairo by night.

Refreshed (somewhat) by a night’s rest, we headed out for our final day of touring, first to the tomb of Ka-Gmni Oyn VI (2340 BC) and then to Memphis, ancient capital of Lower Egypt and home to a couple of colossal statues of Ramses II. Our guide told us there are some 67 pyramids in Egypt. We obviously didn’t see them all, but did see the Step Pyramid of King Zoser, the Bent (Southern) Pyramid, and of course the Big Guys at Giza. We usually associate three pyramids with this famous site, but there are actually nine: the three main ones including that of Cheops, and six additional belonging to extended family members. We had plenty of time at the pyramids to do all those touristy things—ride camels, do battle with the aggressive Bedouins selling their trinkets, and take cheesy photos for the kids and grandkids.

Interestingly, for our travels in Italy and Egypt, this trip took us to the two top archaeological sites in the world, the Pyramids of Giza and Pompeii.  As a matter of fact, when you add the ancient cities of Matera and Alborobella, we really hit upon some unique and diverse slices of ancient civilization. A fascinating journey.

Mohammed entertained us on the way back to the ship with some enlightening stories about the events and incidents leading up to last spring’s revolution. It was obvious he cares a great deal for his country and was ready for a leadership change. Since our visit, of course, the Egyptians have gone through a tumultuous November election, and "new leadership" remains a question mark. I only hope that any changes will evolve peacefully and not result in the loss of tourism revenue upon which so many in that country depend for livelihood.  It is truly a fascinating country; but when traveling there, tourists must accept it for what it is: a basically dirty country with hard-to-find clean restrooms and in-your-face vendors.  Protect your money, leave valuables at home, and dress appropriately out of respect for their culture.  That's what travel is all about--not finding a little USA wherever we go, but savoring--indeed, accepting--the people and traditions of foreign lands. 

Finally! Two days at sea before reaching Rome and heading home. I’ll fill you in on the Norwegian Jade in my next post.

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