Egypt. one of the oldest known civilizations. Subject of many novels and movies, who can forget Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra? The search for the source of the Nile, which happens to be the few major north flowing rivers in the world. The mention of Egypt conjures up images of the Pyramids,the Sphinx, exotic shopping bazaars, and vast deserts among others.
Port Said is a small city just to the west of the northern entrance to the Suez canal. It's waterfront is lined with a combination of older buildings and new high rise apartments. After meeting in the lounge, our group boards the tour bus for the three hour drive into Cairo. This is where today's excursion is different from others. Sitting in the front seat is an attractive man in a blue suit, he is our security guard. Under his suit jacket is a small machine gun, more on this later. The second unusual thing, there are six buses with passengers, two empty buses and at least two if not three vehicles with armed guards escorting the caravan to Cairo.
The buses pulled away from the port area and meandered through Port Said to the highway to Cairo. Along the left was the Suez Canal, though it was hidden from view by an embankment, to the right were small settlements and farms. The area between the road and the canal was left natural, meaning it was a narrow slice of desert, irrigation provided needed water for the fields to the right.
Among the fields and houses to the right were conical structures pierced with rows of openings. Pigeon houses. In the middle east pigeons are widely consumed as a source of protein. These are not the scavengers that most people see in the city, but basically 'free range' pigeons. Their diet consists of insects and seeds from the surrounding fields, making for a healthy meat.
As we approached Cairo, the landscape changes to developments featuring large villas. This was where Cairo's 'elite' lived. There we many international schools and car dealers in between the neighborhoods. The closer we approached the city, the villas became large apartment blocks that became closer together and less lavish. Once in the city, the apartments appeared to be incomplete, no windows, outside walls not finished, concrete piers for additional floors protruded from roofs, but the roof was covered with satellite dishes. Tax laws, unfinished buildings are not taxed, so by not completing the buildings, no property taxes were owed. Strange system that produces a not too attractive city. Near the airport were more gated compounds of villas. This was the area where many former 'elite' of the government lived. With the new government on its way, many futures were in doubt.
Metropolitan Cairo straddles the Nile River. In the ancient world, the east bank was the City of the Living and the west was the City of the Dead. Cairo itself is on the east bank and was the city for the living residents, the Pyramids were on the west bank. The urban sprawl has encroached on the ancient wonders by the city of Giza. A few blocks from the Pyramids there was a highly polluted canal in the road's median, trash, plastic bottles and tires were floating in the water and lining the banks. As we continued driving, we passed a person swimming in the polluted water. EEEWWWW!!!
Finally, the bus arrives at the Pyramids. They are as impressive as I thought they would be. Large stone structures rising from the desert. After a brief history of the structures we were allowed to wander up to the structures. The largest does have a roped off area at the base to keep visitors away from falling rocks, through you can approach the others. There is a small area that shows the original smooth covering stones that have been worn away or removed.
As with any good shore excursion, the next stop was SHOPPING. The driver managed to navigate the congested and confusing Cairo streets. I should also mention that we had a police escort. When the bus approached a red light, on came the lights and siren, and we went through the intersection. The store for shopping was very nice, it had a wide range of products and many that were made in Egypt. I picked up a few gifts for my family.
Our last stop for the day was a lunch cruise on the Nile. The food was very good, a combination of local and American dishes. Even the familiar dishes had a local spin with the herbs and spices used. Entertainment included a belly dancer and a 'whirling dervish', both of which were enjoyable. Afterwards, there was time for watching the city from the open deck on the upper level.
Once back on the bus, we started the journey to the Pacific Princess in Port Said. There were at least three buses in a row, ours being the middle, and speeding down the highway among the many unfinished buildings. Watching out the window, I saw the rear tire explode. As the bus filed with that funky old tire air, the driver managed to cross 6 lanes of traffic to the shoulder. The roadway was elevated about 4 stories above grade, offering a view into the tenements. Within minutes the windows were filled with the residents waving and smiling at the stranded tourists. From the time the tire blew out and we were loaded on one of the empty buses, was maybe 10 minutes. Being very observant, I think I was the only one that noticed that the guard had un-holstered his machine gun. It was no longer concealed under his jacket, but was hanging next to his thigh while we transferred buses.
Once on the new bus, the trip continued with anymore excitement. The convoy slowly reformed at a toll plaza, with our guard vehicles. Upon arrival at the port, the promenade overlooking the area was lined with locals, also waving and smiling. The Pacific Princess was only the 6th ship that year to dock in Port Said because of the country's unrest, and they were happy to see things returning to normal.