Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Egypt - Suez canal to the Nile Valley

We are back now in Israel. We are taking it easy for a few days before
heading off to Jordan for a look around, and to spend some more time in
Jerusalem and to visit the West Bank.

Herzliya is cheap to stay in at about £8 per day for the boat and just a
few km south of Tel Aviv. Turkey marinas will be about 5 times that
price at this time of the year. Anchoring is obviously cheaper but not
an option here or in Cyprus.

Egypt was full of surprises. The sites and monuments were unforgettable,
the Port Said "Marina" (?) at the entrance to the Suez canal was a
memorable experience – more like Port Sad. So were the armed guards on
and in front and behind the bus wherever we went. Armed guards watched
the boats while we all went off by coach to Cairo and the Nile. This was
the most 'unsafe' place of the rally – a few months ago a tourist coach
was bombed in the souq in Cairo, probably by al-queda, so the tourist
police are understandably twitched. You may remember that there was a
massacre of tourists at Deir el Bahri in 1997, which kind of discouraged
tourists for some time. Since then tourist buses are well protected by
armed guards. It felt much safer to be out in very small groups in local
taxis without all the attention that the large buses and guards bring.

Our bus and train trip to Cairo, then to Aswan and back was a great
opportunity to see real life taking place around us, from the ships
passing a few hundred metres away in the canal to the life in the fields
and the cities, it was an experience that we'll never forget. It really
beats flying straight to your tourist hotel.

The ancient temples were staggering and so were the Pyramids and the
Sphinx. The 3 day Nile cruise was a great experience, sitting upstairs
by, or in, the swimming pool passing ancient tombs and temples and
agriculture where the practices have hardly changed since early
civilization. At times we passed desert, other times, lush plantations
of crops or date palms. The most common transport from field to village
is still the donkey or occasionally camel. The lush dark green marshy
fields backed by unyielding yellow brown dust and sand with absolutely
no vegetation, are still ploughed by manpower and water buffalo. The
crops are gathered by hand and sickle. They cross the Nile for market by
sailing dhow with the traditional latine sails (feluccas). The
temperature was a surprise, 6.30pm saw the temperature in the streets of
the town fall (!) to 46 degrees C, and we reckon the early afternoon was
48 to 50 degrees. Stu tried the traditional galabieh for a day
sightseeing and was presently surprised how comfortable it was, creating
your own shade all the way to your feet and the head dressing was
surprisingly cool once the locals had tied it correctly and the
appropriate baksheesh had been paid.

On the less positive side, the mooring area, despite great efforts to do
us as proud as possible, was filthy and cockroach infested. No doubt
rats all over the place although we did not see any. The navy normally
keep their boats there, but move them out of the way to accommodate the
rally boats.
The diesel arrived in an assortment of old filthy plastic cans, some
with no lids and others leaking from holes in the bottom. The fuel was
not the cleanest but once filtered for dirt and water seems to have
worked OK. ( it is cheap at 56p per litre)

The tour operator who organized the trip to the Nile was simply a
thieving bully who took the opportunity to line his pockets and didn't
give a cuss for the wishes of his clients. Magi tours – boo hiss!. He
brought his entire family with him and secured the best suite even
though paying guests were over the engine room in less glamorous
conditions. He had a shouting match with several customers and our
organisers. One woman resorted to standing on a table and shouting at
him that his bullying techniques were not going to intimidate her. On
the last morning during a totally disorganized transit in Cairo train
station, from overnight sleeper train to buses for the 3 hour trip to
Port Said or a day tour of Cairo, his total disinterest in the chaos
resulted in our rally leader calling him a FAT APE with which he
replied, 'That's it!' and simply left us all to it, and the tour guides
had to step in and take over. The guide on our bus was exceptional – she
was really organised and so informative and helpful. I don't know how
she can work for him. I have her email address if anyone is visiting
Egypt – we highly recommend her.
I think everybody on the rally has had stomach bugs or food poisoning.
We both got hit hard early on and have been fairly unaffected for the
most part since although Steph is a bit off colour at the moment. It was
all too much for the oldest rally member, 80year old Laurie, a charming
3rd time EMYRite, whose remaining kidney packed up as we arrived back in
Israel and has recovered well in hospital here in Tel Aviv, and now
flown home to cooler climes. Thank goodness he didn't fall ill and end
up in an Egyptian hell hole.
Many of the remaining boats left for the return to Turkey today and it's
a lot quieter now. We will stay here about a month and travel to Jordan
and the Red Sea from here. Then head up to Cyprus and then back to
Turkey for swimming and anchoring.
Despite the many hours of motoring the boat has stood up well. The
engine has a slightly worse oil leak but nothing to worry about. We
caught quite a lot of tuna. Stu's catches ranged from 72 cm to 2 at 93cm
in length and 54cm round. We are all getting a bit sick of tuna and will
enjoy a break from it – we can't even give it away.
So what have been the highlights and surprises of the trip so far.
Religion. The impact of religion in this area is obvious but to our
surprise it's been a lot less invasive than expected. In Syria and
Lebanon alcohol was almost always available at restaurants. Praying has
been less intensive and fanatical than in Turkey, and churches much more
common. The mosques are never crowded and casual attendance seems to be
generally the rule. In Jerusalem the wailing wall was quite busy – the
women having to crowd into the smaller part as they are not allowed to
mix with the men. The Orthodox Jews (fanatical) are not really held in
high regard as they don't work, in order to be devoted to god. This
seems by some to be a good excuse for avoiding Army duty and anything
like hard work. They receive the dole to support their many children,
which they are bound to have by their interpretation of the bible.
Sights. The sites of historical interest are starting to merge into one
but the photos will help put things back into place. The most striking
thing has been the size of the structures preserved by burial in the
desert sand. The Temples of the Ancient Egyptians and the Greco-Roman
periods are simply astonishing in their size and grandeur. Not to
mention the unimaginable resources that were used to construct things
that even now would put a good few architects into convulsions, like the
prospect of moving 22ton stones hundreds of miles to be stood vertically
on pedestals using the principle of air expulsion ( vacuum between 2
flat surfaces) no cement, to hold the obelisks in place. Bear in mind
some of these were erected before pulleys or wheels were even invented!
And they've survived thousands of years of earthquakes and still display
their messages despite the years of intense UV and heat.

The incredible amount of gold and wealth that the Tutankhamen tomb
revealed was astounding. It nearly fills the entire Cairo museum. This
king died a teenager after only short reign 1361-1352, and had only a
small tomb hurriedly completed after his unexpected death. Other kings
reigned for 40 years, and accomplished great things , so their tombs
were much bigger to reflect this. All the tombs were robbed in antiquity
for the gold they were knew to contain, so one can only begin to imagine
the wealth that they must have tried to take with them the underworld.
Tutankhamen tomb was only discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, so it's
1700 objects are well known and preserved for our minds to boggle over.
There are gold beds, chariots, life sized statues, thrones, his famous
funerary mask and his mummy was absolutely dripping with jewellery that
fills 2 large rooms in the museum.

The valley of the kings is still under exploration, and as recently as
1995 a mass tomb complex was discovered using clues from a papyrus codex
in Turin. Who knows what other riches they might find.

The nearby Valley of the Nobles (we didn't have time to visit) has the
remains of the lesser mortals. We saw the contents of these tombs,
depicting daily domestic life in models, in the Cairo museum. The little
lifelike figures working in kitchens, bakeries, fishing and farming
looked like they had just been made, but give so much information about
their way of life. You had to keep pinching yourself and reminding
yourself that everything in that museum is real, ancient and original
with the exception of a copy of the Rosetta stone (original in London)
that was the key to deciphering the hieroglyphics covering every wall of
every palace, temple and tomb.

The pyramids were awesome, and of course we had to go inside and climb
the narrow and claustrophobic passageway to the central burial chamber.
Inside you have to stoop as you climb the steep ramp, it is hot and
airless and probably the best place to catch swine flu in the world due
to all the international travellers breathing in there.

Next to the great pyramid they discovered a pit containing a 43m solar
boat that had been in use on the Nile, then broken down into pieces and
buried near the Pharaoh in the belief that he might use it in the
afterlife. It has been reconstructed and is unbelievably huge.

Outside there were camel rides on offer, so it had to be done. They are
smelly and foul, but it was a great experience in this setting with the
great pyramids as a backdrop.

The size and power and length of the pharaonic dynasties and their
riches are staggering, It is such a shame to see what so much of Egypt
has been reduced to now. The poverty, dirt, corruption and shameless
begging amongst the plush or not so plush hotels and tourist sites. The
cost of living is very low here, with good products available in the
supermarkets, for a fraction of the price in neighbouring countries. The
money made by the tour operators is so out of proportion to the income
of the local people, it is quite shocking, but I guess who can blame
them when 18 million tourists per year are willing to pay it.

Arriving in Israel again is such a culture shock, as you are suddenly
transported to a wealthy thriving western style country with clean
streets, buses, people and prices to match. Herzliya is an expensive
beach resort town, with good transport connections, so it will suit us
for a few weeks to come, as we catch up on boat jobs and laundry ready
for our next adventures on land.

The rally is all over, and no doubt you ask if we would do it again.
We've had a fantastic time and met so many new people good and bad, and
had unforgettable experiences, thanks to the limitless energy of Hasan,
Dave and Kath who organise it evey year, lets just say that for us the
rally was a once in a lifetime experience!

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