A Tale of Two Cruises - early winter 2009 travel blog

Arabic keyboard

Grand Princess

Port Said

Suez Canal

Thanksgiving

close up

buggy

garbage

license plate

local women

veggie salesman

welcome


Port Said is here because it is located at the mouth of the Suez Canal. Even in ancient times people dreamed about a route between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The isthmus of desert here is less than one hundred miles, but for people with shovels, building the canal was a big deal. It opened in 1869 and was an immediate commercial success for the British who built it and this lead to Egypt being their protectorate until 1952 when the canal was nationalized. It remained open until the Egyptians lost the Six Days War with Israel in 1967 and it was closed for six years. They city was pretty much abandoned. A local military museum commemorates this time exhibiting captured Israeli tanks on the front lawn.

Our ship has stopped in Port Said so that passengers can take an 11 1-2 hour shore excursion to Cairo to see the Pyramids or take an $800 overnight shore excursion to see the Pyramids and a bit more. Less than 100 of us remained on board. We've seen the Pyramids and taken a Nile cruise, so for us staying here is a no-brainer. We used this opportunity to wash three loads of laundry and the crew was equally busy sprucing up the pool and decks with hardly anyone on board to get in their way. It felt like we were on our own mega-yacht.

Port security was rather insecure. Armed personnel sat in their trucks, smoking and chatting. There was a walk through security device with a man seated nearby. Normally we run our bags through an x-ray type screener when we return to the ship. Here we kept our bags, walked through, the screener beeped and the man seated nearby didn't bat an eye. Garbage was everywhere. People had made vague attempts to arrange it into piles, but it looked like it rarely gets picked up, so many understandably just throw it anywhere since it ends up blowing around anyway. Just like in Greece and Turkey, we saw cats everywhere. They weren't feral and afraid of people like wild cats are at home. It looked like they were getting something to eat somewhere, perhaps in those garbage piles.

We walked into town to find an internet cafe. We've been using the ship's pricey internet services, but guessed that it must be more affordable here. The town was quiet and few folks were around. We were told that today was a holiday. Locals that we could barely understand insisted that tomorrow is Christmas. This is a Muslim country and that seems unlikely, but it was clear that this was not a normal day. Almost everything was closed. A guy on a bicycle who spoke excellent English paused to ask us if he could help us with anything. We were grateful for his assistance, but this was not a totally altruistic act. Everyone here is looking to make a buck. He took us to a hole in the wall internet cafe that we would never have found on our own. The Egyptian pounds that I have been saving since our last visit here come in handy, since the cafe was for locals and dollars and Euros were not acceptable as they are for vendors. Countries often play a nasty trick on us, changing the look of their currencies during the lengthy periods between our visits and our old cash has been rejected sometimes, but it worked here! We were grateful that we could plug in our own laptops since the Arabic keyboards were mystifying and everything was absolutely filthy. Flies buzzed around us as we typed and the cigarette smoke swirled over our heads.

Near the ship entrepreneurs with decorated horse carts offered us a ride around town. For $20 we toured the sights such as they were with a driver who sported three teeth. His English was spotty, but it really didn't matter. He pointed out things that were pretty obvious - lots of mosques, each hotel was was carefully named. The most interesting part was the Arab street market where everyone was doing their “Christmas” shopping. A large steer was tied to a pillar. The driver assured us that tomorrow he would be part of the feast day menu. I saw few women with exposed hair; a head wrap was common and we regularly saw women dressed in black peering out of eye slits. They stared at me and I stared at them. We would have been perfectly safe walking through this market, but it felt better being in our carriage decorated with Nike symbols and hands with eyeballs painted in the palms. We had agreed to $20 for this tour. The driver asked regularly if we were happy with the tour. We said yes and gave him $25. Ever hopeful, he asked for $5 more for Ali Baba, the horse. Eventually he took no for an answer. The price is never the price in Egypt.

To get back to the ship we ran a gauntlet of vendors selling generally cheesy stuff. The Turks had been aggressive in Istanbul, but these guys upped the ante a bit. They grabbed our elbows and shoulders and tried to hold our attention no matter what we said. Americans who are used to the price being the price and no body contact, could find shopping here a bit intimidating, but this game had rules. Once you said no a few times and your demeanor showed resolve, they let up and turned their attention to the next poor shlub walking behind us.

While everyone was gone the ship staff decorated the place for Thanksgiving. Of course, turkey and pumpkin pie were on the menu. Even with these memory prompts, it felt like no Thanksgiving we've ever had.

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