Dear Cruise Diary
Days 20-21 Alexandria, Egypt; tour to Cairo and Giza
May 10-11, 2013
We docked and cleared customs by 7:30 am in Alexandria, and our tour leader had asked that we meet him as quickly as possible, because we had a lot planned for the two days.
Some of my shipmates who posted on our Cruise Critic roll call had set up independent tours, and I joined the one that Chris and Bob organized, led by Alex City Travel. They were rumored to be the same company that set up the ship’s excursion. But while the ship’s official overnight tour cost $599 double or $699 single, we paid only $220 double and $260 single for virtually the same tour, including the same 5-star hotel. It’s no surprise that one of the biggest moneymakers for cruise lines is the shore excursion department. The risk of a private tour is that, should you be delayed, the ship’s captain would not wait for you like he would for the ship’s tour. That’s why it was important to travel with a well-rated company, one that realized news of missing a ship would travel quickly over the Internet and ruin its business.
With just 28 people in our large bus (complete with bathroom), we could spread out. After a drive-by tour of the Alexandria waterfront, including the site of the former Alexandria lighthouse and the Alexandria library, we headed out of town for the 2½-hour drive to Cairo. Frequently we slowed to almost a stop to cross speed bumps, which seemed odd for a highway. We were surrounded by small trucks loaded with tomatoes or other crops, three-wheeled vehicles that were a cross between a motorcycle and a car, lots of 12-15 passenger vans mainly filled with men, and large trucks.
The landscape was mostly sandy desert, with farmed patches that obviously were irrigated. I recognized short banana trees in some of the fields. We saw mosques with their tall towers every two or three kilometers. As we neared Cairo, the fields disappeared and factories and office buildings became more common. It looked like a lot of large building projects were in the works, but all over Cairo we saw construction in progress. As in many countries, buildings are not taxed until completed; many people leave the work unfinished for years.
After we passed the ring road that circles the city, we caught our first glimpse of the pyramids at Giza in the distance. Because the pyramids were built on a plateau, they stand out in the landscape.
Pyramids in distance
Our first stop was the Egyptian Museum in the center of town, near the Nile River and next to Tahrir Square, the center of the Arab Spring uprising. We couldn’t take cameras inside, so I didn’t have photos to show the wonderful pieces from King Tut’s tomb. It was the only one, I believe, that was discovered with its treasures intact. This was also a good chance to use the WC (water closet), and I was glad I had brought my own travel roll of toilet paper, as otherwise I would have had to buy it from the attendant.
As we left the museum, we picked up box lunches and traveled a short distance to the banks of the Nile River, where we boarded small feluccas, traditional Egyptian sailing boats, for a noonday sail while we ate our lunch of lamb meat balls, rice, pickled and steamed vegetables and bananas. It was refreshing to be in the breeze of the river and under the shade provided for the tourists.
Falucca Sailing on Nile
Next up, we traveled out of central Cairo and headed south to the ancient city of Memphis. The roads again were rough with frequent speed bumps, and boys on donkeys were as common as motor vehicles. A large and polluted ditch ran between the two lanes of the road. We turned off and traveled about a kilometer to the mostly outdoor museum at Memphis, where one large statue of Pharaoh Rameses II was in a covered building, lacking its lower section to stand on. The Alabaster Sphinx, the second largest sphinx, sat facing east and the sunrise, surrounded by an interesting mix of souvenir huts and actual artifacts.
Rameses II, Alabaster Sphinx
We spent the rest of the afternoon at Saqqara, the necropolis for Memphis and site of the oldest complete stone building complex known in history. We wandered along the remaining columns and around the base of the step pyramid of Pharaoh Djoser. This was our best opportunity to walk (crouched down low) into one of the burial tombs. While we were at Saqqara, the wind picked up significantly and we were blasted with sand. It became difficult to see, and we all were looking forward to washing all the sand off of us. But we were fortunate – other tour groups were at the pyramids in Giza when the sandstorm hit.
Saqqara tomb entrance, Step pyramid
Ancient Saqqara columns, Different Dress Code for Boy and Girl
As we left Saqqara, we stopped at one of many carpet schools that lined the roadway. It was billed as a tour and demonstration, but really they hoped some of us would buy carpets. I don’t think anyone in our group did. Some people said that they were called “schools” to get around the child labor laws, because children’s hands were smaller and faster and therefore better for making carpets. The result was quite beautiful, but I wasn’t in the market for anything new for my house.
We headed back to the city, actually to Giza, which is part of greater Cairo, and neared the pyramids. Our hotel, Mena House, was build a century ago. I heard it was on the list of 1,000 places to see before you die. And it actually was essentially at the base of the Great Pyramid – a garden refuge in a noisy and dirty city. Our tour company had already checked us all in, so as we left the bus we were handed our keys and directed through a beautiful garden area to our rooms. Mine was on the third floor, with two large beds made with fine Egyptian cotton sheets, a large bathroom complete with scale (which I ignored!) and a tray of fresh oranges on the table. But the best was when I went out on the balcony and saw the Great Pyramid just behind the hotel lobby. I had planned to shower in the 45 minutes we had to check in a rest, but instead I grabbed an orange and enjoyed it while sitting on the balcony. My only disappointment was that we wouldn’t have enough time at the resort to adequately enjoy it.
Mena House Room, Balcony view
Before I knew it, it was time to board the bus again and head to the front of the Sphinx, for the relatively new Light and Sound Show. It seemed a little kitschy to me, but it was beautiful to see the four pyramids lit in different colors. (Yes, there were four visible – there actually were nine pyramids, three large ones for men and the rest for wives and mothers.) The narrated show used the limestone bluffs, lights and lasers to tell the history of Egypt and the pyramids. The main distraction was all the people who couldn’t figure out how to turn off the flashes on their cameras, closely followed by the lights from the viewfinders.
Light and Sound Show
After the hour-long show we traveled a short distance to a papyrus institute, where we saw the process of making papyrus, learned about the many imitations others would try to sell us and then had the opportunity to buy the real thing. Smaller pieces (maybe 16×12 inches) were less than $20, so a number of people bought them as souvenirs. We went upstairs to see cartouches, (oval charm with names in hieroglyphs) which some on the tour had ordered earlier in the day. Then finally it was time for a buffet dinner of typical Middle Eastern fare in a small restaurant there in Giza. I was back in my room by 10:45 pm and asleep not long afterward.
Our tour group had arranged 6 am wakeup calls for everyone. I could feel that the cold I was fighting was still lurking, but a hot shower helped a lot. At our buffet breakfast we saw the cruisers from the official ship tours – they had a late dinner on the Nile and then a long ride back to the hotel. I was glad I had the extra hour of sleep instead. By 8 am we were at the entrance to the Pyramids, so we were lucky that the crowds were light, as was the wind. About a third of our group had elected a 30-minute camel ride; I passed, since I had ridden a camel in the Canary Islands and didn’t feel I needed to do it again. While we wandered between the two largest pyramids and then on a plateau above them, men and young boys (and the occasional girl) harangued us, trying to sell Arab headdresses, postcards, small stone pyramids and other souvenirs. They didn’t respond well to the words “no, thanks,” continuing to plead their cases. The best thing was to try to ignore them.
Jo, Sphinx, Camels
Our final stop was at the Sphinx and nearby temple where bodies were prepared for the afterlife. Our tour leader took the time to give us the history and background, which was a good thing because like our other stops, the sites themselves didn’t have any descriptions. I think we were all pretty tired by now, so we got our photographs with the Sphinx and headed back to the bus for the long drive back to Alexandria. We picked up box lunches to eat during the journey, but I didn’t find it very appealing. I wasn’t going to risk eating the nice-looking cucumber and tomato that couldn’t be washed, so I ate the bread and cheese sandwich and the potato chips. We got back to the ship a few minutes after our 1:30 pm all-aboard time, but fortunately a ship’s excursion was later than we were so we weren’t worried.
I grabbed a salad in the Windjammer after dropping my overnight bag off and then took the time to download and review all of my photographs. My favorites were from the hotel balcony. Later in the afternoon I went to the lecture on the Suez Canal, which we would enter during the night. Unfortunately, Royal Caribbean hadn’t hired a very entertaining speaker, so while he knew his subject, the talk was disjointed. As he droned on, about a third of the audience was dozing off, and the rest were coughing. I wasn’t the only person on the ship with a cold.
Happy hour made its appearance once again, so I met Robin and Helen for drinks and then the comedian’s show at 6:30 pm. He was better than the first comedian on the ship, but we didn’t make it to the end. Dinner was early for us, and we set with several women from the U.K. I skipped the late night party (which was to end around 1 am as we entered the Suez Canal) and went to bed early.
Tomorrow: Day 22 — At Sea, Suez Canal and Gulf of Suez