The last ten minutes of our long drive from Cairo had finally turned into a hair-raising flight through the impossibly crowded streets of Alexandria. By sheer magic, our minivan had managed to avoid hitting terrified pedestrians, donkey-powered produce carriages, and ancient Russian-made Lada cars. We pulled up to the port gates with about 10 minutes to spare, but the mustached guards had ignored our US passports, which we had pushed into their faces, and refused to let the van drive into the port. We couldn’t argue with their badly oiled AK-47’s and the grim possibility of spending a night or two in an Egyptian port city was quickly becoming a reality.
Our adventure in the country of pharaohs started harmlessly enough some 36 hours earlier when the white palace of the cruise ship, Crystal Serenity, floated into the oily waters of Alexandria harbor. The ship sailed by the endless line-up of anchored tankers and freighters, a couple of rusted skeletons of sunken ships, and the Saracen fort, which had sacrilegiously replaced Alexander’s lighthouse, the last and most modern wonder of the ancient world.
We were the first four people off the ship and walked through the crowd of anxiously waiting for tour guides and bus drivers brandishing signs with various Anglo-Saxon names. Our name was not among them, pure and simple, and a phone call to the tour operator revealed that our driver lacked the necessary permits to enter the port. Therefore, for the first, but not the last time, we would hike across a long bridge to the port’s outer gates.
Indeed, a grey minibus with the curtains drawn across its windows was waiting for us. The port guards, as if saying the final goodbye, made us print our names along with the passport numbers, recorded the name of our guides, and let loose into the thick stew of people, cars, noise, smells, animals, and chaotic sounds.
There were two local guides sitting next to the driver on the front bench seat and no one was saying a word. The entire scene was a little disturbing and prompted a barrage of questions among the four of us: Why are the windows closed by the curtains? Why did the guards have to record so much information about us and the tour guides? And why are there so many tour guides anyway?
Our imagination was working overtime, especially because we knew that all other tour buses from the cruise ship were driven from the port with the motorized police escort. The official explanation was given that the escort was necessary to demonstrate the VIP treatment to the treasured passengers of Crystal Cruise Line. Nevertheless, we knew that just a week before our arrival a dozen Western European tourists were kidnapped by desert tribesmen, somewhere in Upper Egypt, near the border with Chad.
One of the guides turned around and quizzically looked at us sitting in the back of the bus. Well, we could only imagine that he was looking at us because he was wearing very large and very dark sunglasses. “So, is this your first time in Egypt?” slowly and meaningfully asked the young man. He was tall, slender, and pronounced the English words very carefully with a distinct Arabic accent. “My name is Mohammed, this is Yousef, and the driver is Ishaq. You are Americans, yes?”
Yes, we were Americans, and it was our first time here, and why all this mystery about the curtains, guides, paperwork, and police escorts anyway?
“Don’t worry”, said Mohammed laughing, “You can open the curtains and you will be perfectly safe here. Welcome to Egypt.” With these soothing words, our minivan broke through the clogged up streets full of dilapidated cars and entered a long straight road called the Desert Highway.
The desert looked pretty bleak, there were no picturesque sand dunes and camel caravans, just mile after mile of yellowish rocky void punctuated by long fences of military and police bases. As we approached Cairo, a number of large farms had replaced the military installations and the watchtowers were transformed into tall white domes with multiple round openings along the sides.
“Pigeon homes”, explained Mohammed while pointing at the strange-looking chimneys, “We grow them for food”. We used to call these birds “rats with the wings” in New York City during the fun-filled seventies, but I decided to keep this non-essential zoological comparison to myself.
Mohammed became a lot more talkative and friendly during our first rest stop along the Desert Highway. He treated us to the thick Turkish coffee in a roadside truck stop and handed each couple a thick wad of Egyptian pounds, “Just until you get your own”, he said. Mohammed took a long pull on his cigarette and started to tell a long tale about being hired to find a bride for a young man who was born in Egypt but raised in Queens. The entire enterprise took almost a month and required extensive research to identify the right candidates. Why so long and complicated? The emancipated groom was searching for a bride who was not circumcised at birth, which is still being done to about 95% of Muslim girls in Egypt.
At the end of our three-hour drive through the desert, we entered Giza, the enormous suburb of Cairo and home of the most astonishing monuments in the history of our civilization. However, nothing warned us about what was about to happen. Our vehicle pulled into a guarded parking lot, Mohammed told us to put on the sunglasses and refrain from giving money to the local beggars, and off we went – right to the foundation of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
What we felt at this time can be only compared to the amazing awe, which we experienced many years ago at our first encounter with the Eiffel Tower, Colosseum, Big Ben, or the Brandenburg Gates. Having traveled for decades since then, we have somewhat lost the youthful ability to shed a tear having reached a place of our childhood dreams. We had become battle-hardened travelers used to seeing wonderful places, but not like this one!
I’m not sure about what exactly had shaken us so much at the bottom of the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx. Was it the sheer magnitude of these ancient structures? Or was it the sudden realization that seven millennia of human history was looming over our heads? Or, perhaps, it was the memory of our geography textbook in the Soviet school, which featured this exact picture on its front cover?
Whatever that reason was, it took a lot of persuasion on the part of Mohammed to take us away from the Giza Plateau. We had more driving to do and a lot more amazing places to visit before the day was over: Memphis, the ancient capital city uniting the Upper and Lower Egypt, as well as Saqqara and its Step Pyramid, the oldest hewn-stone building known to our civilization.
Exhausted and bursting with emotions and historical trivia, we checked into our hotel in Giza, only to get ready for the laser show, which takes place every night next to the Great Sphinx.
Our second day in Cairo had flown by in a blur. We spent just one hour in the huge historical museum, walking by the rows of mummified humans, animals, and admiring King Tut’s golden death mask, sarcophagus, and countless artifacts, which are not included in the foreign exhibitions of these treasures.
We visited the crowded Grand Bazaar and the stupendous Muhammad Ali mosque, but nothing had impressed us more than the skill required to drive a car in Cairo. Our minibus was constantly surrounded by the suicidal crowds, darting across the streets and the most unimaginable vehicles and beasts of burden, competing in a form of a destruction derby. We saw a small pickup truck carrying four cows, which were defecating repeatedly on and around the vehicle. We saw donkeys, horses, camels, and water buffalo fighting for every inch of the road with the Lada’s, Toyota’s, motorbikes, and buses. In short – it was a madhouse!
Finally, we were done with the obligatory and tremendously enjoyable sightseeing in Cairo and were facing the seemingly trivial task of getting back to our ship, waiting for us in the port of Alexandria. We had about five hours to cover the three-hour distance and felt very calm, happy and giggly about our entire Egyptian adventure.
As we approached the outskirts of Alexandria, the Desert Highway turned into chaotic streets and the traffic came to a complete halt in front of an overpass under construction. We were still cheerfully commenting on the horse and donkey carriages waiting next to us, but our collective glances at the wristwatches became more frequent and nervous. Even our driver and the guide were talking frequently to each other in Arabic without bothering to translate. We were clearly in trouble and just 30 minutes before the ship’s sailing we started dialing the emergency phone numbers printed on our cruise passes.
No dice – either the phone numbers were wrong or our mobile phones could not connect properly through the Egyptian cellular network. A similar fate awaited our attempts to call Crystal’s port agent in Alexandria: “Please leave a voice mail message…” that’s all we were able to get from the phone number printed in the ship’s directory.
Finally, our driver managed to inch his way past the horse-drawn carriage and a broken-down army bus and a glimmer of hope had suddenly appeared in front of us. What followed was a mad drive to the port and the standoff by its impenetrable gates.
Without wasting much time, we said our goodbyes and thanks to the driver and the guide, grabbed our overnight bags, and started to run across the long bridge to the ship, which was still standing where we left it one day and many adventures ago.
The bridge was long and the overnight bag turned increasingly heavy with every step, but the ship was still there and that alone was extremely encouraging and exhilarating to the four weary runners. In the end, we were greeted by the smiles of the crew waiting by the gangway and the stiff drink on our balcony. A glass of single malt Scotch had never tasted so sweet! Taken under permission of Igor Yasno Lenka Traveler