Egypt and Egyptians: Part One

Red Sea, Egypt

We’re in Endeavor Bay, on Tawila Island, Egypt, in the northern part of the Red Sea, just short of the Gulf of Suez; 160 miles from the entry to the Suez Canal, 215 miles from the Med, and about 550 miles from Turkey. We’ve been creeping up the Red Sea, sneaking out to grab a few miles when the forecast calls for the winds to moderate, often to find that they haven’t really moderated. But we’ve broken up some of the brutal sails with some quality time on land.

We haven’t written in a while. As Sima’s friend Erkut once observed about our blogs, the rate at which we post seems to be inversely proportional to the pace of our lives. This has the unfortunate consequence that when we have lots to write about, there is no time to do so. And the stories get harder to tell: they risk getting scrunched together, watered down, and leveled out. Details fade a little bit with time, and collecting so much in one note can be difficult to digest, let alone record.

But maybe there are benefits to such collective posts, too. Events are seen in context and themes emerge. Certainly, when you post more frequently, the tempo can be livelier, but maybe by waiting the loss of pace is balanced against some small amount of perspective gained, and humor emerges from experiences that seemed less than enjoyable at the time.

We’ve had time to reflect on Egypt, having been here for something short of two months. In light of this time here, we are, of course, completely unqualified to make the following broad-sweeping generalizations, but if Bill Bryson can sum up a town based upon a five-minute drive through without ever leaving his car, surely we’re qualified to take a shot at Egypt.

So here goes: Egyptian people are kind and big-hearted, capable of great warmth and astonishing acts of munificence. No, wait, they are untrustworthy and scheming, and wouldn’t know the truth if it bit them on the leg! Of the country itself, Egypt, is a repository of stunning antiquities carefully preserved for thousands of years. But those objects that have been preserved are some small fraction of the things that the ancient kings actually left, and we have them only because generations of Egyptian tomb raiders couldn’t figure out where they had been hidden.

Sure, our conclusions are based upon anecdotal experiences only, but many of the anecdotes are fun, and so we share. Here we’ll talk about the people we met, and cover the places we have seen in a subsequent note.

We had last written after arriving Port Ghalib.

Port Ghalib is a “starter” resort city on the coast. A wealthy Kuwaiti family picked the area to develop a modest resort on the scale of, say, Disneyland, in a desolate part of the Red Sea Coast, making something out of nothing in the desert. Maybe more on the idea of Las Vegas, actually, than Disneyland, as the latter actually had some people living nearby before work started. There was nothing here before but dust.

The Egyptian coast of the Red Sea is covered with many such ventures. Some of them, like the city of Hurghada, have flourished. Hurghada has grown from a several thousand residents to more than 150,000 in a twenty-five-year time span, all based on the tourist trade. Those numbers are not an exaggeration.

But for every Hurghada, there seem to be a dozen projects almost as grandiose in conception and perhaps equally spectacular in their failure. Certainly they provide that image collectively. To sail along the coast is, in parts, to be reminded of those old Westerns where cowboys trundled through one-street ghost towns, except that there are no tumbleweeds here. But there sure is at least as much dust!

In Port Ghalib, they dredged a small, shallow marsa, converted it into a giant, labyrinthical marina, and then set up a number of sharp looking hotels, clubs, restaurants, pubs, and parks around the water’s edge.

It’ll be quite nice when complete, and even now is a pleasant place to be. But it is also a bit like a theme park in the moments before it opens in the morning. Everyone is in place and ready to go: ticket takers at the gate, costumed characters with permanent smiles affixed, ride operators ready to send folks wheeling into the sky, cotton candy vendors spinning their first treats. Except with Port Ghalib, the crowds never actually show up, and the workers – dozens of them, from waiters to shop keepers to hotel clerks and so on (although there weren’t really any costumed characters nor cotton candy vendors . . . .)- nonetheless go about their days as if the place WERE full. It feels a bit like the Truman Show, with everyone there just for you. We’re overstating this a bit, but not by much. We’d see some other people from time to time, and big crowds came once each week when new tourists came to join the live-aboard dive boats and the previous week’s divers sat about waiting to decompress – literally and figuratively — before they flew home. In general, however, the place was about as far from crowded as you can get.

But we rather enjoy the absence of crowds, and so it was a relaxing stay, and relatively inexpensive to boot. So stay we did, hemmed in by adverse weather anyway. And we came to know some good Egyptians, and some not so good ones too.

We had chosen Port Ghalib as our entry port because it is meant to be the smooth handle by which to grab the reportedly deceitful Egyptian officialdom. It turned out to be a good choice.

We had busted tail to get to Port Ghalib in time for the U.S.’s opening World Cup match against England. We arrived at 4 p.m., providing us, we thought, a sufficient cushion for the 9:30 p.m. game.

As we coasted into the marina, we were directed to stop at the customs dock, which is about a baseball’s throw away from several bars where the game would be shown. But we were told that the boat couldn’t leave the customs dock until we finished the clearing in process.

(Lest some of you harbor the misguided belief that it was only PAUL that sought to make it to the game on time, you’ve got it wrong. Sima is as much a fan as Paul, and with Turkey not having qualified, she became a dyed-in-the-wool U.S. fan. She kept track of ALL the games on a scorecard, was upset when we were late to important matches such as, say, New Zealand versus Slovakia, and when the U.S. doesn’t perform well, it seemed to take Sima longer to recover than Paul. In fact, this was an actual conversation:

Paul: “Who else is in the group with France and New Zealand?”

Sima: “Slovakia and Italy are with New Zealand. But France isn’t in that group. The third team is Paraguay. What are you asking about? France’s group or New Zealand’s?”

Paul: “Never mind. “)

On the dock, we were greeted by a junior port official, and officious he was, a good warm up for some of the others we were to meet. We turned over our paperwork, and then told him of our hope to complete formalities in time to see the game. “We should be able to get you finished by 10 p.m.,” he said, as if he hadn’t heard our request or, if he did, as if he didn’t really care. That might not work, we said, because we’d have to move the boat after we cleared in, which would take about 45 minutes, and that would be 10:45, which would mean the game would be over.

There’s not much he could do, he shrugged, and explained that immigration officials would have to come from the airport to review the paperwork, that they make a once-a-day visit to the port at about 8:30 p.m., and that after that, the paperwork would have to be sent to the airport, and then be returned. After the third time he explained this, each version a little different and making less sense, we gave up trying to understand, and asked politely if he could do the best he could.

Then we asked, “If the papers do get back here as late as 10 p.m., could we leave the boat on the customs dock for the night and make the short walk over to the bar to watch the game? He looked at us coolly: “If the boat doesn’t move, neither do you.”

Well, OK.

Captain Sharif Fawzy is the Manager for the marina at Port Ghalib, and he has a sterling reputation among cruisers for integrity and candor. We’d been emailing him in the days before we arrived. Now, we called him at his office in the nearby customs building, and, without repeating our exchange with the junior officer, asked if would be at all possible to get cleared in by 9 p.m., so we could watch the game? I don’t see why not, he said.

With his guidance, clearance was completed in little more than an hour; we parked the boat, and watched the U.S. hang on for a 1-1 tie against England.

And so began a lesson that was repeated many times during our stay in Egypt. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground – people were either warm, genuine, kind, and generous to a fault, or officious, lazy, incompetent, and dishonest.

From people that we met at the less agreeable end of the spectrum, we started a list of the top ten lies we were told in Egypt. We soon found we would have trouble limiting it ten. Here are some examples:

Pinocchio No. 1: A sign in the lobby of our Hotel in Luxor read as follows: “Tonight: USA vs. Algeria! 5 p.m. Terrace Bar.” During the day, we confirmed with reception that the game would be shown. And so at 5 p.m, we arrived at the Terrace Bar with a handful of other Americans, to see that the England Slovenia game was being broadcast. What about the U.S.? “We’re so sorry,” said one of the wait staff earnestly, “We don’t get that game here in Egypt.” A crowd of several other of the service staff gathered, chiming in. “You might as well come here. Eat. Drink. England will be a good game!” Not playing anywhere in Egypt? “Yes, we are sure. But there will be regular update of the other game on this channel. Come, sit down!”

We didn’t. We headed out into the street, and the first coffee-house that we came to was showing the U.S. game, filled with Egyptian men watching intently and smoking their water-pipes. We went back and collected the other Americans from the hotel. (The hotel also had each of the games on the TVs in the rooms, but disabled the relevant channels at game time in an attempt to get people out of their rooms and downstairs to the bar.) The hotel staff shrugged as we exited.

Pinocchio No. 2: At the pyramids, a stern faced ticket-taker asked for our passes. This seemed odd, as we were already produced our passes when we entered the gates, but we hesitatingly handed over our tickets again. “These are insufficient for this part of the pyramids,” he said, waving vaguely into the distance. “To go in this next area you must pay an additional 20 Egyptian Pounds.” It seemed somewhat credible, as at some sites in Egypt there are additional entry fees for special places, such as King Tut’s tomb at Luxor. But we smelled a rat, snatched our tickets out of the man’s hands, and calmly but deliberately walked by him, even as he initially blocked our path and then shouted in our ears as we passed. “Hey, where do you think you’re going!? You must pay!” he yelled angrily. “It’s forbidden. What are you doing?!”

He was a fraud.

After we’d gone twenty paces, he gave up, and we heard him approach another group of tourists and sternly demand to see their passes.

(That was another thing about many Egyptians. It was seldom “May I seat you?” or “May I speak to you please?” but more typically a command: “Sit here!” from the waiters. “Come here!” from the marina staff. And “Tell me where you are going!” from passing taxis. And there was a constant and aggressive pestering by taxi drivers and other vendors of all kinds. You had to grow a callous disregard to the shouts that became so effective that sometimes, to your eventual embarrassment, you’d ignore actual acquaintances shouting your name from a few feet away.)

Pinocchio No. 3: “Pssst. Mr. Sir. Come, quickly. This part of the tomb (or museum, or site, etc.) is closed, but I will take you in, quickly, while no one is looking. We must hurry!” This ruse was used over and over again at almost all of Egypt’s ancient sites. As you followed them to some “forbidden” zone, guides would look over their shoulders, as if they were trying to avoid detection from some sort of Antiquities Police, even when there was not a soul around for miles or when you were several hundred feet underground. You’d then be whisked somewhere “private.”

You’d look. Oooooo, isn’t this special?

And then the baksheesh-seeking hand would come out. We didn’t mind this so much, as we’d pay only a dollar for such privileges, which may not seem like much but was to them. Typically, the places they showed us were a bit farcical, and it was obvious that a rope had been placed arbitrarily segregating some area of the tomb, no different than the rest, so that an additional fee could be charged. But on a couple of rare occasions we were actually treated to something special, such as when we wandered away from the crowds at Karnak Temple, and into a construction zone, and were taken into some rooms that were more dazzling and freshly painted than any we’d seen anywhere else in Egypt. Or the guided tour we got of King Tut’s tomb. For that one, although no special areas were shown, the guide was clearly excited about what was there for everyone to see, and we gave him a healthy tip. After a while, though, such as when we were invited to take “forbidden” pictures at the museum, we simply paid a tip up front, and forwent the picture taking opportunity. We thought that this was the better approach, but we were soon being approached by what seemed like every guard in the building, greeting us with a friendly smile and a wiggle of the eyebrows.

Pinocchio No. 4: The cashier at the marina used a raised voice and offensive language when we questioned the added service charge for paying by credit card, a fee that the merchant is supposed to bear. When we asked his name, and confronted him about the language, he said that he really hadn’t realized what his language meant. “I just saw it in a movie. It isn’t OK?”

Pinocchio No. 5: An agent in Hurghada told us that we had to pay $50 to return our cruising permit to customs before we left the country. We didn’t fall for this one, and a call to Capt Fawzy confirmed that this was an untruth.

Pinocchio No. 6: “The standard fair for a ride down town is $15,” said the taxi driver. We knew that it was $1. We agreed on $2 Egyptian. At the end of the ride, we handed him the money, and his face darkend. “Two Egyptian?!” he bellowed angrily. “You said two Euros!” We quietly closed the door and walked away, with him calling after us that we had “broken a promise.”

Pinocchio No. 7: We met some young children hawking cheap postcards at the pyramids. Sitting under the Sphinx, they chatted us up, and they eventually forgot about selling product and kept us company for a while. We gifted them with candy gum with a prize in the package. One of the girls pocketed the prize, and then, with the saddest puppy-dog face you’ve ever seen, pleaded for more because she hadn’t gotten a prize!

And so it went. And these are just the lies that were obvious, and also don’t include stories about more general boorish behavior , such as the rude comments that Sima was often subjected to when she went out on the street by herself. Even when we were together, men would give her long, lusty up-and-down stares, often pausing in stride to complete the effect.

But just when you were about to give up on the place, you’d meet someone whose generosity and friendship would dazzle you. Captain Fawzy was one such person, and we can’t say enough about the help he provided. Hanni and Marina, from the HEPCA boat, and whom we wrote about in our Dolphin Reef blog, were of a similar ilk. There were many more examples, and the gifts they gave of themselves vastly outweighed the energy sucked away by the Pinocchios.

For example:

• At Captain Fawzy’s direction, Tarik and Waleed at Port Ghalib organized a trip to take us into the dessert to ride camels and all-terrain vehicles, followed by dinner with some local Bedouins, and later took us back into the dessert to attend a raucous late-night dinner party at a club disguised as a fort. No payment would be accepted for any of it.

• Ali Amr, and his cohorts Madda and Amina at HEPCA in Hurghada were such wonderful friends, and did so so much for us. We had met them, when we were anchored near the HEPCA boat at Dolphin Reef, and we looked them up when we arrived at Hurghada. They treated us like family. “Mi casa e su casa!” they cried, and they meant it. They graciously allowed us to use the internet facilities and make use of their home and office as we needed.

You had to be careful with Amr Ali, the director of HEPCA, whom Madda and Amina call “Santa Clause,” an allusion to his generosity. We’d no sooner mention a predicament than he would be on the phone working to make it go away. We only now regret that we set our sights too low! We should have mentioned in passing that we needed new sails or an engine overhaul, and watch him set to work. As it was, when we told him of a costly cruising permit issue, he was on the phone with the local Coast Guard official, who promised to set things straight during a visit to his office the next day. “But you’re right, ” Amr told us. “It will cost you – $1.00.” This was a bit less than the $200 we’d been quoted by the agent. “This Coast Guard fellow owes me,” Amr explained. “I let him beat me at Play Station.”

• Baha “Bob” Gad and his wife Hayat Yazidi in Port Ghalib, who treated us with great hospitality at the chain of restaurants they managed, gifted us with movies that they liked and souvenirs of Egypt, and with whom we spent many hours sharing stories and watching World Cup games.

• Sombol, our taxi driver in Luxor, who took us around the sites in Luxor for a whopping $25 each day, and then took us home to meet his family over tea when we had finished.

• Captain Muhsin Ozer, a Turkish boat captain living in Port Ghalib, who watched our boat each day while we traveled, treated us to a spectacular fish dinner at his home, and spent a good amount of time giving us guidance about our trip up the Red Sea.

• Faizal, whom we met through the HEPCA folks in Hurghada, who provided us guidance on our anchorages in the Red Sea, put us in touch with a Captain to help us with our Suez Canal transit, and called us repeatedly after our departure to make sure that we were OK.

• Hanni, about whom we’ve already written, and whom we met up with again in Hurghada, and who again followed us around and called us repeatedly: “Do you need anything? Can I get you anything?” When we said nothing, he gifted us with six-packs of beer and bags of fruit and vegetables.

• Serhat Bas, another Turk, whom we met while berthed in Hurghada. He drove us around town in his rental car to help us look for parts, put us in touch with a reputable agent to help with our canal transit, and, as with Hanni and Faizal, called us repeatedly after we set up the Red Sea to check on our well being. His mother, Esen, took great care of Sima in particular, feeding her all manner of Turkish delicacies every time she stepped aboard their boat.

• Local Bedouin leader, Abdul Salem (“Baba” (father) to his charges),, who honored us with an invitation to dinner at his home in Marsa Alam after we had met him during our camel excursion in the desert.

Listing all these acts of kindness seriatim does provide good evidence of the generosity with which we met, but also seems, in a fashion, to trivialize the relationships themselves. People didn’t just do things for us. We did things for them too. And we got to know them, sharing drinks on the boat, watching World Cup games together, or just hanging out.

In other words, we were able to develop some genuine friendships here, and contrary to the sentiments expressed by other cruisers who’d been here before us, we will be sad when it comes time to leave.

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