Egypt: Legend, Myth and Reality

Note:    This post is more negative than most. We went there with open minds but left with a very sour taste in our mouths.

Ah, Egypt. What a great place of historical wonders to visit – once.

Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs, the Nile, the Pyramids, etc., is also the last stop on the hard slog north through the Red Sea before we burst out into the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, it was also one of the least pleasant places on earth. Egyptians know what they have; lots of sand, angry locals and the most must-see tourist destination of the last five millennia.

For that long, 5,000 years, wise men and fools (not sure which camp we belong to) have been coming here to gawp at the stupendous Pyramids while being fleeced mercilessly by the pestilent locals. Like fleas on a fat camel, Egyptians have been preying on visitors, honing their craft for so long even seasoned travelers like ourselves fell victim a few times to certain nefarious schemes.

Nothing can be taken for granted here. You are not Egyptian and not a Muslim. You are fair game, boy! Egypt is a society where it seems anything goes. Forget about meeting of the minds or “the milk of human kindness,” you won’t find it here. I have been to something like 65 different countries and never in my life have I felt so harangued, harassed and hated as I have in Egypt.

Walking Like an Egyptian
Oh, you say, but you only saw a few non-representative places. We did a full circle of the country from Hurghada on the Red Sea coast, to Cairo, the capital, down the ruin-strewn Nile to Luxor and finally to Aswan at the bottom of the country. All of these are tourist traps, yes, but you can’t really go outside of this circuit as the natives are restless and damned angry.

I think it wouldn’t be safe. To underscore this perception, we had armed guards and police escorts with us the entire time we were ashore. The only time foreign tour groups can move about on the roads is by ARMED CONVOY which are scheduled three times a day. The same holds true if you rent a car – you can’t go anywhere unless in one of the three daily armed convoys. You can’t stop along the way, you must keep inside the convoy.

We did a tour with two other boats, Voyager and Horai and there were seven of us total, all Americans. In our rented minivan with driver we were provided an armed guard in a large blocky suit with suspicious bulges around the waist – every day of our trip! We even had an armed guard with us when as a group we rented a felucca for a one hour sail on the Nile. This is the law of the land.

Apparently, if we were Canadians we wouldn’t have had Rambo with us in the car. This treatment is just for Americans and it makes you feel very uneasy as you think, is it because we are more vulnerable than other tourists, more of a target? Or is it because of the billions of dollars of US aid that pours in annually? The guards, by the way, all carry German 9 mm machine guns that look like Uzis. (They wouldn’t carry Uzis because that is a hated Israeli invention).

Our Welcome to Egypt

We finally arrived at Abu Tig Marina, in Hurghada, Egypt, the only real marina in the Red Sea late April. Abu Tig marina is part of El Gouna Resort – a huge multi-hotel, time share resort complex that stretches for a couple miles along the Red Sea coast. The only locals allowed in are the ones that work there or own a villa. This filters out all the touts so you can wander around the many shops and decent restaurants unmolested.

The marina was full of other yachts, most of whom we knew from Thailand or other places and like ourselves on the way up from Asia to Europe. It was great to have unlimited fresh water to wash all the sand and “brown snow” off the boat and catch up with other yachties. On our third day here it was blowing 25 knots or so and we were glad to be snuggled into this nice, safe marina.

About lunch time a locally owned cigarette boat with a very loud engine came into the marina, VROOOM! VROOOOOM! Trying to draw attention to himself the middle-aged owner was revving his engine as he backed into a slip. “The larger the engine the smaller the penis,” I observed to Ariel and thought no more of the matter.

Later in the afternoon after having too much to drink at one of the restaurants the the owner got back in his boat with his girlfriend, crew and another guy and started the engine up again, Vrooooom! He pulled out, gunned the engine and then proceeded to RAM OTHER BOATS IN THE MARINA!

He drove into one power boat three times punching huge suitcase-sized holes in the side, backed into several sail boats, and then proceeded to scream at and beat his crew as about 200 people on shore and in other boats watched in amazement. It was more important to beat his crew, his girlfriend and scream than it was to control his own craft which naturally drifted with the strong wind into other boats.

Asshole would then gun the engine and ram that power boat again and then scream and beat his crew. This went on for over half an hour with none of the MANY security guards here doing anything. Asshole then started drifting towards us. Great. I got out our 7 foot long boathook and brandished it trying to wave him away. This only incensed him further so he drifted right on to us screaming, “GET OUT OF MY $^&*%#! COUNTRY YOU COUSIN OF ISRAEL!!!” (I did find the reference to my hitherto unknown Jewish ancestry rather puzzling).

He continued this verbal abuse full volume jumping up and down and waving his arms like a monkey on fire in front of many cameras and shouted that he was going to get his gun and come back and kill me. The wind finally blew him off like a piece of trash and he made his way unsteadily out of the harbor.

The marina had sent out its little dinghy to try and pull this jerk off of us but every time they approached he would wave them away with a snarl and so he had total freedom to ram boats, threaten tourists with death and beat his crew as long as he liked. Sadly, he also scraped up against a small pretty sloop, Sea Raven, home to a very nice retired Engish couple.

I mean we’re talking English pensioners here. Jerry, the owner had a heart attack that very evening and had to be flown immediately back to the UK. I tried to file a police report as the tourist police finally came, as did head of security for the resort and the head of the marina. Not being your average ignorant American I first asked who that guy was knowing that he had to be “a somebody.”

In the Third World it is all about WHO you are. After some awkward looks and reticent answers I kept asking and was reluctantly told Asshole was the son of XXXXX; the Father of Modern Egypt. I won’t name names but being the wayward and useless scion of such a person automatically bestows social standing here equivalent to that the Prince of Wales enjoys in the UK.

In short, don’t make a noise as we aren’t going to do anything to this guy. Such was our first introduction to “meeting Egyptians.” Having said all that though, our clever readers may have noticed that I am still here and haven’t been gunned down. I should also mention that a few days later when our buddy sobered up he paid the airfare for Jerry and his wife to fly back to the UK. So I guess he felt some remorse after all.

Hoping that incident was just bad luck, a one-off, the next day we decided to get away for the day and take a look at the neighboring town of Hurghada. In town every shop had some guy lounging around outside who, as soon as he spotted you, would walk out into your way and shout, “HELLO! HELLO MY FRIEND! WHERE YOU FROM! SEE MY SHOP!” The tired refrain is repeated at least a dozen times at full volume right in your face as you try and manouever around this annoying and increasingly loud obstacle.

When you finally succeed, as often as not, the broken English turns to even louder Arabic and becomes very threatening as you continue down the road to be met by the next tout, “WHERE YOU FROM!!” and so the “beat” goes on. We felt like bleeding groupers surrounded by starving reef sharks.

Every glance, every pause in step, every sigh was met with, “HELLO MY FRIEND WHERE YOU FROM!!” Ariel wanted to look at some cheesy souvenirs and we stopped at a shop. You guessed it, “HELLO MY FRIEND!….” The prices asked – nothing is ever marked – for a little box or a three dollar bag would be roughly 15-20 times what they are worth, sometimes even more than Manhattan prices, and for shit. Now we do like to bargain and are pretty good at it so that was not the problem.

The problem was there wasn’t much worth buying and when you decline and try and leave the shop the price naturally falls off a cliff to a level of about 10 times what it should be. If you don’t buy you are hassled in Arabic and (most likely) insulted until out of earshot.

A couple of nasty experiences like this, one after the other, made us less than happy shoppers and we were both fed up to the point where even if we saw something we wanted we wouldn’t, just couldn’t buy it as to do so would entail another tortuous, in your face, “HELLO MY FRIEND! WHERE YOU FROM!!”

The main thing on our shopping list was a Lonely Planet guide to Egypt. We had seen the book in Phuket but I didn’t buy it as I figured we could get it here. Wrong. We looked everywhere and that includes Cairo too. A word of advice, if you need an LP guide buy it outside of Egypt as they are unavailable here.

Why? I had no idea until I walked into a shop one day at the marina and I had an old LP in my hand that another boat had loaned me for the day (too precious to let out of your sight longer than that!) and the shop owner immediately asked me where I got it.

I told him and then asked him why he didn’t sell any in his shop. He said he had tried but he couldn’t get them. He even went to the main bookshop in Cairo and asked for some but the owner wouldn’t sell him any. How bizarre. WHY? I asked. Then he told me, and I am not making this up, “We do not want tourists to have this information. If they do then they know the prices.” !!!! So there you have it folks, keep the tourists ignorant and stupid, all the easier for the slaughter.

Before this little incident, let’s go back to Hurghada and visit again our two favorite sailors who are still missing this salient bit of information. Knowing I wouldn’t get a straight answer from any tourist shop in town about book shops, or anything else for that matter, Ariel and I decided to go ask at the Hilton Hotel. This is a never fail strategy when travelling.

The hotel was at the other end of town which was about 10 miles away. We jumped into one of the hundreds of minibuses that cruise up and down the main drag full of locals on one errand or another. As there is only one main road it is a simple thing to get in and ride it until where you want to get off whereupon you hand over some cash to the driver and hop out.

What could be easier? We jumped in and rumbled down the road feeling pleased with ourselves watching real people, men, women, students, etc., get on and off. When it came to our stop we told the driver to stop and got out. I hadn’t seen how much the fare was as people handed their money over all wadded up. I asked the driver and he shouted, “20 pounds!” That was over $3 and I knew it was too much for a ten minute crowded, one cheek on the seat and one in mid-air minibus ride.

I said no way, how about 10 pounds. He smiled, took the money and drove off. We later found out that the fare was 1 POUND EACH! What gets me here is not being cheated by an Egyptian driver, I expect that, but having the bus full of normal Egyptian citizens smilingly watching as the driver charged us 10 times the going rate. Nobody said anything. Not a voice was raised to say, “Come on, give them a break.”

Nope, they were all in on it. Finally, we get to the Hilton and I go up to the front desk to ask where a book store is. The clerk came over smartly dressed in his Hilton uniform listened to my question and then barked in my face (and I kid you not) “WHERE YOU FROM!!” I almost choked. After that we decided we’d really had enough of interaction with the locals and arranged an eight day seven night tour through the travel agent in the marina, ProTours. And then we mostly had a pretty good time.

On the day of our tour, the excited crews of Voyager, Horai and Tehani-li left the marina in our minibus to join the ARMED CONVOY up to Cairo. A seven hour journey later, seven very tired tourists arrived at a very tired Sofitel Hotel right next to the Pyramids. Our first glimpse of the Pyramids was at midnight from the minibus and that was exciting. Our first glimpse of our supposed 5 star hotel, less so.

Somewhere along the way it seems the Sofitel had lost a few of its stars. We spent two days and two nights in Cairo and did a lot of shopping, saw some sights and did a lot of shopping. Our guide was crap and I ended up firing her. She was very inflexible, had an attitude problem and was incompetent to boot.

Nadia is still being used by ProTours even after I complained so if you are reading this with intentions to sail to Egypt – watch out. We saw the obligatory Cairo museum which was interesting enough but arranged half hazardly like some old woman’s attic. People rant and rave about it but aside from the Tut exhibit, which is really great, mostly your eyes glaze over after about an hour. The ruins themselves are much more interesting, I thought.

When you say the word “Egypt” your mind immediately conjures up the Pyramids, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. We, naturally were very keen on seeing them but due to the incompetence of our “guide” we only had 45 minutes to enjoy them and two of the three Pyramids were already closed when we finally got there about 4 PM on our last day!!

I was absolutely furious but what can you do? (Strangulation, drowning, defenestration of the “guide” all crossed my mind). I had asked Nadia repeatedly during the day if we would have enough time to see the Pyramids and was assured that it would be no problem. As she gets a cut from whatever shop she takes us to, historical sites were not top of her list to see.

Jews in Cairo?

Another thing we didn’t like about her that we thought was creepy and unnerving was when she showed our group an old synagogue in the market area of town. One of our party asked if there was still a Jewish community in Cairo. She responded in a sinister tone, “Jews? Yes, we have Jews in Cairo. And we know where they live and how many there are.”

We finally least we did get to see the main Pyramid and climb on it. We also got to see the Sphinx which is HUGE. I had read somewhere that it was small and disappointing. We didn’t think so. But what we like when coming to such awe-inspiring sites is to spend hours there just wandering around and taking it in. Unfortunately, as you can guess we aren’t ever planning another trip to Egypt so we probably will never get that opportunity. But it was still very interesting and we got some good photos.

After that fiasco, we took the overnight train to Luxor. The sleeper cars (tourists only) are nice and the train carries armed soldiers in FULL COMBAT GEAR – rifles, helmets and flak jackets. The trip passes through unstable middle and upper Egpyt and the government is paranoid that another attack on tourists is imminent. I wouldn’t be surprised. For the rest of the trip the only new construction we saw in most of the hundreds of dirt poor mud brick towns we passed through were mosques. Not schools, as you learn everything you need to know in the mosque, nor houses and certainly not hospitals.

Hurghada and other large towns in Egypt have suffered tremendously from a boom/bust economy. The boom was when the thousands of huge hotels and apartment blocks that now litter the desert were started. The bust is now and NONE of them are finished and NONE of them are being finished. It is as bad or worse than S. E. Asia which saw its speculative economy collapse in the currency crisis of 1997.

Due to an horrific terrorist act, Egypt’s economic mainstay, tourism, disintegrated that year as well. 50% of the Egyptian economy is “services.” Most of that is tourism as the bulk of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture and don’t require lawyers, psychiatrists, brain surgeons and other providers of services. Of Egypt’s 20 million strong workforce, one in four works in tourism.

That is a huge figure. (Just think of all those touts!). In the news you may see Egypt’s President Mubarak always turned out in a natty western suit and tie. However, with 60% of the women in Egypt are illiterate it seems that Western “values” do not go any deeper than that.

Now back to the tourist side of things. In 1997 fanatics tortured and killed 58 innocent tourists in Hatsheput Temple in Luxor. And we were going there. We took the night train to Luxor from Cairo and the cars were really nice. After a sleepless night on the bounciest train ride any of us have ever experienced (you couldn’t set a cup of tea down on a table; it wouldn’t fall over – the tea itself would leap straight up of the cup like T-Rex had just stomped into the room) we arrived in Egypt’s tourist capitol, Luxor, home of Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple, the Valley of the Kings, etc.

The highlight of our trip was to be our four day cruise down the Nile – on somebody else’s boat!. We really enjoyed five star treatment and were very happy with Presidential Lines, our cruise ship operator. The food was very good and there was lots of it. The cabins were nice and well designed. Importantly for Ariel, we had unlimited hot water as well for long showers!

The best part, however, was sitting up on deck in the shade with a beer in hand watching scenes of rural Egypt pass by as we chugged upstream, not having to worry about weather, rocks, anchoring, engine problems, navigating, etc.

The Nile is life and seeing it up close you can understand why. Land bordering the river is fabulously fertile and lush with pretty green fields and date palms sprouting up everywhere. Just a half mile or so beyond this agricultural wonderland lurks the forbidding desert. On both sides the desert stretches endlessly and living on the edge like that reminded me of how we feel living on a little boat in the middle of the ocean.

Close at hand is life and all you need. Step out of that narrow boundary and you will die. Fields are still tended by hand or plowed by oxen. Boats are powered by sail or oars. People still wear robes and turbans and ride donkeys on dirt roads through mud brick villages. There was a lot of bird life as well. All told the setting was extremely scenic and peaceful.

It was incredible to wander around the ruins such as Karnak and Luxor which are 3,000 years old and then some. It boggles the mind to think that they are still standing and still impressive. Many of the carvings in the sandstone walls look like they had just been completed yesterday, not a thousand years before Christ. Some even still had their original paint which in itself is even more amazing. We were most impressed with the forest of pillars at Karnak because of their imposing size and the beautiful, still intact painted colors deep inside the tombs of the Valley of the Kings.

We finished our tour unscathed and after an uneventful return to the marina we met up with friends on other boats who had done similar tours for the most part. One young British crewman, Robin, went off on his own to Luxor for a week and had a great time. He told me an amazing story of how he wandered into a small cafe and was about to have breakfast on his own.

The next table over had some uniformed men and they invited him to join them. He found he was sitting with the number one or number two guy at the tourist police in Luxor, quite a powerful position. The other was his assistant and one more a regular policeman. They talked over breakfast about Egypt and what he had seen and done so far. When it was time to leave Robin stood up and was saying goodbye when the top tourist policeman told him, “Remember, we hate you because you are English. And we hate Americans. We hate your governments, yes.

And it does not matter what you as a person do, we hate you too and will always hate you.” !! Apparently, according to Robin this incredible message was delivered calmly and matter-of-factly. This from the man who is charged with protecting tourists in Egypt’s tourist capital!!!

I don’t want to beat a dead horse and be so one-sided about Egypt. We did meet some nice individuals, especially in the marina. The laundry guy, Semo, in particular was very helpful and enthusiastic about his country, as were some of the marina staff. However, not to report our experiences exactly as they happened I feel would be less than honest. We are not writing glossy tourist brochures here.

We don’t have any axe to grind and aren’t paid for this website. Most of the sailors we know are leaving Egypt with similar feelings. Some, of course had a great time but many are saying, “Man, am I tired of being lied to, cheated and screwed!” Almost every time we told Egyptians we were American there were upside down smiles all around and no attempt to hide it.

Consider neighboring Sudan, a place Clinton BOMBED, where nobody gave a damn where you were from and if you said “America” they often gave you a thumbs up. We have enjoyed many countries up to this point. Egypt just falls far short in comparison. Looking at the security concerns and the undisguised malice demonstrated all over the country on a regular basis by all levels of society toward foreigners, especially Americans, I for one won’t be surprised to see something nasty happen here in the future.

We happily left the Abu Tig Marina in Hurghada for our next hurdle: the Suez Canal.

If you have ever seen the movie, “Lawrence of Arabia,” you may remember the scene of him wandering the desert and a ship steaming by as it cuts across the desert. Lawrence climbs a low hill and before him lies the canal. It did look a lot like that! Sand on both sides, water in the middle – and tons of big ships.

We were excited. After Suez – Europe!