Grandpa Roy has wanted to visit Egypt to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx for many years. When the opportunity to do so arose through his retirement organization at a rather reasonable cost, he jumped at the chance, (click on the photo to continue).
despite the fact that Grandma Bert and he already had reservations for a cruise to Panama earlier in the year.
Finally, on 10 September 2005, the appointed time arrived and Grandma and Grandpa were off to New York by bus to catch their 11-hour Egyptair non-stop flight to Cairo. There was a short wait in line at the Egyptair counter to check bags and get boarding passes, and then a quick trip through security, or so it was thought. About an hour before takeoff, an Egyptian security team had everyone exit the Egyptair waiting area and line up so they could check everyone’s carry-on bags by hand, although they already had been X-rayed by the U.S. security personnel. They went through some thoroughly; other bags, such as Grandpa’s camera case, they only opened and looked inside. The airplane was a Boeing 777 wide-body jet, which Grandpa hopes has better maintained engines and avionics than the passenger cabin is maintained.
The photo actually is of a Boeing 707 Grandpa Roy took in 1981.
While the cabin had been vacuumed, it otherwise was dirty. Dark smudges were everywhere. The headrests of the seats sometimes fell out. A panel fell from one side during part of the flight and a cabin steward tried to replace it. It hung at an odd angle for the rest of the flight. The toilets left very much to be desired, even after only one flying hour. And it was hot, very hot. In addition, the sound channel for watching the in-flight movies was very poor and cut in and out throughout the trip. Grandma gave up trying to enjoy the first film after only a few minutes.
Service on the flight, though, was excellent, despite the fact the cabin temperature probably was 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the fact the crew kept turning on the lights every so often to offer non-alcoholic drinks. Most passengers were trying to sleep in order to get converted to "Egypt time," which was 7 hours ahead of Baltimore time, and this practice was disrupting that sleep. Also, the food was okay. Grandma Bert had "fish,” which turned out to be a delicious piece of salmon. Grandpa Roy had the chicken, but it was served with plain pasta, which he does not like, so Grandma gave him her roll. Egyptair, by the way, does not serve alcohol, so Grandma was unable to get a glass of wine with her meal.
The flight arrived in Cairo, where Grand Circle Travel (GCT) representatives gathered everyone's baggage together. Then, names of all GCT travelers were called and they were handed one of four colors of ribbon to tie to their bags. Grandma and Grandpa were part of the yellow group. By 2:30 the afternoon of Sunday, 11 September, the “yellow” bus they would ride for the next five days departed Cairo airport. On board was their guide, called a Program Director, Ihab Kamel, who decided to call our group the "Nile Crocodiles."
His English was excellent and Ihab immediately began to tell us what to expect, pointing out some of the more important landmarks as the bus made its way through downtown Cairo to the large island in the center of the Nile River where the Marriott hotel is located and which would be home for the next 5 nights.
Ihab also explained that Egyptian drivers love their horns. They honk them constantly, for the least reason. Some drivers who can afford them have fancy horns installed which they honk constantly just to show off. In addition to Ihab and the driver, a third Egyptian man was on the bus. He wore a coat and tie, because beneath his coat was partly hidden an automatic weapon. He was our personal security escort in Cairo.
Security is important to the Egyptian government. As it turns out, they pay for all the security that is provided to foreign tourists. Tourism, you see, is Egypt's largest industry. Without it, many Egyptians go hungry. There were policemen, security personnel, or soldiers of one type or another everywhere. There were "Tourism Police," most of whom carry some type of automatic weapon, regular policemen who control traffic and so forth, security personnel such as those who inspected bags as guests entered the hotel, and soldiers on camels at the pyramids and Sphinx. There were metal detectors to go through at the hotel and at all the temples Grandma Bert and Grandpa Roy visited. In addition, there was one on the boat on which they sailed that passengers passed through every time they re-boarded. Most places also had X-ray machines for camera bags, purses and backpacks. Also, nearly every time the group went somewhere, the bus was escorted by the police and followed by the police. Egypt would like never to have another terrorist incident against tourists.
The first stop in Cairo and on the continent of Africa was for lunch, which had not been included in the itinerary, because the hotel was filled to capacity and the rooms were not yet ready. The United States Air Force was in town for joint exercises with the Egyptians and staying at the Marriott. Lunch was provided by Grand Circle aboard a floating restaurant on the Nile River itself and was quite good. There was a very large salad bar and most travelers took food from it, which may have been the reason about 50 percent became ill or had been sick by the time the tour left for the river cruise 5 days later. One member of the group was hospitalized. Grandma and Grandpa’s new friend was so sick that she could not come out of her cabin aboard the boat for 2 days!
Rooms at the hotel were very nice, but many had only twin beds. In addition, the rooms were noisy. Outside rooms were bothered by the traffic, inside rooms by music and activities at the hotel (which has its own casino that never closes.) The couple who became good friends with Grandma and Grandpa were given a suite when it turned out their room was occupied when they went to it. Grandma and Grandpa themselves had a suite their last night in Egypt.
Food at the different Marriott restaurants was good and reasonably priced. If one had a stomach that was sensitive to strange foods, there was no reason to leave the hotel. Grandma and Grandpa each had a pizza, plus one can of soda for Grandma and two for Grandpa their last night in Egypt and the cost in American money was less than $20.00 at the Marriott. (Expenses at the hotel and on the boat had to be paid either in Egyptian pounds or by credit card. There were two banks at the hotel, open 24 hours a day every day, that would exchange cash or traveler’s checks for pounds.)
A large buffet breakfast with good coffee and a fresh large bottle of water for every Grand Circle traveler was included each morning at the Marriott. The water came in especially handy during sightseeing trips that were outdoors, such as the pyramids and the Sphinx. A cook prepared omelets or fried eggs to order at breakfast and there were runny scrambled eggs. There were three types of sausage, but none with pork. Jellies, jams and butter were imported from Western Europe. There was a large variety of breads, fruits and cheeses, plus four types of juice.
The morning of the first full day in Cairo, the Program Directors briefed everyone about Egypt, its history, what to expect during the trip and also about additional excursions. It was pointed out, in particular, that Egyptians are Caucasian and not Negroid as many Americans believe. Only after Egypt conquered the Nubians to the south was there some (very little) mixing of the races. Later on, during the cruise along the Nile River, the program directors briefed everyone about life in Egypt, about their religion and how many wives they are allowed to have (four, if they can afford them and the first wife agrees), about how much Egyptians earn and how much they need to live on, and other customs. A day later the program directors answered questions from the group about anything and everything pertaining to Egyptian culture and life.
During one of the nights in Cairo, an American woman who lived with her Egyptian husband in Cairo discussed her experiences living there. She originally had been from Chicago and it had been her idea to move to Egypt. On yet another night, the Grand Circle tourists had dinner at an Egyptian family’s home, where they were encouraged to ask about Egyptian life. So, all-in-all, Grandma Bert and Grandpa Roy learned a lot about old and new Egypt.
Some other very interesting things Grandma and Grandpa learned include:
• 9,000 years ago there were no deserts in Egypt. • “Upper Egypt” actually is southern Egypt, which is higher. Therefore, the Nile River flows from the south to the north. • The first pyramid was built about 2600 B.C. (about 4,600 years ago.) It was the so-called Step Pyramid in Sakkara and is considered the first stone structure of any type ever built by man. • “Sahara,” the name of the great desert west of Cairo in northern Africa, means “desert.” So what people really are saying in English, when translated, is “the Desert desert.” • King Tut (Tutankhamen) became pharaoh (“Egyptian king”) when he was 9 years old. He died when he was 18. His tomb was discovered in the Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter in 1922. • Cleopatra was the last ruler of Egypt before the Romans invaded. She had a son by Julius Caesar. This son is depicted at only one ruin in all of Egypt. • The phrase, “His eyes went to the west” means “He died.” The ancient Egyptians all lived on the east side of the Nile; the burial grounds all were on the west side. • The oldest Egyptian mummy is in a museum in Manchester, England. • There are about 18 million people who live in Cairo. Eight million of them use the subway every day (the rest are honking horns.) • The tops of Egyptian apartments and homes never appear to be finished. That is because the family’s children will live “upstairs” when they marry. An addition will be made on top of the existing structure. • A large number of date palm trees grow in Egypt. There are three colors for the dates: Yellow – not so sweet; red – sweeter; black – very sweet and moist. Egypt is the number one date exporter in the world today because the war between Iran and Iraq destroyed so many date palm trees in Iran. • The country’s official name is “The Arab Republic of Egypt.” • There is a population of 77.8 million people and all speak Arabic. • While most of the country is on the continent of Africa, 17 percent is in Asia (the Sinai Peninsula.) • The Arabs first came to Egypt as conquerors in 641 A.D. to settle and marry. • There is a large Christian community (15 percent of the whole population) in Egypt called Copts. The other 85 percent are Sunni Muslims. • In the past 58 years, there have been only four presidents of Egypt. Not one has been elected. Three were vice presidents when their predecessors died. • Education is a major problem and better-off Egyptians send their children to private schools. • The United States gives 2.1 billion dollars in aid to Egypt every year, most of which goes to the military. • 27 percent of the population is unemployed (24 percent in Cairo.) • Arranged marriages occur in 1 – 2 percent of the upper class for economic reasons. There also are some arranged marriages at the bottom level of society. • Egyptian law is based on French law. For example, there are no jury trials, only trials by judges. • It is believed that only one quarter of the ancient ruins in Egypt have been discovered and are being or have been restored. The rest still lay hidden beneath the sand. • Many of the men have what appear to be bruises or even cracked sores in the middle of their foreheads. This bruise comes from the way they pray every day, rubbing or pounding their heads against the prayer rug on which they bow.
After five nights in Cairo, the Grand Circle group flew south in an Egyptair Airbus A320 to Aswan, site of the Great Dam and the largest artificial lake in the world, where they boarded Grand Circle's own river boat, the M/S River Anuket.
The boat was very nice and well maintained. Their cabin on the lounge deck was larger than Grandma and Grandpa had expected, although there was not very much closet space (Grandma got there first and used all but two hangers. Grandpa lived out of his suitcase.) The shower had a bi-fold door, not a plastic curtain that wrapped around your body. The beds were two regular twin beds with good pillows, not those with thin mattresses found on some of the large cruise ships. There was a mini bar which contained soft drinks and Egyptian beer that had to be paid for at the end of the cruise if consumed, and two bottles of water, stocked each day. Every evening the cabin steward turned down the beds, made a towel sculpture and put a chocolate on each pillow. Some of the sculptures were very funny.
The boat had five decks: a lower deck with small gift shops and the dining room, three decks of cabins and other facilities and the sun deck at the top which had a small pool mostly suitable for keeping cool. There were bars both on the sun deck and on the lounge deck (the uppermost deck with cabins) where one could charge reasonably priced drinks to their room. The dining room on the boat had open seating, but most passengers by that time had made friends and those friends tried to sit together at lunch and supper. Breakfast was a buffet that became monotonous after a few days, although freshly fried omelets and eggs were available. Lunch and supper, however, were very good. One evening it was all Egyptian food. Grandma and Grandpa had a wonderful waiter, whose name was Mossad, and although he wasn’t supposed to according to the guidance, Grandpa Roy slipped Mossad a small, extra tip at the end of the cruise.
Free bottled water was available both in the cabin and at all meals. Anyone who needed extra water only had to ask at the lounge bar (large bottles) or from the cabin steward (smaller bottles.) Four of the smaller bottles fit nicely into a back pack and were enough for Grandma and Grandpa on even the hottest of days, such as Abu Simbel where the temperature reached about 112 degrees!
The boat downloaded and printed out a laser-printed copy of U.S.A. Today and the Herald Tribune, among one or two others, every day. Televisions in each cabin received several stations, including CNN International. In addition, there was a special movie shown each evening on the boat’s movie channel. The daily schedule of tours, meals and events was on yet another channel. There were two computers with Internet access, but they were rather expensive and the service was very slow while the boat was docked at Aswan. It was supposed to be faster in Luxor. Service at an Internet cafe in towns such as Luxor ranged from $2.00 to $4.00 an hour. (An Internet cafe in Cairo a few minutes walk from the Marriott cost about $5.00 an hour.) A banker came to the boat twice and exchanged U.S. dollars or traveler’s checks for Egyptian pounds or traveler’s checks for dollars. There were Automatic Teller Machines in every town outside most banks or outside tourist locations. Of course, they dispensed only Egyptian pounds.
The first night’s entertainment was Nubian dancers. The single “warrior” at the end was especially humorous when he tried to teach some of the passengers his chants and cries. On another evening, there was a “whirling dervish” and a “horse” that nosed around the audience. On yet another evening, there was music and a dance contest. On Egyptian Night, everyone was encouraged to wear something Egyptian. Grandma and Grandpa wore Egyptian head coverings. In addition, each evening there was a short port briefing before supper to explain the schedule for the following day.
For the first two days aboard the River Anuket, the boat didn’t go anywhere. It was used as a floating hotel. It finally set sail the third morning. Because these river boats are so noisy, they only sail during the daytime. In all, there were four days of sailing.
It was very pleasant on the sun deck when the boat was moving, especially at a high speed. Normally, however, the 107-degree temperatures kept passengers off the sun deck, although there was a canvass-covered area around the bar with numerous tables and chairs. But beneath the canvass, although the sun was shaded, it was like an oven when the boat was docked.
And speaking of being docked, frequently other boats were alongside. On the first day aboard, everyone took a sail aboard a felucca, a traditional Egyptian sailing boat. In order to reach the boat, the passengers had to pass through another boat. Grandpa Roy noticed after the felucca ride that the schedule for the day on that boat was printed in two languages: Czech and German, both of which he recognizes readily. This particular boat had a beautiful reception area, as can be seen in the photo.
Grand Circle Travel cares for its passengers. It was for this reason that every time they were to sail in another boat they had to wear their life jackets. Grandma Bert and Grandpa Roy donned their orange jackets several times. The other tourists at the temple of Philae, which is on an island in Lake Nasser, must have thought the Grand Circle tourists looked pretty funny arriving at the pier in their international orange life jackets.
After their seven nights aboard the River Anuket, everyone flew back to Cairo for one last night. There was a cocktail party and everyone bid new friends “so long.” The program directors made short speeches, including one asking us to tell our friends that Egyptians are friendly people (as long as you don’t mind haggling to buy souvenirs, running into the occasional beggar, and everyone not associated with the hotel or the boat with their hand out for a 1-pound [less than 17 cents] tip for some minor courtesy they had extended.)
The highlights of the trip for Grandma Bert were the Sphinx, the light show at the Sphinx and the Nile River. For Grandpa Roy it was the hot-air balloon ride, the Valley of the Kings and Karnak with all its columns.
But all good things have to end, and for your grandparents it was at 10:30 a.m. on 24 September when the Egyptair flight departed Cairo for the 12-hour flight back to New York. Grand Circle was wonderful. They had thought of everything. It had been a wonderful, memorable experience for your grandparents!