Saturday, 18 September 2010

Saturday 10th April 2010 - Port Suez

The Egyptian port of Suez is the gateway to Cairo and the Pyramids at Giza. It has been a commercial hub since the 7th century,  when it was the eastern terminus of a canal linking the Nile River and the Red Sea. The spice trade and the pilgrimages to Mecca made it prosperous in the Middle Ages, and in the 15th Century it became a naval base. In 1869, the opening of the Suez Canal secured its development, and today it is one of Egypt's largest ports. The city was virtually destroyed during battles in the late 1960s and early 1970s between Egyptian and Israeli forces occupying the Sinai Peninsula, but has since been reconstructed.

This was the day I'd probably been looking forward to more than any of the others on this holiday - at last I would be seeing the Pyramids!. We were at anchor by 6am, and caught a tender to the shore at about 7am - first having to walk through an x-ray machine with our bags in the customs building before we could board the coach. The first stop of the day was in Cairo, which was a huge, sprawling city full of mad drivers! We parked up outside the Museum of Antiquities, leaving our cameras on the coach as they are not permitted inside the museum. It was a bit of a palaver getting in as we had to offload our bags through an x-ray machine at the entrance to the grounds, then again when we entered the main doors of the museum. We had a guided walk around certain parts of the building before being left to explore on our own. The museum is a very run-down place with no air conditioning but lots of interesting artefacts and mummies. The amazing thing for me was the amount of treasures that the ancient Egyptians managed to bury in the tombs when their rulers died. I'd not realised, either, but as soon as a prince or prince was born, a tomb was started in preparation for their eventual death and burial within it - that's the reason Tutankhamun's tomb was much smaller than the other Kings in the Valley Of The Kings. He was only 19 when he died, so they did not have long to prepare the tomb.

However, we couldn't visit the museum without a look at the famous Mask of Tutankhamun, so we managed to forge our way into the room where it was on display. I have honestly never been so uncomfortable about being in a room before. It was absolutely heaving with people, and you had no choice about which direction to shuffle along in - I was virtually carried along and felt very claustrophobic all the way. I managed to see the Gold Mask, but I don't honestly remember that much about it, to be honest. The jewellery on display was incredible - they used it not as decoration on the body, but as a magical protection for the mummies. In particular, I was fascinated to see the detail in pieces such as the collar, shown on this site here 

After safely making our way out of the Tutankhamun room, we made our way across to the room full of mummified animals - pets were often mummified and we saw several cat mummies in this room, along with larger pets and animals - we even saw a mummified crocodile!

We had a brief stop in the gift shop, where I bought a few post-cards and some papyrus bookmarks as souvenirs/gifts, then we boarded our coach again to take us for our lunch at a lovely hotel. I forgot to mention earlier, but on each of the coaches today, we had an armed guard with us (in some respects, this was reassuring, yet at the same time a tad unnerving!). At one point, as we were walking down the street outside the museum and following our guard, I felt as though we were in a film - these guards were dressed immaculately in suits with their weapons highly visible, they all wore dark shades and had ear-pieces with which to communicate - it was just all a bit surreal!

After lunch we drove the short distance to the Pyramids of Giza. I say short, since I'd expected them to be in the middle of the desert - instead of which, we were just on the outskirts of Cairo itself! We were warned that the locals would try to get money from us if we tried to take photographs of them or the camels, so we made sure (in true Yorkshire style, and because we didn't actually have any cash left to spare) that we only took surreptitious photographs of them! My previous experience of Africa, in 1985/6, came back to me when we walked across to the first pyramid:
Our guide on the coach had advised us all to at least get our photograph taken next to the base of one of the pyramids in order to show the relative size of just one block. As you can see, they are as tall as me, if not taller, and equally as wide. That is to say, they are as wide as they are tall, not that I am wide, you understand! The thought of moving just one of these blocks by hand is incredible - I was awe-struck when I initially stood in front of them. In order to access the pyramid base shown in the above photo, we had to cross a roped area - near to which was a policeman. We were tentatively stepping over the rope, despite the fact that our guide had told us we were allowed to do this, when the policeman waved us forward as if to say "yeah, that's fine, go ahead" so we marched confidently towards the base and snapped away. However, as we climbed back over the rope to walk on to the next pyramid, he came up to us with his hand out for money!!!! I marched away shaking my head and Keith soon followed. I'd seen plenty of this behaviour in Africa when I travelled across the continent in my youth, so knew instantly that he was just trying it on and hoping we would be intimidated into parting with cash, when in actual fact we weren't obliged to give him anything!

We knew that we would need to pay anyone if we wanted to take photographs of their camels, however, and had been warned that we could well be duped into parting with more money than we'd initially agreed upon. We'd also been told that these people could get quite aggressive so in order to avoid any unpleasant scenes, we did the decent thing and took a photograph from a distance!

As you'd expect in the middle of the desert, the weather was incredibly hot, but it was also very windy so we were constantly trying to keep our eyes shielded from the sand blowing about. It is a shame that there were so many camels around, as the smell of camel shit was everywhere, and coupled with the sand-storm and the numerous flies that were obviously attracted to the camel shit, we didn't relish the experience as much as I'd hoped we would. Our guide told us that the government are going to knock down some of the buildings on the outskirts of Cairo and prevent any further buildings from being constructed in the future, in order to preserve the area around the pyramids. If this doesn't happen, they will be just ruins within the next 50 years, I reckon. Despite the fact that it was such a hazy day, you can see the main streets of Cairo just at the other side of these pyramids:

It may sound as though I didn't enjoy our trip to see the pyramids - not at all, I thoroughly soaked up the atmosphere and history of these impressive structures. I just thought I'd share the reality of actually being there as well as the joy. In fact, just look at this next photo - isn't it obvious I'm enjoying myself? Look, I'm smiling like a mad woman - despite the fact that I could have had a mouthful of flies within seconds of the shot being taken.
We drove down the road a short distance to see the famous Sphinx in front of the three pyramids of Giza - which, incidentally, are named Cheops, alternatively called Khafre (which is the one behind me in the photo above), Khufu (shown in the photo of me next to one of the blocks at the base of it) and Menkaure.  They are all named after Egyptian Pharaohs, which you might expect.

Here is a photo of the Sphinx with the three pyramids in the background. The following image is a much clearer view of the Sphinx, however.

I particularly liked the skull shaped rock formation shown on the right of this image we took, I may well use it as inspiration for a painting in the future.

We had one more stop on the tour, to a papyrus-making shop - this was an unscheduled stop and not advertised as part of the day, but I was so pleased we'd included it. I only wish I'd had the foresight to use my video camera when we first went inside. We were given a demonstration of how papyrus is made, which I found fascinating. To begin with, the outer rind of the papyrus stalk is removed and discarded. Then the inner fibres are sliced into thin, but fairly broad, strips. These are then soaked in water to release the sugar. The water should turn a milky colour after a few days. The strips are then taken out of the water and pounded with a mallet of some description in order to make them more malleable during the drying process. To dry them, each strip is laid just overlapping the adjacent strip until you get the size of desired paper sheet.  Then, strips are laid at right angles to the first layer, and weighted down with a clamp for 6 days until all the water has been crushed out of it. If you hold a sheet of papyrus up to the light, you can see the different strips of papyrus still at right angles to each other.

We had the opportunity to get come photos of a few of the painted papyrus sheets for sale - before we were told that we were not allowed to take photographs! However, I could have spent a lot longer in the shop just admiring all the artwork on these hand-made papyrus papers. Here's an example of the artwork involved:

I was told that they paint them all with watercolour paints! Exceptional results, in my opinion. I would love to have a go at making my own paper with this method - I believe there are online shops that sell papyrus making kits, so it's definitely something on my ever-increasing "to do" list! We couldn't resist purchasing the papyrus shown below, which is now framed and hanging in our living room - it displays our names in Hieroglyphics written in a cartouche either side of the Egyptian cat. Perfect!

In case you're wondering, "Helen" is on the left, "Keith" on the right. We also got a tree of life painting on papyrus as a free gift - that is also now framed and in our bathroom.

Today was definitely a highlight of the trip for me. I'd always thought I would see the Great Pyramids of Giza one day, I just didn't know when it would be. I very nearly travelled through Egypt in my youth, but somehow or other never actually got there - so I was extremely happy to have finally made it. A long day, for sure, but worth it.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Friday, April 9th

Today we had opted for a trip on a glass-bottomed boat just off the coast of Sharm El Sheikh, which is situated on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, in Janub Sina, Egypt, on the coastal strip between the Red Sea and Mount Sinai.

The history surrounding this particular area of land stems from the Sinai conflict of 1856, when Israel captured it. Originally a fishing village, then a major port and naval base for the Egyptian army, it was not restored to Egypt until 1957. A United Nations peacekeeping force was stationed there until the 1967 Six Day War when it was recaptured by Israel.

Sharm El Sheikh remained under Israeli control until the Sinai peninsula was returned to Egypt in 1982 after the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979. Once the Sinai peninsula was restored to Egypt the  government began an initiative to encourage continued development of the city. According to our guide on the day, the city as it now stands didn't exist 35 years ago - most of it was just desert. A lot of foreign investors (some of whom has discovered the potential of the locality during the Israeli occupation) contributed to the spate of building projects. There are currently environmental zoning laws in place which limit the height of buildings in Sharm El Sheikh in order to preserve the natural beauty of the surroundings.

Our initial impression as we drove towards the coast-line through the town was of a very modern, very clean area - in stark contrast to the other major towns and cities we'd driven through in Egypt so far. Hotels, restaurants, casinos, MacDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Express - combined with traditional fish restaurants, of course- all built to attract the tourists. 
The lower image of the two posted above is the view from our cabin as we docked at the Passenger Terminal, Berth No.8 in Sharm El Sheikh. I am assuming that the monument on the tip of the landscape is some sort of light-house, but cannot be sure.

Once we arrived at the venue for boarding our glass-bottomed boat, our hearts sank. The overall impression of the beach along the coast of Sharm El Sheikh was, in our opinion, awful. Neither of us really like beaches - unless we are viewing them from up on the coastal path looking out to sea, or if we are the only ones there - but this particular one was just nothing like that! Every available grain of sand appeared to be claimed by tourists lounged out sun-bathing, drinking beer, smoking and generally making a lot of noise for some reason. Burger bars and vendors were everywhere - we had to thread our way slowly through a mass of golden, bronzed and possibly even frazzled bodies. I'm sure many people would love to spend their whole holiday lazing around on the beach getting sun-tanned, but it's just not my cup of tea.

Anyway, we were soon directed to our glass-bottomed boat - the only tricky aspect was negotiating the platform leading to the boat - best described as a sort of floating pontoon. The easiest way to ensure a steady walkway was to use the very central part of it only and to walk in a continuous motion - if the person in front of you slowed down or stopped for any reason, then your balance would be very much upset!

The blue & white floating pontoon that we used.

Once on board the boat, we all went below deck to sit around the viewing area. Although a vast area, we were slightly disappointed with the design, as it was a flat bottomed boat with many different "windows" along it. This meant that the sea-water underneath could not flow across the glass smoothly and pockets of air were continually being trapped against the panes of glass- making the views slightly restricted. Having said that, we managed to see some fantastic examples of hard and soft coral - one of my favourites was the aptly named "Brain coral".  I took plenty of video footage which is still being edited (I'm writing this blog up in September 2010!!!) along with all the still photographs we took to create a final film of our exciting holiday.

Here you can see the view we had from our position inside the glass-bottomed boat. We think that one continuous curved sheet of plexi-glass along the underneath of the boat would have been much more conducive to spotting all the fish and coral.
We were on one of two boats that went out together that morning - here's a photo of the other one, to give you an idea of the overall style of the boat.

Some of the shots that Keith took were too poorly defined, and even the ones I've included below are not ideal, due to the problems I mentioned previously. However, you can at least get some feel for what it was like. I found it very relaxing, just gazing at so much coral and seeing the fish pass by. The shapes and colours of the coral were so beautiful to look at. The funniest thing was when I spotted what I thought was a dead tropical fish at the bottom of the sea. I murmured such to Keith, then gradually other people spotted it, too, as we drove towards it. As we got closer, we all realised that we were actually feeling sorry for a discarded pair of bikini pants!!! Sorry, I don't think we got a photo of them so you will just have to use your imagination!
Zebra Fish

After a while, we came to a halt and moved to the upper deck for refreshments and a general view of Sharm El Sheikh from the Red Sea. The area is very popular with divers and keen water-sports fans - there were plenty of people enjoying rides on these banana boats - they looked like a great ride. They were transported by a speed boat, making for some very high bounces in the water and tight turns, too! More like a fairground ride, actually.

The view of the coast from the sea was beautiful. We were told that many celebrities have stayed in Sharm El Sheikh and that some (including Tony Blair) have villas here - not surprising, really, since the weather is guaranteed to be hot regardless of the time of year. Even in the winter, it is still hotter than your average British Summer's day! It has its own airport, too, with many chartered flights arriving daily.

After a leisurely journey back to shore, we arrived back at the coach which took us to our ship just in time for lunch. We spent the rest of the afternoon on our balcony reading our books until it was time to get ready for our evening meal. What a wonderful day it was today. Very relaxing.