Egypt: April 17 2009
It is great to be on a dock with electricity and water on tap. We cleaned Barefeet on April 3 while glued to the VHF radio tracking s/v Xanadu's progress into Port Ghalib (their engine's gearbox gave up the ghost completely). After more drama than anyone would have liked they made it to the dock just after dark with the help of a tow from local dive boat inflatable. Their paperwork was in progress and we brought over a dinner of Quickie Chickie and rice...nothing fancy, just a hot meal with friends recounting an exhausting 48 hours. Celebrating at TGI Fridays was the next night with potato skins, fajitas and margaritas. Yum!
We really enjoyed Port Ghalib and even ventured beyond our dock to wander around the three decadent hotels (Apr 4). Port Ghalib is a literal oasis in the desert beside the sea (www.portghalib.com). There is no town or associated infrastructure...just gorgeous hotel resorts (okay, one small mini-market for hotel staff and us cruisers). Currently there are three hotels and the plan is for 20 more. Yikes! This seemed a bit ambitious to us after the hotels mentioned their occupancy rates; one was 20% occupied and another was a mere 7% occupied...and this is the high season?! However, their wooing of travelers is sincere with no amenity overlooked; balconies for every room, palm covered beach cabanas, waterslides into pools, patio bars, elegant dining rooms and a family friendly souk inspired restaurant with multiple food stations. The dive hotel in our section of the development was casual and open air...very comfortable for us. At night dozens of lanterns lit walkways and hung above cushioned sofas...perfect for sundowners. Unfortunately, we could not properly soak up the luxuries. We needed to keep moving because a nice weather window opened up. April 5 we made the 110 mile hop to Hurghada...one overnight in light winds and calm seas. Erin had a creamy lasagna-esque casserole in the fridge that was a quick pop into the oven for dinner underway.
Quickie Chickie: marinate chicken breasts or simply pour sauce over breasts in baking dish and cook at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes. Mix thoroughly the following ingredients for marinade/sauce; 1 (8 oz) bottle French salad dressing, 1 (16 oz) can whole cranberry sauce and 1 envelope onion soup mix.
Blue Plate Noodle, Beef and Cheese Casserole (from James Villas' Crazy for Casseroles): 1/2 lb egg noodles, cooked according to package and drained; 6 scallions, chopped; 2 lbs ground beef; 1 garlic clove, minced; 1 (15 oz) can crushed tomatoes; 1 (15 oz) can tomato sauce (or favorite pasta sauce); 1 teaspoon sugar; salt and black pepper to taste; Tabasco sauce to taste; 3/4 lb sharp cheddar cheese, shredded; 1 (8 oz) package cream cheese; 1 (8 oz) container sour cream. 1) In a large mixing bowl toss noodles and scallions together. 2) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 2.5 quart casserole and set aside. 3) In a large skillet combine beef and garlic, breaking up the meat and cooking over moderate heat until no longer pink. Drain off fat. Add tomatoes, tomato sauce and sugar...season with salt, pepper and Tabasco. Stir for 10 minutes and remove from heat. 4) In a medium mixing bowl combine all but 1 cup of the cheddar, cream cheese and sour cream. Mix until well blended. 5) Spoon one-third of meat sauce over bottom of casserole dish, layer half noodles and half cheese mixture over top...then repeat layers (sauce, noodles, cheese). Spoon remaining sauce over top, sprinkle reserved 1 cup cheddar evenly over top. Bake until bubbly and golden brown approx 30 minutes.
Entering Hurghada on April 6 overwhelmed our senses (www.hurghadamarina.com). A twenty-year growth spurt has transformed this town from a sleepy fishing village into a mecca for sun seekers and SCUBA divers. We are pretty sure that we passed all 1,200 dive boats as we entered the channel...carefully squeezing between the coral reefs and the dive flotillas. Snugging into a marina slip has taken on additional complexities when laid out Med style. This Med style mooring is new to us and a bit tricky with stern lines to the dock and bow lines to a buoy in front. A marina skiff helps to ease the process but we definitely need more practice. This "Med mooring" also means we need a passarelle (gang plank) that allows us to walk from Barefeet to the dock...climbing the cement wall is no easy feat...even at high tide. Rumor has it that the Hurghada Marina docks are three feet higher than they should be because the cement guy wanted to sell more cement...hhhhmmmm. Ah well, we are now the proud owners of our own passerelle...ready for the Med (and the rest of Egypt). Just a 10 minute walk into Sekala town from the marina and we can find just about anything we need...provisions, hardware stores, coffee shops, souvenir stalls and more. Dahar is the "downtown" and a bit further away but an easy taxi ride.
We have kept a pretty fast pace since arriving at the marina in the hopes of getting Chris's tooth sorted out and a port engine oil leak repaired before the next weather window opens up...tick tock. Chris's tooth was deftly handled by Dr. Nayer (www.drnayer.net) in less than an hour and for less than $50...the infection is gone according to an x-ray and the crown was ground down to the proper height. The engine was a bit more of a drawn out process but it was also resolved. Mechanics arrived for three consecutive nights at 8:30pm. The third night it seemed all was fixed with a new shaft seal in place and engine purring...until...oil again leaked OUT. Aaagghh, take the engine apart (again), replace with another seal and reassemble the engine. Just after midnight we got the thumbs up from the mechanic maestro and his two apprentices. No kidding, if the maestro was thirsty an apprentice held a glass of water for him to drink. Wonderful guys (Mr Gebali and friends were organized through the marina, ph 0122195263).
April 8 was a tourist trip to the Monastery of St Anthony (www.stanthonymonastery.org). Erin went solo while Chris loosened the shaft zinc (in the water with wetsuit) and waited in case the engine guys appeared before sunset. It was a 5am departure for a three hour drive through the desert to the monastery (Saif Tours at Sakala Square ph 0653442476). The emptiness of the Egyptian desert was made clear on the drive to and from the monastery...absolutely in the middle of nowhere. Literally no shelter or even a bush...just sand for miles to the sea or the mountains. In comparison, Yemen did seem amazingly fertile. Erin was shown around by an English speaking monk, Father Ruwais Antony (30 year resident of the monastery). He greeted me at the door with a smile and a ring full of keys...unlocking each door as we entered and closing each when we left...just the two of us. The monastery is Coptic Orthodox (Egyptian Christian Orthodox) with manuscripts in Coptic (using Greek letters) and Arabic. The monastery began in 305 AD under St Anthony the Great who lived in a cave in the Kolzom Mountain. Disciples came with him and settled...establishing the monastery. In the fifth century the number of monks' cells reached many thousands. From this monastery, monasticism spread throughout Egypt and the rest of the world. Today there are approximately 100 monks living at the monastery. Over the years, neighboring Bedouins alternately sought charity and waged battles against the monks...explaining the fort like architecture with thirty foot high walls and a fortress in the center. The practical needs and spiritual needs of the monks were met through self-sufficiency; on-site grinding mill, natural water spring and inspirational wall paintings (dating to 1232 AD). Years of soot and grime were cleaned from the paintings in 1996 through a joint project between the United States and Egypt.
Phew, the "To Do" list is complete and we are now relaxing and enjoying a few things we have not had for awhile...catching up via the internet, pizza with a bottle of wine and an increased supermarket inventory like delicious cheddar cheese. Metro was the best market in town but the marina's market was quite acceptable, too. We even had two cases of Egyptian red wine delivered to the boat...don't scoff, it's just fine...not prize winning but drinkable (Cheers at ph 0103039038). Well, it looks like we will be all set to move on April 11 if the weather window holds...and it did. Off we went at 7am with a cadre of other cruisers. Light winds behind the coral ramped up at dinner making it a bouncy ride. Throughout the night we had varying wind speeds from every possible direction (12 knots, 17 knots, 25 knots, 2 knots) and even brief rain showers. In addition to Mother Nature...much commercial traffic, fishermen and oil rigs (with associated pipelines and support boats) kept us on our toes as we made our way North through the narrow Gulf of Suez. Barefeet performed like a champ with both engines running smoothly. We had arranged ahead of time with Felix Maritime Agency to work as our agent to transit the Suez Canal (www.felix-eg.com). They were ready and waiting when we arrived at 10:30am (April 12)...helping us tie bow and stern lines to moorings, handling canal paperwork and measurement and even getting our propane tank filled. The Suez Yacht Club is the obligatory berthing for boats headed through the canal so that was our spot (South Basin of Port Tewfiq, just past the mosque).
Our agent was wonderful and we were able to enter the canal April 13...24 hours after our arrival in Suez. Warships take priority so we were glad there were not any in the area. Pilot Mohammed arrived at 10am, we paid our fees ($450 total; $330 canal transit and $120 agent and port clearance) and we were off. It was a mellow day of motoring to Ismailia...52 miles...the half way point. Guard posts dot the banks of the canal with armed soldiers keeping an eye on things. Transiting the Suez Canal is a much more relaxed affair than transiting the Panama Canal...it is simply one long motor...no locks. Rameses II was the first to try and link the Red Sea and the Mediterranean in the 12th century BC. Sporadic, partial progress followed until 1859 when construction for the current canal was begun by the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps at the direction of Egypt's ruler Said Pasha. Unfortunately, de Lesseps followed his spectacular success at the Suez Canal with an equally spectacular failure at the Panama Canal. Ismailia has always been close to the varying incarnations of the canal (named after Egyptian ruler Ismail Pasha) and therefore is a bustling place. The Ismailia Yacht Club is a bit basic but a great spot for visiting Cairo and the pyramids.
April 15 we headed to Cairo with Mohamed Imbaby in his orange taxi (ph 0121538285). He smoothed our exit through the guards at the Yacht Club with baksheesh and had us to the pyramids at Giza when they opened at 8am. Wow, they were spectacular! We walked around the three pyramids and the sphinx in the cool of the morning. Camel rides and horse rides were offered at every opportunity and pesky "security guards" always had a hand out for baksheesh. However, nothing could take the luster off of these massive monuments. After weeks in barren Yemen and Sudan the engineering and wealth required to construct these tombs was staggering. We climbed down inside and saw where burial chambers were once filled with treasures (now mostly in the museum in Cairo). A short walk links the pyramids with the sphinx in the desolate desert. So, did Napoleon really blast the nose off of the sphinx? We could not get a definitive answer. Cairo's urban sprawl has crept close to the site which made a short transit to our next stop...downtown Cairo. It was unbelievable to see three lanes of highway crammed with five lanes of cars and buses...and people and donkey carts on the tiny shoulders just inches from the speeding traffic. Hotel Longchamps was our tranquil oasis in the middle of big city Cairo where horns constantly blared and exhaust spewed from buildings and transportation (www.hotellongchamps.com). Black and white Peugeot cabs screamed past with their roof racks often crammed with every sort of overstuffed sack, box or basket.
Dinner was a short walk from the hotel in the tree lined Zamalek area...the island within the Nile where many embassies are located. Street signs seem to be optional at best which makes for challenging navigation...and an invaluable hotel staff. We ate Egyptian fare at Abou El Sid (off of 26th of July Street, ph 27359640). Abou El Sid had a funky interior of lace cut chandeliers, faded velvet chairs, brass tables and jewel painted walls. We feasted on a sampling of several dishes but still paid less than the price of one ticket into the pyramids; yogurt and cucumber dip with pita, stuffed grape leaves, grilled kofta, chicken in walnut or vegetable sauce and fresh mango juice...delicious. April 16 we arrived at the Egyptian Museum when it opened...hoping to avoid some of the crowds. Hhhhmmm, seems many people and several tour buses had the same idea. Oh well, the lines moved quickly. Holy cow, it was amazing to see galleries the size of football fields lined with mummy caskets stacked three and four high. The museum was awe inspiring and quirky all at the same time. Display items were labeled with typewritten, faded slips of paper and display cabinets were secured with a modest padlock better suited to a teenager's diary. We walked between rows of carved caskets and sarcophaguses, delicate jewelry, alabaster canopic jars...and of course...Tutankhamen's solid gold casket created in his image. The skill of the craftsmen and the richness of the materials was hard to comprehend.
We recharged in old Cairo with shwarma sandwiches and mango juice at Naguib Mahfouz Cafe (5 Sekket El-Baddistan Lane, close to the El Hussin Mosque). The cafe is run by the Oberoi Hotel chain and located in the heart of the Khan El Kalili souk. The souk dates back to the fourteenth century...now, that is old. It was loaded with embroidered textiles, glittering jewelry and mother of pearl inlaid wooden boxes sold in stalls tucked between ornately carved mosques. However, tourists were not the only ones shopping. There were also practical things like minaret tops, fresh vegetables, pita bread and live animals awaiting the stew pot. Mohamed picked us up in the afternoon and we returned to Ismailia and tried to fill up with diesel. Yikes, the level of bureaucracy was enough to make the IRS swoon with affection. It took two days, 12 people and countless conversations to determine exactly who needed to be paid the baksheesh so that jerry cans could be brought to the boat in the middle of the night. The problem seemed to be that foreigners are not allowed to buy diesel directly from the pump (a subsidized rate at which Egyptians purchase diesel)...and there is no mechanism in place to sell diesel to foreigners at a non-subsidized rate. Therefore, the entire process is mired in layers of baksheesh (cash and cigarettes) and a cadre of guards, customs personnel, taxi drivers...the list was endless to our naive minds. The process was finally resolved and Barefeet was ALMOST topped up with diesel. We unwound aboard s/v Xanadu where we swapped stories of the last week. One more wash for Barefeet and we are ready for the next weather window to Greece! It looks like we will transit the second half of the canal April 18 and continue straight to Rhodes. Opah!