Adventures in Port Said
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
After a full night transit of the Suez Canal, Silversea’s Silver Wind arrived in Port Said, Egypt at about the same time I arrived in La Terrazza on Deck 7 aft for my breakfast. I sat on the outer terrace and watched, for the 35 minutes it took me to eat, as the local longshoremen attempted to secure our ship’s lines.
I get the impression that Port Said doesn’t get a lot of cruise ships. I’m making that assumption based on the ramshackle appearance of the facilities at the cruise port, and the fact that the stern lines of our ship ran straight through a rather attractive flowerbed that seems to have been undisturbed for quite some time.
My thoughts were only reinforced by watching the local longshoremen, who arrived on a derelict-looking craft that was belching grey smoke and black oil, the latter of which entered the water and pooled along our lines in giant coal-like globs. Smoking a cigarette as he did so, the guy in charge of running the lines off the small boat – we’ll call him Cigarette Man – and onto shore figured that one line was enough to hold the Silver Wind. This was followed by much yelling from deep below my perch on Deck 7, as the guys on the aft mooring deck shouted at the two longshoremen that more lines were needed to secure the ship.
After some yelling back in broken English and Egyptian, and much gesturing, the longshoremen grudgingly agreed, and ran a second line over to the flowerbed bollard. Cigarette Man followed this by putting his hands in the air and wiping them together, the universal signal for, “See? Finished.” Cue more yelling from the mooring deck, followed by more yelling in Egyptian and broken English from Cigarette Man and his compadre driving the boat.
Finally, a third and fourth line were run to the bollard on-shore, both of which got tangled in and amongst the other two. If you’ve ever seen ships tied up before, you’ll know that lines are never haphazardly placed over each other. There’s a definite method to the lines that are tied, and where they are tied to. Not here. Here, I think we’re fortunate to have been tied up, period.
Of course, we weren’t even supposed to be here, except for a brief two-hour call. But that changed when our Suez Canal transit changed and necessitated the dropping of Sharm-el-Sheikh from our itinerary.
Truth be told, I spent the morning relaxing on board, opting to do my own thing today rather than participate in any of the shore excursions that the Silver Shore Concierge had nicely arranged. And the only thing I really wanted to do was go out for a nice walk, stretch my legs, and take the rickety old green ferry across the Suez Canal so that I could say I’d stood on both the Asian and African sides of Egypt in a single day.
Taking the ferry was actually very cool. It’s completely free, and a totally authentic cultural experience. Crossing from Port Said to Port Fouad, the ferry drops you off right at the foot of the massive mosque that dominates the skyline. Port Fouad is much newer than Port Said, and only dates back to the beginning of the last century. It also seems to have avoided the descent into shabbiness that currently ails Port Said.
Passengers just walk onto the ferry on both sides of the Suez Canal, and take seats or stand on the extreme port and starboard sides. Cars then drive into the center lanes until they can no longer fit. The ferry then gives three short blasts on its horn, at which point the ramp is raised up whether you’re standing on it or not. The ferry pulls away from the dock and sails for about 10 minutes across the Suez Canal. You’ll know you’ve reached the other side when you make a hard landing (that’s maritime double-speak for “crash”) at the dock. Then, cars start inching forward and passengers start climbing up the hydraulic ramp before it’s even come down. They say ‘When In Rome, Do as the Romans Do,” so I climbed up the ramp along with dozens of Egyptians and jumped the last two or three feet as it was descending onto the pavement.
On my entire journey in Port Said, the only guy who seriously hassled me had stationed himself in a prime spot at the end of the promenade, on the stairs that led down to the main street and the entrance to the ferry terminal. I’d brushed him off the first time, on my way to the ferry, and he promised he’d be waiting for my return. Sure enough, he was. I naively thought by taking my hat off and walking across the street that I’d “blend in”, but he raced across the street and cornered me. He had these piercing eyes that seemed to not blink or even move when he looked at me. Wide and glassy, they gave me an uncomfortable feeling.
I continued walking and politely but firmly refusing, as I had with all the other hustlers and vendors on the street. No, I didn’t want to buy anything. No, I definitely did not want to go “just around the corner” to see his store. He’d given me a business card and I had tucked it in my pocket, and one of his cohorts on the stairs now shouted at me, saying, “Pay him! You pay him for the card!”
I kept walking, and he tried one final, desperate sales pitch: “You want a good time? Eh? You looking for a good time?”
Hmmm. Am I looking for a good time? Let’s see. The phrase “good time” typically means one of three things: drugs, sex, all of the above.
Let’s tackle drugs first. Frommers tells me that Egypt, like most countries, has drugs. Surprise, surprise. Apparently hashish is fairly common in the Sinai Peninsula around Sharm el Sheikh, but you probably don’t want to partake: the penalty for being caught with any kind of illegal narcotic ranges from jail time to hefty fines and immediate deportation. If you’re accused of selling or transporting them, it’s a lifetime vacation in an Egyptian prison – and the death penalty at worst. That’s a showstopper.
If you’re looking for sex, Egypt might not be the best place to go about that, either – and not just because of the average Egyptian’s ultra-conservative attitudes towards the pleasures of the flesh. When anything even remotely sexual gets raised in a guidebook, you know there’s problems: Footprint Handbook Egypt, Sixth Edition recommends avoiding it altogether in Egypt, thanks to a potpourri of prevalent sexually-transmitted diseases that would make the Marquis de Sade blush. Personally, I doubt I’d let ol’ Crazy Eyes lead me down some dark alley in search of the Egyptian woman of my dreams.
On the same token, I wonder how many takers he has for that question. Does that line really work? Does he even have a shop? I wouldn’t buy a stick of deodorant from the guy, let alone anything else. In my mind, I think there’s no shop or bar filled with women or drugs or whatnot: I figure it’s a scam to get you in the door and then relieve you of your money through one method or another.
Dismayed, Crazy Eyes left me alone and I enjoyed a really nice stroll along the Promenade back to the Silver Wind. A few other Egyptian vendors – all men – approached me and chatted me up, each offering to take me to their store for a quick browse. I politely declined, but I did chat with each of them for a moment, as they were genuinely interesting. I stated that I enjoyed seeing Egypt, and that I thought they had a great country with some amazing history. That seemed to disarm one guy from his “sell” mode: he came up and shook my hand, put his hand over his heart and said, ‘Thank you for the nice compliment for my country. Thank you for taking the time to say that.’
In all, most Egyptians I encountered today were very nice people, and except for being hassled with stunning frequency, I never felt that I was in any danger at all. The exception being Crazy Eyes, with whom I did feel vaguely threatened. As for the threat of terrorism that afflicts this part of Egypt: you’re more likely to be ripped off by a taxi driver than you are to be the victim of that. Sadly, I came away thinking two things: Port Said is a total s**thole of a town; a depressing fall from grace for a city that was, at one time, probably a great beauty. The other thought: if the locals would just stop hassling me for one second, I might have injected some cash into their economy.
Interestingly, I took a look at the business cards I’d acquired on my walk once I got back to the ship. I’d really just pocketed them without giving them so much as a glance. Guess what? Four different people gave me their card and said it was for “their shop” – and every business card I had collected was identical. Same name. Same design. Same email address and phone number. Each card lacked a physical address – something you figure a shopkeeper would want to have.
That fascinated me to no end, and drove my curiosity into high gear. Who are these guys? Are they paid by the mysterious Mr. Shirbiny (whose name is on the cards) to hand them out to the few tourists Port Said gets? Do they take you to the same shop, or are there different shops? If I ring the mobile number, will eight people answer? Would they have eventually asked me if I wanted the full McGoodTime Happy Meal too? Endlessly fascinating!
I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing aboard the Silver Wind, where people only approach me to get another Fruit of the Glen or to ask how my day was. Sometimes, I think it’s the contrast I appreciate most about Silversea: you can go to very exotic destinations that might be difficult to travel to by land, and come back onboard to this warm, genuine onboard atmosphere.
Despite the fact that tourism once made up over twenty percent of Egypt’s GDP, the local authorities have a rather cavalier attitude towards bringing it back: Silver Wind was held for four hours past our scheduled departure time due to “traffic in the canal.” The big joke among the guests was how much baksheesh we’d have to gather to get us moving again. Captain Arma kept guests informed throughout the entire process, but even he admitted that dealing with the authorities in this part of the world required both patience and flexibility. When the tugs finally did come to move us, the one tug operator went along Deck 4 and obnoxiously shone his three powerful searchlights in the windows of the Dining Room and Le Champagne, flicking them on and off in a way that lit the room up like a baseball stadium. He moved back and forth from window to window, peering in with his massive searchlights. On, off. On, off.
Port Said may not be a place I want to go back to – but I’m glad there are lines like Silversea that still give me the option to go here in the first place.
Silver Wind Middle East Adventure
|April 5, 2015||Muscat, Oman||Embark Silver Wind||19:00|
|April 6||Day at Sea|
|April 7||Salalah, Oman||13:00||23:00|
|April 8||At Sea|
|April 9||At Sea|
|April 10||At Sea|
|April 11||At Sea|
|April 12||Safaga, Egypt||07:00||21:00|
|April 13||Aqaba, Jordan||09:30||21:00|
|April 14||Transiting the Suez Canal|
|April 15||Port Said, Egypt||08:00||17:00|
|April 16||Ashdod, Israel||08:00||23:00|
|April 17||Haifa, Israel||07:00||18:00|
|April 18||At Sea|
|April 19||Kusadasi, Turkey||08:00||17:00|
|April 20||Piraeus (Athens), Greece||07:00||Disembark; Live Voyage Recap|
Our Live Voyage Report aboard Silversea’s elegant Silver Wind continues tomorrow as we arrive Ashdod, Israel and set out on tour for Jerusalem! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.