On November 19, we reached the Suez Canal. The motionless water we had been floating effortlessly across returned to its more natural self and outlines of land started to appear on the horizon of each side. The outlines became more solid, bigger, closer, until they were about fifty metres or so either side of the ship.
It took us all day to travel down the Canal. People were out on the decks, watching the little snapshots of Egyptian life coast by – cars driving down lonely roads, people fishing in the canal, random people occasionally waving to us. And sand. Lots and lots of sand and palm trees lining either side. Buildings started to appear, and we passed a town or two. One noticeable thing about the buildings was the uniformity – they are all exactly the same shade of brownish beige. Set against the sand, it’s a very dreary and tired look.
Around 5pm, we pulled into Port Said (“Sayeed”), the Egyptian port at the Mediterranean end of the Canal. My first impression of the place was banners fluttering everywhere, written in huge, flowing, beautiful Arabic. I’m not sure if it’s to do with the religious festival which is happening at the moment, but it adds a certain air of festivity and craziness which would certainly be lacking without them. Our Muslim friend on the boat told us how during this festival, people kill an animal and then share the meat amongst the poor. He also recounted his first experience killing the animal, a strange experience for him as living in America had meant that his first time was as a 20-something, not a small child.
And then we were off the boat. Before even reaching immigration, there were stalls set up everywhere with hawkers selling all the standard tourist fare – papyrus, busts of King Tut, statues of Anubis, Horus, and other various animal-headed gods, shirts with embarrassingly touristy designs, bookmarks, postcards, hookahs. Breaking through there got us to immigration where a guy with a gun gave the stamp in our passport a cursory glance (without even seeing whose passport it was) and waved us into Egypt.
Tourists in Port Said must be a blessing to the local merchants. It is not a tourist spot, so the only people who come here would be those who travel by boat. Looking at the other couple of giant, shiny, luxurious super cruisers which were moored at various points along the harbour, the money these people must be bringing into the city must be huge. And as such, our arrival in Egypt was greeted with even more hawkers and taxi drivers. We managed to quickly avoid them, though, and headed to a quieter part of town. Where we quickly decided there wasn’t much happening in Port Said. The same brown, dusty buildings populated the streets, where as the sun went down we decided a little more caution might be in order. Several Japanese people headed back to the boat as people in black robes and veils started to appear around us.
We went to a supermarket. After having a lot of fun trying to read the Arabic number system (which make me wonder why our number system is called “Arabic numerals”), we told the shopkeeper that we were looking for a reasonable place to eat. He said he knew a good place, just over here. We ended up being led about 15 minutes away to a restaurant which the guy said was a good spot, before returning to work. Sweet job.
Ordering was a bit confusing, but we ended up with some delicious kebab meat and chicken, together with salad and hummus and bread, and after a slight disagreement over the bill, headed out fairly happy.
Walking the streets led us to our next location, a mosque where a lot of people had gathered. We decided to go see what was happening, when people in shiny red coats started playing music and the people started dancing. From the looks of it, it was a wedding, since what looked like a bride and groom turned up later – the groom in the black tuxedo, and the bride in an ornate bright pink dress. I started filming the dancing, and one guy grabbed me and pulled me into the group. The four of us visitors spent about the next half hour dancing with these unknown wedding-goers, being brought in front of the newlyweds, and at one point given a baby so the proud mother could take a photo. And all without a word we understood.
We wondered if we were outstaying our welcome, so we made our goodbyes and continued down the street, in the direction our senses were telling us should have a beach. An Egyptian beach at night sounded quite nice. As we continued down the road, a group of about five children yelled out to us. When we responded, they came and gathered around us and started asking us questions like our names, where we were from, and our favourite sports. Answering their textbook questions was fine, but we wanted to keep moving, so we asked them where the beach was. In response they decided to lead us.
One of our group can speak vague Arabic, and managed to catch on that the children were excited to be our tour guides and were discussing what to show us. They decided to show us a “monkey in a cage” on the beach. We weren’t really sure what that meant, but were happy to go along for the ride. We ended up going down a small alley leading to the beach, which ended with a big restaurant complete with, yes, a monkey in a cage. It sat there looking less than happy about the pumping music and crowds of loud people coming out of the restaurant, and was a bit too sad to really spend time looking at, so we quickly continued over to the sand.
The beach was nice. There were various stalls set up for people to buy food or drinks along the beach, and several plastic or wooden tables, chairs and umbrellas set up for relaxing during the day. A movie screen was also set up, showing some Arabic comedy to a small but appreciative audience. After arriving at the beach, our friend told us that the children started stressing about the fact that they didn’t know what to show us next, so we bought them all a bottle of lemonade from a friendly man at one of the stalls and sat down at one of the tables for a while to talk.
We were all having a great time, but after a while the wind off the ocean got a bit cold, so we said our thankyous, parted ways, and decided to head along the beach back towards the boat. All along the boardwalk were people sitting and enjoying the ocean breeze in the night air, along with a few merchants selling thinks like popcorn and balloons. People stared and smiled at us the whole time, with many people coming up to us to ask our names and where we were from, or just to say “Welcome to Port Said”. It was actually really nice, and we had a small entourage with us by the time we reached the road again.
Which was where things got a bit rough. The number of people on the streets increased, and the number of people joining our little party also began to inflate rapidly. We started trying to give brisker answers and walking faster, but the hangers-on continued to swell. People started patting us on the shoulders or taking our arms a lot more (its common for guys to walk around holding hands with each other here), all the while beaming at us and trying to be very friendly. Some could speak a bit of English, but number of people simply jabbering at us in Arabic started to overtake them. Then the girl in our group got herself groped, and it was time to pick up the pace. We started heading back to the ship at our fastest walking pace in the middle of a crowd of about 50 or so Egyptians. There was at least one or two guys who spoke reasonable English who were still trying to help us out, but the whole situation had gotten out of control. We managed to make it back to the immigration entry (where the guy didn’t even glance at me this time as I passed through), and we were safe.
We realised a lot of people had had a similar experience, which was quite terrifying for a lot of the more reserved Japanese passengers. As we came into the gauntlet of hawkers on the international side of immigration, children (and the occasional out-of-place adult) continued to yell and grin and wave at us through the bars, sometimes even slipping right through in what has to be the most lax border control in the world.