Please Note – I am currently editing the travel journal I started writing in 2007 and posting as I go. I welcome feedback and encourage my readers to post comments.
Next Around the Bend – New York & Boston
The Body in the Bath
Once back onboard, after our night in Luxor, we found that our cabin stewardess had been up to her tricks again.
I walked into our bathroom and jumped in shock. Lying in the bath was a ‘man’ dressed in a bathrobe wearing Huck B’s slippers. Once I calmed down and I recovered full use of my legs, I saw that the ‘man’ was, in fact, a life vest.
Stepping closer still, I noticed that the bath robe wearing life vest was holding a note, which read:
“Welcome home we missed you so,
But on your tour you had to go,
I hope that you had a super time,
And also that you enjoyed my rhyme.”
Not wishing our cheeky stewardess’ efforts to go to waste, I asked Huckleberry B to join me in the bathroom because there was something she had to see. I tried to maintain a serious face lest I give away the surprise. It worked because my wife looked very co
Upon entering the bathroom, I think Huckleberry got a bigger shock than I did! Priceless!
As it happened, we had not finished our Arabic dessert at lunch time, so we requested that it be backed and presented to our stewardess with the following note:
“We are back, yet it’s true,
Back in room nine twenty two.
We saw your rhyme, which made us laugh,
But why is he wearing a robe in the bath?
Whilst in Luxor, out in the heat,
We thought of you and brought back this treat.”
It has been a fun holiday and our fun stewardess has only enhanced the enjoyment.
Sinai Shenanigans (The Calamitous Caravan to St Catherine’s)
We awoke just before 6am and the trouble started just after 7…
Our trip to St Catherine’s Monastery, on the Sinai Peninsula, will always be remembered for the world’s worst tour guide; certainly the most insipid and inept we have experienced.
Given that what follows is deliberately – and deservedly – defamatory, I shall obscure the identity of our guide by calling him ‘Ramesses the Turd”.
We told our tour operator, who sub-contracted Ramesses, that our ship would arrive at 6am. For reasons which are unlikely to ever be properly explained, Ramesses seems to have assumed that that meant we would somehow magically appear on the dock immediately and that we would be driving away from the port a couple of minutes past the hour. However, as anybody experienced with cruise ships would know, this was impossible. First the local authorities must come onboard and clear the ship’s passengers to come ashore before the tender boats start to operate. This all takes time.
We were well prepared and narrowly missed catching the first tender vessel to shore. We had invited the Bostonians to join us for the day. The four of us caught the second tender instead. By this stage it was well after 7am.
After looking for our guide, we eventually found him 200 metres away at the gates to the port area. Other tour operators had made their way down to where the tender boats arrived, but not Ramesses.
In any event – obviously keen to make a good first impression – the Ram immediately started bleating about how had had been waiting for us since 6am. We and the Bostonians just smiled and followed the guide to the waiting mini-van.
I think it’s fair to say that Ramesses immediately put Robin off-side, by addressing us as ‘guys’. Of sufficient age to be his mother, not to mention him being a complete stranger, she found this form of address overly familiar. We would have to agree.
What did pique our interest, however, was the presence of a third Egyptian in our vehicle. In addition to Ramesses and the driver, there was a man in a suit introduced to us as being from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism. It later emerged, following direct enquiry from Robin, that the suited gentleman was armed with a semi-automatic weapon! He was more than happy to show it to us upon request. In fact, the way he waved it around with an uncomfortable degree of relish was somewhat disturbing. I remain unsure whether his presence, and his armoury, made me feel more secure or less!
It also raised the question; why was an armed escort considered necessary? Robin –always the inquisitor – asked this very question but never received any satisfactory answer.
The drive to St Catherine’s Monastery occupied some three hours. Whilst similar to the drive from Safaga to Luxor, the scenery was more dramatic. At one point, with St Catherine’s approaching, the desert of dark brown and yellow rock and stone, gave way to the light yellow sand familiar from Hollywood movies. The scenery here will long live in the memory; the graceful sand dunes swept across the rolling hills; punctuated by dramatic sandstone escarpments which rose sharply from the desert floor.
Unfortunately, we left the desert behind and we arrived at St Catherine’s. It was here that Ramesses’ true incompetence came to the fore.
There are three attractions at St Catherine’s Monastery; the church, the burning bush and the library.
We now know that only one of these attractions had an imminent closing time. Given his conduct, Ramesses was equally ignorant of the fact that the door to the library – and her priceless relics – closed firmly shut at 12 noon.
Between the Monastery gate and the Monastery proper, there is climb of some 500 metres. Ramesses could have casually glanced at his watch, noted that the library was about to close, and suggested we take one of the available taxis to save time. Indeed, we now know why follow cruise passengers were being ushered to the available vehicles with some urgency by their (better informed and more competent) guides. Rather than rush, we trudged up the hill and meandered towards the Monastery – waddling like four lazy Egyptian camels after a month in the desert – as valuable minutes flew by.
Once at the Monastery, the fog of ignorance in Ramesses’ brain thickened. The library, with its fascinating artefacts, lay to our left and the church lay directly ahead. A course to the left would have seen us enter the library with ample minutes to spare, yet we were ushered forward into the Church instead.
Further valuable time was wasted as Ramesses paused by the burning bush for photographs and reminder of tales we already knew from religious studies at school. The burning bush could have waited. When we came back, it was still yet to burst into flame, so it’s not like we missed anything.
Finally, we strode with purpose towards the library door, only to see it moving inexorably to a closed position. All attempts to persuade the custodians to allow us entry fell on unsympathetic ears. Not even St Catherine, herself, could intervene to cause the library doors to miraculously open!
The real tragedy was soon to reveal its face. Everybody who made it into the library in time was heard to remark about how simply marvellous it was. What made the whole experience truly aggravating, however, was the way Ramesses looked so utterly baffled when we told him that we had been denied entry.
“What”, Ramesses raised a perplexed eyebrow, “They told you it was closed?”
He just had no idea.
Further aggravation was soon to follow.
Next on our tour was snorkeling at a reputedly spectacular coral reef at Dahab, on the Red Sea coastline, followed by lunch.
Despite our disappointment, we climbed back into the mini-van with renewed vigour. As the vehicle trundled down the hill, Ramesses raised the subject of the lunch menu. He offered fish and we accepted on the condition that it was fresh.
The concept of ‘fresh fish’ – like most abstract concepts – confused Ramses. Explaining to him that we only wanted to eat fish if it was caught that day and cooked no more than five minutes before it was placed on the table to be consumed was akin to demanding that he immediately part the Red Sea.
Robin resorted to saying that we wanted to see the fish before it was cooked and watch it being placed on the grill.
“Huh”, Ramesses chuckled in abject befuddlement, “you want to see the fish?”
Further discussion about the ancient mysteries of fresh fish, however, was soon swept aside as the true drama of the day began to unfold.
Our driver – probably, himself, dreaming about the lunch which awaited him – brought the mini-van to a halt at the security check-point at the exit from St Catherine’s. Suddenly, animated discussion in Arabic filled the air.
The suited gentleman from the Ministry of Egyptian Tourism – and his semi-automatic weapon – left the vehicle and stood face to face with the security guards. Those of us in the vehicle who did not speak Arabic, watched the drama unfold in hushed silence. A black cat was seen stealthily crossing the road ahead.
Our confusion, and rising tension, was not eased when the driver moved the car to the side of the road and Ramesses – in his state of perpetual baffledom – muttered that he would go and see what was going on. What he learned (if anything) remained unknown as he was next seen smoking a cigarette and fiddling with his mobile phone.
The four of us were left in the car, unsure of what was happening, for over half an hour. The gallows humour which dominated our transit of the Gulf of Aden returned.
Eventually, Huckleberry B urged me to go and request particulars from the man who called himself a guide. To date, the contents of his head had been as barren as the surrounding desert, but we figured he was as good a source of information as any.
Once I found him, Ramesses told me that we could not leave until the security convoy gathered at 1pm. Not wishing to be ostentatious in a land of professional beggars, I had left my watch on the ship, so I asked Ramesses to tell me the time. He said it was 12.43 (although I later learned that he had inflated his answer by almost one third; it was only 12.33).
I cross-examined him as to why he had not told us what was going on and he shrugged his shoulders and mumbled something about the government.
Back in the mini-van the mood had turned hostile.
Robin proposed we seize the available weaponry and take charge of the vehicle. Peter was more circumspect. Eventually, we agreed to invite Ramesses back to the mini-van to discuss the options available to us. A small band of UN peace-keepers were seen hovering nearby, to be deployed if necessary.
Truthfully, we had all had enough. We told Ramesses that when the convoy commenced we wanted to go back to the ship. It was already almost 1pm and a three hour journey lay ahead of us. Given that we had to be back onboard by 5pm, there was simply no time for either lunch or snorkeling. All it took was some further unexpected delay and we would have been compelled to spend the night in an abandoned shipping container at the bleak port of Sharm-el-Sheikh. Whilst the company would have been fine, I feared casualties by dawn’s morning light.
Given the way the day had unfolded, we may have been detained at one of the five police checkpoints which lay between us and the safety of our vessel. A militant herd of diseased Egyptian desert goats may have impeded our progress. That black cat was still lurking, threateningly, by the side of the road, inspecting us closely through the corner of her evil yellow eyes. Who knew what dangers lay ahead?
Jokes aside, the presence of an armed escort in our vehicle and the need to travel in a convoy implied genuine security concerns. It was time to go home.
Despite the passion of our appeal and the strength of our argument, Ramesses the Turd remained bemused and befuddled.
“What”, he asked in conspicuous consternation, “You want to change the program?”
This was too much for Robin. She abandoned her shy and introspective demeanour and cut loose. Why didn’t Ramesses know about the convoy? Why weren’t we offered lunch at the Monastery whilst we waited for the convoy to gather? Did Ramesses have an IQ greater than the stray dog which just trotted by? Who the hell doesn’t know the difference between fresh fish and pre-cooked, once frozen, inedible muck?
I sense that at this point Ramesses had lost control of the conversation…
In an extremely ill-advised move, he resolved to fight back and blame us, his clients, for the calamity. He argued that if we had joined him at 6am, all of the problems which befell us could have been avoided.
Suddenly, all four of us were provoked into a less than civil rhetorical ass-kicking.
In short summary, we pointed out that unless he expected us to swim ashore it was simply impossible to arrive at the port before the tender boats started to operate after the ship had been cleared by the Egyptian authorities. We got there as soon as we could.
Peter concluded the combined verbal battery with words of profound understatement; “We are not happy.”
Incredibly, Ramesses responded by stating that he, too, was unhappy and proceeded to slam the door of the mini-van shut.
When the convoy was eventually ready to commence its treacherous journey across the Sinai Desert – and faced with the choice of either re-joining us or seizing the nearest camel to ride back – Ramesses skulked into the back of the mini-van and sat behind us. For the entire, extended journey back to Sharm-el-Sheikh, Ramesses remained mute and declined to further interact with us.
Even when safely at the Port, our host remained in the vehicle after we had climbed out. It was only after Huckleberry B enquired whether he proposed saying goodbye that Ramesses said through clenched teeth, and with lashings of sarcasm; “Bye guys”.
He would have been better off remaining silent. The use of ‘guys’ only invited Robin to deliver a further rebuke for his lack of respect and courtesy. I can only imagine what Arabic swear words filled the mini-van after we left.
Ironically, it was a memorable day.
Over six hours in a mini-van and nothing to show for it but five minutes in a church, a burning bush which looked no different from our shrubs at home, some admittedly stunning scenery and a story we will doubtless be telling for many years to come.