Leaving Istanbul, we had a short stop at the Greek island of Mykonos. We boarded one of the ship’s small boats, or tenders, and rode to shore.
I hadn’t heard much about the island before, but Mykonos was quite a pleasant surprise, featured on many postcards and calendars — tightly packed whitewashed houses, blue roofs, steep streets, and picturesque windmills. We stopped at a dockside café to have lunch…which turned out to be the best meal we’ve had on the entire cruise. Sitting outside, we ordered a wide range of local dishes and enjoyed every single one: olives, Greek salad, hummus, Greek spaghetti, chicken gyros, marinated anchovies, fried cheese, as well as grilled octopus and fried baby squid (so we could say we had many-tentacled things, many tentacled things, and mini tentacled things). Rebecca’s mom was reluctant to try the odd dishes, but she slipped pieces of octopus to the friendly feral cats rubbing around our ankles. After the feast, the waiter served me a glass of local ouzo (just to get more into the Greek island culture) and then with great ceremony gave us each a tiny thimble-sized glass of a Mykonos digestive concoction. We walked around the shops for a while, though many places were closed for the season. The streets were immaculately clean, swept daily.
It was the complete opposite of Port Said in Egypt, the following day (Thanksgiving). Port Said is the city at the Mediterranean mouth of the Suez Canal, and is dirty, ramshackle, the streets piled with garbage and rubble. Several other friends who’ve visited Egypt had described it as a dirty, dusty place, but even forewarned we were shocked at how filthy it all was. Canals piled high with rubbish, sewage, litter everywhere and not a garbage can to be found. Aboard the ship, we had received written warnings, warnings on the TV programming, and verbal warnings not to consume local food or water unless it came from a place that had been vetted. Much hand sanitizer was used that day.
Our tour buses had a police escort out of Port Said to Cairo, and an armed security guard sat on every bus. On the more than three-hour bus ride, we passed dozens of police checkpoints on the way to Giza and the pyramids. The first archaeological site was the stepped pyramid of Sakkara out in the Sahara — definitely imposing, rising out of the stony sand, surrounded by other ruins. It had been constructed out in the wastes, not far from the lush Nile valley. We saw camels and asses, and the ubiquitous hordes of locals trying to sell us the same pack of postcards, the same trinkets (many of which still bore “Made in China” stickers). All day long we heard the unrelenting “One dollar… One dollar… One dollar… One dollar… One dollar… One dollar…”
Then it was off to Giza and the main pyramids and the Sphinx. One of the biggest surprises to us was that the classic three pyramids, surrounded by sand in all the photographs, are right inside the Cairo/Giza city limits, surrounded by the urban skyline. The Great Sphinx looks across the street at a KFC and a Pizza Hut.
The pyramids took our breath away, the size and mass unlike anything we had seen before. Rebecca and I, along with her Dad, got our pictures taken on camels, then we went for a rather wild camel ride. We saw the Great Sphinx — which was smaller than we thought it would be — and learned that, even though Napoleon generally gets the blame for using a cannon to blow off its nose, the damage was done well before Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt, apparently by a fundamentalist who tried to blow up the image.
On the three-hour ride back to the ship, one of the other buses in the convoy ahead of us was damaged in an accident. Fortunately, a backup bus was only minutes behind; security swooped in, got all the passengers off the damaged bus and onto the other one, then the convoy moved off again. Reb and I played Farkle on her iPhone. Back at the ship in Port Said, 2500 people were trying to get aboard at the same time; Egyptian security soon gave up checking everyone’s passports and let us through with a cruise ship ID card. Even though it was a long and tiring day, and we were all sweaty and dust-encrusted, we marched up to the dining room — Thanksgiving turkey, after all. Afterward, it sure felt good to clean up and change clothes.
The following morning we arrived in Alexandria for a short stop. I woke up with a cough from all the dust we had breathed at Giza. Reb and I had booked a brief tour, even though it as a Muslim high holiday and most of the businesses were closed. We did, however, get to go into the new Library of Alexandria, then out to a massive fort built at the opening of the harbor, where once had stood the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. I drew lots of good ideas for the third Terra Incognita novel…in fact, this whole trip has been terrific research and inspiration. After stopping by the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, we returned to the port, where Rebecca wandered among the numerous vendors selling ridiculous trinkets, and I dutifully followed her, shaking my head as she bargained away to her heart’s content.
The next couple of days will be at sea, heading back to Rome. So far, I have managed to complete my D&D novelette and put together a lot of the pieces for the outline of the third Terra Incognita novel, while Reb and I are plotting the next Star Challengers book. But the schedule has been so hectic until now that we haven’t had much downtime to think about stories. We’re looking forward to a lighter schedule, then the hotel in Rome, and the flight back home.