Nov. 19, 2007
By Ken Krayeske • 7:45 PM EET
Sunrise over the Suez Canal.
We needed a few days in Port Said to fix an engine part, fuel the boat, and wait our turn in the canal queue. Everyone had their hand out.
The bunker boat which filled our diesel tanks had a large crew, and they wanted cigarettes and cash. Since they had to wash their hands before they could come on board our ship to examine the jerry-rigged hose, I gave them a spray bottle of soap from the deck locker.
While I was on board the bunker boat examining the quantity of diesel (or gasoil as they call it), the crew served me tea in the galley. I almost didn't drink it because the rest of the boat was so filthy.
I was on board at prayer time, and in the port, we could hear the muezzin call. One of the boat crew members knelt down, facing east praying to mecca. Others smoked cigarettes and went about their business.
Some six hours later, after we finished fueling, and the government agent had tried to cheat us out of some 3,000 liters of diesel, the captain of the bunker boat wouldn't give me back my spray bottle.
"Souvenir," he said. This, of course, after we gave them several hundred Egyptian pounds, a half a dozen cartons of cigarettes, plus sodas, Tootsie Pops and Twizzlers. I had no choice.
Baksheesh is a way of life. Every time we left or entered the fenced in port area, we had to show our passports. One time, I was carrying a box of old charts to give to our agent as baksheesh. At the port gate, the guards stopped me, inspected the box and my bag, and asked me about every item.
Luckily, our agent, Mr. Naghib, happened to walk by as I stood there. He conversed with the guards for a few minutes, and escorted me safely out the gate. One of the cops followed, and at the first ice cream stand, Mr. Naghib made change of a 100 pound note, and gave the white uniformed officer 30 pounds.
Port Said is a bustling town of 500,000 people. Architecturally, Lonely Planet compared it to New Orleans, but I didn't see the resemblance. However, like N'awlins, life in Port Said starts after dark, like many Arab cities.
Bur Said, as the Egyptians call it, was founded in 1869 when the canal was built. Along the port wall, a string of shops hawking cell phones, ice cream, head scarves, perfume, dresses and household goods attracts mostly locals.
Mr. Naghib's office overlooked the strip, and it was where we could email from. One time, while waiting for a computer, he simulated fellatio and asked me and another crew member if we wanted an ice cream cone. I assumed that meant he could get prostitutes, and I imagined that baksheesh would be involved if he provided that service, too.
His employees milled about like it was nothing. One of them, Kariim, the next day took us grocery shopping. The chef and I were a hit in the local pita factory, where a flour covered 12-year-old and the rest of the staff showed us how to make pitas, and posed for photos.
Getting our groceries back in the port was another matter. We had to carry some $500 worth of flowers, vegetables, fruit, cheese, milk, olives, and fish the half mile from the gate to the boat.
Midway between, a customs house, which usually dealt with passengers from cruise ships docked next door, decided to stop us.
Kariim stepped away and some other Egyptian, who I had never met before, said that we had to give the guards 15 Euros to get our groceries through. The customs' agents pawed our tomatoes, and were about to confiscate the olive oil (they thought it was liquor), when the mysterious Egyptian stopped it.
Somehow, the mystery Egyptian ended up with a bunch of our grocery bags, and carried them to the boat. We gave the customs' agents 200 Egyptian pounds, and this mystery Egyptian ended up with 100 Egyptian pounds.
Kariim surfaced a few minutes later looking innocent. But I didn't trust him either. At one point, we gave him a bottle of Black Label to give to Mr. Naghib. But he couldn't take it out of the port, so we carried it out, and once outside, we gave it to him. But Mr. Naghib said he never got it.
And this was all before we left Port Said. We started the canal passage at 2:30 on a Monday morning. We were the last of 23 ships in our convoy. The first ship was the LNG tanker, because they are so dangerous, they have to go first.
We needed about 14 hours and three different pilots to complete the trip.
At sunrise, a brown, sandy landscape emerged from blackness. Birds dove for fish in the waters ahead of us, and it seemed almost incomprehensible that our ship was cutting through the middle of a desert.