Holy Land – Why the Egypt leg of the trip is a terrible idea
This article comes with a statutory warning. It is not sugar coated and does not seek to convince those who romanticize or over spiritualize such a pilgrimage. So if you don’t have the stomach for the truth I suggest you stop reading here.
Let’s begin with the bare truth about Indian pilgrims/tourist (and of course I am generalizing)
Indian tourists or for that matter pilgrims have long been bitten by the bug to ‘see all’ and experience little. A good tour for many Indians is one where you have maxed the number of sites to see rather than the experience of being there, taking it all in. So tour operators have no choice but to sell what Indian pilgrims want, for if their itinerary has one pilgrim spot less they lose out to competition that are willing to sell a lie. So tour operators sell you the whole shebang as part of the Holy Land tour; Egypt included.
For those who do little research before buying into a pilgrim trip here is a little ‘fun’ fact, your Egyptian part of the pilgrimage comprises five of the thirteen days. Now here is the catch. The tour operators sell you a thirteen day package by land. When you look carefully the first and last day are travel day to the airport and day thirteen is sold as ‘a day’ when in reality you arrive in Mumbai at six am. So the first thing you need to do is study the itinerary being sold to you.
Having said that, the ‘thirteen days’ dedicates five days to Egypt, that’s more than one third of your trip. So what is it that gets Indian pilgrims all excited about buying into this leg of the journey? As I said earlier, Indian pilgrims want to see more, so when they hear that they are traveling to one more country, that for them is the clincher even if that country is a hole in the wall ( with no disrespect to Egypt in particular).
So read on if you really want to understand why going to Egypt as part of the Holy Land pilgrimage is a terrible idea.
Of the four nations that are offered as part of the trip, Egypt has the biggest security issues for tourist. Every pilgrim bus has a security official with a semi-automatic gun on board. We crossed over seventy five check points and God help you if you mistakenly click a picture, they security agencies feel compelled to delete your ENTIRE memory card. That’s not all; the long journeys in Egypt are made at particular timings because armoured vehicles accompany the convoy of pilgrim buses. And if that is not enough, the city is swarming with suited guards with semi-automatic pistols especially at the tourist spots.
Thirty per cent of Egypt’s economy depends on tourism; the largest chunk of their economy comes from the control of the Suez Canal. It is for this reason that the government of Egypt has put in place so many security measures but the threat from the ISIS looms large. The fact that every street teems with the military and police only testifies to the reality of this imminent threat. The number of attacks on the Coptic Church in Egypt and on foreigners simply reiterates my point. The presence of such heightened security only testifies to the reality of such a terrorist threat.
While one must laud the Egyptian government for its efforts the reality of a terrorist strikes stand. My take of this is thanks, but no thanks.
Long bus journeys
So how do you feel like taking a bus journey from Bombay to Goa and back? Most adults would say pass unless they love bus journeys. The reality is that the Egyptian part of the trip consists of approximately 900kilometers by bus, spread out over four days. The first trip is from Jerusalem to Eilat which is the Israeli border on the south with Egypt; you traverse the entire Negev desert to get there.
The next long journey is from Taba on the Egyptian side to the Red Sea. The next morning you travel from the Red Sea to Sharm El Sheikh. The following morning you do a five hundred kilometer journey from Sharm El Sheikh to Cairo after which you contend with traffic in Cairo. In truth you spend more time in the bus than you do on the ground.
Trudging bags over borders and into hotels
Getting out of Israel by bus also means that you have to haul bag and baggage through Israeli immigration, then through Egyptian customs and security and then immigration in Egypt. After this you load your bags once again in the bus as you head to you hotels where baggage trudging into and out of hotels is a twice daily chore. In ‘five days’ we stayed in three hotels. Imagine the check in and check out! Precious time was wasted. To say nothing of the fact that most pilgrims are well over sixty years of age.
Toilets and facilities
Nine hundred odd kilometers translates into several stops to use the wash room. While the Jordanian and Israeli washrooms ranged from poor to excellent, this leg of the journey through the desert ranged from poor to the pits and in some cases you would be lucky to find even a pit. The toilets were disgustingly dirty, as bad as most Indian public conveniences. What is worse is that because of these long journeys you are forced to limit your intake of beverages at breakfast and water along the way. Two and a half hour rides in air con-buses takes the piss out you, literally.
Egypt has great locations, the Red Sea and Sharm El Sheikh, both serve as pit stops for pilgrims through the South Sinai desert and to be honest these places are just drop dead gorgeous. However the Hotels ranging from the Sofitel (five stars) to the Grand Giza Pyramid (four stars) have a long way to go in terms of cleanliness and hotel services. These hotels have come to realize that pilgrims on this leg are here to spend the night and no more and have grown to be indifferent to customers’ needs and comforts. The Egyptian hotels were much larger and more beautiful than the ones in Israel but the services in the hotel get huge thumbs down.
Internet and call services
This was perhaps the worst connectivity in the Holy Land. Even if you have an international calling card you will be lucky to get any connectivity in the Sinai area. While the Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli hotels offer you free internet in the rooms, the Egyptian hotels provide you with internet only in the lobby and you will be lucky if even your whatsap message gets through, much less download an image. The lobby soon becomes a fish market with tourist and pilgrims who scream loudly into their phones in the lobby area. I called it the Babel lobby! The response of the staff to any request regarding the internet was one of was sheer indifference. So this is a big thumb down again from the pilgrim’s point of view.
Less of prayer or even sightseeing and more of shopping
So most people buy into this leg of the trip because they think they will see the Pyramids. True, you get to see eleven of them in Giza, all in one place and just one of them is truly breath-taking. However, all you get is half an hour which includes security, a group photo (the guides must get their cut and so you must have a picture) and finally you get to touch the pyramid and come back. Even the Sphinx had to be seen from the bus. Why? Because we allegedly had no time! But that was not true. We were, like many pilgrim buses taken to a perfume (essence) store to be given a detailed one hour demonstration on perfumes and then sold deals for the next half hour. It was my estimation that a middle class group such as ours was ‘relieved’ of a minimum of a lakh and a half of their money. Each 30 ml bottle costs 25 American dollars but then they are presented as once in a lifetime ‘lucrative’ deals three for the price of four and who can’t resist a deal?. To compound our misery we were also taken to a retail outlet selling the ‘best’ Egyptian cotton; underwear would set you back by 10 dollars!
Finally, it takes the pilgrimage to an all-time low
Honestly, after visiting the holy sites in Jordan and Israel you feel like you have reached the pearly gates and then Egypt robs you off the keys. So what is it that is sold to you as part of the Egyptian leg of the Holy Land? For one it’s the Mount Sinai where Moses was given the Ten Commandments. No one knows for sure on which mountain the commandments were given on, for Sinai is a range of mountains. Once you are out of the bus a rickety car takes you a kilometre of rough road to the monastery of St Catherine which houses a chapel (beautiful but no photographs allowed) and the spot of Moses’ well and the burning bush (a creeper that flows over a stone)
On the way to Cairo you are shown (from the bus) the spot where the snakes bit the Israelites and a brief stop at the wells of Mara (which have no toilets for the pilgrims). In Cairo itself, Coptic Egypt houses the Church built over a crypt where the Holy family lived for three months in Egypt. If you’re lucky, they might take you to the ‘hanging church’ built over Roman foundations (beautiful Church with an iconoclast screen in ebony and ivory) but all of this is for a brief ten minutes. The reality is that the guides (not the tour operators) want to take you to their shops where their percentage of income is assured and you fall for it because the itinerary dangled before you has a few more places mentioned that you can visit compared to a more honest tour operator who sees through the garbage sale. The result of all of this is that pilgrims become shoppers, trudging ( in my opinion) cheap china made souvenirs in now bulging bags like as if they were carrying the cross to Calvary.
So if you don’t believe what I say here is a million dollar question you ask your tour operator (and Paul travels was good enough to give me more than an honest answer). Ask your tour operator to drop Egypt and give you HALF the number of the Egyptian days in Jerusalem. They won’t be able to because board and lodge in Egypt is cheaper, upping their margins and flights out of Israel are more expensive. You will receive some run of the mill cock and bull story which is no more than a half-baked justification.
So the next time you think you’re getting a better deal on a Holy land tour because they are throwing in Egypt, think again!
Fr Warner D’Souza
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