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Tuesday, 17th November 2009
Ease and comfort. The boarding for our cruise to the Eastern Mediterranean on P&O ship Aurora set the pattern. We drove up to the terminal, our bags vanished before we knew it, someone drove the car away, we could sit rather than stand before proceeding to the check in desk. In a few minutes we were in our cabin, ready to spend the days watching the overlapping mathematical patterns of the waves. No need to worry about finding a hotel. No need to worry about finding somewhere to eat.

The staff were polite and helpful. Our cabin steward found a case which was slow to turn up (and later on an earring Virginia lost.) We mainly ate in the Medina restaurant, feeling like the Last Days of the Raj. The food sometimes reached heights such as the souffle (the names on the menu were creative.) Internet access allowed us to keep in touch with back home (very useful as Tabitha had just become very poorly.) Borrowed an interesting book on Jacques Tati from the library.
The entertainment was quite varied. A young team sang and acted lustily in a series of shows (which did blur into each other.) There was a series of classical / light music concerts for a veneer of culture. We got "Myfanwy" in Welsh, and "Mud Mud Glorious Mud". After listening to quite a bit of sung Italian and French I'm not sure being pseud and elevated is worth it. The bra-strip of the well-endowed mezzo slipped at one point, but she recovered the situation before her low bow. There were good talks on Concorde (did they really have to keep shuffling fuel around the plane to balance it?) and ancient history, the Playhouse venue for those and the films could have been bigger. Saw the latest "Star Trek" film - modern glitz, but the old flaws. Other events included Church services which were from a book (they always finished with "Jerusalem" and the National Anthem) and dos for Freemasons and the WI. Oh and quizzes too. Different strands of passengers went to different strands of events.
The worst aspect was that we were travelling with plenty of our fellow countrymen. Driving down to Southampton we got caught for ages on the M25. The self-service Orangery was a real scrum. Most of our fellow passengers seemed reasonable, pleasant spending time with and getting to know. We dined on a good table of six in the Medina restaurant. But there were families like the one we were next cabin to. Two shapeless individuals pursued by a squealing brat who kicked and shoved anything kickable and shovable. Rather like a poor puppy who was petted at Christmas but had lost its novelty value. The 'parents' (the UK is now so multi-valued that saying 'parents' is an assumption) tended to dump the brat in the cabin and go their separate ways to late-night entertainment.

The ship was due for a refit immediately after our cruise. The toilets broke down several times on our floor / side - I did get the feeling we were in the lowest class. You do get what you pay for. The Aurora had apparently broken down on a world cruise recently. The captain was very good at parking the ship, it was very maneouvrable with various thrusters. Stabilisers minimised the side to side yawing. There were adequate lifts and staircases - observed a modern superstition that if you press the lift button repeatedly that increases your lift priority.
A dirty building site. Unfair but that would be my one sentence summary of Egypt. Most of the country is sand, and the wind blows the sand (and rubbish) everywhere. Half-finished buildings with cement staircases going nowhere are everywhere. Drivers don't worry about such niceties as lanes, or even staying on the road. In a traffic jam vehicles slew randomly off road, across the rough ground beside the road, and force their way back on. Pedestrians dice with death - our coach stopped to help a man who had failed to cross a 5-lane motorway on foot. Sheep and goats destined to die in the Festival travel crammed into the back of tracks. Donkeys pull laden carts to add to the mayhem. By the road vegetable stalls sit well into the night.

It was a long long tour from Port Said to Giza for the Pyramids and back. Made longer by the prolonged misguided lecture on Islam we had - I did know of how Islam's founder had revised the Bible to suit the sword he found. Hawkers were nearly everywhere, a constant threat. Despite multiple warnings people still found themselves trying to buy back cameras, or disputing change with wily Arabs. While I could see how poor most of the people were, and understand why they were the way they were, I was very relieved when we had run the gauntlet to get back onto the ship. Our guide was harsh on her own countrymen - their situation is dire, serious overpopulation, widespread poverty, has coloured their existence. I'm not sure if Brits were raised in such conditions that they would not be worse (given that many young Brits rate getting smashed out of their brains as life's goal.)

Our goal was to see the Pyramids, and this was achieved. Our first sight was the Pyramids looming over the Giza cityscape, and that strangely was the most impressive. They seemed then alien, like a 2001 monolith or an Independence Day starship, something from beyond. Seen in the traditional view, isolated in a sea of sand they were massive, yes, but just massive. It wasn't possible to stop and think around the pyramids as camel drivers, and postcard vendors, were ready to pounce. The Sphinx was surprisingly small, the normal views one sees are deceptive. We had a stop in a Papyrus shop for a demonstration then sales pester - one such place had the odd title of "Atlantis Papyrus Museum"!
After Egypt visiting Cyprus was serenity. We drove from Limassol through citrus plantations to Paphos (driving on the left as in the UK.) Long lectures on the coach about the disaster area that is Greek mythology. We passed through a UK military base in Cyprus, strange to see a slice of home in an alien soil. Cyprus has low rainfall, and has relied on tankers of fresh water from Greece in the past. We did get to see where Aphrodite emerged from the sea (don't know if different Greek places all claim that, wouldn't be surprised.)

The tour focussed on the Roman and Greek mosaics found at Paphos. The images were taken from Greek mythology, and were well presented. Here as elsewhere it felt like conveyor-belt tourism, different parties being shepherded through the system like cows at a cattle market. We had some refreshments at a nearby cafe, I had baklava which came as a large slab unlike the little pieces I normally have!
On Rhodes (in Greek Rodos) we went to see the old village of Lindos, an enchanting honeycomb of white flat-topped houses with narrow winding alleys. Standing over Lindos village is an ancient acropolis (Greek for high city) quite a climb up. On the hillside we had to traverse women who had draped the stones in table cloths and were accosting the passing tourists. It was in Lindos we first really noticed the number of feral cats - all very cute but not managed.

A theme here and elsewhere was the Greek complaint about how their treasures had been pillaged by foreign barbarians. (Barbarian is derived from the Greeks slandering non-Greeks as just saying "ba ba ba".) The Greeks came over as a proud lot, it is true I admit European culture is inspired by Graeco-Roman. Statues were missing from the Lindos acropolis which are now in various museums.

We were also taken to a pottery demonstration (some nice pieces but expensive and not useful.) That was a pattern of the tour excursions, the guides letting their friends have a chance at fleecing the foreign tourists. The Lindos tour also included a wander round a Crusader castle in Rhodes town, impressive in its way.
The Turks put the Greeks to shame with how well organised the tour was. On the bus we were given a radio to hear the guide at a distance, a generous bottle of water, and a questionnaire to fill in. The guide Oz (that's what he said his name was) didn't belabour us with boring history or moans about history (though he would have been entitled to mention the Crusades.) He was amusing and informative, and even taught us a little Turkish. "A-vet" is yes, "Higher" will do for no, and "To sugar a dream" said quickly will do for thank you.

We first saw Virgin Mary's supposed house - it may be sanctified by the Pope but I have my doubts. It has become a place of pilgrimage, and you can buy trinkets similar to the ones the silversmiths did in Ephesus for Artemis. The silversmiths who got worried by the Apostle Paul's teaching. Which brings us to Ephesus.

Ephesus was a mind-blowing site. Unlike the Pyramids it gave the impression of a living city, down to the public latrines where the guys would sit together and talk. As the seats were marble and cold the important guys would send their slaves to warm up their seats first. Cleopatra's sister was murdered here and gave her name to arsenic, the poison used.

We also got taken to St John's Basilica (where St John supposedly vanished in a flash of light,) and a good museum. I learnt a Turkish saying at the museum "All flowers are beautiful in their own gardens." I think that saying is speaking about the importance of belonging, but I might be wrong.

No excursion would be complete without a guilt trip. We were herded into this carpet shop (they're opening especially for you,) given a weaving demonstration by one of the women weavers, given a free drink (I had Turkish coffee which you don't drink to the bottom!) And then given the hard sell surrounded by Turks. The carpets were very nice, the double knot technique I'm sure makes for high quality, but at hundreds of pounds a shot out of our ballpark. We fled like criminals back to the boat.
The excursion to the Acropolis started shambolically, for all their cultural heritage the Greeks had us waiting ages and walking miles to the coaches. They even let street hawkers onto the coaches which never happened in Egypt. (On the return we even left passengers behind.) Athens does have traffic problems - odd numberplates are allowed some days, even numberplates on other days.

We did get to the Acropolis, along with gangs of youths from some Mediterranean country. The guide wasn't that audible in the chaos, but as she was on a long diatribe about how great the Greeks were, and how despicable it was for marbles to be in the British Museum, not hearing every word wasn't such of a loss. Such rants encourage me to think we should hang onto the friezes. The Parthenon is big, but not something I'd like to have in the back garden.

We were dumped in Cathedral Square in Athen's Plaka district for two hours, and left to fend for ourselves. Apart from the tablecloth selling women (who uttered curses after each refusal) there were North Africans selling strange jelly like blobs. These blobs they dashed to the ground, making a flat splodge of colour. But wait a minute or two and the blobs reformed into their original shape. In passing there's a lot of marble on show in Athens, much used material.