Cruising is a peculiar way of seeing the world. Budget cruises, like that which I joined last year, tend to be overwhelmed by plump oldies straining the ship’s stores of Twinings and slowly, chirpily melting on the poop deck. When the ship docks, they’re dumped on the harbourside and bundled into buses, which whisk them inland for half a day of numb-bummed wonderment. Then they leap back on ship with visible relief, back to their cabins for a good sprucing before emerging on deck, in frocks and crimson lippy, to watch another country slip out of sight and out of mind. So, that was Crete then. Egypt next.
Egypt’s strangeness started out at sea. There were shipwrecks; dozens of them, like great rotting cadavers, just abandoned to the wasting waves. A faint, earthy pong hung on the air as we picked out skinny minarets in the haze. It was nearly every bit as otherworldly as in my imaginations. A dumfounding piece of news was waiting for us on the dockside: we were the first tourists into the port of Alexandria since the revolution. A busload of crinkly pensioners with bum bags and handheld fans had just become history’s most improbable pioneers. The Egyptians don’t call it a ‘revolution’. They prefer ‘liberation’; it’s unreservedly hopeful and morally certain. In the Alexandrian docks it was all smiles, but our guide was weirdly matter-of-fact about it all, as if she were remarking on a pleasing football result: ‘so, welcome to Egypt. You’ve probably heard about the liberation. We’re all quite happy about it’.