"What Is Suez Canal?"

Something didn’t seem right when reading about the Suez Canal in our Lonely Planet guidebook for “Egypt.” The book talked about the engineering wonder being an “impressive sight to behold,” yet offered few practicalities on how best to view it. Lonely Planet takes pride in providing up-to-the-minute, practical information on how to experience a country, but beyond the glowing accounts of the canal, there were few particulars. In Ismailia, near the center of the canal and a two hour bus ride from Cairo, the book did not mention how to view the canal but it featured the house of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French builder of the canal. After describing the house, the book added that it was no longer open to the public. At the southernmost section of the canal, the guide stated that Suez “remains one of the best places in the region to view colossal cargo ships gliding through the canal,” again with no specifics. We had met a few travelers in Egypt—not one had seen the Suez Canal.

Despite the lack of information, we were determined to see the canal. We had all enjoyed seeing and learning about the Panama Canal and its history and we considered a Suez Canal visit an important part of our kids’ home-school education. Considering all our possibilities, we opted for the Suez option and jumped on a bus. After 2 hours of rolling through flat, white desert, our bus came to a stop and everyone exited. We looked around for a bus station, but all we saw were people loading a microbus and a few taxis near the end of a long row of apartment blocks. A taxi driver walked by and asked “Taxi?” and I said “Suez?” He held up 10 fingers and when I countered with six of my own, he shook his head firmly and said “No, Ten.” At this point, we’d been seen by a group of taxi drivers near the microbus and they all sprinted over yelling at us in Arabic. At the same time, a taxi sped right for us and screeched to a halt before almost hitting us; he wanted a piece of the action as well. We watched as the newcomers pushed the first taxi driver out of the way and it looked as if there was literally going to be a fight for our business. I was starting to worry that a small riot might break out, so I said to the first driver, “10. Yes. Let’s go.” I grabbed him by the arm and led him to his cab. After being in Egypt for only a few days, we’d witnessed many heated arguments amongst Egyptian men. The overwhelming majority of businesses were run by men; usually a bunch of them sitting around getting on one another’s nerves. We had already seen a few fistfights. We saw a fight on a boat on the Nile, a fight beside a mosque in Giza and a man being slapped by a woman who was pulling him across the street by the ear. I figured it was better to take the first taxi driver than wait for a fight to erupt. As we neared his cab, I heard my wife loudly say “Get out of my face,” to a snickering young Egyptian man who was saying things in Arabic to her a little too closely. We all jumped in the taxi and sped off. Nervous energy morphed into laughter as we left the touts behind.

Heading toward the port town of Suez, our driver turned to us and said “Suez? Yes?” I said, “Yes…Suez canal…canal of Suez.” He gave me a confident look and then a confused look as we made our way into town. We saw no cargo ships passing by and our driver was clearly unsure of where we wanted to go. In his broken English, he again asked, “Suez? Where in Suez?” Again, I repeated loudly and clearly, “Suez canal,” and starting making gestures like little boats floating by. By now he was frustrated with our lack of Arabic and his limited English and he blurted out “What IS Suez canal?” and pulled to a stop. The irony of a Suez taxi driver not knowing the English words for his town’s world famous attraction generated a shared smile between my wife and I, but now we were getting worried. I got out my guide book and read further in the Suez section to find that the nearby town of Port Tawfiq is “an ideal place to watch the ships go by.” Unfortunately, it gave no details on how to do that and the map surprisingly depicted no canal.

We left Suez and in 2 minutes were in Port Tawfiq. We turned down a long avenue and saw the multi-story “Red Sea Hotel” to our right. With our driver clearly frustrated and no cargo ships in sight, we decided to go to the hotel in hopes that someone might speak English. We paid our driver, walked into the hotel and asked the manager “Is there a place where we can view the Suez Canal?” He gravely nodded and said, “You can view it from our sixth floor restaurant; if you eat lunch there.” We went up to the restaurant and found a clean, breezy and empty restaurant with a full wall of windows facing the canal. After the struggle to get here, we had found the perfect place to view the canal.

Just as lunch was served, a convoy of container ships started slowly making their way through the desert, seemingly cutting their way through the sand, on their way southward to the Gulf of Suez. On a typical day about 3 convoys make their way through the single-lane canal. The passage takes about 12-15 hours with the ships traveling the 119 mile canal at 15 miles per hour (with stops to allow oncoming convoys to pass). We were fortunate to be eating just as a southern convoy was approaching. We pulled up our chairs to the window and enjoyed the view, our near-scuffle with the taxi drivers a distant memory. Despite the lack of information from our guidebook, we’d found that the best method for getting here was just to get on a bus and go.