The Tel Aviv-Cairo bus pulled into a "rest house" beside the Suez Canal and 30 of us -- passengers from a dozen nations -- piled out to stretch our legs and get something to eat. The driver doffed his shoes and went into a tiny mosque next door to pray.
My wife and I, having lived in Egypt, avoided the food, but our fellow travelers were less cautious. Sitting on a grimy veranda sheltered from the desert sun, they munched kebabs and salad, waving away the flies. From a shop across the road, the ubiquitous and distinctive Arab music -- an acquired taste -- wafted through the languid afternoon.
Just then a tiny Japanese pickup truck pulled up to make a delivery. A boy in a wrinkled gallabeya climbed out of the cab and began to unload huge, quivering slabs of meat (quite possibly camel), which had been exposed to the sun for who knows how long in the open back of the pickup. Suddenly the aroma of the spicy kebabs on the grill lost its appeal, and we quickly reboarded the bus.
Welcome to Egypt, as you would never see it from the air.
Of course, it's possible to fly from Tel Aviv to Cairo. But making the 300-mile trip by bus provides a unique opportunity to see parts of Israel and Egypt that are well off the usual tourist track -- including the Sinai desert, land of Moses and of the Six-Day War. Bus travel circumvents the security regimen of Israel's Ben Gurion Airport and the chaos of Cairo International, and besides, it's much cheaper than flying. A one-way ticket is $25, about one-fifth of the air fare.
The land route between Jerusalem and the Nile, traversed by Hebrews and Romans, Greeks and Arabs, Crusaders and Turks, was closed by war from 1948 until 1982, when Israel completed its withdrawal from the Sinai. Now, hundreds of people cross the border daily -- mostly tourists, but also Egyptians and Israeli Arabs visiting relatives and friends from whom they were cut off for a generation.
Much of the day-long journey is tedious, but making it by road offers glimpses of history that can't be seen from the air -- as well as encounters with the frustrating disorganization that characterizes life in the Middle East.
Our trip began in Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital even if the United States and most other nations don't recognize it as such. Departure was scheduled for 6:15 a.m. By 6:30, seven passengers were waiting but no bus had appeared. The agent for the bus company assured us there was nothing to worry about. She commandeered a seven-seat Mercedes taxi and instructed the driver to take us to a rendezvous near the Mediterranean coast, where we would meet up with another bus that originated in Tel Aviv.
Soon after we began our descent from the Judean hills toward the coast, the driver began asking us about our destination. "Why do you want to go to Egypt?" he said. "There's nothing there. You can see everything in one day." We seven had picked up this challenge and were talking all at once about the great pyramids and the wonders of Luxor and Abu Simbel and the charms of medieval Cairo when there was a diversion: The luggage strapped to the roof rack fell off.
As the driver pulled over to retrieve it, I saw where we were: within sight of the monastery at Latrun. Until the war of 1967, this was the point at which the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road abutted Jordanian territory. Nothing at the site today recalls the danger once associated with this stretch of highway, which was within grenade distance of hostile troops.
The luggage restored to its perch, we resumed our journey and by 7:30 we had found the other bus, waiting for us at a gas station on a freeway between Tel Aviv and Ashdod.
From there our route led through the rich farm lands, orange groves and sunflower plantations of southern Israel. This is just farm country, not much to look at. Except for the Hebrew on the road signs and the stands of cactus planted as fences, we could just as well have been in Georgia.
Neither the driver nor the guide on the bus said anything when the bus turned inland, away from the main road, but the reason was clear: The main road goes through the Gaza Strip, which is Palestinian territory under Israeli military rule. The residents of Gaza would be less than amused by the passage of buses running between the country that occupies their land and the country that they think sold them out in a treacherous peace agreement.
Once beyond Gaza and across the border, the route follows the spectacular Mediterranean shoreline through the fast-growing beach resort town of El Ari~sh.
El Ari~sh is the administrative capital of the northern Sinai, where the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat raised his country's flag in 1979 after a peace treaty ended 12 years of Israeli occupation. A decade of peace has transformed the town from a slumbering backwater into a thriving beach resort where new hotels, including an Oberoi, are strung together along the pristine seaside.
But the bus doesn't stop there. Anyone who wants to spend time in El Ari~sh has to go all the way to Cairo and return on a separate trip. The bus from Tel Aviv keeps rolling westward, along a route that traverses the huge dunes of the Sinai, through a landscape that resembles the Arabia of our stereotypes, a land of sand and camels and oases and Bedouin. A few struggling fruit trees pushing their way up out of the sand offer mute testimony to Egypt's desperate effort to reclaim desert land to feed its fast-growing population.
At El Qantara, the bus crosses the Suez Canal on a rinky-dink vehicular ferry -- passing from Asia to Africa in the process, as the guide on the bus points out. On the day we made the crossing, we went right through a convoy of ships sailing up the canal from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
First-timers were stunned, as always, to see supertankers and container ships sailing across what appears from a distance to be unbroken desert. "I didn't even know there was a river here," said a young woman in a Michigan State sweat shirt.
Actually, the trip between Tel Aviv and Cairo requires two buses. Travelers cross the heavily fortified border, but the buses and guides don't. En route from Israel to Egypt, passengers disembark from their Israeli bus at the border, pass through immigration and customs, and board a waiting Egyptian vehicle for the rest of the trip. Coming back, the sequence is reversed. It's a measure of how far the state of war has retreated into history that the linkup is routine, executed by an Israeli tour company, Galilee Tours, and an Egyptian travel agency, Emeco Travel, that work closely together.
"This has been a smooth operation for years," says Elhamy Zayat, president of Emeco. The notion of easy land travel and friendly cooperation between former deadly enemies, familiar now in Europe for 40 years, still seems unsettling in the volatile Middle East. As Zayat says, "The war is over," and there is virtually no danger, but somehow it still seems as if it ought to be dangerous. The rolls of razor-sharp wire atop the border fence reminded us that borders in the Middle East, even at peace, aren't like borders in Western Europe.
This isn't travel for everyone. The buses are air-conditioned, but they lack lavatories and the seats don't recline. The roads are good but many of the drivers on them are not; in Egypt especially, accidents are frequent and competent medical assistance scarce (though Misr Travel, the state-owned tourist agency that operates the buses on the Egyptian side, has a good safety record).
It can take several hours to process a bus load of passengers through the border, so total travel time can be as much as 12 hours -- hard on adults and presumably harder on children, though there were none on our bus. And as for the food at the "rest houses," well, pack a lunch. We carried fruit, bread, cheese and bottled water from a supermarket in Israel, so we weren't dependent on the roadside facilities.
The compensations are the close-up view of a little-traveled stretch of the Middle East and the companionship of fellow passengers. On our bus were backpacking students from Denmark and the Netherlands, an American church group, a solitary Briton and other travelers from Argentina, Japan and Canada as well as Israel.
As we approached the border, the Canadian, a nurse from Calgary, stirred our apprehension with the unhappy tale of her difficulties on the eastbound trip, which she had made the week before. The Israeli border guards found a Jordanian visa in her passport and questioned her for more than three hours, while her fellow passengers had to wait. But on our westbound journey, she breezed through, as did we all.