Fall Break - Alexandria

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Africa » Egypt » Mediterranean » Alexandria
November 5th 2008
Published: November 5th 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

Thursday October 23, 2008
DONE with classes at 2:30pm. So ready for a break. Used the afternoon to pack and rest up. We left for the airport around 9:30pm for our 1:15am flight.
We arrived in Alexandria around 1am local time, one hour behind Athens’ time strangely. The airport itself was quite the shock - even smaller than Bangor! It was a single room, with one conveyor belt for luggage and quite run down. We had to buy tourist Visas and waited forever to go through the single passport line. Coming out of the line and walking through security, I noticed a man hand the customs officer a fifty as he walked through, failing to produce a passport. Welcome to Egypt!
We took a cab to our hotel, about a 20 minute drive from the airport. Driving through the city at that time of night was the first of many culture shocks: rundown buildings that looked like they had just barely survived a war, no cars less than 10 years old, Arabic script sprawled everywhere and large groups of men roaming the streets. After the first few minutes, we all agreed never to go anywhere alone any time of day and would prefer not to leave our hotel after dark. It was a little unsettling to feel generally unsafe in the city.
When we pulled up to the hotel, I was quite confused; it wasn’t the one our travel agent had put on our initial itinerary. Apparently, my roommates had forgotten to tell me that when they had picked up our final vouchers the day before, the travel agent had told them she’d switched our hotel last minute. In any case, our new hotel was actually quite gorgeous. Located in the city center, it was one of the oldest remaining hotels in Alexandria and has seen its share of historical dignities over the decades. Our room was huge, clean and had a beautiful very of the harbor.
I thought I would fall asleep quite quickly considering it was 4am by the time we got up to our rooms. Sadly though, my caffeine buzz from the cup of coffee I had on the plane refused to leave and I tossed and turned until the wee hours of the morning.

Friday October 24, 2008
Unable to sleep, I went down to breakfast around 6:30am and discovered one of the most incredible continental breakfast spreads I have ever seen! Crepes, pastries, cereals, yogurt, veggies, hummus, pitas, fruit, eggs, soups, potatoes, smoothies…they had just about anything anyone could ever desire for breakfast. After eating, went back upstairs and was finally able to fall asleep for a few hours.
When we were all ready to go - after catching up on the news of the world thanks to CNN in our rooms - the five of us decided to explore the city. Dressed in a knee-length skirt and t-shirt, I thought I was being conservative, trying to be conscious of the Muslim aversion to shorts and bare shoulders. Walking down the east side of the harbor though, I felt completely naked. At the most, the Egyptian women had their feet and faces exposed. Many wore burkas (spelling?) that covered them completely with only a small slit for their eyes. Some of the younger women wore jeans and long sleeved shirts, their heads covered with a scarf. All of the men we past gave us some sort of stare, either disapproving or like they were starving for sex. Many of them called “Welcome to Egypt” as they passed.
Trying to ignore our jarring reception, we walked around the Bibliothique (library), planetarium, university and even discovered a Coptic (Christian) cemetery. Here, a kind old man who spoke some English gave us a tour of the grave yard and nearby church. Like many of the English speaking Egyptians we encountered, his first topic of discussion was the upcoming election. To our surprise, though, he considered himself a McCain supporter, simply because “he is old, like me.”
After the cemetery we tried in vain to find the Alexandria museum, but for some reason no one knew what we were talking about. Giving up, and starving, we returned to the harbor and ate lunch at a quaint café. While we were eating, a small thunder storm rolled in from the Mediterranean. It was a pretty cool experience watching the clouds come in and lightening flash over the harbor.
That afternoon we all took some much needed nap time and watched cheesy American movies on TV - no wonder the world has such a bad opinion of Americans when these are the basis of their impression! That evening, still not daring to venture out after sunset, we ate dinner at the Chinese/Indian/Japanese/Thai restaurant on the rooftop of the hotel. It was surprisingly good, and a welcome change of pace from Greek food.
When the bill came we were all initially shocked, the total being somewhere around 300 Egyptian Pounds. Then we remembered the exchange rate, 1 Egyptian pound equaling around 5 American dollars. Our huge dinner had only cost us around $12 a piece. AWESOME!

Saturday October 25, 2008
Journaling this morning at breakfast, I couldn’t help reflect on how thankful this city has made me to have been raised in a country where women are treated with dignity, respect and freedom. At a nearby table, a woman dressed all in black, with only her eyes showing eats with her husband and son. Not only does she serve both of them, she is the one who gets up to bring them more food. When she is finally able to eat, she lifts up her veil to take small bites, never making eye contact with her husband. The only time he speaks to her is when he asks her to go get more food. I should mention that while she is wearing the traditional burka, he is clad in Armani jeans, collared shirt and designer boots. I can’t help but wonder what she’s thinking about; did she notice me? And if so, what does she think of me? What her dreams are? Is she accepting of her lifestyle or does she feel as repressed as I would? It’s incredible how much of a role clothing plays in some cultures, something that we take so much for granted.
The feeling of not being free to do as I want, both out of fear for my safety and respect for the culture, was jarring. I wanted like nothing else to simply take a jog along the harbor that stretched forever, but I didn’t dare venture out alone, let alone doing something as attention attracting as running and I didn’t even think about going out in shorts and a tank top. I can only imagine what an experience that would have been…Again being in Alexandria made me incredibly grateful for everything I have. It was also disappointing and severely frustrating to realize that people still live like this. And Alexandria, as I was told by a man at breakfast, is one of the more liberal cities in Egypt.
After my admittedly introspective breakfast, I met up with the others and we decided to take a taxi to the Ancient Catacombs…if only we knew what we were in for…Our cab driver decided to make himself our official city tour guide - not that we all didn’t realize he was trying to scam us, but we played along. He promised us he was a “good man, no Mafia. See those black and yellow taxis? They are Mafia, steal your money.”
Riiiiight…He refused to simply leave us at the catacombs, insisting that he would wait one hour and then “come out, I take you.” He ended up suckering us in to going to Pompey’s pillar, some “bazaar” far outside the city that was actually simply a strip mall - wandered into my first Egyptian grocery store here, think Wal Mart but far less organized/clean. He then brought us to a Palace - near where our original hotel was. We still don’t exactly know who lives in the palace. When we asked the guards who lived there and why we couldn’t go in, their response was “100 years old.” Umm….thank you?
After the Palace, we finally convinced our driver that we were done with his sightseeing tour. Having paid him for the ride in between the bazaar and the palace, we were a little taken aback when he demanded a tip as we pulled up beside the hotel. Kylene, rather fed up with his shenanigans by this point, handed him a 10 pound note and said “this is from all of us” with a screw you smile. Loved that! All in all though, we had seen the major sights of the city for around $20 which was actually a pretty good deal and, on his random routes, we really got to see the non-touristic side of the city.
For dinner that evening, we had planned to dress up and eat at the fancy restaurant on the first floor of our hotel. To our disappointment though, a tour group had come in the night before and every single one of them decided to eat there, filling all the tables. Not to worry, we went for round two at the rooftop restaurant.
After dinner we returned to the first floor to raid the dessert case at the café. While we were browsing the incredible looking cakes, the bar tender from the lounge came over and invited us to have our dessert there, “My lady friend, she sings. You like.” The scene in the lounge was very interesting. Straight from the 1920s, it was smoky and had a certain old world flair to it. We were not only the only women in the lounge, but also the only Americans. The singer had the most glorious hair style I have ever seen - a short bowl cut on top with the layer beneath reaching below her hips, bleached blonde. Her face was caked in make up and she wore a sparkingly/fringy blue dress with knee high leather boots. To say the least, we all felt rather uncomfortable. Eating our desserts rather quickly, we asked for our check and were asked by the bartender “why?” umm...
Back in our rooms, safe and sound, it took only 20 minutes of reading before I completely passed out.

Sunday October 26, 2008
At breakfast this morning, while journaling, an older American man who had introduced himself the day before came over to ask what I was journaling “so assiduously” about. Like I know what assiduously means…apparently he is on the board of a small college in New York and has been to Egypt multiple times over the past 20 years. He wanted to know my impressions thus far and was quite surprised that the five of us had taken this trip on our own and even more so that I came down to breakfast alone in the mornings. In my head: duh! Of course I feel safe in the hotel but you don’t see me parading around alone at 1am do you? When I told Leslie about this conversation later on she commented, “what did he expect you to do? March into breakfast alone with your fist in the air and proclaiming ‘I’m a woman eating breakfast, damn it!’” Hilarious!
With not much else to see in the city - I still wonder why our travel agent suggested at all that we come here instead of spending more time in Cairo/Istanbul - we hung around the hotel until we had to check out at noon. With about an hour to kill, we took a walk down the west side of the harbor. The stares, calls, general uncomfortable feeling. I couldn’t imagine living with this on a daily basis. The walk made me ready to return to the anonymity of Greece/the US.
Our train to Cairo left at 2pm. On the 2+ hour ride to Cairo, we got to see the Egyptian countryside, which was nothing like I was expecting. Leslie and I both agreed that it reminded us more of our visions of central Asia with its rice paddies and sprawling fields. She told me an interesting fact, I guess somewhere she’d heard that the average person in the world is employed at a rice paddy worker in Asia. Wow. That really puts life in perspective when you think about it.
When we got to Cairo, we were greeted by a sprawling, smoggy, cramped city. The traffic alone made Athens look like the rural countryside. Egyptians are OBSESSED with honking their horns at every opportunity, all hours of the day. Later, we learned that over 25 million people live in the city of Cairo, which just spreads out for farther than the eye can see, and the average salary is around $4,000 US per year. Like Alexandria, there were countless abandoned buildings. Everything seemed to be covered in thick grime and trash blanketed the streets.
Our taxi driver tried to convince us our reservations at our hotel were cancelled, calling “his friend who works there” to check our reservation on the drive over. How stupid do we look buddy? (Given our experience in Istanbul, though, our reservation being cancelled unknowingly was apparently not out of the realm of possibility).
The five of walking down the dark Cairo street around 7pm in search of dinner, I already felt notably safer than Alexandria but still rather uncomfortable. There weren’t as many calls, women were dressed a bit more Western and the street was better lit than those in Alexandria, but we were still subject to many various stares.
Around 9pm that night Leslie’s parents met up with us at the hotel. I don’t think I’ve ever been more thankful to have parents around, they just add a level of comfort. We all decided to wake up early the next morning and take a tour of the Pyramids and Sphinx! Oh my God, I was finally going to see a pyramid!!

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