Egypt Day 4 – Alexandria

Egypt, Travelogue — By on March 12, 2011 11:42 am

Woke at 8:30, bright and early. Opened my bay windows onto a beautiful, clear, crisp Mediterranean sea, the chilly salty air bringing me around like smelling salts. I showered, changed, and headed down to breakfast. I confidently ordered ‘fuul’, thinking it to be rice with garlic and other herbs and spices. I sat down and was served the round, chapatti-style bread with lots of butter and jam, a pot of lipton, and then came my fuul. Smelly, yellow pus-oozing brown beans in a vinegary brown sauce that tasted as bad as it smelled. I got flashbacks to similarly agonizing wrong choices I’d made in Japan where I’d ordered natto, the even smellier equivalent. I ate half of my fuul stubbornly, thinking the day couldn’t possibly be bad after this unfortunate start. A Guardian journalist, a young lad, and his Egyptian contact were discussing the days stories and what interviews they could get regarding the upcoming election, the campaigns of which have so far claimed 20 lives in Alexandria.

I hopped out into a cool, sun-bleached street, and headed up towards the Roman Theatre. It was quiet, as it was Friday, the day of prayer, and most shops were closed. The peaceful air gave the impression of a market on a Sunday. I checked out the unimpressive Roman Theatre (one of the only surviving ones outside Rome). Here though, was a place not of Gladiators, but a place of dance and entertainment. I left and began a long, long stroll around in a huge circle. I came into a pretty rough and ready part of town, where men were selling birds in wooden box cages. There were hundreds of these birds – doves most of them. People clamoured to buy them. I didn’t really know why. All around me the call to prayer was echoing, and people and birds everywhere, and the creaking and sighing of trams as they trundled up and down, the honking of horns…people people people…. everywhere. Everywhere I walked no people were kneeling on their carpets in the direction of Mecca praying, and listening to sermons of the Muezzin. It was at the same time eerie, mystical, aggressive-sounding, and powerful.

I finished my big circuit, which was all an attempt to get to Pompeys Pillar, and gave up, hailing a cab to take me to the Alexandria Museum, set in an impressive period building. Sadly, after the Egyptian Museum, it wasn’t as impressive – no museum could be, perhaps – though this one was decidedly more modern. It was also full of tour groups, some 20 people strong, who took over vast areas of the museum. It was funny to see them all, lemmings with numbers on them, many with that vague-looking simpleton expression of the bored. There is a real herd mentality I found hilarious, especially when the alpha male of a group walked into the toilet by mistake, then decided he should go anyway, and he was followed by old man after old man. One of the tour guides spoke in an incredibly irritating shrill voice, whose pitch went up at the end of each sentence, up and up until she sounded like a strangled horse. Another said to her group: ‘Well, you have 20 minutes of free time now, I’ll meet you in the garden out front.’ You could see the old people looking fearful. 20 minutes of independence. They didn’t know what to do, so went straight to the garden to wait for their overworked guide.

I trotted around the exhibits at a steady pace, but wasn’t captivated, and soon left to take a walk down to the Corniche and the Alexandria Library. Expecting to find a historical structure of much grandeur, I was surprised to see a modern piece of steel and glass architecture. Hundreds were at the door trying to get in, and hundreds more were arriving on tour buses, so I headed to Cilantros for a coffee and a sandwich, and to get stuck into the excellent book ‘Black Mamba Boy.’ I also popped down to the cafe on the sea across the road, then back up to Cilantros to meet Bex, the lovely girl I’d met the night before, for a coffee. I told her about my perceptions of the close-knit expat community she lived in. She told me many stories of people connected with other people, going out with people, everybody knowing everybody, ‘Rushdies Rumours’, a saying that they use as rumours spread quickly in this close-knit community…it seems positively incestuous! No wonder Becks’ friends were so welcoming and trying to set me up with her. I was ‘new.’ That’s exciting in these parts. Becks told me a Navy ship is due in soon. The girls can’t wait. Bex was almost salivating when she told me! She’s a nice girl, Bex. Studied at IM Marsh Campus at Liverpool John Moores Uni, where I studied (though at the Dean Walters Building). She’s going to be here in Alexandria for 2 years. She complained of how difficult it is to find love. People here, like Singapore, are here for a good time and not a long time. I emphasize with that. It’s the same feeling I get in Singapore. Bex headed back, and I strolled back to the Chillom Hotel.

In the evening I headed to the famous Cecil Hotel for dinner atop China House Restaurant, high and away of the bustle and streetside din, with the black sea and twinkling lights of ships the only sights under the twinkling stars that seemed to be flirting with the ships below. I had sweet and sour prawn with a Sakkara beer, then headed off to try and find Spitfire bar. Found it eventually, a tiny place that looked like a bar straight out of the 60s Vietnam era. An American soldiers bar. It had a young clientele who must have been born way after the Vietnam War, including hijab wearing girls glugging beer. As long as what follows on from a good drinking session isn’t a romp out of wedlock, then I guess it must be OK in the eyes of Islamic Law. Or perhaps not, but this new generation are the ones who can and do continue to modernise their faith in line with an ever-changing and more tolerant world (even if it’s forced tolerance in places). The bar was run by some typically moody-looking Egyptians. Moody and sneaky. 2 words that pop into my head first to describe Egyptians. I had a Sakkara whilst staring at the heavily graffitied wall, full of old photos of regulars and people passing through. Was Michael Palin’s picture here? I couldn’t find it. I left to find another place, Cop d’Or, which a chap I’d met in Centro de Portugal the night before, the outrageously camp but, unbelievably, straight Egyptian, Mustafa, warned me was a gay bar. It didn’t look gay tonight. A backpacking couple, and a table of Egyptians playing a board game, and a waiter straight out of Fawlty Towers, were the only people there. Everything moved at a snails pace. It took me ages to get served. I paid my bill and left after a bottle of Stella, Egypt’s other popular local brew, of no relation to it’s wifebeating-aide namesake equivalent in Europe. I got in a taxi and headed to the Centro de Portugal, or PC as the expats call it.

It was absolutely dead. Only Bex, an Arab guy from Dubai who thought he was black and tried to speak in patois, and readily admitted that Arabs ‘fuck anything – even camels’, an Egyptian guy who looked comically like a dead-ringer for Gerard Houllier, who took the Dubai guy’s snipes that ‘the last good thing you Egyptians did was build the pyramids’ with a retort of ‘if it wasn’t for the fucking Arabs coming to pillage our land we’d be all powerful now,’ Stevie from the night before, and a handful of girls and guys I’d met previously. What a bunch of thrown-together misfits we were, rolled like dice in a game of fate and chance to end up here chatting. The guy from Dubai talked a good game, and spoke of trips to Pattaya and Bali, but his confidence flickered like a candle next to the Mediterranean whenever I argued with logic, reason and experience a controversial point he was trying to make, or when I told him a few of my worldly stories. He hid his insecurities about his identity behind his brash arrogance, and was obviously used to being the alpha-male of the group, with a mouth on him like a dirty toilet. I can deal with these people, but I don’t have to accept them as my friends. Poor Bex does though. In such a small expat community, everyone has to be friends and club together. Still, he was fine once his wall had come down and he started talking like a real person, instead of a fantasy character he hid behind. They both left as Bex had to be up early to take her class to Cairo for a sports trip. I’d enjoyed meeting her, and hoped to certainly come back and start some ‘Rushdies rumours’ of my own! I joined Stevie for a drink. Stevie made me laugh. He was like a jittery, slightly manic Mr Bean. He told me of how he’d spent 2 and a half years in Dubai at the British International School there, an had had a Russian girlfriend, who cheated on him constantly – one time with a guy on the guys 18th birthday at their poolside villa at the same party Stevie was at. She committed suicide after he left. He doesn’t know why. I told him a few of my stories, and he got increasingly animated. ‘Let’s go and fuck some whores! No, maybe not….my girlfriend’s waiting for me. Wanna come to mine and watch Dambusters? I’m not gay, honest…hahah…Gotta go to the toilet. Erm…have to go to the toilet. Sorry mate. Erm….going….now…’ and off he went.

I left by taxi and went to bed. I’d decided to leave Alexandria, this wonderful place, and get the sleeper train tomorrow to Aswan.

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