We were given a tour of Mancheya market in Alexandria. It was arranged and led by the headmaster of the school where Richard works and his wife. I've been told you need a guide for your first time to the market, and I'm glad I had one. It's all a bit of a blur. There were sight and sounds all around us. And people! So many people. My mind mushed the colours, textures, patterns and sounds together and catalogued it as "chaos" so that I could absorb without processing. My head moved in bird-like motions as my eyes darted from sight to sight, trying to take everything in. I managed very few photos, but I will be back, for sure!
Last week we went to Karnak in Luxor (formerly known as Thebes). We’d been there before, along with throngs of cruise ship passengers. This time there were relatively few tourists.
Karnak is a complex of temples that were built over 2000 years and cover more than 100 hectares. It is the largest ancient religious preservation in the world. Enormous statues tower over the Great Hypostyle Hall, which looks like it was built for giants. Every inch of eerie dark tomb walls are covered in hieroglyphics. It's hard to imagine how it could have been built thousands of years ago. Some parts are as much as 4000 years old. It’s impressive, to say the least.
We were sitting on our patio at Nile Compound chatting with our American neighbours. (These were the only real-life Trump supporters I’ve ever met and seemed completely normal, no horns or anything.) They were telling us about their technique for getting through the souvenir pedlars at tourist sites in Luxor, involving a head-down-no-eye-contact approach. I’m familiar with this technique having been the recipient of it as a photographer on cruise ships but I get it. The “bazaar” as it’s called is the area of the entrance to a tourist site that is lined on both sides by people who will try all manner of tricks to sell their wares. I took to calling it the “gauntlet”.
The first time I entered a Luxor bazaar was at Valley of Kings. Being the only tourists in the bazaar we didn’t have our usual option of darting through the crowd unmolested. After a few steps I was handed a stone figurine which the seller wouldn’t take back. I put the figurine down at a random stall and found it back in my hands seconds later. Meanwhile other vendor were crowding around, shouting. One put a gawd awful hat on my head. Richard bought a guide book the Valley of Kings and one for a place we didn’t even visit. I ended up buying the figurine having unintentionally bargained down to 1/5th of the original price while trying to return it.
We put our heads down and scooted through the rest of the bazaar. We spent the next few hours in the quiet of the desert or exploring tombs. On the way out we needed to pass through the same marketplace. It was empty of tourists, full of vendors. I squared my shoulders and reluctantly headed towards the vendors shouting greetings.
“Once more unto the breach,” I muttered to myself.
This time there was a new trick. Free stuff. Trinkets mostly. I would try to give them back. “No money, no money, it’s a gift” they would say. I was given a necklace and Oscar a scarab, a pendant and a stone pyramid. By George it worked. I felt obligated to enter the stall and at least look. My perception changed. I discovered if I answered “Alexandria” when they asked where I was from, the tone changed. The bazaar felt less like battle and more like fun.
By Hatshepsut’s temple I was a bargaining pro-star. Meaning I was actually buying things I wanted instead of whatever was thrust into my hands. All manner of souvenirs lined the stalls including basalt figurines, alabaster carvings, gemstone pyramids, scarves, hats, clothes and Egyptian cotton.
There was a pattern of sorts. Vendors would cheerfully start the negotiations at an absurdly high price, I would go absurdly low and after a jovial bartering session we would both be happy. Me, because I’d got them down to a fraction of the original price, and them because they’d still made a tidy profit. A few times I was given a gift of a scarf or some carved stone after the bargain was struck and the price paid.
Knowing that tourism in Egypt was in a bad way I was happy to spread some of our meagre wealth around.
The common refrain we heard was “we love tourists.” One gentlemen pleaded with me to tell my friends that Egypt is safe. “There is no problem here,” he stated emphatically. I agreed, saying I live in Egypt and have never felt unsafe. The most negative experience I had was probably the post office, but post office suck all over the world. In Canada I’ve been frustrated with the 47 types of ID you need if you don’t happen to have your driver’s license on you, and paying extortionate rates for parking while not managing to actually pick up the bloody package. See! I’m get riled up just thinking about it.
So, my friends, here is my attempt to keep my promise and tell you about Egypt.
1. In my opinion, Egypt is probably as safe as anywhere in Europe. Nowhere is really “safe,” but I for one refuse to let terrorists make me live in fear. I will be smart and use common sense, but I will not cower. As for the revolutions, I’m far from an expert but things seem to have stabilized. There were protests scheduled for November 11 but it looks like no one turned up. I can think of a few western nations more likely to have a revolution than Egypt.
2. This is great time to visit Egypt. The last time I went to Karnak, it was full of tourists shuffling along at a glacial pace like a horde of zombies wearing pleated shorts, knee high socks and fanny packs. This time we strolled around at will, enjoyed the relative silence and were able to soak in the beauty and majesty of the place in our own time.
3. For the most part, Egyptians are friendly towards westerners. Many Egyptian know some English and love to practise, and if you can muster a few words of Arabic it is much appreciated. If Egyptians have ever been are slagging me off, I was unaware. Personally I’m ashamed when I read news reports that Muslim women are afraid to wear a hijab in my home continent, and I walk around Egypt unveiled with no issues. You can expect more tolerance here.
3. Cell coverage and data is great. Send emails. Avoid the post office.
Last week we left the city behind for a vacation on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor.
We took the overnight train from Alexandria and I remember waking up, the morning sun slanting in the window and painting the country scenes out the window in an orange light. In the patchwork of fields, men and women harvested crops by hand or plowed fields with a donkey. Every piece of fertile land was being used to grow, even the narrow strip of land between the train and the river.
Where we stayed on the west bank we were surrounded by fields and small villages. Aside from the odd car or scooter, the donkey was the main mode of transportation, both carrying people and pulling carts. In fact, aside from the occasional motor vehicle, the west bank looked like it could have been frozen in time for hundreds of years. Unlike the city, all women were veiled and all men wore a robe (I believe it’s called a Galabeya) and a head scarf.
As I strolled the streets, some women would dash away with their children in tow when they caught sight of me. Others were friendly and agreed to have photos taken. Once, a group of children crowded around chattering in Arabic and a smattering of English. Sometimes the men would look at me with vague suspicion, but a cheery “sabah el khreer” (good morning) from me would engender a friendly response, often with a face transformed, wreathed in smiles.
We got the most smiles during a slightly embarrassing donkey ride that Oscar loved and seemed to provide a lot of entertainment for the locals. We must have been a sight, a couple of slightly portly white folks on skinny donkeys, Rich with his feet almost touching the ground. Many villagers waved at us and we felt obliged to wave back from our modest steeds, like part of a funny tourist parade or a parody of the royal family.
We stayed for four nights at Nile Compound with our hosts were Elsa and Mahmoud. Elsa is German and taught Oscar how to say “guten Tag” and play Uno. Mahmoud is Egyptian and helped us sort out transportation to all of the sites and sorted trips to the bank machine and train station. Both made us feel very welcome and comfortable.
During our stay we would wake up to coffee on the patio and breakfasts of eggs, pancakes, fresh juice, fruit and yogurt. Between our excursions we would enjoy the serenity of the compound. I can recall with perfect clarity, floating on the pool in the sunshine, listening to Oscar’s giggles while Richard did etchings in his journal.
On the last day they took us on a felucca ride to Banana Island. A felucca is a wooden sail boat and Banana Island is an island with lots of bananas (more about that later). By the end of our stay, as they saw us off to the train station with a packed lunch, it felt like they were family.
For more information about Nile Compound visit their Facebook Page. I'm not being paid to promote them, honest. It is so easy to complain when something is wrong, but when you get great service it is important to be just as enthusiastic in your praise. These guys deserve it!
Some folks may profess that women can not run a country because of “female issues” but I’m sure Queen Hatshepsut would beg to differ. She ruled Egypt successfully and peaceably for 20 years with zero menstrual-cycle-fueled calls to war. This was 3500 years ago and she was not the first or last female ruler of Egypt.
She did have her issues breaking the glass ceiling. She had herself portrayed as a male with a beard to assert her authority and Thutmose III tried to eradicate her memory by destroying or defacing her monuments. But we’ve had a few thousand years to get over our unwarranted prejudices.
Last week we visited Deir el-Bahari and the temple Djeser-djeseru which Hatshepsut had built, an architectural wonder of ancient Egypt and one of her many accomplishments. I was impressed, not only with the beauty and majesty of the structure, but that I could touch a piece of ancient, enduring proof of the strength of Hatshepsut and the potential legacy of future female leaders.
Last night some residents of Alexandria were startled by a procession of odd little figures prowling through the dark. Among them was a pharaoh, a ninja, two princesses, a vampire, a skeleton, a witch and a knife-head-wound-victim.
Egypt doesn't celebrate Halloween so the half-dozen ex-pat kids who went trick or treating in Kafr Abdou last night were basically celebrities. They were met by waves, exclamations and compliments. The pharaoh was even stopped for a photo. Our strange parade provided great entertainment for the Alexandrians we passed in restaurants and cafes.
When we met up for our trick-or-treating excursion I thought the Brits were so cute with their tiny paper loot bags, having never experienced real trick-or-treating before and being unaware of the standard hit-as-many-houses-as-possible-and-fill-two-pillowcases technique. In reality we only hit about eight apartments (including mine). Some of the trick-or-treating venues went all out with decorations and surprises. The house of witches was particularly terrifying (for me, not so much for Oscar). At one point I accidentally stepped on a dismembered hand. Heaven knows what the Egyptians were thinking!
Richard’s gag was pretending to give the kids grapes instead of candy but it backfired when a bunch of kids (and adults) took him up on it. After the candy was distributed, he ended up giving cups of water to a bunch of thirsty kids which may be one of the strangest halloween treats I’ve ever seen but trick-or-treating in the heat is thirsty business.
Oscar came home pleased as punch with his goodies, and, as tradition dictates, passed out into a sugar coma.
“Wait!” said the nurse at the Alexandria Paediatric Centre.
I looked up with a confused look. Oscar and I were in the waiting room… waiting.
“Okaaaay,” I said tentatively, and returned to waiting.
"We are waiting," Oscar said to me in a stage whisper.
A minute later the nurse came back calling Oscar’s name again. We looked up.
“Wait!” she said again, with a tinge of exasperation.
Oscar and I looked at each other.
“Wait, wait!” she said, motioning us towards another room. The room with scales... where they take his weight.
“Oh… weight!” I said, much to the amusement of various patients and nurses.
Amazingly, this was the only confusing episode during two smooth visits to the Alexandria Paediatric Centre.
On our first visit I came prepared for a long wait with snacks, drinks and a Nintendo DS, but we were seen by a doctor right away and we didn’t need them. Oscar was examined by an English-speaking doctor, diagnosed with bronchitis and treated with a nebulizer within an hour on our first visit, at a cost of about $40.
The doctor had us come back for a follow-up visit. It was busier this time so we had to take a number. Being woefully ill-equipped for the Egyptian “line-up”, I’ve grown fond of the “take-a-number” system. We were seen by a doctor within a short time and fortunately Oscar didn’t need another treatment.
In Canada, we would have either had to wait weeks for an appointment or try our luck at a clinic, possibly waiting hours before being seen. The last time I was at the hospital in Canada I waited six hours with a broken nose. So far I’m pretty impressed with the system here.
Oscar’s health, safety and happiness was my biggest concern coming to Egypt. Rich and I could deal with just about anything, but no job is worth putting our son at risk. It is a relief to know that excellent care is available.
It’s been a week and Oscar is much better and sleeping through the night which means I am sleeping through the night which means I’m in a better mood which means Richard is in a better mood so we are ALL happier.
I’ve been in Egypt just over two months now and I’m getting to know the neighbourhood. I'm still not a huge fan of Roushdy (where the post office is) but the Wingat area to the east is pleasant and starting to feel more familiar. I’ve adopted a local coffee shop, baker, market and produce vendor. When I walk to and from the school I often exchange a small wave or head nod with a boab or a vendor who recognizes me. It’s a small thing but it makes me feel more like a part of the community.
Many of the folks who used to stare at me appear to have gotten bored, since I pass by them four or more times a day and I am really not that fascinating to look at. Venturing further out of my regular area I do still get some looks. Sometimes I pretend that I am a super famous actress trying to be incognito. Next time I’m considering wearing a headscarf, sunglasses, high heels and bright red lipstick. Not sure if I would get more looks or less looks that way.
I’m still not great at discerning who is being genuinely friendly and who is being weird. I chatted with an old man today who seemed friendly enough and asked me to take his photo. Later he called me over and insisted I take a photo of a dog, grabbing it by the scruff of the neck until it whimpered. I yelled at him to stop and he did, but I was left a bit shaken.
I think most Egyptians are genuinely friendly though. It helps that I’ve been taking Arabic lessons. I’ve noticed that since I started using Arabic in the open-air market the prices have dropped by about one third. Egyptian vendors seem to be very trusting. Often if I don’t have small change they will say I can pay next time. When "next time" arrives and I try to pay, they seem to have completely forgotten about it.
Kids are much loved in Egypt. They are welcome anywhere, including restaurants, and tend to get fussed over. Oscar, being 6-years-old and blond, attracts a lot of attention. He (and I) have gotten used to having his hair ruffled by strangers. If I ever want really good service I bring him along. There is a dour bread baker near my apartment but when I get Oscar to buy the bread he actually cracks a smile. Oscar loves coming to the grocery store with me because someone will often sneak him a candy.
We rode the tram to the mall the other day and Oscar had a bit of a meltdown when there were no seats available. At the next stop, some Egyptians saved a seat for us so he could sit down. Then when Oscar was getting off the tram forgetting his toy on the seat, a man ran after us and gave it back to him.
The biggest surprise about Egypt is how safe it feels. Before I arrived I was very concerned about terrorism and local attitude towards foreigners and women. I’ve had a few… uncomfortable moments, but I have never felt unsafe. I’ve walked around by myself at night plenty of times with no issues at all. It’s probably safer here at night then many western places because there are no drunk hoodlums around.
I post here when I have something to say, but I've started posting daily photos on instagram. If you want to see the random things that take my fancy, you can follow me.
Last week was great. I had a fantastic day at the beach, unexpectedly enjoyed water polo, listened to Oscar’s dance teacher rave about him, did some design work that I’m proud of and had a fun girls night on the town.
I’d had a string of good days so I guess I was due a bad one.
It started with a walk to the post office to mail a letter. I’d made this attempt before but when I reached the location indicated by google maps it looked like the building had been abandoned for centuries. Turns out the post office was closed (it closes at 2pm) and that’s just how it looks.
Today the post office was there. It looked like the entrance to one of those secret clubs you see in the movies, where it doesn’t look like anything from the outside but it has a lavish interior full of laughter and cocktails. In this case, the dimly lit interior looked like a post office from the gold rush era, but much rougher. Everything was a shade of brown and the post office workers ignored agitated customers from behind dull metal grates. A few neglected rusty chairs were scattered around. Arabic wording was scrawled on crooked signs that lined the walls.
Everyone in the building avoided eye contact with me. There was a line of ladies and a line of men so I joined the line of ladies. I was in no particular rush so I figured I’d just see what happened.
Unfortunately I’d forgotten that the concept of the “line up” or “queue” is literally a foreign concept in Egypt. “Those who shove the hardest shall be served the soonest,” seems to be the local proverb. It became apparent that it was each man for himself. A small-town Canadian girl like me stood no chance.
Several men and women had shoved in front of me and I began to doubt my chances of successfully mailing this letter. Also, I wasn’t totally sure I wanted to be at the front of the line with frantic post office goers leaning over me and shouting.
Staring at the multiple signs in flowing Arabic was no help to my plight. I hadn’t realized that most signs I’ve come across in Egypt have English on them. Not so at the post office. For all I know they read “Get your toes pierced here,” or “Poisonous spider adoption sign-up today.”
I held up my letter and asked for help from anyone unfortunate enough to make eye contact with me, however brief. My Arabic training has not yet delved into the murky world of post office dealings, so my pleas were in English, but fairly obvious nonetheless given my location and the addressed, unstamped letter in my hand.
After being ignored by the first few people, I got, what I call, the “Egyptian wave.” Based on my observations I believe it is a method for locals to get rid of you without actually helping you. It usually involves a loose hand flap in a vague direction and very little eye contact. I once spent fifteen minutes searching a section of the supermarket for garlic that did not exist due to this wave.
Regardless of the validity of the direction of said wave, I headed that way, only to be shoved aside by someone, I suppose, with an urgent need to mail a letter immediately. Maybe it was a scientist rushing to warn of an impending earthquake, or a reporter with a scoop on a breaking news story. It became clear that in the letter mailing category of Egyptian life, I was severely outmatched. My frustration with the situation and the anxiety that was building up in the hot, crowded, noisy room outweighed my desire to send the letter and I beat a hasty retreat.
Outside the building I gulped down some fresh(ish) air and the panic subsided. Not to be completely beaten, I decided to take some photos on the way back. I started taking a photo of a pretty tree with a white balcony behind it and got scolded in Arabic by a finger-waving Egyptian man. Why, I have no idea, but I heard of people thrown in jail for accidentally photographing a military installation so I briskly continued on my way.
And almost got hit by a taxi.
At this point I was feeling quite defeated and I just wanted to go home and lick my wounded pride. To be honest, I was fighting a strong wave of homesickness.
I was almost at my apartment when a gentleman I often wave to outside of a nursery school on my street waved me over. He asked if I would take some photos of children. Odd request, yes, but maybe this was my failure of a day about to turn around. As he led me to the supervisor I thought to myself that maybe I could take some nice photos, email them to the school and make some friends in the neighbourhood.
“What do you want,” demanded the supervisor. I felt a strong urge to leave. I tried explaining that I was asked here. She and the gentleman got into a heated debate as I eyed up the exit. I was handed off to the another lady.
“What do you want?” said the lady. Sweet lord in heaven. Once again, I attempted to explain, edging toward the doorway. “We don’t need any photographer,” she said adamantly. I got the feeling they thought I was giving them the hard sell and the other two jumped back in the fray. While the discussion continued amongst the three of them I made my escape.
Finally, I got home, shut the door, shut out Egypt, shut out the feeling of displacement, incomprehension and failure. These are small things, not mailing a letter and having a misunderstanding, but I feel like it adds up and some days its just a bit much. Some days everything seems so very hard.
I know there are more good days than bad. The gesture of the taxi driver who refused to let us pay is a blessed reminder of the good people out there. There are lots of them that I’ve met and interact with all the time.
In the end I searched my soul and I believe I’ve found the way forward.
I spent the morning purposefully getting lost and exploring some areas of Alexandria I've never been to before. To my chagrin I found a market about two minutes from my apartment (with really good prices). There was also a coffee shop, a Syrian restaurant I'd heard about and an "iPhone" store. Here are a few random photos from my exploration.
Yesterday, after staring at a month's worth of dirt on our rug, we undertook a mission to buy a vacuum. This involved a 25-minute cab drive to the Carrefour City Centre and so we summoned an Uber.
The drive was an experience. First, the driver couldn’t find us and we had to get someone who spoke Arabic to give him directions and he was about 20 minutes later than he should have been. The car had no seatbelts, which, combined with the driver's disturbing habit of alternating between slamming on the gas and slamming on the brakes, gave us quite an ab and grip workout.
Then we were passed by a police car with sirens wailing and lights flashing.
It may be a Canadian thing, but when I see a police car (even without sirens or even any vehicle that looks like a police car from at least two chevrons away) I slow down to exactly the speed limit and give police a wide berth. It seems that in Egypt, a mere police emergency is not a good enough reason to change their aggressive/erratic driving habits. On this occasion their only concession was to swerve just enough so they didn’t actually make contact with the police car without actually slowing down.
Our Uber driver took this emergency situation as a great opportunity to get to Carrefour faster. We tailgated the police car for a several miles, weaving through traffic. If anyone tried to steal our prime spot he simply laid on the horn. The tailgating only ended when our driver determined the cruiser was going too slow and passed him.
And headed straight in to a parade of scooters.
After we whizzed past about 50 scooters we were stopped for 10 minutes as, one by one, they all turned into the road in front of us, much to the annoyance of our driver.
He then followed the scooters onto the road, which was not the entrance to Carrefour and had to weave through several of them and get through a barricade before we eventually arrived, frazzled, but safe.
After our shopping trip, vacuum in tow, we attempted to call another Uber. The handy app informed us that there were none available so we flagged down a yellow cab. The driver didn’t speak much English and he listened to religious Arabic music during the drive. He offered to change the music, but it was quite peaceful and we didn’t mind. I directed the taxi in Arabic to our apartment and as we came to a stop we geared up for a battle about the price. We have been charged more than triple the regular rate by a yellow cab in the past, most likely due to our skin colour and language. We've heard this is a regular occurrence.
The driver helped us unload our items from the car and motioned us over to check we had everything. Richard, tired and hungry, asked driver “how much,” grimly prepared to argue.
Here’s the weird thing, the driver refused to be paid.
Rich was in the unusual position of insisting he take the money as the driver backed away towards his car making small bows.
We went into our building feeling a bit befuddled. During our month here we’ve gotten used to being ripped off, stared at and asked for money by strangers. Every day is a little bit of a battle. That, combined with the oppressive heat, can make Egypt seem like a hostile place. Without noticing it, we’d become a bit prickly.
Even though we did end up paying the cab driver, his gesture made our surroundings feel a bit more welcoming. I’m not sure why the taxi driver did it, maybe because it was Friday, the holy day. But it made us realize that there are good people out there.
I’m going to try to remember this man when I am out and about in Egypt. Often, the good hearted people do not stand out as much as hostile people, but it’s good to know they are there.
The map of the San Stefano mall in Alexandria Egypt is incomprehensible and does not seem to include the cinema. We ask a few people who wave us in the general direction of up the escalator eventually find it on the top floor.
We stand at the ticket booth and are ignored for a few minutes by three employees who are busy chatting with each other until one of them acknowledges our existence.
“Three tickets to Pete’s Dragon,” says Richard with a bit of an indistinct accent. He seems to think speaking english with an accent helps non-english people understand him.
She waves us in the general direction of the opposite ticket booth. We dutifully head over and Rich repeats his question with a slightly heavier accent.
She waves us to the lady beside her. We shuffle over to the next window and Rich repeats the request for the third time.
Finally we get our tickets. The cost for three of us is 150 LE, which is about 5 pounds each.
“3-D glasses?” asks Rich, miming the action of putting on glasses. She waves us in the direction of the ticket taker.
“3-D glasses?” Rich asked the ticket taker and he waves us towards the concession stand. We get our glasses and popcorn after standing for a few more minutes, again politely waiting for acknowledgment from the bored employees. The popcorn is only 10 LE, about a quid. It is flavoured with an abundance of salt and no butter.
“Where is theatre 9?” he asks. Another general wave in a direction, accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders.
Just as I am internally lamenting the state of customer service in this mall, a hunched round man with a remarkable resemblance to Gru from Despicable Me escorts us to the theatre, carries my popcorn for me and leads us by flashlight to our seat, all the while speaking gently in Arabic.
Appeased by this show of customer service I attempt patience as we sit in the theatre for 10 minutes after the movie was scheduled to start, listening to Arabic music, then another 10 minutes of silence. Eventually the previews start, a few decibels more than comfortable, among them previews for Martyr and Blair Witch.
I find myself channeling my dad by stuffing kleenex in my ears while Rich and I cover Oscar’s eyes and he crams his fists in his ears. The A/C is set to sub-arctic and I alternate between wrapping my scarf around my arms to quell my goosebumps and around my head to muffle the volume of the movie. The speakers occasionally let out a pained sound as if they are protesting being set to max too long.
Oh yeah, and the movie sucked.
I’m sitting on a rooftop patio with a cool breeze, sharing a shisha and (non-alcoholic) drinks with some new friends at the Paradise Inn Windsor Palace Hotel in Alexandria and over my shoulder are views of the Mediterranean and the city lights at night.
We are two Muslims and two non-Muslims, enjoying a peaceful night and getting to know each other. In this moment, our beliefs do not separate us. In fact, we have more in common than not. The factors and personality traits that led the four of us to leave our lives for the relatively unknown have common threads that weave us together.
In moments like these it becomes clear to me that people with different cultures and beliefs can accept each other nonetheless. I know from travelling around the world that people are good and bad and everywhere in between no matter where you go. My experience so far in Egypt has revealed that people here are like people anywhere. They live their lives, take their children to school, do their jobs and enjoy their free time.
Our little group of new friends is not part of some noble effort to unite people and cultures across the world. We are just people thrown together through circumstance, drawn together through the urge to make connections and living life as best we can.
We are all just people.
In the heart of Alexandria there is a place that was once called Park of Pan. In the time of Ptolemy, it was basically a pleasure garden with a marble-seated amphitheatre, Roman baths and lecture halls. Thousands of years and several dynasties passed and over time the luxurious history of this spot was forgotten. It became known by the less glamorous name of Kom El Dekka (Mound of Rubble).
In the 60s the mound of rubble was removed to make way for a new building, uncovering ancient columns which lead to the excavation of the area. Under the rubble were some well preserved elements of the Park of Pan. Over 30 years the theatre was excavated and now it is one of the most popular monuments in Alexandria.
The Roman Theatre at Kom El Dekka was one of our stops on our tour of Alexandria. We had the place to ourselves, the only other people at the site were members of our tour. Our guide showed us around a small outdoor exhibition of Pharaonic and Greco-Roman era objects that have been found underwater at a nearby harbour.
While exploring on our own, an Egyptian man directed us towards tunnels under the amphitheatre. Oscar darted into the tunnels first and we made our way after him, balancing on makeshift bridges made of loose boards, feeling very Indiana Jonesish. Then back out into the glaring sun where the man demanded money for showing us the tunnels and we once again felt like tourists.
My spell check insists Jonesish is not a word, but I stand by my choices.
It’s amazing how adaptable human beings are. After two weeks in the Alexandria I had become used to seeing the sky in block shapes through buildings. The constant assault of city sounds had dimmed in my consciousness to a dull background buzz. Darting through traffic as I made my way through town was a daily occurrence. I didn’t even realize how accustomed I had become to the city’s onslaught on my senses until Friday.
Friday we went to the beach.
The teachers (and families) at the British School have a wonderful week-end routine. On Fridays (week-ends in Egypt are Friday and Saturday) we pile into a mini bus and head to the Iberotel Borg El Arab Resort on the Mediterranean coast. There are several pools, green grass, lounge chairs and a restaurant. The kids play in the pool, adults play water polo or chill or chat and we all have an enormous lunch.
This Friday was my first beach experience. In the afternoon I took an hour to myself and sat on a lounge chair looking out at Mediterranean Sea. All I could hear was the crash of waves. All I could feel was a gentle breeze and the light salty spray of the sea. All I could see was the shifting blues and white foam of the waves and the unbroken blue of the sky.
I sat, almost completely still and time lost it's meaning. My mind slowed it's normal hectic pace and I almost felt like I was in a meditative state. I could have sat there for several hours but for the strong sun on my still-pale skin and a mother’s worry about a child out of sight.
Back at the pool I spent hours playing with Oscar in the pool. I don't think I glanced at my watch once. It’s carefree day - or for those of us with children who can’t swim, it’s an almost carefree day. In any case, it’s a welcome reset button for the week. Looking into the endless sky, worries tend to drift away.
To the next week, I say “bring it on.” I have this to look forward to.
To the Borg El Arab Resort, I say this, "Resistance is futile, I have been assimilated." (If you get this - high five, let's be friends)
About 300AD there was a Roman Emperor called Diocletian who exempted his people from paying taxes and made sure they had enough corn during a time of hardship (to be fair he did cause the famine by besieging the city). So the people erected a memorial pillar in honour of him (it seems the city folk were of a forgiving nature). Then, in the middle ages, someone starts spreading the story that the ashes, or possibly the head, of Roman General Pompey were kept at the top of this pillar. So everyone starts calling it “Pompey’s Pillar,” (which was not even true) even though, it says quite clearly on the pillar:
*To the right and good emperor, the protector god of Alexandria, Diocletian, who has never been beaten*
To this day, the memorial is called “Pompey’s Pillar.”
Poor old Diocletian.
I’m not sure what was better today, the historical attractions or the travel between them. Our bus tour of Alexandria took us through several interesting areas of Alex including the Friday Souq or market. This is a photo of the “live bird” section of the market. The woman in the middle is about to crack a smile and wave at me while everyone around carries on with their business.
Kafr Abdou is the little area of Alexandria we live in. It encompasses the British School, the British Consulate, parks, villas, apartments, shops and restaurants. After a little over a week this area has started to seem familiar and we know our routes around town pretty well. Between our own experience and what we've heard from other ex-pats, here are 5 things we've learned about Kafr Abdou:
1. The area has fairly recently exploded with restaurants. One of Richard's colleagues told me that few years ago there were only three restaurants and now it seems like there is one on every corner. So far almost everyone gives their location in relation to a restaurant. Our playdate last night was beside Olé (a Spanish restaurant), we are above Bamboo (Indonesian) and the headmaster is near Bruxies (cafe and burgers). There are also plenty of shops selling chocolate, ice cream and sweets. Unfortunately I have yet to find an Egyptian restaurant but the International food has been scrumptious and affordable.
2. It's a small tight-knit area and everybody knows everybody. Apparently we would have been noticed straight away for three reasons; being new, being white and having a small child. Knowing this has actually made me feel more comfortable. I'm already feeling like part of the community. The bread guy even let me owe him three pounds when I didn't have enough change to get Oscar cookies as well as a loaf of bread. He put the cookies back in my shopping bag and said something in Arabic which another customer translated as "for the boy."
3. They loooove children here (and all over Alex). Our second day here I saw a lady ruffling Oscar's hair in the supermarket and soon discovered it's not unusual. When we were setting up our bank account the procedure was temporarily suspended so the customer service lady could engage in conversation with Oscar. This kind of thing happens all the time and Oscar eats up the attention. Plus you can take kids everywhere at all times of day or night, very different from Whitehorse where we have been kicked out of several potential lunch spots for having a child with us.
4. It's safe. It's really nothing like the media portrays it, at least in Kafr Abdou. Based on my research I was ready to walk around in a head scarf and sunglasses with my head down to avoid harassment but it's really not necessary. In fact, kids can often be seen playing outside by themselves, something becoming more rare in Canada. Being a white woman I do get a lot of stares but I dress very conservatively here and so far nothing has tingled the spidey senses. We did get a bit worried once when we heard some loud, harsh-sounding Arabic shouting coming from speakers outside our apartment. I apprehensively rushed out to take a look, imagining ominous black flags and machine guns. Turns out it was a guy riding a donkey pulling a cart of watermelons with a microphone and sound system peddling his wares.
5. The people are friendly... and helpful. Today was the first day I went to the open-air market without Richard and I had a much easier time than I anticipated. Egyptians jumped to my rescue several times translating and letting me know how to get a better deal. I can say "Bikam da?" in Arabic which means "How much is it?" but when I'm answered Arabic I am quite lost. There has always been someone to help out, either a merchant or a customer. I've had Egyptians greet me on the street with "Good Morning" or "Welcome" and seem pleased when I understand them and answer in English (although I am working on my Arabic.)
So my determination to dip my toes in the sea was crushed by human weakness. Namely, a head cold. I spent yesterday on the couch mopping up the copious amounts of mucous exiting my nose and feeling sorry for myself. A day at the beach was not super appealing in my feverish state so we decided against it.
This morning I felt like I was on the mend so we went to the Qaitbay Citadel, a 15th-century defensive fortress on the Mediterranean coast, about a half-hour drive from our apartment.
We used Uber for the first time and it was a success. We were picked up within a few minutes and the fare was only 24 LE (about 4 CAD).
When we arrived at 3:45pm we learned the Citadel closes at 4pm. Of course. So instead we went for a walk along the sea. Another. Long. Hot. Walk.
For me, the best part of the day was successfully directing the Uber in Arabic on the return journey using my handy dandy Phrasebook.
So, strike two for planning outings. One of these days we will get it right. For now, here is a photo of the outside of the Citadel.
Yesterday we joined another family to explore the beach, about a 15-minute walk from where we live. The busy streets on the way to the beach were lined with fancy air-conditioned shops, open air convenience stands, food trucks and corn roasting stations. Vendors shouted over the cacophony of car horns. Colourful billboards towered over us and monochrome buildings over them. Every where I turned my senses were overwhelmed with colours, sounds and smells.
Crossing busy roads was like a twisted version of frogger. To cross one must confidently step in front of a car while fervently hoping they actually stop. The right of way does not seem to be dictated by traffic rules, but by boldness, whether pedestrian or car. It is a world away from the Yukon where cars slow down if they even think a pedestrian is considering crossing the road. Miraculously none of us were hit. On the way back we creepily stalked an Egyptian woman to get across El Horreya at a zebra crossing and in order to traverse the last lane we had to squeeze through two cars and pray they didn't accelerate.
Mercifully there was a pedestrian tunnel under El Cournish Road (the main road along the sea). By then I was very hot and eager to dip my toes in the cool sea. We approached several entrances to the beach but we were turned away because they were members-only beaches. Eventually one of our companions discovered that to get a spot on the public beach you need to be there at 10am and it costs 200 LE (about 20 British pounds or 33 Canadian dollars) per adult. Alternatively there was another beach 6 miles away where we might have better luck. At that point I could feel the rivulets of sweats making their way down my legs slowly gain the momentum approaching a small creek and opted to head back, once again facing the gauntlet of traffic, trains and vendors.
We haven't given up. Tomorrow we've decided to take a taxi to a beach further from the city where the teachers usually go on week-ends. I'm determined - my toes will meet sea this time!