Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Mediterranean Adventures - Part 11 (Alexandria Egypt)

Egypt was HOT…sunny and hot (then again what do you expect; it was the Middle East in early September). We knew conservative dress was recommended, but the heat made us question walking around fully head to toe covered. Dana and I both wore sleeveless shirts with long skirts and brought shawls or cardigans for mosques. Well about 50ft from the ship, we quickly put the shawls on permanently because all the cab drivers were gawking.

We decided to explore the historic Alexandria ourselves since the majority of sights to see were within 5 miles of the port. Well stepping out of the port gates, we were immediately accosted by cab drivers, horse buggy drivers, and “tour guides”. They wouldn’t take no for an answer even though we did our sternest brushoffs and harshest “NO!”

In our haste to get away from the mob, we took a wrong turn down a sketchy street. I admit I totally got us lost (even though I am king at map reading) because my map was in English and all the street signs were in Arabic/Aramaic script. I would say “well we need to be on Bab El Akndar street…but I don’t know what the hell that swiggle line with random dots says”. The street was all deserted and dirty, and we half expected to find a dead body in the gutter. Dana commented that it was the slumdog part of town. After about 5 minutes of walking (and praying for our lives), we turned around and headed back.

Luckily, we ran into other cruise vacationers. We quickly joined up with two middle-aged Germen women and a young couple from Canada. Safety in numbers huh. Since we had six people, it was too much for a carriage and the harassers backed off.
We made it as far as the busy central roundabout before stopping a man in a suit for directions. Apparently his foreign language of choice was German, not English. I guess all of the Egyptian school children are required to learn German, French, or English (the three major economic sources for the area). Too bad only the shady con artists chose English.

Somehow we navigated through the dirty crowded street to the East Harbor. We walked along the shore road to the Citadel Qait Bey. This fort was built on the foundation of the Pharos Lighthouse (one of the seven ancient wonders of the world...the third one we had seen so far). The fort overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and was used to defend the city during the crusades. Too bad it didn't take US dollars and we didn't know of anywhere to change money, so we were denied entrance (hence the sad faces).

Continuing back along the harbor, we passed the ship building boat yards and took pictures like tourists. We were passed by some of the same buggy drivers that harassed us at the port exit.

We passed the mosque of Abu-Al-Abbas Al-Mursi (say that three times fast). We were allowed to take pictures in the woman’s section which is in the back (which by the way why do women always get the small rear view and are hidden behind all the fences). The police offered to take pictures of us for a fee. Yep the guide book warned us about this, that no one will do anything nice unless it is for a price.
We kept the tradition alive with a jumping picture, although I don’t think the men appreciated our foolery around their landmark.

We passed what we believe is to be the tomb of the Unknown Soldier or a war memorial (the map said it was something something swiggle).

Walking in the hot Egyptian sun was not a preferred method of transportation, but we weren’t willing to be that adventurous with the alternatives. The guide book mentioned the “shared taxis” that made the rounds in the streets. They looked more like gutted minivans with a large sliding cargo door. They would slowly pull up to the curb and people would hop on and off (note they didn’t stop at all, the switches happened on the fly). The cargo door wouldn’t even shut and they would just drive around with it wide open.

The library was around 3 miles walk from the fort. Of course it was super sunny and hot (early September hello!). Unfortunately it was also Ramadan so all of the eateries and shops were closed. We were miserable with parched throats and finally a shop keeper took pity on us and sold us some fizzy bubbly (soda with real sugar). Again we offended the locals by openly gulping down our drinks and complaining about not being able to get a sandwich.

The library was worth the walk though. Outside in the plaza were markings that would act as a big sundial if you stood in the right spot.

The moat wall was covered in writing from every known written language. The building architecture itself was a myriad of pyramids (representing ancient times) and light. The guards were nice and let us in to marvel at it.

We cut through the city center on our way back. I had a fleeting hope of shopping for some exotic souvenirs, but we couldn’t get past the awkward foreigner vibe.

We did walk right into the market full of spices, vegetables, and live animals for the slaughter. Yes, live goats, sheep, and chickens with freshly butchered carcasses strung up. It was crowded and we basically pushed our way through which was tricky since the street was full of potholes full of dirty water. Yeah the dirty water was not pleasant. The revolting thing was when merchants would scoop up the pothole water and pour it back down over the fish and clams.

Dana would giggle at every donkey cart that we passed in the street.

Upon returning to the boat, I thought we had a pretty authentic adventurous day. Well some other tourists had a wilder ride than us. We learned of the city tour scam from a middle aged couple. Apparently one of the taxi drivers that harassed everyone at the port offered the couple a two hour tour of the city for $50. Seemed like a good deal right. Well after the two hours the cabbie drove them to a remote shady area of town and demanded several hundred dollars or else he would leave them right there. The couple didn’t tell me how much they ended up paying but the tour was unanimously declared a bad idea. This would be the first of several scams we learned about in Egypt. More to come in the next post…


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