This blog was originally designed to keep me sane as I began learning Arabic. It morphed into a blog of musings about Arabic, the Middle East, and the Islamic World, as well as book reviews about those topics. Then, the blog became a place to keep my family and friends updated on my adventures while I was living abroad. During May and June of 2012, I had a 6-week long internship in Cairo, Egypt through a international student organization called AIESEC. I taught English at the Awladi Orphanage in Cairo, home to several hundred children. I lived in an apartment in Nasr City before moving to Maadi (each is a distinct area of Cairo). I experienced President Mursi's election, camped in the western desert, rode camels by the pyramids, and had countless other experiences. I have since moved past this blog, on towards new endeavors, but if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment! Enjoy!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Alexandria Trip

 ALEXANDRIA TRIP (Thursday and Friday)


Alexandria was so nice! The plan was to travel light (we each had only a backpack with us that held all of our possessions) and see as much as we could in a day and a half.
Thursday, we arrived around 2:30 p.m. and went to meet Faria at the Citadel. The Citadel is picture perfect with the blue sky and ocean behind it. It’s a relatively modern structure, and it sort of reminded me of some of the Civil War era forts that are built on the coast of the U.S.
After this, we went to find our hotel. Before arriving, I had made a list of low-budget hotels based on a list from WikiTravel. We checked out the Acropole, a place that friends of ours had stayed previously, first. It was situated behind the famous Cecil Hotel and fashioned out of old rooms from Alexandria’s heyday in the 19th century. As you should always do in this country, we asked to see the rooms before we booked. The double room for Sherin and I was relatively all right, but the guys rooms looked pretty sketchy (bugs, dirt, grimy windows). It could have worked out okay for the night, but I suggested we check out a hotel across the alley before we made a decision.
We rode the old (and I mean OLD) elevator up to the other hotel (each of these “hotels” is just a couple of rooms on a floor in buildings that were once grand hotels).
We walked into the first room at the Normandy Hotel, and we were sold. It had two balconies, beautiful sea views, right on the Corniche. We could have the room for 100 pounds a night (as opposed to the 200 pounds for rooms at the Acropole). This came out to 25 pounds apiece! This is less than what I paid for dinner! The room was obviously once very grand, but the ornate fixtures and furniture had seen better days. The bathroom was clean and located a few steps down the hall, shared between the 9 bedrooms that made up the hotel. The room had a sink, vanity, wardrobe, double bed, and two twin beds.
We spent a few minutes lounging around the room and enjoying the balcony before going out to get dinner for the night. We sat along the Corniche for dinner, picking a restaurant with outdoor seating so we could watch the waves. The rest of the night was spent walking along the water and talking. At one point, we went into the famous Cecil hotel and rode the elevator up to the restaurant on the top to see the view.
We woke early the next morning, partially because we wanted an early start, and partially because I was put in charge of getting everyone up. I was up early; the huge dip in the mattress wouldn’t allow me to sleep comfortably, and we left the balcony doors open, allowing me to wake with the sunrise. I sat in the chair outside for a bit, enjoying the quiet morning (at night, cities in Egypt are SO loud). Then, I woke everyone up for the day. Sherin is always the most fun, because she opens her eyes only a little bit and uses a tiny little girl voice to agree with whatever I say to her, just wanting me to go away and let her sleep longer. She only got up once she saw that Victor was getting up, because he loves to pester her while she’s sleepy.
To check out of the hotel, we had to wake the manager up. He was sleeping in the first bedroom, and it took him a minute to orientate himself and find the keys. Staying in little hotels like that is a bit like staying in someone’s house. He let us in and out of the “front door” (the entrance to the hotel in front of the elevator on the fourth floor). To return, we had to ring to doorbell and hope that he heard us so that he could let us into the hotel.
We went out to get breakfast, and we quickly realized that no one is up at 8 a.m. in Egypt. Also, they don’t serve/eat breakfast. We ended up buying Moltos (big Nutella-filled croissants) and yoghurt drinks from the snack stand down the street and sitting at a café while the guys ordered coffee.
Our first order of business for the day was to visit the Kom al-Dikka ruins next to the Greco-Roman museum. The ruins were nice; they included a Roman theater, baths, a villa, etc. I must admit that after seeing a model of a Roman house in Germany with Max, seeing the ruins of one isn’t quite as cool. However, it was interesting to see how the new buildings were right up next to the archeological finds.
Before we left, we asked a couple of women how much it would cost to take a taxi to the next stop. We also asked them the best way to get to several of the other places we wanted to go, and this saved us much stress and many pounds later. The locals know the distances and best routes.
From there, we had our coolest stop of the day: the Catacombs of Kom al-Shuqafa. It’s an elaborate Roman burial complex under Alexandria. The tombs were very, very interesting. The entire place smelled like an old cellar. There was a mix of Roman and Pharonic depictions on them, showing that (much like we saw in Coptic Cairo), there’s never a clear line when it comes to tradition and religious practices. We wandered around underground for a while; thinking about how creepy it must have been when there were still bodies in all of the tombs. Victor said it felt like something out of Indiana Jones.
After this, we crossed town to go to the Biblioteca Alexandrina (the world famous library in Alexandria). The building is beautiful, brand new and carved with letters, hieroglyphs, pictograms, and symbols from every known alphabet. We were so excited, and the library was supposed to be the highlight of our trip. Then, we arrived and found that it was closed on Fridays. Yes, closed. Apparently, since the revolution, they’ve closed it for maintenance and security. We were so upset/pissed/depressed. We begged the guards at each entrance, just for a peek inside. We didn’t have to see the ancient manuscripts; to learn about the Alexandrian scholars who first measured the earth’s circumference and discovered the central nervous system. We just wanted a peek inside at the vast building (go look up pictures of it!). Alas, the guards each called their managers, and they all said no. It seemed as though security had been heightened extremely for this building, much more so than any other I’ve seen in Egypt. We even walked into an “employees only” entrance, and tried to talk the guy into taking us in. He, like the other guards, obviously would have taken us in had he could.
We moped around the outside and then decided to go to Cilantro for lunch. We sat on the rooftop of Cilantro for several hours, talking and ordering food to drown our sorrows. We had sea views as well as a view of the Biblioteca, so it was nice. The best part of Alex was honestly the weather. Sitting there on the roof, we were not hot at all. It was so, so much cooler than the rest of Egypt, thanks to the Mediterranean Sea.
After this, we went out to the seaside road and got on a microbus. Let me explain the concept of a microbus: they are like taxis in that they are privately owned and will stop whenever you want. However, they can hold many more people, they run along a set route, and it costs less than 2 pounds to ride along this route. Thus, by taking this bus, we went from spending 30 pounds on a taxi across Alex to paying 1.5 pounds/each for a trip on the bus. Victor and I sat up with the driver, getting an excellent view of the coast as we rode. It was a long ride in traffic, but nice to be riding without thinking about how much the fare would be (this piece of mind was actually true for any taxi in Alex as well, because they each required that you agree on a set price beforehand. Unlike Cairo, they do not use meters in Alex. This works in your favor, but only if you know how much the ride should cost. We overpaid several times; overestimating the distance we would be travelling. However, by pre-setting a price, you don’t have to worry about traffic delays or if he is taking the right route there. It is in his best interest to get you there as quickly as possible).
We rode out to the Montazah Palace Gardens. The Montazah Palace served as Mubarak’s summer home (before he was kicked out of office, obviously), but it also once served as a Red Cross hospital by the British during WWI, and, originally, as a royal palace. The grounds are the real draw, though. Everything is so nicely kept and very green! There were many families having picnics, flying kites, playing soccer (it struck Sherin and I as funny to see women in niqab doing all of these things). We walked around for a bit and then decided we wanted to find the beach. There is a private cove on the far side that we figured we’d go see.
Little did we know, private cove does not mean “private to the visitors of the gardens,” but it means “private to the rich people who own villas in the gardens.” Victor, Sherin, and I decided to walk out on the beach anyways, Shubhum trailing behind. We took pictures and went down to touch the water, acting the part of the dumb tourists who don’t realize they are in the wrong place. A couple of young workers came up and were trying to get us to leave, but we acted as though we could not understand. At one point, I turned to Victor and asked, “What is the problem? I do not understand what they want.” Except, I said it in Spanish.
This turned out to be the best idea possible. At this point, not only were we tourists, but we were dumb tourists and we didn’t speak English. The workers gave up, allowing us to walk further down the beach. Shubhum and Sherin wandered off. Another worker came up to Victor and I and said, “this is a private beach, you will have to leave.” But, I replied in the same way as before, this time with Victor joining in.  The guy tried again, saying “you may take some photos, but leave after that.” At this, I exclaimed “Fotografia!” Victor took off his shoes and socks, running out to the waves. I clicked away at my camera. The guy found us entertaining (like the other guys, he was young and obviously didn’t really care if we were there or not). Sherin and Shubhum came over and got in the water too. I was still taking photos, so I handed my camera over to the guy who wanted us to leave, slid off my sandals, and ran into the waves to with everyone. We posed for a picture, all of us laughing at the absurdity of the situation. All this time, Victor and I (still in Spanish) are making random exclamations about how beautiful the sea is, how nice the day, etc, etc.
Our expedition to the waves turned out fabulously, and we walked back up the hill to lie in the grass for an hour or so until we needed to catch our train. Some of my favorite memories of Alex will be times just relaxing by the sea.
We went to the train station to make sure that we knew our platform number. On the way to the station, which was in a poorer area of town, I noticed many men out with long beards and galabeyas on (the long shirts; I’m not sure how to spell the word in English). After we had checked out tickets, we went out of the station to get food to eat on the ride home. We visited a bakery to pick up sweets for desert (yummy croissants and sweet rolls). On our way out, we saw more and more people coming out to the street. I saw several Egyptian flags, and I turned to Victor and said, “the elections?” We began asking people on the street what was going on, and realized that Mursi had been elected president. This was the reason for all of the men I had seen earlier. At the end of the street, people were gathering, waving flags, speaking through bullhorns. We could not tell if they were Mursi supporters or protestors. On closer inspection, they were definitely supporters. I wanted a closer look, but I knew that as a foreigner, I should not get too close. We made our way up to the edge of the crowd, trying to look like we didn’t really know what was happening (which was partially true). We had people explain to us what was going on, acting wide-eyed. I had put my big camera away halfway up the street, because the last thing I wanted was to look like a journalist (earlier, I had taken a photo of a guy waving a flag, and his friend came to get me to make sure that I would not be posting the photos on the internet, because it could get him in trouble later. I assured him that I was in Egypt for vacation only, and that the photos would not be published). It was very cool to get to experience this sort of a gathering first-hand.
As the crowd grew and the hour grew later, we decided we needed to head back to the station. As we walked back down the road, a huge crowd of people was marching towards the direction we were coming from. We moved to the side as they passed, seeing the men with long beards chanting and carrying flags first and then seeing an equal sized group of women in hijabs and conservative dress coming behind them (obviously, men and women couldn’t be marching together). These were clearly Mursi supporters.
We got back down the road, picked up some shawarma and drinks for dinner, and ran to catch our train.
We had a fascinating conversation on the ride home about what this election would mean for Egypt. The thing is about this election is how unpredictable it really was. Both men promise many of the same things: stability, uncorrupt practices, democracy, etc. Polling estimates pre-election in Egypt are not as reliable as they are in the states or Europe.
Victor and I agreed that the thing with electing Mursi as that while they don’t know what they’re going to get from him, they know they don’t want the old regime (which is what they equate with Shafiq). So, they would rather risk the unknown than have the revolution be for naught.
The interesting thing is that predictions of who would win were so hard to make. Victor’s co-workers are from the same social class and hold similar jobs, but each predicted a different candidate for different reasons. When I was riding horses at the pyramids, my guide asked me what I thought of the elections in Egypt and whom I thought would win. I gave a very noncommittal response, saying it’s really based on who can play the political scene into his favor. He was adamant that Shafiq would win, saying that the people would not accept Mursi.
This I am not so sure of. Over the past decade, Egypt has become more conservative. Being out during the election announcement really highlighted this point. Men and women were very covered up. Victor commented that Egypt was starting to look more like Saudi Arabia than it does Morocco (Morocco tends to more on the liberal side of the spectrum).
In the train station home, we saw many men out to go to rallies (for or against Mursi, it was hard to tell). Especially as we moved through Sadat station, the large transit hub in Cairo, there were many people on the move. We saw people carrying signs to get off at Tahrir. Men in long robes, beards, and caps (the look of the Muslim Brotherhood) were marching through the corridors of the station, shouting chants. As we walked through the tunnel out, I turned to Sherin and asked, “Is it bad that I’m having a strong urge to cover my hair?” It was intimidating, and I could not have been happier that Victor and Shubhum were with us.
We went home, showered, and met our friends for a felucca ride on the Nile. Tomorrow is Paul’s last day, so we’ve been celebrating.
I found out that the announcement of Mursi’s win was not the official announcement. That is supposed to come sometime today.

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