4 days and 3 nights in Alexandria with my Egyptian friends
01.03.2010 - 04.03.2010 18 °C
I was very excited at the prospect of spending part of my school holiday in Alexandria with 3 of the Egyptian teaching assistants from work. We don't get much opportunity to talk during the school day and I really enjoy discussing life and the interesting and different aspects of British and Egyptian culture.
Concerned about the Monday morning traffic, I set off at 6am from Al Rehab to get to Rameses Train Station in the centre of Cairo. In reality at this time the roads were deserted and the hour long journey took only 35 minutes. That left me with an hour to kill until I met my friends.
In most western countries, the train station is a relatively common place for all kinds of people to be hanging around. I noticed all too soon however, that a tall, blonde, white skinned female was not a common sight for the many Egyptian male commuters. I didn't get hassled but there were many stares from the men passing me by.
It was surprisingly cold that morning (14 degrees celcius) so I took myself inside the station to avoid the wind. I entered a coffee shop near the platforms and managed to get a cheese roll and a Turkish coffee for 16LE (about 1 pound 80). As I sat drinking the smooth, black, clove flavoured coffee I had a feeling of calm...nowhere to be at that point and nothing to do except for consider how I was there, in a station cafe in Egypt, as a resident but feeling like a traveller. I people watched for a while, considered ordering another coffee, but then thought better of it as the guy in the cafe had described the coffee as 'strong' and I'm not great at dealing with large amounts of caffeine. Turkish coffee is to coffee what cocktails are to alchohol...silent and deadly!
As the clock rolled on, I stood outside the station, people-watching and analysing everything from the fruit shop tucked under the concrete bridge to the clean white leather boot covers of the station guard. An alien world that I was hoping would become more understandable as I spent more time amongst my Egyptian friends.
True to form the girls turned up with only minutes to spare before our train left for Alexandria. What should have been a 5 minute taxi ride from thier apartments had taken 25 because of the traffic. We ran into the station, onto the platform, and squeezed past the crowds onto the train. We edged through 5 carriages to get to our seats in the 2nd class section of the train. A second class ticket cost 35LE each way (about 4 pounds), the seats were comfortable, spacious and the carriage had air conditioning.
The train took 2 and a half hours to get to Alexandria and then we took a taxi to the girl's hotel. As a 'foreigner' I wasn't allowed to stay at the military hotel where the girls had booked a suite. It was only 130LE per night between 3 of them and the suite was big enough for 6 people! I ended up getting a rather shabby room at the back of the 'Regency' Hotel (not anywhere near as fancy as the name suggests!) for the 'local' price of 250LE per night. I was pretty shocked to see the normal room rate of $200 per night when I was paying $30!
The weather was sunny and cool with a fresh breeze off the sea. We visited Qaitbay Castle and then went out in a rowing boat round the harbour. Apparently it was illegal for the guy to take out a tourist but he let me come anyway.
By the time the boat came back to shore we were all pretty hungry. We got in a minibus taxi and sped along to the 4 Seasons Hotel on the seafront. The hotel is a phenomenal building with a cinema complex and shopping mall in the basement. I was looking forward to eating at some local Egyptian restaurant for lunch but it seems that Egyptian girls on holiday like to eat at the food court in the mall!
After a bit of shopping we went to Costa to relax and then had an early night. I was glad to get back to the hotel and watch some TV, but I did feel a bit strange being tucked away at the back of the hotel with no windows out to the world. I had an interesting night trying to sleep while the music from the nightclub 7 floors down boomed up the walls until about 3am!
Diary entry, Tuesday 2nd March 2010
This morning at breakfast I realised that exploring Egypt is more like time travel than any other kind of travel. I feel like I woke up in 1980s Brighton, that had been taken over by Egyptians in an alternate universe!
Breakfast was awkward. Non-one was there besides a few miserable staff, confused by why I was there and more importantly, why I was there alone. I've had some new experiences over the last 24 hours. I took a taxi in order to cross a street; I used a lift in the hotel that had no internal door; I came to realise that while modern Egyptians are proud to be associated with their ancient ancestors, they are no more like the people of those times than I am. If only the British had taken over Alexandria, the library, which has the capacity for 8,000,000 books but holds only 500, 000 (donated by a Frenchman to President Mubarak), would be restored to its former glory as holding the most spectaculer collection of books in the world!
I didn't like the feeling I had that morning. It was a feeling that progress was too slow in this country and that Egypt had little to be proud of besides a history that they can cash in on and not protect.
After meeting the girls, we bought some breakfast and went down to the beach. We sat for a while, chatting and enjoying the sun, sand and sea.
That afternoon we visited the botanical gardens and sat out in the sun, overlooking the hotel, bay and lightohouse.
We spent the next couple of days at the cinema, shopping at Carrefour and chilling out in coffee shops. The most interesting part of the trip was talking to the girls about the expectations for young single girls in Egypt and the issues that reinforced my understanding of how Egyptian men can do anything they like but women are under pressure to conform to cultural and societal norms. It was strange to talk to women in their mid-twenties, who are still virgins and who look forward to being 'looked after' by a future husband...They have the experience and behaviour of naive teenagers and the aspirations of a 1950s housewife. I like these girls and perhaps we share a mutual interest in eachother as 'foreign' curiosities but I feel frustrated that they are not free to make, what westerners consider to be such important life decisions. I have to remind myself however, that in these cases ignorance is perhaps bliss.
On the final day I was glad to be going home to Al Rehab but grateful I was given the chance to experience Alexandria a little through the eyes of locals.