Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Alexandria, anyone?


They call it Alex here, by the way, not Alexandria... the fabled city built by Alexander the Great. The largest port in Egypt, home of the famous light tower (now in the sea) and the Library of Alexandria, once the most famous in all the world.
Getting here was a snap. I took the Cairo metro to the train station, and paid 48 pounds (or about $9) for a first class ticket to Alex. I had a woman in front of me in full Muslim-wear, with even her hands covered and just her eyes showing... and all she did the whole ride was read the Koran and talk on her cellphone!
I tipped the porter 2 pounds, which is standard, and he looked down at the money like I had handed him a turd. He never spoke English to me until then, when he said/demanded "5 pounds!" I wasn't up for the argument, over 60 cents, so I gave him the five pound note. And then he was all smiles the rest of the way.
Another "trick" I've seen in Egypt is that you go into a cafe and, say, order a juice. But they'll also bring you something extra, like a bottle of water or a roll, to see if you'll eat or drink it and then have to pay for it. Happens all the time.
Or they'll also refuse to show you the menu, and just yell "Just order, what you want?!" But you have to always find out the prices, because I've learned that a can of diet coke can cost anywhere from 6 to 20 pounds....
If I were to maybe do anything over here, I'd open a "service industry training" company. I can't believe how poorly trained the staff are at so many places. OK, I'm sure they train them better at the five-star places, but I can't afford them. I'm not kidding when I tell you that I was standing at the reception desk at the hotel the other day, and four of them were all trying to do something, or look for something. After quite a ruckus, one guy finally got what he was after: a rubber band! All of that while three of us stood there waiting to check in.
During Ramadan, you feel bad just guzzling water in the heat, and I find that I will "sneak" sips of water, because the Muslims can't drink or eat anything until sunset.
The pace in Alex is nice, however, or much nicer than Cairo. Yes, it's still noisy, but not as dirty. You often see people washing the inside of their cafe, or the sidewalk, which I never saw in Cairo. I love when it then quiets down at sunset while people eat and pray, and watch TV. But then around 9 pm or so, the streets start to fill up again as people all go out strolling, or shopping. The fireworks start, and the cotton candy vendors appear as they honk their "goose horns" to let the kids know they're around. The men all make their way to the cafes where they get a coffee and stoke up a "shisha," the waterpipe. (I guess they're more popular in Alex than in Cairo because the humidity doesn't dry them out as fast.) There are small street carnivals, as well as everything else open late -- barbershops, upholstery shops, cleaners, etc. etc. (I was told that Ramadan is more of a religious holiday, but it seems like a festival in my book!)
You'll also see people praying anywhere: the lobby of a building, on the street, or at a gas station where they seemed to be waiting for their cars to be repaired or cleaned, and get in a few prayers as well. Guys will either have a small carpet to pray on, or many places (especially during Ramadan) will lay out vast carpets for people to use for prayers.
The locals often stare at my legs if I'm wearing shorts, I've noticed. Not that I have great legs, altho they are WHITE, but I've also observed that none of the men here wear shorts, not even below the ankle. I'm not sure what that's all about, but I do find that I "blend in" more if I wear long pants.
I'm also just beginning to understand the nuances of woman and scarves. Some wear none, which means they're probably Christian, or a very liberal Muslim. Others wear just head scarf, while the most religious (and militant) wear the full gear.
By the way, they do publish the five prayer times in the papers here, in case you missed hearing the calls to prayer booming out of each mosque.
My hotel in Alex, the lovely New Capry, gave me a room with a view of the Mediterranean with bath and breakfast for $15/night. No joke, 75 pounds. True, many of you probably wouldn't want to stay there, but it's fine for me, even with relatively soft pillows, and eight channels of cable TV, all in Arabic except for one channel that shows Hanna-Barbera cartoons 24-=hours a day (maybe for Ramadan?). They also did a whole pile of my clothes for $4. Gotta love it.
There are also cooking shows, all with women chefs, who seem to prepare variations of the same thing: onions sauteed, with ground beef and spices, mixed with couscous and topped with cheese and parsley. At least that's what I seem to get from it.
Out on my nightly walks, I spotted a street vendor mixing up some concoction, which turned out to be liver, kidney and god-knows-what (from sheep, I think). One guy just slices, while another sort of boils/sautees the meat in oil, then drains it and puts it on what amounts to a hot dog bun. It was dark, but I'll try and get back for a pic of it.
And then there's Mohammed... He's a kid (22 years old) who I met in a coffee shop. I thought he was Christian, because he was drinking coffee during the day, but it turns out he's more of a "bad boy" Muslim. His friends came to meet him, and their names are Dick and Jack (I kid you not, Jack for Jack Daniels). I think these are the "hip kids" of Alex, because they all have money, and they showed me family ID cards where the dads are in the government in some capacity.
One might, Mo said they wanted to take me to a special place... I said no, but they really wanted me to see this place. Of course, I was sure I was going to be killed and they would rob me for the $20 I had on me... But it turned out to be a place near where they make boats where the "hip kids of Alex" all go to smoke hash!
Now, before you freak out, of course I didn't smoke any (the thought of being stoned in Alexandria was too much to comtemplate), and I even left early. They understood, and even walked me out to the street and helped me catch a taxi back to the hotel. Never a dull moment, eh?
I spent a few hours at the new Biblioteca, or the new Alex Library. It's quite a building, massive in fact, and relatively new. It houses several museums, as well as a planetarium and many auditoriums for concerts and lectures. It can eventually house a million books, but they're also quite progressive with their new media and internt use. There's a huge exhibit of Shadi Abdel Salam, the Egyptian director who made one big movie in 1969 called "The Night of Counting the Years." Anyone seen it, you movie buffs? They had production stills from it, as well as costume renderings and a reproduction of his library.
Also, I take it that someone "took" this enormous column called "Cleopatra's Needle," and it now sits in Central Park, NYC??? Anyone know anything about that one??
I'm more and more convinced that the best time to live must've been the 1920s, between the wars but before the Great Depression. Just looking at the photo exhibit of life in Alex during those years, there was such a renaissance of architecture and building... it must've been incredible to be here during that time. Of course, it's been on a gradual decline ever since, as is the case in so many places.
I asked about getting a manicure here, and they just laughed at me... "Men don't get these things." Imagine if I'd asked for a mani AND a pedi!
Oh, and I saw my first flat screen TV here. I knew they had to be here!
And here's a pic of Mo, my buddy in Alex:

I think I'll stay here in Alex until Saturday the 13th, and then head to the Sinai. Unless you have a better idea?? Mo wants to go to Dahab, in the Sinai, with me, and he says he has the money to do it. He just wants to travel, and he has ten days off before he starts school. We'll see.
I found out that my hotel has no computers, but it has an ethernet connection with DSL! So I'll try and upload more pix, as time allows.