Friday, January 1, 2010

Lost in Africa (almost)

Add to Google Reader or HomepageIt started as a beautiful day for a trip to Alexandria. We got up early to get the metro to the train station. Five adults (Ed, Karlice, Ruth, Ellen and I) walking in single file behind Tish on our way to the metro station. (Sidewalks are not very good, so one walks in the street trying to stay out of the way of the cars.) We dutifully waited for Tish to give us our metro tickets but, unlike the lemmings we had been to that point, we pushed and shoved our way onto the already packed metro.

We got off at the Mubarak metro station and walked to the adjoining train station. The train was faster than we enjoy riding on Amtrak in Michigan and, a little more than two hours later, we were in Alexandria. We had sped through miles and miles of farmland heading to the lowest part of Lower Egypt. On the train, we all looked at Tish’s tourist guide and suggested a few sights that we might like to see though mainly we wanted to see old Alexandria and the Mediterranean Sea. The train stopped and as we started gathering our things, Tish told us that there are two train stations in Alexandria and we would not get off the train until we were at the second, “end of the line” train station.

Since there were six of us, we had to take two taxis to the Corniche – the promenade along the Mediterranean Sea in the harbor of Alexandria. It was gorgeous: sunny and warm. In other words, it was a great day – a great day for a day trip. We stopped at an historic coffee shop for breakfast. We then walked along the Corniche to the new Alexandria library built on the site of the original library. Ellen almost became one with the fender of a car and/or the pavement as we tried to cross six lanes of traffic to get to the library entrance. Ellen avoided injury but we all wondered why Ptolemy – who built the original library – would chose to put the library on the wrong side of the road when he first ordered its construction.

We backtracked along the Corniche to a hotel that had a roof-top café from which we got to see the whole harbor and to enjoy 25 £-minimum drinks. (About £ 5.60 Egyptian equals one dollar.) While on the roof-top café, it actually started to sprinkle thus validating the weather forecast that we had read the evening before and the prediction of the taxi driver who said: “Rain? Maybe one minute!” We continued west to the fish market enjoying the rainbow that the few seconds of rain brought. We had an early dinner so that we could get the 7:00 PM train back to Cairo.
 Then the beautiful tapestry we had woven with the experiences of our day started to unravel. We started walking east along the Corniche slowly as we tried to hail a taxi. When the first taxi stopped, Ellen or Ruth asked the driver how much to go to the train station. The taxi driver didn’t seem to understand, so I said “Train station – 20 pounds?” to which the taxi driver nodded okay. Ruth, Ellen and I climbed in and sped away. We had never been to Alexandria before but we had studied Tish’s book some and knew when the driver sped past the right turn to the train station that we were heading for trouble. I asked Ellen for Tish’s guide book but Ellen had given it to Tish. Ellen got out her cell phone and tried calling Tish without luck. We told the driver who was heading east along the coast at breakneck speed that he was going in the wrong direction. He stopped and asked a young woman if she spoke English. We told her we wanted to go to the train station to go to Cairo. Ruth was in the back seat making “choo-choo” sounds. The young woman seemed to understand us and tried to explain to the driver where he needed to go. A second woman/friend seemed to confirm what the first young woman had said.
The driver said something and we were off again racing east along the harbor road. I said “la” which is "no" in Arabic. I then began singing “la, la, la, la” from “Deck the Halls” and the driver finally pulled over again and asked for directions again. We offered our pleas. After another exchange in Arabic, we were off again but this time, we went only a short distance and turned right. Right into what appeared to be a 12-lane traffic jam. Actually, there were only six lanes but lane lines are pretty much a waste of paint for the way people drive in Egypt squeezing cars into spaces not made for another car.

The taxi driver inched his way through the traffic and, after what felt like a half hour, pointed to a building off to the left and started saying: “Train! Train!” He then pulled off to the right and let us out. We jumped out and I paid him but he wanted more money because he had driven so far. (Now he speaks English!) I sang another chorus of Deck the Halls and we started inching our way across the 12 lanes of traffic and then went quickly to the train platform. We started asking about which platform was for Cairo and folks told us/pointed to the middle platform. Ellen kept trying to call Tish but without luck. Ellen said this is not the right station but I disagreed and pointed to the name on the wall. The name on the wall in English spelling was “Mahattat Sidi Gaber.” I can be so assertive when I am wrong! The train station where Tish, Karlice and Ed were – and where we should have been was “Mahattat Misr.” We started asking each other if we should go and try to buy tickets (Tish had the tickets!)

Ellen said that she was going to go outside to look for Tish, Karlice and Ed. Ruth wisely told her that we needed to stay together and then started asking people about the train to Cairo. While she was trying to make herself understood when talking to an Egyptian soldier, a man who overheard her interrupted saying: “I can help you.” He said that we were at the second train station but that the train would stop to take us to Cairo. Ruth asked him if he had a cell phone. He did and he called the number and connected with Tish. Tish said that they were looking for us at the first train station. Ellen told them to board and we would get on at the second station and all would be fine. Then Ruth or Ellen asked about our train car so that we could be ready to board at the right place. We heard “Car 4” and the man confirmed that we should wait at the spot where Car 4 would stop. He told us that he was in Car 7 if we needed his help again. (The man in the picture was our interpreter/cell-phone owner/savior.)
 About two minutes later, the train to Cairo pulled into the station where we were waiting. We boarded Car 4 – but Tish, Karlice and Ed were not there. We went running for Car 7 and our interpreter (and his telephone) checking the cars as we passed. When we arrived at Car 7, we saw Ed sitting at a window seat. Karlice was with him. Tish had left the train and was on the platform yelling our names but we found her a moment later.)

We all hugged. Tish gave us our tickets and we sped off into the night toward Cairo. For the next two and one half hours, one could hear spontaneous laughter coming from Car 7 as we looked at each other and laughed our relief.


Add to Google Reader or Homepage

As we walked between tombs in the Valley of the Kings just west of Luxor, we passed a young woman wearing a Santa hat. It was only then that I realized that it was Christmas day. Not being aware of the date or the holiday is one of the aspects that underscores this vacation to Egypt. The loss of orientation is not simply the luxury of vacation and forgetting the day, it comes from the cultural slap upside the head – and my head is still spinning.
 My head is still spinning because we left the quiet life of Vaison la Romaine and have come to the second largest city in the world. And the third world. And the home of 5,000 years of documented history. And the place where the dust raised in the desert and in the streets of the cities never gets washed off of leaves or buildings because it never rains. And where the smog can be so thick you can’t see the pyramids. And where the first “wake up” call is the Moslem call to prayers at 5:30 AM. And where the calls to prayer come from so many minarets in so many mosques that they compete for your attention. And where city services have failed to keep pace with population and that means, among other things, garbage is not collected. And where the pollution from plastic – be it plastic water bottles or plastic bags – is overwhelming. And where I feel safer than I do in most cities in the US…

At the same time, my head is spinning because it is amazing to view the temples and pyramids, fortresses and early mosques and try to fathom the skill, craftsmanship and engineering required for their construction. For example, red granite was quarried in Aswan in the south of Egypt and then transported on the Nile to the sites where it would be used as coffins or sarcophagi or as a statue or obelisk or as part of a wall… One of the obelisks from Luxor (Karnak) is at the center of the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Another obelisk – “Cleopatra’s Needle” – stands in Central Park (New York) both transported from Egypt via modern ships (I think)… Our guide told us that some of the pieces weighed more than 200 tons. What kind of boats did they have 4,000 years ago to carry such weights? And then once at the destination, where did they have to go to rent a crane to lift it into place? The pyramids, the Sphinx, and the burial tombs and the elaborate drawings and carvings therein have been preserved well though the relics and icons did not fare as well due to centuries of looting. Archeologists and Egyptologists continue to uncover more sites…

My head is spinning because I thought that France was the “scarf capitol” of the world. After seeing the creative ways women here wear scarves, I am beginning to think that Egypt seems closer to the scarf fashion epi-center. The majority of Moslem women – the majority of women here – have their heads covered. They create fashion statements with the scarves that they wear. Most younger women wear multiple scarves which are always beautiful and well-coordinated with their other garments.

Whether in Cairo or in Luxor, internet connections are readily available and that makes my head spin too. Skype, e-mail, Google work here as well as in France or in the US. Technological advances in communication cross the divides faster than air mail. We were talking about movies and learned that within 24 hours of the release of a movie in the states, bootleg copies are available in the markets here. When I stop being dizzy from spinning, I return to a state of amazement. Awesome vacation. Awesome world.