Northern Egypt March 11-17,
(without the bikes)
Alexandria's Brilliant Past
Our travels over the last 5 years cultivated a new interest in history for me and along the way had put Alexandria on the map--Alexandria was a place I needed to see. Alexandria, named for the dazzling Alexander the Great, was founded by him in 332 bce during his rampage towards India. His general, Ptolemy, realized Alexander's dream of transforming the former Mediterranean fishing village into one of the magnificent cities in the ancient world. It became a major port involved in trade between Europe and Asia, was fabulously wealthy, and an intellectual hotbed at its peak.
Its library of 500,000 volumes and its showpiece lighthouse, the Pharos, were 2 of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Scholars flocked to its research institute and everyone who was anyone wanted to be in Alexandria. And Alexandria was where Cleopatra, the last in the line of Egyptian pharaohs before the country succumbed to Rome, was from. Cairo, a little over a hundred miles to the southeast, didn't even exist when Alexandria was the greatest city in the ancient world.
And yet all that one can see today from this glorious era are a few chunks of stone. Alexandria disintegrated: earthquakes weakened or collapsed the grand structures and later generations happily quarried the rubble as other cities rose to prominence over the centuries. "This is where the lighthouse once stood, over there is where the library was...." is all that the imagination has to work with now. Modern Alexandria is a long skinny city wrapped around the slightly curved, beautiful bay, so one does get a sense of how appealing and strategic its location was if you pause to repaint the picture in your mind.
Actual rather than imaginary historical sightseeing in Alexandria is
primarily of the later Roman occupation. But even those sites were meager. The
Greco-Roman museum that was partially closed for renovation when the research
for our 2004 guidebook was done was now completely closed and only shoulder
shrugs came back when we asked when it was expected to reopen. Another newly
renovated museum was nicely appointed, but it was small and felt like a refrigerator after
an hour or 2 in the predetermined, 60° temperature.
Out and about we dutifully tracked down the lone Pompey's Pillar, which is the only ancient Alexandrian monument that is intact and still standing. It's huge with an almost 30' diameter but it isn't even Pompey's--it was really dedicated to another famous Roman, Diocletian. The Roman theatre and the floor mosaic (that required an additional fee to view) were worth a visit but looked like many others we'd seen.
The one unusual thing we saw in Alexandria was the catacombs of Kom Ash-Shuqqafa but unfortunately no photos were allowed. This 2nd century ce labyrinth is the largest Roman burial site known in Egypt and includes 3 stories of tombs and chambers. They were neatly and precisely cut into the rock and were accessed by a central spiral staircase, also cut into the rock, around a central shaft down which the bodies were lowered. It was a surprisingly attractive and appealing subterranean space and included a beautifully carved banquet room and elaborately carved and painted wall decorations.
With little of ancient Alexandria available to us, our attention was largely focused on the modern city. Alexandria was calmer, cleaner and more open than Cairo and would be a much easier port of entry into Egypt than Cairo. The efforts of their new mayor to develop public parks and gentrify the city were very welcome. The few green spaces and parks we saw in Cairo were locked up and not open to the public, so it was a treat to find a place to sit and eat our lunch or to take a break from the traffic while in Alexandria.
Alexandria was so progressive that the city had even installed curb ramps at many corners for wheelchairs, though one couldn't always be assured they weren't blocked by parked cars or parked donkeys. The new Alexandria Library touts their special facilities for the blind, but we noticed a person in a wheelchair and her helper couldn't manage the front doors on their own. The few other folks we saw in wheel chairs in the city had hand pedals and they took to the streets like many pedestrians rather than bother with the unreliable sidewalks.
Alexandria's seaside location was reflected in the
piles of fish--blackened on the grill, salted, and fresh--in the street market.
Like Cairo, the back streets made our eyes bug-out and mouths hang open. We were
captivated by watching the furniture makers apply gold leaf to the wooden frames
of ostentatious, Louis XIV styled chairs with richly patterned upholstery.
Here as elsewhere in Egypt, the ordinary sights like men sitting in rows puffing
on table-tall glass water pipes ignited with bits of sizzling charcoal and women balancing loads on their heads
still caught our eye. And like in Cairo, you just never knew where someone
would be feeding their sheep, and here it was next to one of their most glorious
mosques in the heart of town.
Cleaner Than Cairo But.....
But even in less dusty, seaside Alexandria, nothing was clean. The sugar packets on the breakfast table, the utensils, everything around us was dusty, spotted, or soiled. For the first time ever when traveling I bought a small bottle of disinfectant to spiff-up our bathroom, the doorknobs and light switches in our room. The emaciated looking housekeeping staff at our hotel had a broom with a very soiled rag wrapped around it for a mop, a toilet bowl brush, and a towel. No cleaning products were a part of their kit.
The thought of the high incidence of nasty and sometimes untreatable diseases like TB and Hepatitis C in Egypt made me think more about the residue the cleaning staff themselves were leaving on the surfaces in our room. Travel medicine physicians have a graphic image to describe the risk of contacting infectious diseases, which is to say that 'everything around you is always covered by a veneer of feces.' We think of that often and in Egypt it was clear that the veneer was quite a bit thicker and contained more exotic bugs than most places we travel.
Everything was dirty.
Three wash cycles and 3 rinse cycles was the standard in Egypt for us, whether
we were washing clothes or produce in the sink. The new low however was cleaning
up the bulgur before cooking. We often just add cold water to bulgur and let it
soak until its tender enough to eat for breakfast or lunch, but in Egypt we
wouldn't consider eating it without first sterilizing it.
But cooking wouldn't address all of our concerns. First, we spent about 10 minutes picking through about a cup and a half of the unevenly ground wheat, plucking out bits of plastic, paper, straw, bugs and the stray bean or piece of pasta. Then began the rinse cycles. We'd fill the bowl with water and after thoroughly wetting the bulgur, began pouring off the straw we'd missed and presumably much of the bran. After about 10 such rinses, the muddy look of the rinse water would disappear and the amount of debris floating off was dramatically reduced. As we rinsed, I thought of the leaded gas fueling the cars that drove by the stand where we purchased the uncovered bulgur and hoped it was being washed out.
Once we rinsed the grain, we then spooned out the bulgur from the bowlful of water. If we just dumped it into our pan of boiling water, all of the grit in the bottom of the bowl would go in the cooking pot. So, we filled the bowl with water, then swirled and spooned the bulgur out. Even after having days to refine our technique, we never did get the bulgur clean enough that we didn't feel that disturbing crunch of eating grit. We couldn't see what was the source of the distinctive sound and feel, but it always contaminated a couple of mouthfuls each morning.
Our various daily washing routines suffered a set back when we used the last of our European detergent and purchased an Egyptian product. The quantity we had to use skyrocketed and the minty smelling product loaded with blue dye could barely cut through oil. We poured a little olive oil on our cooked bulgur in the morning, then wiped the bowls out with a tissue before washing. It took 3 direct applications of this wimpy detergent to break through the fine residue of oil left in the bowls. Usually a drop of detergent and a good squiggle around with a finger is enough, but not with our local product. How horrendous for the Egyptians: not only do they live with a much higher quantity of "schmutz" and grit, they also have to put up with substandard cleaning products. (It reminded me of the huge bags of detergents that we saw the Albanian's bringing back home from a shopping trip to Greece in 2005--they too must be fed-up with inferior domestic cleaning products.)
Money Was Always on our Minds
Finally we saw the 2-tiered pricing listed in black and white and in English: admission for Egyptians to the Alexandria National Museum was 2E£, the price for everyone else was 30E£ ($5.25). Yes, there are good reasons for the differential, but we've seen pricing schemes in other countries that give the locals a significant break that aren't so vexing to foreigners.
The last straw for me in pricing aggravations was having
to pay to enter the new Alexandria Library. Our Alexandria hotel room was quite short
on ambiance and I had fantasized about spending an hour reading our
just-purchased Egyptian history book at the library
each day, but not when we had to pay handsomely each time we walked through the door. And
of course, an additional entrance fee had to be paid to gain access to the
museum inside the library and using the toilet would
incur yet another charge.
A new wrinkle in the bleeding-money-theme was at the sites of historic interest listed as free of charge in our 2 year old guide book, though baksheesh of course would be expected from the man with the keys. Few of those sites were still free but now required a $4 or more ticket. That would have been OK but the baksheesh collectors were still expecting their cut--we of course thought that paying the new fixed fee for the ticket should be sufficient.
As in Cairo, the food shops rarely had posted prices on items. I'd make my selections and if the total price was too high, I'd just walk out. Unlike Cairo, much but not all of the food in the open air produce markets had posted prices, but sometimes our purchases weren't even weighed and we were given a seemingly arbitrary price. Usually the cheaper items like tomatoes and oranges were marked, but the foods carrying a per pound price 4 times higher, like the apples, weren't. It seemed ludicrous that about the only transaction that we could count on being treated fairly in was buying bread at the bakeries--there we paid our 4¢ for 5 pita breads like everyone else.
When it came to transportation, we were usually stuck paying whatever the ticket seller or driver demanded. For the 60 mile bus ride to El Al Amein we were charged for going to the next stop, which was twice as far away, but there didn't seem to be any room for negotiating. On the micro bus ride back from that site we were charged 20 E£ each, though the local people riding part of the way were instead paying with small change.
We aren't savvy bargainers and cringed in Alexandria as we did in Cairo when the taxi drivers harangued us for more money. For a ride that I knew 3E£ was sufficient, the driver demanded a minimum of 5E£ but wanted more. I finally caved in and gave him the 5, but of course he wasn't satisfied. We walked away with him still cursing us--hardly the way we like to live in the world. We're only talking small amounts of money to us, but the multiple times a day irritations around money felt like a variant of the incessantly honking horns assaulting our peace.
At 4¢ a ride for Egyptians or foreigners, the Alexandria trams were
a bargain but at least in parts
of the city, we could walk as fast as it could travel. The trams received no special
consideration at intersections and had to take their turn vying with the taxis,
both horse-powered with 4 legs or an engine. In a market section of the city,
merchants boldly rolled their racks of clothes out onto the tram tracks until a
passing tram forced them to move, which was probably about every 10 minutes. We
were stunned to see that the tram drivers had to hop out and manually switch the
tracks at some intersections, though 1 lucky driver had a helper do the chore.
Having the Right Change
One of the absurd sources of tension in Egypt around money was keeping large quantities of small change on hand. The "change" was really all paper money for foreigners as the overcharging rarely resulted in us getting coins or even the smallest bills back. The smallest paper money we usually received was 1/4 of an Egyptian pound and those were coveted for the Alexandria trolley and buying bread at the bakery.
The price of bread went up 4-fold if we bought the bread from a reseller on the street, so 1E£ notes had to be kept on hand for that occasion. Wads of 1E£'s also had to be kept handy if we got trapped into paying baksheesh for something trivial and for buying bottled water. We tried using 1E£ notes in multiples for taxis, but the drivers always demanded 5E£ or more.
5E£ bills were also treasured as we usually used them for the cabs, buying produce or shopping at the small markets. Having exact or near exact change in Egypt was one of the best ways to control overcharging as people like the cab drivers are notorious for not making change for tourists. If you offered 2E£ for a bottle of water, that would be the price even though we had paid 1.5E£ the day before. What ever amount you gave the person at the toilets would magically be the correct fee, unless it was too small, which case you'd be pressed for more.
Each morning before heading out we lined up our small bills and made sure we had the right denominations for the day. I handled the small transactions and made sure I never had anything bigger than a 10E£ note in my pocket. Usually part way through the day we would huddle and reassess our currency inventory and hope it matched up with our remaining needs.
The other little annoying game that we aren't accustomed to dealing with was the reluctance to offer up change. Some of the vendors, especially ticket sellers, would take our money, give us the ticket and then go into a brief state of suspended animation before producing our change. It was quite well done as it didn't look like they'd forgotten or were refusing to give it but instead they created a nice break in the tempo--just enough so for you to think the transaction was done and for you to walk away. I'm sure it frequently works on many tourists who are coping with jet lag, have numerous distractions, and whose attention is turning to the next step in their visit.
Work Place Inefficiencies
My personal consumer-rage spilled over to empathy for the foreign researchers paying for laborers at the several active archeological sites we visited. We paid, and paid again to see the sites, but we got what was advertised. In contrast, who ever is funding the digging, isn't getting much for their money.
We watched in awe at the laborers carrying small, rubber baskets filled with dirt. These guys walked soooo slowly. They were shuffling at the pace that we usually travel through airport security lines. The loads just didn't look that heavy, it was a pleasant 65° day, and there is no way their slow paces could have reflected their level of effort. We were even more stunned to watch them mimic the same horrific effort as they walked back to the dirt pile with their empty baskets. Most of the workers were sitting around and the unfortunate ones having to work had refined their protest in the form of this snail-paced amble.
The feather-bedding at the archeological sites was in sync with the other low productivity patterns we saw. I bought a book in Alexandria and the transaction was methodically handled by 4 people. One man wrote up the receipt for the book and he handed the book and the sheet of paper to a second man. The second man and I walked to the cashier at the other end of the store. The cashier cheerlessly took my money and handed the book to a 4th person, who put the book in a sack. Just like the food, everything in Egypt seemed to get well-handled.
The staffing level was high everywhere we went but the productively was frightfully low. I could barely look at the meager inventory in one museum shop because of the 8 chattering people who were crammed into the small space, but none of them were customers. And at the ticket-taking counter for a low-volume, 1 room exhibit, 3 women staffed the desk.
Another money headache that we don't usually have was accessing cash at the ATM's. The debit card we were both carrying as our primary card for the year wasn't accepted by any ATM we tried in Egypt. Over and over again we were greeted with "Transaction Declined." In the past if we got a message rather than cash from a machine, we'd just go to another bank regardless of the explanation and always got cash. We quickly learned that whatever it was wasn't our problem but theirs. No so in Egypt. We had to resort to using an emergency card with stiffer fees, but at least we could get cash.
We later contacted our bank and learned that they didn't allow their cards to function in Egypt and a number of other countries--yet another good reason to always carry at least one other backup card--but a precaution that had never mattered before.
Unusual Stresses from Traveling in Egypt
Egypt was by far the most stressful place we have traveled. The endless vigilance that one had to maintain about money was a daily source of stress. Paying arbitrary and inflated prices and being hassled for baksheesh was hard and it created conflict between us; and keeping the right denominations of small bills on hand was a minor management project itself.
Dodging vehicles, especially when forced to walk between moving cars, also required unwavering attention. The drivers expected you to move out of their way, regardless of what you might think your rights were as a pedestrian. As tourists, we also found ourselves trying to evade taxi and horse carriage drivers, some who would follow us as we walked for long distances, chiding us to let them give us a lift. Uneven and torn-up streets and sidewalks, emaciated cats darting by, and occasional puddles or streams of vile looking liquids vied for our attention as we dodged the vehicles.
The "Don't touch strangers" culture also added to the subtle stress on the streets. We had to be hyper-vigilant not to bump or brush against anyone, especially the opposite sex. In many places in Europe it is quite acceptable to place a hand on an arm or a shoulder to signal that you are squeezing past a person or to politely get their attention, but not so in Egypt. The choreography on the streets had stricter rules and demanded constant attention and gyrations. The press of people on the sidewalks and streets required twisting, bending and contorting so as to not touch as one kept moving with the flow of foot traffic.
Eye contact between men and women also had to be carefully managed. I quickly learned from the polite segment of men in Cairo as to the proper eye flick--just a fleeting bit of contact to know that I'd been seen, which then aided in managing the dodging to avoid physical contact. But the eyes shouldn't linger a nanosecond longer as a woman's lingering eye contact is received as a sexual invitation. And one just doesn't remove or put on clothing in public in Egypt. We never saw anyone carrying a garment--one apparently applies the layers in the privacy of your home in the morning and you stick with your selection. We of course are, like most travelers, into layering and looked for semi-private areas to discretely make adjustments as the outdoor conditions changed.
"Going for a walk" in Alexandria or Cairo was never an opportunity for relaxation or collecting ones thoughts. Instead, having been out walking was an activity we recovered from in the privacy of our hotel room like one would after a hard day at work. Back in our room we'd wash the grime from our hands and decompress our bodies from the dance we'd been doing on the streets to avoid contact. It was a time to enjoy the drop in decibels as the honking horns were no longer only a few feet from our ears and to know that we were in a rare baksheesh-free zone.
Taking A Break from Egypt in Alexandria
During our first year of travel in 2001, we went to Paris Disneyland on a lark and surprised ourselves by enjoying the immersion in American culture. It wasn't the amusements that intrigued us but that it was an oasis of neat and clean and pretty plunked down in the middle of more chaotic France that we enjoyed. Everything was in English, there was toilet paper in the spotless restrooms, and things were organized the way we were accustomed to seeing them. We had a similar oasis experience in Alexandria when we learned that they had a new Carrefour supermarket. We had shopped at Carrefour in other countries and my spirits lifted just at the thought of it.
I savored the thought of paying the same price as everyone else for food. I relished the idea of picking up cans of beans, bottles of water, and fruit that wasn't thickly coated with dust. I could shop without dodging donkey poop and nasty water running off of the fish or meat counters. There would be no blaring taxi horns honking in the background. There wouldn't be any flies. Instead, I'd be contending with the over-stimulation my nervous system was used to: neon lights, walls and walls of displayed food items, and garish packaging vying for my attention. I would be allowed to select my own items, there would be enough light for me to read the labels, and many would be in English. I could shop without looking at were I was stepping as there would be miles of smooth, clean aisle floors.
The shopping experience was indeed divine and we didn't have to pay baksheesh for anything, though we were disappointed to not find everything that ended up on our growing list. The item that we inquired about at the hotel desk that lead to the Carrefour excursion was dried garlic. We'd tried to buy it in the street markets and I began wondering if it was even available in the country. Our hotel clerk was sure the Carrefour would have it. They did, but the smallest container was a 1 pound jar. Reluctantly we took it as garlic was now key for perking up our simple lunch of canned fava beans and our pasta topping of chopped tomatoes. We had also hoped to snare some dark chocolate for a treat but milk chocolate was all they had. And as is typical of Carrefour's, they didn't carry the inexpensive mueslis, only the designer brands. So, it was back to culling bulgur for breakfast and our chocolate fantasy would have to wait for touching down in Europe. We still managed to spend $40 on groceries, which in Egypt takes some doing.
El Al Amein
The transportation challenges of the full day trip out to El Al Amein, the site of a decisive WWII battle, made for the day being remembered more for the immersion in Egyptian culture than the history lesson Bill had envisioned. This was the site in 1942 where the Allies finally prevailed over the legendary Rommel or 'Desert Fox' as he repeatedly sought to seize the Egyptian Suez Canal by attacking from the Nazi stronghold in far away Tobruk, Libya. But like most of the museums we visited in Egypt, this one was assembled and then allowed to slowly disintegrate. Maintenance that we take for granted is a luxury that many countries can't afford.
The display cases were filled with dusty mannequins in WWII uniforms, scraps of weapons, and personal gear found in the battlefield. Several of the nations that had troops in the field had set up their own displays so the descriptions varied a bit with the translation you were reading.
One of the most fascinating displays was a new addition from the 1990's of a vehicle just found in the desert. Everything on it was intact and the folks who found it were able to start the engine even after 60 years--quite the commentary on just how well things are preserved in the desert (as if the ancient mummies weren't enough.)
Our counter-clockwise loop of northern Egypt was taking us to progressively smaller cities and Bill kindly broke up our 8 hour bus ride west from Alexandria to the Siwa Oases with a lay-over in Marsa Matruh. Closed-for-the-winter concrete residential compounds for wealthy Cairenes to escape the summer's heat lined the sea from Alexandria to Marsa Matruh, with little more than desert sands on the other side of the road. And Matruh itself looked nearly abandoned when our bus dropped us off at the edge of town. Its near-stillness would have made it easy to believe Matruh was only a town of 8,000 instead of the 80,000 it is purported to be.
Matruh is the most popular Egyptian summer resort for Cairo
but in March the white, boarded up hotels lining the water's edge
looked instead like a ghost town. Even the beaches along the broad, narrow
bay filled with postcard-like turquoise waters were abandoned.
Our $30 hotel room was more expensive than anticipated, but it was the cleanest and most solid feeling room we'd had in our 10 days in Egypt. A sea view out too small windows and the first opportunity to heat our room were welcome. At least the tiny hot water heater and its gauge were in plain view so we knew how to stagger our showers and clothes washing to keep us both happy. The rotary dial telephone and similar vintage TV detracted from the otherwise promising look of the room, but clean and quiet counted for a lot at this point in our Egyptian stay.
The ability to warm up the room would be a special treat for me--not only would I finally comfortable in the evening in our room but I would be able to shed my base layer of long johns to wash them--something I hadn't been willing to do for over a week. The small bathtub and plenty of plastic hangers made the chore more inviting and not only would my clothes be free of dust for the the start of the day, I was certain they'd also be dry. (Our worst laundry nightmare was the mornings we headed out into another dusty day with slightly damp socks.)
The hotel strip put us far away from the hub of the town, so we reconciled ourselves to a long afternoon walk into the year-round part of the city. As predicted by our guide book, it was unattractive but after the noise and haranguing in Cairo and Alexandria, low-energy Matruh was a pleasure.
Sooner than expected we were able to pick up the basics of bottled water and pasta. Next on the list was finding the open-air produce market to round out our next 3 meals with tomatoes for our pasta, cabbage or cauliflower for a dinner vegetable, and carrots and oranges for the morning.
Unfortunately, heading for the market street took us right past the elementary school letting out for the day and we soon were the center of more attention than was welcome. Packs of kids followed us throwing "Hello, what is your name" at us like they were throwing stones. If we turned to reply, the group erupted into ripples of giggles. The little boys tend to escalate such situations to an unpleasant level and sure enough, soon one of them threw a stick at me. We stopped, pulled off the road against a building, and waited for the growing mob of little kids to clear.
Finally we started on our way again but it wasn't long until we were swarmed once more. The "Hello's" kept coming but it was clear that we were becoming the butt of too many jokes. We stopped again and this time the nearby shop keeper came to our rescue and threatened them with a raised stick. The size of the group grew and shrank several times until another man invited to sit on a dusty wooden bench on the side of the building out of the lime light.
Our rescuer in his full length and somewhat soiled caftan was eager to talk with us but his tiny English vocabulary wasn't up to the task. We learned in which US states he had friends and he learned that we were going to the Siwa Oasis next but not onto Libya (he didn't have a clue what an issue that would be for Americans). Despite turning down offers for tea or other beverages, tiny glass bottles of orange Fanta's soon appeared for us and we visited with a half dozen other Egyptian men, each with a mouthful of teeth suffering from a different set of serious maladies. They were all smiles and clearly enjoying the novelty of our visit but of course none of the attempted conversations could go very far. After about 15 minutes we found an opportune pause and excused ourselves to continue on our mission of finding the day's produce.
We were relieved that our refreshment break had allowed the
last of the school kids to pass by and we were able to walk in peace, only
slowing to respond
to the occasional "Hello" from an adult in one of the shops. Like in Cairo and
Alexandria, here the streets were lined with small garages that housed a
of shops. Little businesses with a poor inventory of after school sweets were
mixed in with furniture makers and machine shops. Our spirits lifted when we
finally saw the faded canvas umbrellas and donkey carts as we knew the fresh
food market was
The first vendors were those selling fresh meat. Each had a carcass or 2 hanging from a metal rack and a wooden chopping block in front. I always cringe a bit at the slight of hanging animals, whether butchered or being readied for butchering, but in Egypt we were also adjusting to the sight still attached tails. It was so incongruous to see a long fuzzy tail with a big fluff of hair on the end of it hanging off of a gleaming red carcass. Perhaps it was their way of authenticating the type of animal you were buying or else it satisfied the decorative urge that others did with clever fruit arrangements.
Matruh's market was packed into a couple of streets, with the donkeys still hitched to their carts waiting patiently as the occasional taxi flew through the narrowed street at too fast a clip. There was less fish than in Alexandria though dates were now more plentiful on the carts. It seemed that a higher percentage of the tomatoes were already becoming stewed than we'd seen in the bigger cities though the oranges were noticeably freer of caked dust. Though the posted prices for most of our standard items were the same as in the other 2 cities, we got more for our money here. The ritual price gouging of foreigners didn't seem to be institutionalized in Matruh, a city that had clearly seen fewer of our kind.
We walked back to our hotel with our day's provisions along the abandoned bay front. A couple of seated young men that had grinned and shouted "Welcome to Egypt" scampered after us with 2 slices from their ground meat stuffed flat bread. It was still warm and we crossed our fingers that the meat and greens filling had been adequately cooked. We rarely eat red meat and the strong meat favor eclipsed pleasant aromas of cooked onions and spices. We had carefully avoided buying such food items in our attempts to keep from getting sick and later wondered if it was the cause of Bill's several hours of wakefulness due to GI distress later that night.
Despite our concern about getting food poisoning, we were quite pleased to be seeing another side of the Egyptian people in this place that gets flooded with Egyptian tourists but clearly not so many foreigners. Instead of being accosted for cash, people were being helpful and hospitable and even the taxi driver at the bus stop had bargained for the fare with a laugh instead of ridicule.
As we continued on foot to our hotel, stories about food shortages in the former USSR came to mind. The USSR was notorious for food shortages and yet the problem was less a matter of insufficient production and more a problem of spoilage in the distribution channel--a significant portion of what was grown rotted on the way to market. A snappy distribution channel in the US changed food availability in our life times, with more refrigeration, slick systems and faster transit drastically reducing spoilage. In all of the fresh food markets we'd seen in Egypt, the state of the food was abysmal as I imagined it had often been in the USSR. Cauliflowers were limp from sitting in the sun for days and piles of tomatoes could be sorted through with less than a pound of undamaged fruit being found. Locally grown oranges couldn't be counted on to be sweet and juicy and the lettuce looked like it had already been discarded. Strawberries were cheap but from a 2 pound bag only a handful could be eaten without severe paring.
Marsa Matruh for us, like many foreigners, had only been intended as an overnight stop for an otherwise long bus trip but it also became a welcome bit of R&R. It provided us with relief from the dust and the noise of the cities; we'd seen a sweeter side to the Egyptian men; we hadn't been hassled about money; and felt unexpectedly refreshed by the interlude.
On To Siwa Town in the Siwa Oasis
Images from documentaries, news stories, and movies began flashing up from my memory banks as our bus left the brilliance of Marsa Matrouh's bay and we headed inland through the desert. The long, straight road built for the first time in the 1980's reminded me of a recent TV story about the ice roads built each winter in northern Canada--roads that can quickly turn fatal if the driver deviates from the course plotted through a shapeless expanse. Just like on the ice roads, the driver steamed along at excessive speed like he was the only rig on it, which was true most of the time.
The isolation of the road continued to trigger movie images
in my head and next to come were modern
bandits in Jeeps flying up over the low sandy hills out of nowhere to take
hostages or rob the passengers. Star Wars battle scenes in the desert came
flooding back as did snap shots of African safaris. It was like no place we'd
ever been before and my mind was busy filling in the emptiness of the strange
land from its own archives.
The bumpy 4 hour ride on the desert road was broken up by a too-long and chilly rest at a truck stop that was unfortunately downwind of the poorly maintained outdoor toilet. But it was about the only thing to see on the way aside from the occasional sign to an oil rig off in the distance, so we inspected the few available details as we were in turn scrutinized. The Egyptian women on the bus only stepped off to use the toilet but I took their cue and stood off to the side while Bill more freely wandered around the small grounds.
In contrast to the blankness of the desert, arriving in Siwa itself was an eyeful. I expected that if it was in our guidebook, that it was a sizeable town but it was instead an archaic village with a fairly subdued tourist overlay. Mud brick buildings and dwellings carved out the harden mud were the norm. A grand new fortress built from local materials housed the police and our 18 year old donkey cart driver proudly pointed out their 2 month old bank (their first) as he took us to a hotel. Donkey carts and 1 speed bikes were the primary modes of transportation and men of all ages lounged around the storefronts in their dusty caftans and head coverings. They stared at us and we stared at them as our donkey clomped along. I was stunned at the need to pitch all of my notions of what a desert oasis looked like and to start from scratch. But more about Siwa and our other oasis stop, Bahariyya, in the next update.
Where We Are Now 4/24/06
We are wrapping up our unplanned loop around 3/4's of the French island of Corsica. We finally have planned our exit, which will be from the southern most town of Bonifacio to the nearby Italian island of Sardinia in a week or so. From there we will be able to take a ferry back to our Italian departure point of Livorno, and continue our planned trip north through the Alps. Not completing the loop around Corsica will allow us to avoid the truck route traffic on the eastern coast of the island.