It's 7.20am, day two of 'The Atef Plan'. I am sat at Ramses train station next to Nadir, one of the Boss Man's many minions who has escorted me the rediculously short distance here by taxi and now awaits the arrival of my train to show me safely to me carriage and seat. Language barrier dictates little conversation between us and he declines to take my offer of 'bunking off early' on the assurance I really don't need his help. Nope no budging. He sits, smokes and stares. Maybe he's my own little baksheesh 'ka' for the day. A double or second-spirit charged with shadowing me in this life and the next until the job's done... or the baksheesh stops flowing!
Sat on the train - so much A/C I'm actually pretty chilly - I feel almost narcoleptically fatigued today.
I don't know why. Through leaden eylids I glance at the Egyptian scenery as it turns from the grimy suburbs of Cairo
to the increasingly rural waterway-side stretches of cultivated, agricultural lands that will constitute a pleasant view of agrarian Egyptian living for most of the 2 and a half hour journey to Alexandria. Boney looking livestock munch whatever they find in an impassive manner whilst farmers slumber under trees, escaping the rays of the rising sun. A chequer-board of exceptionally furtile looking green and brown rectangular fields stretch away, broken every now and then by large red-brick ramshackle blocks of living quarters.
Stepping out of Masr Station it swiftly sinks in how disorientating it is going to be just hopping from one unknown cityscape to another now I'm out of Europe.
Sphinx & Pompei's Pillar
Cars, people, animals, buses (often all of them at once!) careen across your field of vision in all directions. I politely explain away an over-zealous taxi driver, take my life in my hands and cross the road to a semi-calm public garden square, Midan El-Gumhorriya that sits in the middle of this traffic-circuit of death. I sit down take some dep breaths and as I start to apply much needed sun lotion am approached by a man and a young teenager intent on harrassing me with pointless, unintelligible questions about who I am and what I'm doing. It's all a little dizzying. Suffocating. You can't even sit and put some slap on without intrusion into your private sphere. I move on (half-lotioned) and give in to hailing a taxi. I realise that helpful; invaluable though it will prove to be my little 'Rough Guide' map(s) of Alexandria are going to prove to be the cartographic equivilent of trying to empty a bath with a tea-strainer!
The taxi driver after misunderstanding me once (fair enough) gets me to my first point of interest for the day.
Me inside the darkened (what little) remains of the old 'daughter' library of Alexandria.
Pompeys Pillar. We agreed E£5 but having sighted the E£10 I'm offering he wants it all. It's haggle time. I get stuck in with gusto and it's all very friendly so lots of back and forth numbers and facial gestures and fingers held to the air later we're settled at E£7 (70p). Pompey's Pillar is a 25m high red granite pillar which in spite of its name actually was erected to honour the Roman emporer Diocletian (never 'eard of either of 'em m'self so's they can call it what they will :). It's pretty impressive and sits on a limestone hillock adorned also with a couple of stone sphinxes. But that's about all it is. A giant column "woo-ho!" To be fair there are some small vault like passages to briefly walk down into on the site also, this being a small part of the former smaller or 'daughter' library to the famous Great Library of Alexandria (Wonder of the World etc.
..) both of which were raised to the ground by Christian incursions at various points in history.
Next I walk along a vibrant street... my first real experience of what would be considered urban-poor Egypt. Hawkers in the streets and kids running around and playing in the gutters and other such cliches of the Western Observer. It's all very colourful and entertaining, and everyone seems relaxed and happy going about their ways. Some of the older kids shout across to engage me in friendly 2 sentence conversation. This is my approach to the Catacombs of Kom es-Shoqafa. This is defintely worth a glance if you find yourself in Alex. A scattering of pretty abandoned pieces of salvaged antiquarian statues are scattered above ground on the main site but it is descending down a spiral staircase around the core of what was once a well for lowering the mummified dead down into the catacombs that is the highlight.
There are various chambers down her containing a curious fusion of Egyptian and Greco-Roman carvings and stone reliefs. Ther are plenty of tourists down here with their guides so it's easy just to stand back and listen to some of the info.
Back on the surface I decide it's time to abandon (for a while) what little map assistance I have and just meander in the general direction of the sea. This is one of the most rewarding parts of my day as find myself strolling along wide bustling streets of market life where it is quite clear noooo other tourists ever find themselves (well, none today anyway!). A sparky kid runs up to me brandishing a white sports jacket and implores me cheekily to buy "traditional Egyptian clothes".
Meat market. "Yucky!" :P
It's a fake Adidias top. I joke at the brand and he smiles and corrects "traditional American-Egyptian clothes!!!"
. It's all great fun.
Many long roads later and I am on a street where I'd earlier marked out a few classic Alexandrian coffee shop/ patisseries to have lunch but all three are closed for reasons I cannot fathom so I end up paying E£2 for 2 of the scabbiest bananas I've ever seen of a toothless street vendor. "Yummy!" I think bananas are gonna become my staple diet in Egypt both from circumstance and necessity. Heading on - banana skins in hand as although Egyptian city streets are just long strips of refuse collectivity, I'm trying to do the "treat other countires as you would like them to treat your own" ethos and holding out for a bin - I soon feel a familiar and refreshing breeze upon my face.
Alexandria upon the Mediterranean (the first time I've seen the Med from this side)
The Mediterranean. So nice to be reunited so soon! The large crescent moon harbour area (one of several substantial strecthes of 'beach' in this coastal city) is quite a sight. The two arms of the harbour stretch away into the distances and arc back around as if stretching towards each other. Fort Qaitbey appearing like a miniature sandcastle in the distance sits on the western extremity. I stroll along the long wide corniche promenade with the (dusty) wind in my (dusty) hair in the general direction of my next port of call, the new Bibliotheca Alexandria.
This US$355 million UNESCO-backed project to re-establish a great library in Alexandria opened in 2002 and really, really is quite a magnificent work of modern architecture! Being a book lover I feel also it is an obligatory point of pilgrimage for me.
It sits right by the waterfront and appears like a gigantic elipsis, or discuss shape lodged at an angle that reaches both up to the sky slanting down to embed itself deep into the ground. Almost like a crash-landed UFO! This image of is further aided by the beautiful, cryptographic appearing carvings that adorn all the available stone facades of the 'discuss'. These apparently represent carved 'letterings' from all the known alphabets in the world. It's impressive stuff, and almost more astounding once you step inside. The main reading room is a stupendously vast, many-tiered gallery of metallic columns and serene wooden flooring and stairwell elevations. Quite, quite a beautiful architectural moment. Of course being a fully functioning library ther are masses of predominantly Egyptian students milling about its many, many floors however with tourists alowed free access to mooch around the place chatting and snapping of cameras as they go I'm not sure itmust make for the most focused study environment! There's a small but pretty funky Museum of Egyptian Antiquities and various other exhibitions within the Library's walls also.
I mill around Alex some more. My return train's not until 20.00 so plenty of time to practice my criss-crossing of these death-defying 4 lane roads... well frankly asmany lanes as cars can jostle past each other side by side :) Next up is the need for food. I try and do the brave thing and walk up to a busy stand-up Egyptian food takeaway bar that seems very popular with the locals but I just can't getmy head around it. The large menu plastered down the storefront of course is totally in arabic and there are no pictures of foods on offer anywhere so the option to dumbly point at a picture and hope for the best is out too. It seems a very unusual system. Scores of people waving notes at a cashier who exchanges the money for non-descript slips of receipt-paper that the pucrhasers then jostle inside with and wave desperately at the row of sweaty cooks behind the high glass cooking counter.
This is just impossible. Where the language barrier turns from a mere stumbling block to a 50 foot wall you are NEVER gonna find your way over. I've been practicing my arabic numbers so toy with the idea of choosing the one item on the menu that has a uniqe price and asking for a "5 pound 70 please!" but this would surely end in disaster and confusion...and possibly that nasty sounding crumbled sheeps brains dish the Guide mentions so I decide to chicken out :( I end up having a mixed meat pizza and chips in a pleasant tourist-friendly restuarant called the Taverna... with English menus. I feel like a major cop out.
Lots more street mooching through into the evening whilst my stomach continues to run chemical analysis on what it has been forced to cosume.
Letters from all alphabets known to man adorn the stone facades of the Library.
It burps up some of the results from time to time. Again, this city as with Cairo seems more vibrant, prettier (if that's the right adjective?) after dark. I stroll around the roadside or in-the-middle-of-the-road market stalls until its time to head for my train. I've set aside 40 minutes to get in place at the station just in case and a good thing too, as I am misdirected to platforms a couple of times. I fall into fitful slumber all the way home on the train and panic mightily waking from one 'short doze' to find nearly 3 hours have elapsed. I completly sh*t myself as that's longer than the morning run and I fear having missed Cairo... but it's ok it's just a slower train. I arrive safe and sound back to Crazy Cairo and sure enough one of Atef's minions is there, right outside the carriage dooras I step down to escort me home.