Saturday, February 21, 2009
Last weekend, Jeff and I participated in a PLP (Post Language Program) trip to Alexandria. The PLP is the embassy office through which we take our Arabic language classes. Every once in a while, they offer trips--usually shopping trips to various malls or souks--where a large part of the goal is to provide opportunities to use Arabic in real world situations. When they offered a trip to Alexandria for a very reasonable price, we jumped at the opportunity.
We left home on Friday morning around 7:45 a.m. We were meeting our group at a train station downtown; since it was right next to a metro station, we decided to metro in rather than take a taxi. We took the metro from Maadi station to Mubarak station, then followed the signs to the "real" train station, where we met our group, including two post language teachers (both women named Soheir). A third teacher, a man named Ali, lives in Alexandria and planned to meet us there.
The train pulled out of the station shortly after 9 a.m., with our group seated in the first class section. The seats were comfortable enough, although everything was filthy. But the tickets were cheap and it was reliable transportation, so a little dirt could be tolerated. The trip was fast, with no delays or slow-downs. It took us around two hours to get to Alexandria. The scenery varied from the congested, impoverished neighborhoods of Cairo to picturesque but also impoverished farms and small villages. I spent most of the trip reading.
Once we arrived in Alexandria, we took taxis to Mercure Hotel, where we were staying. We were early, so we sat in the lobby and went over some typical Arabic conversations--what you would say to buy train tickets (we hadn't had to do that, since ours were pre-purchased), to check in at a hotel, to order food at a restaurant, and to shop in a department store. A few people decided to check themselves in so they could practice; the rest of us just gave our passports to Soheir and let her take care of it. It turned out that the rooms wouldn't be ready for several hours, so they gave us two rooms where we could leave our bags, and we went on with our day.
Our first stop was Balbaa (I think I got that right), a restaurant that's known for its fish but whose roasted chicken looked and smelled so good that most of us got that instead. The waiters spoke little to no English. It was the first restaurant I've visited in Egypt where there were no English menus and they wouldn't have understood what I wanted if I had ordered in English. The ordering process was a little complicated: We told our teachers what we wanted, they told us how to order it, we placed the order, the waiter confirmed with the teacher, and all our orders turned out right. I'm sure the waiters didn't appreciate the complication, but it all worked out, and the food was very tasty.
After that, we went to the ruins of the Roman amphitheater. One of the workers there told us a little about the site's history. The amphitheater was destroyed by an earthquake, and when the Muslims took over Alexandria, they built over the ruins. Over time, a hill was built up. The ruins were discovered during modern construction, but I don't remember when. We were able to climb all over the amphitheater itself, which is in remarkably good condition, and to walk partway down the remains of the Roman road that led to it. We were not allowed to explore the ruins along the road, however. There was an open-air museum area, as well, that had artifacts that had been recovered from the bottom of the Mediterranean, where the Pharos, the lighthouse of Alexandria, was located.
After stopping by the amphitheater, we made our way to the Alexandria National Museum. This beautiful building used to house the American Consulate in Alexandria, until budgetary constraints caused the consulate to become an "American presence post," basically a cultural center, staffed by only one American and a few locally employed staff. Now, the museum contains artifacts from the major periods of Egyptian history: Pharoanic Egypt, Roman Egypt, and more modern Egypt, with its Coptic and Islamic influences. The bottom floor of the museum is dedicated to Pharoanic Egypt, with the two floors above it getting progressively more modern. There's even a small sub-basement called "The Crypt," which contains a real mummy. I don't have any good pictures from inside the museum, because flash was forbidden, and it was too dark for pictures to turn out well, but I recommend a visit. The exhibits were well-labeled, which can't necessarily be said about all the museums in Egypt.
After we left the museum, we had a choice of where to go next. Soheir and Soheir were going to a local department store for shopping, and half of the women in our group decided to go with them. The two men and the rest of us women decided to go with Ali to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, or Alexandria Library. But first, Ali caught us trying to take pictures of a very interesting bush in a park across the street, so he graciously offered us a detour. Here he is having a little fun with one of the three interesting bushes. (The other two bushes were frowning, but this smiley one was the most fun.)
Our little detour out of the way, we headed over to the Bibliotheca. It was amazing! I can't do justice to it on this blog. I could entertain myself in there for hours, and Jeff could spend days in there. He wants to take an entire vacation just to the Bibliotheca. But I'm getting ahead of myself. When we got there, we quickly discovered that we were not allowed to bring any bags into the library with us. Our purses, backpacks, basically everything larger than a wallet, had to be checked into a cubby in a nearby building. We were allowed to bring in cameras, though. We joined up with a tour that was just getting started and were given some fascinating information about the library and the projects being pursued. The library can hold something like 5 million books, although I think it has less than 2 million right now. The open reading area is the largest in the world. There also are conference rooms, a planetarium in an adjoining building, and multiple museum exhibits. There were two things that I found particularly amazing. First, the library has an archive of every page on every website on the internet from 1996 until 2007. The archive soon will be updated with information from 2008, as the update is done annually. Second, the library has one of the newest, most cutting edge printing presses that exist--the Espresso Book Machine, which can print and bind a 500-page book in 20 minutes. It can print just one copy, so it truly does print books on demand. It isn't yet open to the public, but the plan is that eventually, people will be able to come in and have a book printed to take home with them for minimal cost. Of course, it only will be available for books that are out of copyright or where the copyright owner has given permission. So far, I think they have about 1500 books that will be available when the service is opened to the public.
After we left the Bibliotheca, we went back to the hotel to clean up for dinner. We got into our rooms--tiny but clean . . . with NO soundproofing and uncomfortable beds, but hey, it was only for one night and it was cheap. Plus every room had a view of the Mediterranean--the picture on the right shows the view from ours. So it wasn't all that bad. Then we went to a mall for dinner. The plan had been to do a little shopping and then eat dinner at the food court, but some of our group were very tired, didn't want to shop, and did want a full sit-down dinner instead of a quick takeaway dinner. So we decided to skip the shopping and try a restaurant called Freddy's. Freddy's was marginal at best. Jeff's and my food was fine but nothing special, but some of the others really hated theirs. After that, it was back to the hotel for a little sleep.
The next morning, we ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, then headed out to Qaitbay Citadel. Qaitbay is located right next to the now-submerged site where Pharos (the ancient lighthouse) used to be, and it is a beautiful place. You can tell I didn't get much sleep the night before, because I can't remember the information about the citadel that was presented to us. So I'll let the pictures do the talking on this one:
After Qaitbay, we went to the Automobile Club, one of the private clubs on the beach. One of our teachers is a member there, and they allowed us to come in, look around, and have a drink. The setting was beautiful, with large patios, multiple swimming pools (which were in a state of neglect due to winter, but which I'm sure are beautiful in summer), and the Mediterranean Sea in the background. Due to the current storm season, the water levels were high, and the waves literally crashed onto the patios several times. It was visually stunning, and the sound of the waves was so relaxing. Plus, the lack of air pollution made the sky a brilliant blue and allowed us all to breathe deeply in a way that you just don't do in Cairo. It was such a nice time, relaxing and chatting while we waited to go check out of the hotel!
After we left the Automobile Club, we went back to the hotel, checked out, and headed for the train station. There was a bit of a misunderstanding there, as we all sat at a track-side cafe to eat the lunches we had brought with us from Hardee's or Kentucky Fried Chicken. The manager didn't care if we ate our "outside" food there, but he did want us to buy something from him. Most of us bought a bottle of water, but two left the cafe, without buying anything, before the rest of us did. When the last of the people at that table got up to leave, the manager came out of the cafe, yelling and making a big fuss. I don't know what we would have done without our teachers there. The rest of us couldn't understand him and didn't know what he wanted. Our teachers figured out that he felt that he was owed the purchase of two more bottles of water, which he probably was, since his seating area had been used, denying it to other potential customers. Soheir bought the two bottles of water, and the man was satisfied. This incident vividly illustrated why it is important, when traveling, to make every effort to understand and follow local customs, and to try to see things from the local perspective.
After that little drama, we headed to our platform. The train showed up on time, and we headed back to Cairo. The trip took a little longer this time, as there were unexplained slow-downs at a couple of points, but it wasn't an unreasonable amount of time. When we arrived in Cairo, we decided to take a taxi home rather than the metro. Based on the recommendation of our language teachers, Jeff bargained the taxi ride down to LE35. The teachers said they probably could have gotten it for around LE25, but it's common for westerners to be charged more than Egyptians. Based on what we usually pay for a taxi from the embassy home (a slightly shorter trip), we had expected to pay LE50, so we were very happy with the price. And we were home around 30 minutes after getting off the train, as opposed to the hour or more that it would have been on the metro.
All in all, I enjoyed my first trip to Alexandria. I'm sure we'll be back--Jeff wants to spend some serious time in the library, and I just want to see that blue sky and breathe that clear air again!