Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Or Alex as the locals call it. With 5 days in Cairo in a very comfortable Hotel I found that I had that extra day for a day trip I was hoping for. My goal for this trip was to be able to cover the Nile from North to South completely and possibly reach the Sudanese border. Accomplishing this meant a day trip from Cairo to Alexandria on the Mediterranean in the due North; the furthest point north off the Nile.

I love local trains and was skeptical about the trains in Egypt but was very pleasantly surprised. Rail Travel is available very inexpensively ($20.00 for a first class ticket R/T) to most destinations up and down the Nile. The worst part of doing my day trip to Alexandria was actually the process of buying the ticket. My Hotel preyed on me at every corner to charge me 5x as much to do something for me I could with a little study myself. The concierge offered to arrange to grab my tickets for me at the train station and charge me, I think, an additional $50.00 to do this. I balked and suffered with another local smoke choked taxi ride to the train station that took almost 2 hours round trip due to the traffic. But I got the ticket. And it was in fact cheap.

Next day I made off with a day pack filled with camera equipment for the the 2 hour ride from Ramses Station to Alex. The station itself was a bit intimidating, but once arriving in the first class cabin I had a large comfy chair in a smoke free cabin for 2 hours. Cars in first class were not even 1/8th filled. 2nd and 3rd class was another story. Think Slumdog Millionaire. Regular train travel for locals did not appear nearly as comfortable. I don't think people rode on the roofs of the cars, but I would not be surprised if they did. Nonethless it is places like trains and buses and other local forms of transport that you can really get a feel for how locals live. Do it.

After a relaxing ride North along the Nile river we arrived in Alex. There may have been 4 or 5 stations total in Alex and it was a challenge making sure I got off at the Central Station, but I figured it out and was promptly lost. No local maps. No local guides. This was a spur of the moment trip. I did know from my pre-trip study that there was not alot to actually see in Alex, and the few things to see were on the coastline. So I made for the beach.

At one time Alexandria had quite a bit of ancient historical sites, all of which are long gone. Don't quote me on this but I believe at least one of the 7 original wonders of the world was there. The lighthouse at Alexandria. No longer there, it is replaced by a Crusaders fort which is worth a look. Along the way to the fort by way of the coastal route are mostly fisherman tending to their brightly colored boats hauling their trade in from the Med. You can't beat the location of Alexandria and it was so nice to be breathing Ocean air after 4 days in Cairo.

Alex is still a City though with some of the same traffic issues as Cairo, but on a much smaller more tolerable level. If I had not mentioned there is only one rule of the road in Egypt; don't get killed. There is little effort at all made at traffic control. Crossing streets is an exercise in a mass game of chicken. No one slows down for the pedestrian. No one stops. You just.....run. It's crazy. So to get back and forth from the coastal walk to the main road I would have to play Egyptian chicken.
After 4 days of Egyptian chicken in Cairo I figured out a fool proof way of winning. I would find either a single pedestrian or a group waiting for their turn of chicken and position myself about ten yards further from them than the traffic and just wait for them to run. To be completely safe I would also try to run behind women if at all possible. Galant, ey? Hey, it worked. I lived.

Anyways after checking out the Crusader fort I found one of the old and now run down European Cafe's near the water and had a comfortable lunch and a beer. Alex has a much more European feeling than any place else in Egypt due to the earlier presence of the English and French. The City must have been a gorgeous resort city at one point. And It looks like the government is trying to go that direction with the CIty again with a new Four Seasons going in and a few other high end hotels along the waterfront. But it's not there yet. It's a day trip.

Alexandria was once also famous for its Library. There is some history there but I won't guess at this one because I would be wrong. Google it. But from what I recall Alex once housed one of the world's greatest libraries. In an effort to resurrect that history a new state of the art Library and learning center was built in Alex which is astonishing. Financed by private industry and a number of Arab government donors, the facilities are amazing. Probably more so if you speak Arabic. The architecture too was world class. Pictures of the Library in Alex can be found somewhere on my FB Egypt Picture Page. It's the big silver building with the Arabic sript. My tired legs spent a good 3 hours wandering the halls and exhibits. If you see nothing else in Alex see this.

I concluded with a cab ride out to see one of President Mubarak's "castles". A home on the shore and its ground which was undoubtedly some kind of English seat of government at one time. From there it was a cab ride to the wrong train station for the evening ride back to Cairo. I bought a return ticket, since it was the wrong station, for about 8 dollars. Well worth it, I could stake my claim to Alex and the North of the Nile River Delta. If you have an extra day, Alex is a nice escape from Cairo.

Next- Luxor

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The world's biggest Epilogue - Vol. 1 Cairo

Lazy writer in the house. It's now 30 days since I returned. The jet lag has finally worn off. Yes it was that bad. Ok not THAT bad. But it was bad. The challenges of shooting hundreds of images a day, editing photos after spending all day every day on the move left no more room for writing. So here I leave a summary of the highlights for posterity.

I spent a total of 11 full days in Egypt with several goals in mind. I surpassed all my goals but I would do some things differently if I were to do this trip again, which I wouldn't. I covered it. 5 days in Cairo is 3 days too many. This city was by far the most difficult, crowded and polluted city I have been to in my entire life. It's not a dirty city as you might find in places in Central or South America. But it was a horribly polluted city due mostly to the size of the population, 15 million, and the fact that every other person drove a diesel belching automobile. The smog was Dante-esque.

Part of the problem is that I stayed about 10 km outside the city which forced me to grab local cabs every time I went into the City. Bumper to bumper traffic in Cairo is bumper ON bumper traffic. Thousands of cars literally on top of each other lurching together at no more than 10 miles per hour at any time of day all day and all night. Even in the most tightly sealed vehicle with air conditioning blowing you can't escape the nausea of the fumes. Oh. And everyone smokes....Fucking lovely.

My Hotel in Cairo was stunning. Brand new. Business traveller hotel. The Fairmont Towers Heliopolis. It was just opening so I availed myself of the promotional $110.00 a night price for a suite. Well worth it. It was a trade off but this place was quite an oasis.

I survived just fine for 3 days with my Egyptian track suit actually. My luggage took four days to show up. And when it did I was disgusted at how overpacked I was.......again!!! 42 countries and I still lug around a trunk full of clothes I never ever wear. Why??

The highlights of the City can be done in probably a day and a half if you are a motivated organized solo traveller, which I am. If you are on a tour, you can also be whisked around in an air conditioned bus and get all the highlights in adding about another half day for the perfunctory tourist shops you are dragged into on tours. Unless you are a super savvy experienced solo traveller a tour is probably the way to do this country in all honesty. I am not the tour kind of guy though.

The compact old City of Cairo can be done in a day if you are interested. The Islamic quarter contains some stunning Mosques, colorful Bazzare's and wonderfully warm people. Oh yeah there's also thousands and thousands of armed guards. Despite the fact there had been a small bombing in the City the week prior I found the security in the City iron-clad. I was never worried. The government goes a long way to protect the tourist. Egypt is not a major oil producing country. Egypt's oil is the tourist. So they don't mess around.

There is a small and quiet Christian quarter which is a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the Islamic Quarter. Eqypt has a significant Christian minority and some of the world's oldest Christian sects. The Christian sites are well protected and respected. Not so much for the lone Jewish Synagogue you can find in Cairo. More on this disturbing subject later.

In total the must sees of Cairo are the Pyramids in Giza, The Egyptian Museum and the Islamic Quarter. If you have an overwhelming urge to delve deeper there is plenty more to see and do. There are side trips that can be done including the ancient Capital of Memphis and Sacarra. Then there is Alexandria on the North Coast. I didn't think I would have the time to make it here but I did. Alexandria next........