"Finished... closed"

Trip Start Aug 14, 2007
Trip End May 23, 2008

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Alexandria, Egypt
GMT +2hrs

'Alexandria, princess and whore. The royal city and the anus mundi'
- Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet

More Disappointments
As soon as we got off the 3 hour bus from Cairo in Alexandria's bus station yesterday afternoon we set about chartering a taxi to take us the 106km west, along the northern Egyptian coast, into the desert of El Alamein. Our guidebook says the El Alamein War Museum is open until 4pm. So stepping from the taxi at 2:30pm to find the museum closed was a disappointment, especially seen as we had decided to charter the taxi specifically to get us there with sufficient time to take in the museum.

"Finished... closed," we were told by the guard manning the outside of the museum complex, a complex whose sandy garden displays various pieces of World War II hardware left over from the battle of El Alamein, a decisive WWII tank battle that went down as a turning point of the war and put pay to the Germans hopes of conquering North Africa (and thus the shipping lane of the Suez canal and the oil fields of the Middle East). We're full sure the terminally bored looking guard manning the entrance to the nearby Commonwealth War Cemetery would have sprung us the same "Finished... closed," line had it not been for the placard outside stating, in English and Arabic, that the cemetery was 'Open to all, 24 hours a day'. He looked very tempted to do just that, but we made sure to point out the placard before he could deliver what would have been the latest Egyptian disappointment.

"Finished... closed"
We have heard "`finished... closed," quite a few times since we got back to Alexandria, the low-key waterfront city founded in 332BC by Alexander the Great, from El Alamein yesterday afternoon, leading us to believe it is the only English people are taught in the schools of Alexandria.

"Finished," we were told when trying to take pictures of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina last night.

"Closed," we were told when trying to enter the Graeco-Roman Museum earlier today.

Hand gestures from yet more terminally bored looking guards when we attempted to take pictures, both last night and this morning, of a statue in the city centre Saad Zaghloul square told us that that tourist activity was either "closed" or "finished" also. We were just grateful that the Roman Amphitheatre wasn't "finished," or even "closed" for that matter, and that we were allowed to take pictures of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina today. We were also eternally grateful that Drinkies wasn't "closed" else the time we spent in the city would have seen us almost as terminally bored as the guards around here who like to say... well, you know.

We've just "finished" our ludicrously cheap lunch (€3 fed and watered both of us) in the Mohamed Ahmed eatery and in a few hours we'll be on the 5 hour bus east to Suez, our next stop. Yes, pretty soon our time in Alexandria will be "finished" also.

Day 246 & 247 Observations (April 15th & 16th 2008)

Sobering, part VII
Visiting the Commonwealth War Cemetery yesterday in El Alamein was no less sobering an experience to the ones I had when visiting similar war cemeteries/memorials in Thailand, the states, Korea, Russia, Poland and France. The sacrifice made by those who gave their lives for a cause many of them were too young to understand is never lost on me when I visit such places. RIP indeed.

Yes, there really is a different feel to this place. The locals seem to a more liberal type; a lot of females here don't actually wear the Muslim headscarf (hegab, or hejab outside of Egypt) and we've yet to see a local, any local, wearing a burqa (loose garment, usually with veiled holes for the eyes, worn by Muslim women). We think it's great (we're finally getting a decent look at Egyptian females) and it has us cheering the European influence that is obvious here in Alexandria. Another difference - it's cold here. Jeans and sweater cold. Typical, in a place where wearing shorts wouldn't draw the ire of elderly Egyptian ladies we have to cover up. One final difference (I like leaving the best for last) - no touts. It's almost too good to be true, but it is. We haven't been accosted once. For anything. It's probably because of the fact that everything here is either "finished" or "closed" and thus there is nothing here to tout, but hey, we loved the reprieve anyway.

Not different
One thing that hasn't change, actually it has gotten worse, is the anti-pedestrian nature of the streets. If you want to take stroll along the cities long semi-circular waterfront promenade (corniche) to smell the sea air, take in the views of the harbour or check out the Egyptian ladies then you have to negotiate not 1, not 2, not even 3, but 6 lanes of busy traffic, 3 in each direction. No unsightly bridges (which is understandable), no pedestrian underpasses (understandable also) or no pedestrian crossing (a mystery, although considering this is Egypt I guess it's understandable also). Nothing. Just you, your legs, your bravery and of course the grace of God. Again, just pick a local as a buffer and go for it. And remember, don't hesitate. Oh, and also remember once you make it across you're gonna have to come back again. Good luck.

Light tax?
There must be a tax on using your lights here in Alexandria, your car lights that is. Motorists only seem to use them when they want to flash at you, which happens more times than not considering how erratically they drive and the fact that the only way across roads is to, for want of a better phrase, take your chances... on their turf.

Biting the hand that feeds them
We did tip the taxi driver who spent 3 hours transporting us to and from El Alamein yesterday, it just wasn't a very generous tip. It would have been generous had he not, on the way back from El Alamein, tried to hike the fare we had all agreed upon (200 Egyptian pounds, €24) before leaving Alexandria, before we even got into the taxi. One would assume that people in his position know that when you attempt to gazump a fare then you're likely to irritate the customer, the same customer you're relying on for a tip.

We're not sure what it was we were given to accompany our pocket bread for breakfast this morning in the Crillon Hotel. It looked like Yak butter, that gooey, salty, heart attack inducing stuff they eat in Tibet, but it wasn't. Why we weren't just served fuul like everyone else in the restaurant was a mystery to us. As was the substance that came sitting proudly on the top of my cappuccino 'supreme' that I ordered in the Coffee Roastery, a Hard-Rock Cafe-style coffee house that is one of the dozens of coffee houses in a city renowned for its coffee (see, I told you this place was 'different'). It, the substance, was, according to the menu, supposed to be fresh cream, but it was anything, well, anything but. It wasn't until a few minutes after the coffee was delivered to our table that I actually got to taste it (those few minutes were passed by a combination of us both suspiciously sampling enough of the 'substance' to agree that it definitely wasn't 'fresh cream' and me scooping the rest of the 'substance' out of the cup and placing it onto the fancy decorative saucer I got with my coffee). It wasn't worth the wait, the effort or the price we paid for it.
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