Egypt Digest: Sand & Sea

Here’s another digest of items originally sent to thee timeline. As before, hyperlinks point to the post in question, where one may find the full bevy of pics from which these-here have been sampled. For the pic-lookin’ enchilada entire, the Flickr page is now — quelle suprise! — completely up-to-date:

March 22:


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March 23:

Long story short, sixteen-hour hellride between Luxor and Alexandria — Egyptian trains are even more infested with screaming/careening brats than are Indian trains, and the menfolk carry on loud conversations long into the morning. Needless to say, I spent most of the journey tied to my headphones. At one point, in the two-second gap between songs, I did hear a gentleman across the aisle utter thee following snippet: “…seventy-four, seventy-five…”. Pretty sure those were the only English words I heard in the whole of the journey. Also, as it happens (syncho-fuckin’-nicity), the title of my favourite Connells song.

Life: It’s strange.

March 24:

Though I’ve barely been here twenty-four hours, I’m already falling hopelessly in love with Alexandria. (The hippies call it “Alex”, but I think that sounds pretty stupid, so will be sticking with the long form — or the locals’ “Al Iskandria”, perhaps — which is not only more pleasing to the ear, but more evocative as well.) What did it?

The one-eyed man looking up from his sheesha and merrily waving to me as I passed by. The little boy losing his shit when his teammate knifed a perfectly placed ball past the keeper and through the “goalposts” (two decent-sized rocks) during their four-a-side match on a concrete pitch down by the sea. One kitty-cat sunning itself atop a motor vehicle; another poking its head into a tub of minnows (or what) at the Anfoushy fresh market. The streetside vendor selling dinner plates emblazoned with Wonder Woman’s likeness. The young boy dressed in striped sweater and purple wraparound shades, holding his mother’s handing and chomping down a Falafel. The two older gentlemen dressed in track suits, eating fast food and consummating a business deal atop the trunk of a dented-up sedan. The afro-ed teen, leaning against a car and studying his letters, slyly returning my smile. The goofy lecture spilling out of yon local mosque’s PA speaker. The huge mound of handbags for sale splayed uncermoniously about the street corner. The Cantaloupe vendor happily asserting their quality and clapping me on the shoulder when he noticed that I’d returned, having quite enjoyed the first batch, to pick up another couple of.

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The “Coffe Shop” sitta warning me in heavily accented English not to stray too far from the tram tracks or go wandering down side alleys, lest “a very strong man”…he didn’t say what, but I gathered from his tone that I’d exit the encounter decidedly worse for the wear. The bright red and yellow Bell Peppers selling in the souk, each for about the price of a gumball. Young and old alike carting furniture to and fro’ like as though they were the Beverly Hillbillies — a sitting-room hutch in a flatbed tuk-tuk, for one example; a table and chair by hand, for another. The motor vehicle completely covered with shoes for sale. The splendid street art. The young man standing talking to a friend, wearing a Jamaican hat (forget Nasser, or even King Tut — Bob Marley is the Patron Saint of Egypt) and holding a soccer ball under his foot. My hotel’s night manager arguing, in Arabic, with the custodian for some time, before turning to me and announcing, “Is a crazy woman…crazy!”

The one-thousand-and-one alphabets etched into the side of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina — the modern-day reimagination, located more less at the same site, of the OG Wikipedia Of All Things, torched nearly unto oblivion, two thousand years back, in a fit of pique by a particularly irritable Roman emperor with a bit too much time on his hands — as well as its impossible-to-miss art installation, looking like a cross between the Bubbleator and the Death Star. The seaside juice bar dubbing itself “The King of Mangoes and Strawberries” (I’ve not yet attempted to verify — it’s certainly on my to-do list). The ginormous length of the seagulls’ wingspans; as well as (so far as I’m aware, this is not an entendre) the fishermen’s rods.

The pounding waves and shockingly perfect hues of the Mediterranean. I’ve seen some lovely colours in bodies of water before now — in Indonesia, Thailand, Hawaii, Penang…even Ballinger Lake. But I just don’t think I’ve ever seen any as achingly beautiful as the stretch of shore lining a little cove at Al Anfoushy beach here. The beach itself is nothing to write home, and the water is at this time of year still quite chilly — but, my oh my oh my oh my.

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I was standing there for many minutes’ time, admiring this very same sight, when my reverie was suddenly broken by a gruff-voiced man calling out, “Hey, captain! You are very strong?” I turned to see him pantomiming a heave-ho motion, and walked over to help he and his two companions drag his boat ashore. (He sang a little song to help us keep our heaves and our hos in sync). There were a couple of pieces of driftwood situated underneath the boat to help it roll, so it was a bit like Fitzcarraldo (I mean — just a bit). After we’d finished our labors, the little retarded boy who’d been tugging on the rope began repeatedly yelling at me what sounded for all the world like, “Fuck your mother!” I was a bit put off that he didn’t share his boss’s gratitude, but later deduced — when the guardman motioned for me to get my dimpled ass back from whence it had come — that he was actually just warning me to not proceed any further down the beach.

What’s not to love??

Sure, there is that old Egyptian bugaboo — when you’re wearing shoes, you’re treated lilke a Pharoah; when you’re not, you’re treated like a pariah. And crossing the street here is even more of a suicide mission than it is in Cairo. It’s all right, though: Nobody’s home town is perfect.

The first photo here is the view from my hotel room. At $12 per night, it’s a little more than I like to pay for accommodation, but it was the cheapest I could find. Anyway, with a view like this, gotta admit it’s pretty good value. Also, there’s a teevee in the room, in case in my free time I wanna get caught up on some Egyptian soapy operas…

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March 26:

No better advice ever was given.

March 27:

King Tut: He’s got a couple of couches; sleeps on the loveseat.

March 27:

Every city should have an El Mogmma building, sez I!

March 27:

Good work if you can get it!

March 27:

A few more funtime funtime scenes from Alexandria…

The giant fort out on the jetty of the Eastern Harbor looks like somebody’s Lego project gone wild, while the fleet of tricycles for rent nearby is sublime and ridiculous. The art galleries at the Bibliotheca are just sublime — a more important reason to visit than the famous reading room (houses eight million volumes, or something). The Lilliputian furnitures for sale smack in the middle of the fish market are just ridiculous (but entertaining as Hell…).

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The tram’s conductor issues me a ticket for the one-pound (about six cents) fare, then offers me a sip of his tea. Few minutes later, a teen boy jumps onto the moving vehicle, tells me for a while of his dreams to study American English (apparently in school they’re only allowed to learn British English) and travel in America, then announces that he’s going to jump out of the tram. I bid him peace, and as he jumps out of the moving vehicle, he screams, “Peace out!” then enthusiastically waves as the tram glides by.

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El Kobissi assessment: The hype is warranted; and the guys running the joint are very cool. On my first visit, one of them asked me my country of origin. When I told him, he reacted very positively, and shouted, “Obama!” “Yeah, Obama’s finished,” I corrected him as I moved outside to take a seat. “Now it’s Trump.” “Obama is finished,” the other repeated. Then they repeated it again when I returned the next day (this time for a double-dip; my third visit saw me quaffing in quadruplicate — two Strawberries and two Mangoes).

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Viewing Pompey’s Pillar — the city’s tallest remaining Roman structure — with the clouds rolling by is quite the mindfuck. Meantime, walking around the corner and into a Gilliamesque tableaux — two gorgeous mosques, during magic hour, in the middle of the rush-hour maelstrom — elicits similar emotions.

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Two fat ladies in burkhas gallop comically across the street to avoid being run down by the oncoming traffic. The first rule of Egyptian traffic is: There are no rules. From street level, the only goal is survival. But viewed from above, the chaos actually is rather balletic.

At sunset, over the harbor, innumerable birds endlessly circling. Reminds me of Kampot, but, the scenery here is a lot better.

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An old Calesh driver, noting the fruit in my hand, exclaims, “Banani! Banani!” When I give him the old thumbs-up, he claps me on the shoulder and asks my name. Later, when I’ve finished eating them, he intrudes, “Ally! Ally!” (Egyptians have a difficult time pronouncing my name, I’ve learnt) and tries to sell me on the virtues of an hour’s ride in his chariot. When I decline, he bids me feed my Banana peels to his horse, which I am only too happy to do. I may be calling Bananas “Bananis” for the rest of my live-long days.

When I snap a photo of a Santa hat in a car window, a man standing on the street smoking a cigarette warns me, “That car belongs to Mohammed Ahmoud, and he is working in this building.” “I like the hat,” I offer by way of calming his nerves. “Oh!” he proclaims, and I continue: “Santa Claus.” “Santa Claus,” both he and a passerby agree.

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A god-fearing seafarer performs his evening prayers right alongside his boat, while un autre — this one NOT so fearful — gives his a fresh coat of paint.

A senile old one-toothed man in the market kisses me on both cheeks. Two young men tell me he’s crazy, but then ask us to repeat the scene for posterity. The resulting photo is so great, I can’t believe I didn’t ask them to e-mail it to me…

Even in the dirtiest, dingiest, scummiest part of town, the tea shoppes still make deliveries on nice, silver trays. (I think Egyptians love drinking tea even more than Indians.)

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Not to be forgotten, the street art is still pretty awesome; and, also still, the best sight of all — the deep blue ocean rolling by.

 March 31:

Am in Siwa after three eventful days in Marsa Matruh. Will try to write a few words soon. For now, please enjoy some pics of one of the more scenic places ever I laid my god damned eyes. (Just remember, if they seem underwhelming, that the real live experience is ten million times better than the pics…)

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April 1:

I have trod many a fucking league to bring you some pictures to-day, friends; and many a fucking league have I trod.

First, all up into the Great Sand Sea — a ginormous panoramical expanse of windswept dunes, straight out of a god damn Hollywood picture-show, which bestrides the Egyptian/Libyan frontier — for one or two hours’ gazing at the sands, and all.

It actually took about an hour to finally leave behind the maddening drone of civilisation and its infernal gas-powered machines. But don’t never let ’em sell you a packaged-up tour, seen from the window of a cramped-and-reeking-of-petrol 4WD vehicle, I say; ’cause taking off thy shoes and hitting the road on one’s own, to do and go as whimsy pleases (doesn’t hurt to bring along a GPS unit and a flagon of water, natch!), is the only way to explore — and so much more economical, too. Three miles an hour, ain’t it?

Believe it or not, though I’ve read Frank Herbert’s Dune ten times or so; and though I’ve screened Lawrence Of Arabia a good thirty times or more; I’ve never really spent any good old-fashioned quality time walking amongst the giant, rolling waves of sand. Not really, anyhow. Not like this.

And so strong is the compulsion (hear ye now, the compulsion is so very strong) to just climb up this one last dune and see what lies beyond (hint: more dunes), that one or two hours’ galumphing turned itself into four or five easy as you please. But, finally, I did forlornly turn my dimpled ass back in the townward direction.

But, first, was the matter of traipsing through the palm groves (the world’s best Dates are grown here, it’s said — alas, they’re out of season, dangnabbit, save for the vacuum-packed gift-boxes lining the shoppes’ shelves), and visiting some of the dozens of natural springs dotting the oasis. The most famous of these, Cleopatra’s Bath, is pictured herein, bubbling away.

There was also the matter of checking out this one lake I’d spied on the map. It’s massively huge, though quite shallow, and bisected by an earthen bridge. The water is so clear that the colours — minerals, I’m guessing? — of the lake’s bottom show prettily through. It was blowing like sixty here — hmm, more like one-twenty, in fact — but there was hardly any traffic on the road, so it was a fun place to take a load off for a while.

Last on the agenda, a visit to the temple of the most notorious Oracle of the ancient world. Alexander The Great consulted it, back when; and some Persian king despatched an army of 50,000 men to destroy it no mercy (it had apparently given him some unwanted notices), which army was wholly swallowed up in a sandstorm, big style. True facts, I guess — though, whether one believes in the existence of coincidence is entirely a personal matter.

The Oracle itself is long gone, from what I could see, and the tomb is nothing special. But the views, from the top, looking out over the oasis and beyond, certainly made it worth the thirty-pound asking price.

Siwa town is utter shite, by the way. The guidebook calls it a rustic little watering hole in which to chillax the hours away pondering the imponderable. In point of fact, it’s all motorcycles and trucks and tri-cycles and babies screaming their lungs out forever and dust and horns blaring and power tools and plastic bags and cigarette smoke and people beating the shit out of their donkeys (or making them stand in the baking-hot sun for god-knows-how-long tied to a very short leash). It just never matters how far away you think you’ve travelled from the modern world and its innumerable ills, you cain’t ever escape. Human beings are the bunk everywhere.

That said, those willing to walk outside the town for forty-five minutes in any direction will find peace and quiet in spades here. It’s very worth the effort!

April 2:

Another day of sweet, sweet desolation and insanely rewarding views c/o the desert oasis. I can’t think of any place I’ve been to where I so despise the town and am so enraptured by its surroundings. I can’t even think of another contender, to be honest.

To-day, went in for a long walk around the salt lake — this one the other direction from town as yesterday’s. Shit, I never expected to be so bowled over by Egypt’s bodies of water as I have been. A real treat — although I now realise that I’d not properly appreciated how helpful yesterday’s passing clouds had been. This day were no clouds, no wind, no shade…and HOT pounding sun.

For the eventide entertainment, rented a bicycle and drove it back out to the Sea O’ Sand to watch the rays slip away — and hear nothing but the glorious stillness. Unbeatable!

 April 5:

Back in Alexandria just for a couple days before pushing on toward Sinai. Found accommodation for only eight bones per night. Pretty nice place, too. This is the view from the lounge area rather than the room, but, no complaints here.

First order of business: El Kobissi, King Of Mango and Strawberry. I shan’t depart ’til I have drunk the joint dry!

April 6:

It’s like a Life Of Brian outtake: Christ returns (hey, you’d be surly too if they’d just finished crucifying your dimpled ass) bearing not loaves nor fishes this time, but…cotton candy.

April 7:

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Al-Iskandariyah for…thee…WIN. Who could ever leaving here (I mean, not only Alexandria, but Egypt in general)? It’s still nine days until they throw my dimpled ass out, but I’m already feeling more reluctant to leave here than I have been from any place since my first visit to Laos, back in 2012.

[Insert wistful paragraph, from some literary classic I’ve never gotten around to reading, lamenting the passage of time.]

April 8:

Port Said, the northern outlet of the Suez Canal. I had guessed it was going to be fuckin’ supertankers-a-go-go up in here — but in a few hours of waiting, I seen nary a one. Sheez, that’s a bummer.

Kind of a nice town, though. There’s a free-of-charge ferry across the canal, some neat old architecture, an honest-to-god crosswalk (which, shockingly, is respected by the motorists), seagulls the size of which are rather astounding, and so forth. Best of all is the beach — certainly the water is not as beautiful as at other Mediterranean ports of call, but, still pretty at sunset time; and it’s quite wide and VERY long and straight, with almost no rubbish…and the waves are hypnotic, for sure.

All in all, I give the place a worth-a-visit grade.

April 9:

Did see some ships to-day, but am still pretty disappointed with the parsimonious traffic levels. I honestly thought there’d be several per hour going by ’round-the-clock.

There’s a tonne of English signage here — on account of, one presumes, the city’s status as a duty-free zone. It was, apparently, once the Mos Eisley of the Mediterranean; but it’s now wanting to be instead a boring old shoppers’ paradise. Quite surreal, actually, ’cause despite the shoppes are all here, there don’t seem to be any actual shoppers. Anyhow, a lot of the signs are pretty humorous — e.g.:

  • Baby Home
  • Dandy Shop
  • High Burger
  • Fosh Fosh
  • New Rex Cafe
  • Cow Boy
  • Pizza Sllorh [Hey, I never said they all make sense…]
  • Bob Marley For Sweets
  • General Co. For Silos & Storage
  • Total Women & Kids Wear
  • First One
  • Pop 21 Jeans Wear

The people here are a friendly and hospitable sort, as they are throughout Egypt (one man, along with his charming young daughter, even gave me a brief tour and told me some of the town’s history). They’ve different pastimes, however.

Image may contain: sky, outdoor and waterEverywhere else in Egypt, the three favourite passions (at least among the menfolk) are drinking tea, smoking sheesha, and watching soccer. In fact, I’ve come to believe that every conceivable activity in which one might engage is really just an excuse to drink tea — before, during, and after.

But the Port Saidians, they revolve around two altogether different suns, viz., running on the beach and washing their motor-cars. I shit you not, I’ve completely lost count of the number of individuals I’ve witnessed out with hose and sponge, keeping their rides spic ‘n’ span. Well, now you know.

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April 10:

I may get my dimpled ass blowed to smithereens, but at least if I do it’ll be here in Alexandria Rock City, in sight of the sea, imbibing of El Kobissi’s miraculous juices.

I had planned to get the bus from Port Said to Dahab, but, it turns out there’s no such bus to get — one must transfer in Cairo, making it a fourteen-hour trip out (not including the layover) and ten hours back; which would have left me with only a couple of days there. In addition to which, of course, the fucking jagoff gringos are up to their old tricks in the Middle East (hey, USA, congratulations: You managed, in scarcely two months’ time, to mint yet another in your uninterruptible line of war-criminal Presidents) and U.S.-funded goofnuts are letting off bombs in churches here. So, it’s probably best to steer clear of Sinai for now, where tensions were already running high…

Anyway, detouring back here is not exactly as if having drawn the shortest straw. Indeed, I’m beginning to feel about Alexandria the same way I feel about Bangkok: Every time I return, I wonder why I ever left.

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April 12:

Remember that line — “Don’t dream it, be it” — from Rocky Horror? Sure you do. That’s Iskandariyah all over. Maybe they should make it the advertising slogan (or what).

Would like to here stress that although the spectacular scenery, monumental architecture, and unearthed archeological treasures make for exciting photo opportunities (and, certainly, engaging with the former is a welcomed respite from the hustle/bustle of the Modern Metropolis™), it’s the friendliness, hospitality, spirit, and derring do of the Egyptian people that make it such an exciting and memorable location to visit. (Alas, they don’t generally like having their pictures taken…)

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While that’s true everywhere in Egypt, it seems to be just a little bit more true here. Alexandria: Don’t dream it, be it.

April 13:

Cameroonian Hostel-Mate: Every U.S. President (I’m sorry to say) is a motherfuck.

Me: I agree — you don’t have to be sorry!

In introducing me to his friend, whom he jokingly told me plays for the Cameroon National team, he explained their victory in the all-Africa cup thus: “We fucked Egypt 2-0.” Needless to say, I love this guy!

April 15:

The Egyptian joie de vivre — as contagious as it is crazy, as exhilarating as it is unquenchable — is a power to lift the heavens. Nowhere is that more true, I now realise, than here in Cairo. During my first stop here, I was too busy trying to get my bearings, and taking care of some logistical crap, and visiting some of the famous touristic sites, to really do any exploring of the city’s nooks and crannies.

I might say that I still prefer Alexandria, as the Mediterranean’s siren call is so magnetically compelling. But I am most surely looking forward to in (hopefully not so distant) future spending a lot more time in Cairo as well. Viva!

[Photos-don’t-do-it-justice alert. The thrill of this city and its wonderful people simply must be felt in person to be truly appreciated. Come on down, won’t you?]

April 15:

Here’s a video I made of some of Cairo’s soccer-playing kids. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do — a Swiss hostel-mate said she would have chosen different music; but in point of fact, this is the song that came into my head while I was watching them, and setting these scenes to this specific music was the reason I decided to shoot the footage in the first place. Anyways, watching this vid makes me incredibly happy…

April 15:

Have returned to finish my stay here in the same place in which it began — Thomas the impresario’s incomparable Giza digs.

Went for a wander to find some different angles from which to shoot the pyramids by, and — of course — the true highlight was the interactions with the neighbourhood people encountered en route. They’re still more camera-shy than I’d like, but at least that’s a little less so in Cairo and environs than elsewhere in the country.

This-here last sunset in Egypt, meantime, I dost believe qualifies as a quote/unquote “corker”.

April 17:

Have arrived in Colombo; and whilst I decide whether I have anything to declare (am leaning towards, “I shall consume every last Mango and Avocado on the island!”) here are some pics from thee last volley in amongst the Gizeh Plateau. It was hazier than per usual in the AM, giving the grounds a particularly ghostly ambience.

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By the way, had been somewhat dreading both the arrival and departure ends of this evening: Overstayed my Egyptian visa by a few days to get a cheaper flight; and had mistakenly entered, in the Sri Lankan e-visa application, my arrival as the 10th rather than the 17th. It would’ve run me about ninety greenback dollars if both countries had asked me to pony up — but neither Passport Control agent uttered so much as a peep.

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It’s a goddam Easter miracle (or what)!

 April 19:

Almost forgot: Very last photo in Egypt. Waiting for the gift of…

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