Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cairo and Alexandria

I’ve discovered that being in Italy is not only a great experience, but it’s a gateway for me to other incredible opportunities. One of the most amazing girls I worked with this summer, Sarah (in the picture with me) said she would be studying in Cairo this fall and Israel in the spring, and would happily welcome visitors. Well, you don’t have to convince me twice, especially when it’s a whole lot easier and cheaper to get to Egypt from Italy than from San Francisco. So, I found myself a really good ticket a couple weeks ago and, on Thursday morning at the crack of dawn, climbed onto a plane to a place I, once again, knew nothing about.

If I had only one word to describe Egypt, it would be ZOO. Now, I know big cities are chaotic, I know I’m not the biggest fan of large metropolis, but Cairo has topped them all in craziness. Bangkok was definitely a culture shock, but I attributed that more to having just come from the paradise of Phuket Island. Or maybe Cairo was more of an eye-opening experience because I don’t speak a word of Arabic, and most people don’t speak a word of English. Needless to say, having Sarah was a lifesaver; I don’t think I ever could have survived without her. She’s studying Arabic, and though she’ll say she’s not fluent, I never saw a situation she wasn’t able to surmount. She took me to the best places: the oldest market in downtown Cairo (in the picture), a tea shop that is open 24 hours a day-and has been for 200 years straight, except during Ramadan (correct me if I got those facts wrong, Sarah). She told me to go check out Alexandria, her favorite city in Egypt, well known for-besides other things-being home to the oldest library in the world. And of course I saw the pyramids. I know, cliché, but a trip to Egypt wouldn’t be right without.

Here’s the thing with Egypt: if there are rules, you would never know it because no one is following them. The road may have three lanes painted on it, but their flying down the street five cars across, blaring their horns incessantly as if it is music to their ears. Taxis are a riot; really, you can’t let them freak you out because you wouldn’t last 12 hours in Cairo. There’s no such thing as a fare meter, so you better know how much you should pay before you set foot in the cab-and yes, almost every driver will rip you off if you let them. You tell the driver where you want to go before you get in, and sometimes Sarah would tell them and they would just drive off. Crossing the street is just about as safe as skydiving (maybe skydiving is a little safer), but chances are good you’ll need to cross several streets while you’re there. Bartering is their life; if you don’t haggle, you’re getting ripped off. (And yes, I got ripped off once or twice but hey, there’s a learning curve for everything.) I was warned that everyone will try to talk to you, draw you into their shop, men will whistle and say unbelievable things (of course they’re unbelievable-these people barely speak English, so they probably don’t have a clue what they’re saying…), but surprisingly I escaped this sort of attention 90% of the time. Some said it was because I look like I could be Egyptian (really?), but I’m just thankful to have come through the whole experience enlightened but unharmed.

By the time I was on the train back to Cairo from Alexandria, I was really ready to be done with Egypt. It’s just non-stop, so many people in your face, chaos everywhere. But I had 2-1/2 days left, and Sarah had told me about this great place on the Sinai peninsula called Dahab. So I climbed on a night bus and rode for 8 hours across barren desert and mountain valleys….and arrived in a completely different world.

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