Monthly Archives: November 2011

Movies a la Misr

We hadn’t planned on seeing a movie.  We didn’t have anything to do but wander the crowded streets of Alexandria.  When we passed a movie theater with people rushing to buy tickets it was a spur of the moment decision.  Why not?  It was past the start time listed but people were clearly still on their way inside and since when did anything run on time?

I pushed and elbowed my way up to the ticket window (they don’t use lines in Egypt or Morocco) and bought two tickets for the movie that was playing at the time: X-Large [Even written in Arabic it was “لارجX”].  Brian and I followed people inside the theater and up the stairs a few steps before a couple of guys checking tickets cut us off.   “You have got to be kidding me”, I thought, as they held out their hands, asking for money.  In Egypt, everyone expects a tip for everything, especially from foreigners.  I sighed but there really wasn’t anything to be done about it.  I handed over a few Egyptian Pounds and they suddenly became our new best friends.  They ushered us past, one man with a flashlight insisting we follow him.

The theater was like and old performing arts theatre that had been adapted slightly to accommodate a movie screen.   Flashlight Man led us down through the upper half of the balcony and down to the box seats on the side, dodging people and broken seats on the way.  The movie had, in fact, already started so the flashlight came in handy.  Any attempts to stop and take a seat were prohibited by the fact that some seats were actually missing and Flashlight Man really wanted us to follow him.  The boxes all had people in them but Flashlight Man went straight to one full of a group of kids and kicked them out, presenting us proudly with some chairs and making sure we didn’t want for anything.

Men walked around the theatre with drinks and snacks on trays to sell, offering to run get you anything you wanted if they didn’t have it.   The audience itself was very participatory.  They laughed uproariously at some of the lines and cheered and hollered when something good happened.  At one point in the movie the characters went to a club and some people in the audience stood up and started dancing to the music.

Then, about an hour into the movie it suddenly stopped.   There was no rhyme or reason to stopping then, it was the midst of a scene, the middle of a conversation.   I think it even cut the main character off mid-sentence.

Brian and I looked at each other, confused.

The house lights had come on and some people were getting up out of their seats but there was no mass exodus for the doors.

Intermission?, I guessed.  I thought it was a strange way to take a break from a movie that shouldn’t be longer than usual to begin with, but I couldn’t think of anything else.  Everything seemed to be working properly and no one was overly-concerned so we just went with it, waiting to see what would happen and hoping the movie would start back up again.

Sure enough, about ten minutes later, it took up right were it had left off, mid-scene.  The rest of the movie passed as it had before, with vendors roaming, people laughing, and Brian and I lucky to understand even 10% of what was going on but enjoying the experience nonetheless.

Leaving the theater once the film ended was an exercise in crowd-swimming.   Everyone tried to leave at once, turning each door and passageway into a bottleneck.   No one used the front door either.  Instead, everybody headed out the back entrance of the cinema, onto the street behind it.  Brian and I found our way back to the main drag of the city and headed home to the hotel to sleep so we could get up early the next morning and drive down to Luxor.

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Alexandria

By Monday morning, it seemed our providential timing had run out.  We had hoped to leave the resort by 7am so we could start the long drive to Luxor as early as possible but Reception hadn’t opened yet.  We discussed our options while we waited and decided to take the shorter trip to Alexandria first.  I was excited to see “my city” but was especially looking forward to visiting the library.

The Library of Alexandria was easily decided upon as our first stop.   Driving along the crystalline coast, it made for an impressive sight, slanted circle facing the ocean and carved stone wall protecting it from it’s very own half-moat.  We parked the car around the corner and walked up to the plaza-like space next to the library, watching as people milled about taking pictures but never seeing anyone actually go inside.  I found what looked like a possible entrance and approached the uniformed man standing nearby.  Turns out the library was closed.

For the entire week.

For Eid.

No chance of gaining access.

More than a little disappointed, we decided to see it as an excuse to return to a city that, from what little we had seen so far, looked beautiful.  Determined not to let this setback ruin our trip (or our impression of Alex) we set off to explore the city on foot.

Alex’s bumblebee-painted taxi’s stood out along her evenly-paved streets as we wandered the city.  Picking a direction at random, we eventually saw a cluster of trees in the skyline not too far away and wandered over to find a group of people standing outside of a cemetery.

I have what some might see as a rather morbid fascination with cemeteries.  I thoroughly enjoy wandering amongst tombstones, looking at the different places and ways people are buried, how they are remembered.  Checking the dates to find the oldest person, the youngest child, the oldest grave.  Wondering what their life was like, why that epitaph was chosen, who came before…

So we wandered our way past the group of people and through the gate into the cemetery.  Walking along the main path we found workers doing construction on a rather large building.   Turns out we had taken the back way into a Coptic Church.  Navigating the ropes and scaffolding, a man appeared from what was probably the front entrance and showed us into part of the church itself.  A lot of it was blocked off but it was really interesting seeing Christian iconography next to Arabic script.  We left out of the “front” entrance to find we had been in the Saint George Church.

Continuing our explorations of the city, we were often greeted by friendly Egyptians.  One Arabic phrase in particular was used on multiple occasions that I did not recognize.  It took a few times, and one friendly group that knew some English, to learn that it was the equivalent of “Happy New Year”.   We were traveling during Eid alAdha, which commemorates the willingness of Abraham (or Ibrahim as he’s known in the Islamic world) to sacrifice his son.   Upon learning this phrase, I thought it might mark the Islamic New Year as well.   However, I have since learned that the Arabic equivalent for “Happy New Year” (كل عام و انتم بخير) is said for just about any festival, and does not signify that the start of a new year exclusively.

We continued our wanderings, seeking some form of sustenance as it had been a long time since we had anything to eat.

No dice.

We found McDonalds =)  You know how I love MikkyD’s.  So healthy, and delicious, and nutritious, and authentic, and pure.

NOT!

I had hoped that there might be other food options nearby, but we were in the wrong part of town.  There were cafe’s galore (from my experience it seems cafes are pretty much omnipresent in Islamic countries) and a few butcher shops along the way, but we never even came across a place that grills meat.   Gosh how those grilling places are good!  You pick out what (freshly chopped) meat you want and you tell the guy who grabs it for you and takes it over to a grill where it’s cooked right in front of you, smoke rising and juices dripping until it’s handed back to you along with خبز (“khobz” is bread) and probably some olives to snack on as well.  You can’t get any fresher, simple, or more delicious than that.

But I digress.  I soon gave up and asked some people on the street where a good place to eat nearby was.   They told us to keep walking, five minutes straight ahead.  Past the local souk, dodging blood and feces from freshly butchered animals, and numerous cafes later we found something.  I ordered an entire kilo of kofta for us to share and we carted it back to a nearby cafe to eat.  The khobz there was more like pita-bread, and this time the kofta (which lay on a bed of cilantro) came with sides of pickled vegetables, onions and tzatziki-ish sauce.   I was thrilled.  And we had leftovers for days (or at least a few more meals).

Eventually, we returned to an internet cafe we had passed earlier to scope out a place to spend the night, or at least the area in which such a place might be found.  We ended up staying at an interesting hotel that took up the fifth floor of a building with an awesome old-fashioned elevator.

The night was still young so we went back out to explore some more and ended up going to the movies.  Boy was that an interesting experience!  I’ll cover it in the next post but for now here are some pictures of Alexandria:

The Library of Alexandria

McDonald's Delivery

Patriotic Graffiti

Coastal Sunset

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Sinai

When we had finished gallivanting around the pyramids, Brian and I headed out to the Sinai Peninsula to find the place we would be staying.  The Sinai was extremely desolate.  There was nothing but desert and interesting rock formations, along with a surprisingly strong military presence.  There were checkpoints before and after every town (no matter its size) and the tunnel was heavily guarded.

The resort we stayed at was nice, with a beach on the Red Sea.  We spent our first full day there, just exploring the area.  We drove to some of the nearby towns to find there was really nothing there: just a few small outdoor cafes to drink tea along deserted streets.   The landscape was really interesting though, with mountainous rock formations and one dried river bed we pulled over to explore.

After a day of relaxing exploration, we felt ready to tackle a challenge so the next day we climbed Mt. Sinai.   The mountain was a couple hours’ drive South, in which the towns got smaller but more lively and the mountains became taller and taller.  Mt. St. Catherine is the highest mountain in the Sinai and Gebel Musa (as Mt. Sinai is known in Arabic) is right next to it with the monastery at its base.

After hiking the ~3,000 steps up the mountain, we finally reached the top for a gorgeous view of the mountains stretched out around us.  Sin means tooth in Arabic and the mounains are named after the fact that they look like teeth: Sinai.

On the way down, our guide told us biblical stories from an Islamic perspective as we took the camel’s path, full of switch-backs instead of stairs.   Most people take this route up, even if they don’t opt into the camel, but I was glad we had decided to take the more challenging route – it was more gratifying to reach the top and the hike wasn’t that bad to begin with.  We eventually returned back to the resort, a little tired but feeling accomplished and excited for the next day’s adventures.

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Walk like an Egyptian

The trip began with perfect timing.  Unsure exactly of when we should be there, Brian and I arrived at the Meknes train station to buy our tickets and get on the platform just before the train arrived.  Three hours later, we waited in Casablanca for the train to the airport, excitement keeping tiredness at bay until we finished wandering the terminal and picking up our boarding passes at Mohammed V.  A few naps on the plane later and we landed in Cairo around 7am.

It was our first morning in Egypt and we couldn’t go anywhere.  We had to wait a few hours for the rental car company to open so we occupied ourselves with wandering the airport, drinking tea, and reading.  After some confusion about which rental company we needed and where it was, finally we got the car and we were off!  We didn’t know where we were going but we were going somewhere and we soon decided that, after food, that somewhere should be the Pyramids.

The amount of hassling markedly increased the closer we got to such a major tourist attraction.  We declined the multitude of offers for camels, horses, and carriages in favor of wandering the area on foot.   The pyramids are surrounded by a huge wall and chain-link fence, with a poorer neighborhood pushed up against it.   I feel like our wanderings allowed us to see things most people miss and I was struck by the contrast between the real-life neighborhood and the touristy spectacle right next door.

Broken Buildings

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We eventually found ourselves at the entrance gate, and decided we couldn’t come this far without going in so we got to explore even more.  The pyramids themselves were spectacular.  We took pictures of and with them, climbed them, went inside a tomb, saw the Sphinx, explored the foundations, and had a great time.

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