Cairo, the Pyramids, and Alexandria't...breathe..'t...breathe..

Cairo Nights-Dinner Cruise Disaster

I'm not sure why, but for some reason, a dinner cruise along the Nile sounded like fun one night. So I threw down my 120 pounds, put on a nice shirt, and almost immediately regretted my decision. It seems I was the only one at my hotel who signed up, so myself, and my monosyllabic host Aywa, caught a taxi to the river and boarded a brightly-lit world of evil. I envision Hell as a sort of dinner cruise, where you're stuck at a table with someone who has already been there one thousand years and is bored stiff (Aywa), while the karaoke band enthusiastically and eternally belts out "Hotel California" and that hell-spawned Titanic theme song, all the while being electronically accompanied guessed it, a Casio keyboard. So yes, I saw a vision of Hell last night, and it manifested itself on a tourist-packed, cheeky dinner cruise down the longest river in the world.

But I exaggerate. Aywa finally warmed up after I used every conversation starter known to mankind, and watching the extremely buxom belly-dancer shake her stuff within inches of an elderly, unamused nun was definitely good for a laugh. The food was quite good, and hallelujah, it only lasted two hours.

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Magical hookah shop in Cairo
Magical hookah shop in Cairo
Magical hookah shop in Cairo

The Giza Plateau-Pyramids and All

Michael Jackson was cranky. I know this because when I pulled left, he turned right. When I snapped the reins, he slowed down, and when I shot a photo of him, he grumbled and moaned. The camel is an amazing animal though, and one that I'm not sure I'd ever get used to. With their floppy snouts, protruding teeth, and gangly legs, they look like something out of a fantasy novel. And man, when they stand up you feel about twenty feet up. It was a grand experience, riding about the Giza plateau atop a desert beast named Michael Jackson. But I must admit, I feel slightly at a loss for words regarding the Giza Pyramids. It resembled the feeling I had as a teenager upon seeing the Grand Canyon: they just don't seem real, and, how could they be? I think my brain slightly short circuited as I looked at just one block of the Great Pyramid and tried to grasp the idea of the massive labor involved in this undertaking. It is comparable to trying to imagine a new primary color, or contemplating eternity. The concept simply does not compute in the human mind, and yet there it was: this ridiculously large superstructure weighing millions of tons, built millenia ago, by human hands lacking anything near modern technology.

An intricately carved mosque in Cairo
An intricately carved mosque in Cairo

The inside was mind-blowing as well. A narrow shaft that climbs up, and up, into a small, unassuming chamber supposedly once laden with sumptuous and grand grave goods, plundered by unscrupulous thieves long ago.

The coolest thing though, is this: As my trip nears its end, it is not Aya Sophia, or Baalbeck, or Petra or even the Pyramids that is emblazoned in my mind. It is the people. Generous, kind and hospitable people who are vastly more interesting, and beautiful, than the most skillfully wrought pile of rocks.

Awesome Alexandria

Arriving in Alexandria was an initially morose and depressing experience for me. After all, this was the intellectual center of the Hellenistic world, home to the legendary Cleopatra. Founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, Alexandria boasted of monuments such as the Library of Alexandria and the Great Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. And now, what of its past glory? Burned, destroyed, and swallowed up by the ocean. All that remains of a city celebrated and renown by philosphers and poets, a city of gleaming temples marked by graceful and flawless the memory of a glorious past. Somewhere beneath these streets, the tomb of Alexander is rumored to lie. Beneath the waves that nonchalantly lap at a littered beachfront, remnannts of grandeur sit, slowly and surely devastated by the ravages of time. As I stood in the 5th floor lobby of my hotel, looking out over the harbor towards where I imagined the Lighthouse may have sat, these were the thoughts that reverberated through my mind. So I walked, walked everywhere I could think of to find some small but significant reminder of Alexandria's past. I first found myself at the Bibliotheca, Alexandria's modern-day attempt at reversing the tragedy of its ancient library's fate. Here, schoolchildren gazed at me with looks of intense curiosity, and a barrage of greetings and questions such as "what's your name?" and "are you married?" quickly made me forget my self-induced depression. And the gaggle of schoolgirls tripping over each other as they stared at the pale, blonde-haired tourist in front of them easily ensured my mirth-filled laughter.

The achitecturally stunning Bibliotheca
The achitecturally stunning Bibliotheca

My attempts at regaining some sort of stoically, nostalgic mindset were hopeless, as my stroll near the supposed site of the Great Lighthouse was interrupted by friendly inquiries from numerous people, showing genuine interest in a complete stranger simply because, he looks different. This was the beginning of my love affair with the city of Alexandria, and I regret only that my time spent here was so short. I must have sat there for an hour, chatting with the locals, laughing and joking and being tested (unsuccessfully) at Arabic. The evening culminated in a new friend and I serendipitously stumbling upon an outdoor wedding celebration held right on the street. Music, fireworks, and Arabian dancing horses were all part of the festivities, and soon enough, it seemed my Western friend and I were part of it as well, as offers of tea, sheesha, cigarettes, and pepsi were showered upon us while we sat at a table, surrounded by children and adults, all so generously interested in showing us hospitality and kindness. How does this affect an American, so used to giving and receiving apathy when it comes to strangers? For one, I smiled for almost two hours straight, and as my Parisian aquaintance duly noted, our faces hurt. More importantly though, it seriously challenged my long-held attitude of disinterest towards the strangers I come in contact with in everyday life, such as on the bus or in a classroom. I realize things are definitely not perfect in the middle-east, but the lessons learned (which I pray I retain) were worth more to me than I can say. There really is a special feeling that is invoked when strangers in a strange city extend their friendship, when the people of a relatively poor country choose your happiness over their pocketbook. Alexandria, in all truth, loosened tears from my eyes, just not in the way I had expected.

New friends abound in Alexandria
New friends abound in Alexandria

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