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An Egyptian Travel Diary
Part 2

Farhan Quddus

Lunchtime in Cairo is a busy affair. After prayers the city explodes into a deluge of people thronging the bazaars and roadside restaurants and kitchens picking up lamb stews, bread and kebabs. The sight is festive and very mouth watering. I ask Yasser to take us for some grilled pigeon for which Cairo is famous and he is quick to point out that he knows the best pigeon restaurant in town (there isn't anything Yasser cannot do. "No" is not in his vocabulary). The bus veers off by the banks of the Nile and we are heading back to the touristy side of Giza. Driving along the outer ring road of Cairo you get to see huge colonies of semi constructed housing with no plaster on the façade, roofs under construction, side alleys and streets with no tarmac, garbage piled up high and I ask Yasser if these are the slums of Cairo? Yasser laughs and says no. The residents keep the buildings half constructed and they don't want the streets to be paved simply to dodge the municipality: no roads + no amenities = no taxes!!

We are sitting in a regular café, cooled by a gigantic ancient Westinghouse AC (circa 1950s). The waiter brings us large glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice on crushed ice. Cairo may be the land of pyramids, but it is also the best place for orange juice. We are munching on coarse whole wheat bread and baba ganoush (a thick puree made out of eggplant, tahini paste and garlic). The grilled pigeon arrives along with lamb shashleek, chello kebabs and fatoush (a salad with bread pieces soaking in the vinegary dressing). I have never eaten such succulent pigeon. I am not big on game birds but these pigeons must have been raised in fat farms; the size of each thigh is like broiler chicken pieces! The famous "Pyramids of Giza" is next on the agenda. The Giza desert is littered with trash, but the views are incredible. Cruising through the sand with these three monster pyramids staring at you is extremely peaceful. A real sense of fulfillment grips you the moment you look up at one of the wonders of human achievements. The three pyramids consist of The Great Pyramid of Khufu, The Pyramid of Kafhre and The Pyramid of Menkaura. Each Pyramid is a tomb to a different King of Egypt. All three pyramids were built during the Third and Fourth Dynasty, and were monumental undertakings of the king and the kings' sons. Half a mile up on a plateau from the pyramids is the best vantage point, this highland gives you the best photo opportunity and once again we line up for snaps. What a sight to see from this cliff like point. You get a panoramic view of entire Cairo with the pyramids in the center.

Qait Bay Fort, Alexandria

Back at the Giza village, souvenir vendors are all undercutting each other as they throng the bus. The air is thick with the aura of trading; prices are fluctuating like the NYSE. A young boy pulls out a "so called" onyx sphinx and tells me, "Sir I give you for only US $ 150!" Another entrepreneur grabs my attention and says "Brother, this one is US $ 120 and I give you two more free!!" A sucker for cheap paraphernalia, I buy a dozen tacky pens with pyramids on them so as to say "been there, done that"!

Next morning Ibrahim arrives early at the hotel, a truly professional tour operator, going around casually reminding the 12 of us to get a move on in the most cheerful way, herding us like sheep into the bus for the 3-hour journey to the sea resort of Alexandria 221kms away from Cairo. It is yet another glorious day in Egypt. Ibrahim and Yasser take turns on the mike in the front of the tour bus and explain the countryside as we start to leave the suburbs of Cairo. Globalisation is clearly imminent as all the major oil companies have their flashy gas stations and convenience stores along the highway. One hour out of Cairo the posse wants to break the journey for some refreshments.

We choose a garden café / filling station and order some hot lemon tea and sheeshahs to smoke. Two elderly Egyptians are sitting next to us in a table and one thing that is very noticeable is that the Egyptian people are very friendly and hospitable. One of the old men asks me where I am from and I tell him. He stands up and comes over to shake my hand and meet the rest of the group. The gentleman fought in the 2nd World War and was stationed with the British Army in Chittagong. He rattled off about Comilla and Chittagong much to our delight and surprise.

Alexandria is a highlight no one should miss when visiting Egypt, probably one of the prettiest and cleanest cities in the country. The city sports a Mediterranean look with strong Roman and Greek influences in the architecture, history and culture of the people. Driving along the cornice, the main marina drive is simply beautiful, turquoise waters around a picturesque bay stretching from one end of the city to the other. On the main thoroughfare leading to the city heart, a replica of the glass prism "Bibliotheca Alexandria", like the one at the Louvre, looks splendid. Yasser tells us that Alexandria is the oldest city in the Mediterranean and most of the seaport cities across the sea in Europe are all designed in the same fashion as in Alexandria. Barcelona, Nice, Monte Carlo, Athens all have similar city design layouts. Our first visit would be to the catacombs and we wind up in a busy side alley with donkey carts and pedestrians clogging the road. Behind high walls around the narrow street lies the Pompey's Pillar, a huge granite obelisk about 27 meters high dating back to the 3rd century standing amidst the remaining relics of the Serapium. "Kom es-Shogafa" or the catacombs is a rocky plateau situated between the ancient villages of Karmuz and Minia el-Bassal which are now densely populated districts of Alexandria where the first catacombs were discovered.

Just before lunch we manage a brief tour to the Al-Montazah Palace built on a high hill overlooking the beautiful beach. On our way back to the Cornice I see the signboard of the "Cecil Hotel", the famous landmark hotel that General Montgomery used as his head quarters during WW2. This classy hotel is still open, but getting rooms are difficult. We decide to hunt for lunch around the fishing jetties of Alexandria, not the most picturesque of spots but then again this is the place where the catch of the day gets unloaded and the restaurant we choose for lunch gets the best of the pickings from the sea. After a "fish feast" lunch we venture out to marina drive once again. Yasser takes us to a prime spot next to the Qait Bay Citadel, which is actually built on the ruins of the Old Lighthouse of Alexandria. This became the prototype for all lighthouses that followed. Situated on Pharos Island the structure was planned by Ptolemy I of Egypt in 284 BC. It was completed by his successor in 280 BC. The building was 400 feet high and light was provided by "eternal" fires of resinous wood and/or oil. Archimedes is said to have designed mirrors that reflected and magnified the light of the fires allowing them to be seen 30 miles at sea, an almost unheard of distance at the time. Alexandria is a beautiful city, no words to describe it.

Turquoise waters of the Bay in Alexandria

By late afternoon we are ready to make the journey back to Cairo. My colleagues are getting jumpy, as no time has been spent on shopping except for papyrus and perfumes. It's a straight haul from Alexandria and we make it back in good time for us to do some last minute shopping. I stick to some genuine souvenirs in the hotel rather than haggle out in the night bazaars of Cairo. Tomorrow, same time, we would be languishing in the business lounge in Doha Airport on our journey back home. Egypt is not a place for someone who wants to stopover on their way to another destination. One has to go with a mind-set of experiencing something historical. This is no Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong or Singapore mini-break. Egypt is a learning experience that will leave the traveler with stories to share for the rest of his life.



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