January 3, 2008 7:13am

Back on the bus for the trek to Alexandria. You notice, in passing, that there are neighborhood trends in balcony styles – very sparse, or hung with laundry, shuttered, glassed in, curtained, or covered in flat or cafe awnings. Some have potted plants and a few have intriguing rooftop-style gardens. There are also, in Robyn’s words, “a sea of satellites,” which break up the roofs as effectively as the scalloped edges of crumpled lace.

It is the planting which force you to remember both that Cairo is on the Nile and that the Nile commands fertility. Everywhere there is a chance, trees spring up – olives, date palms, and other varieties with dusty green or sienna leaves. It is incredibly verdant, the greens both prickly and lush, as though one could run hands and arms through them, fully expecting bramble scratches. And it would be as worth the pain as a brush with fragrant rosemary.

This early, the clouds are incredible – dove grey undersides with creamy peach tips. In the distance, through eucalyptus, lombardies, palm and evergreen, we see both the skeleton of a building (a more final version of the construction sites we’ve passed in the city) as though the walls have been knocked out and everything else remains, and also a resort, self-consciously labeled “Hollywood”, but graceful and appealing nonetheless.

Suddenly, we leave the green irrigated lands and move into the desert, which is not desolate at all, but dotted with low scrub, rows of roses and miniature oleander. Just as suddenly, the sun rose. Our moods, I think, with it. Edvard has come along to collect a “looks tax” – really the tip for our driver and tour guide. His teasing puts a sweet face on the tipping practice whose intricacies have eluded or defeated all of us at one point or another. At the Egyptian Museum, after an exhaustive but instructive tour, I manage to accidentally hire a local guide (for future reference, the men in blue jumpsuits are not janitorial staff) who directed us to the animal mummies room. Actually, at 10L.E., not a bad deal at all, just disconcerting. Who knew the Nile perch got so huge? At least a yard long and as wide or more than my forearm and hand.

Dr. Gabra – in response to the deeply, quickly variant desert and farmland (by now our run includes clearly barren land)- reminds us that twenty years ago, just as in his childhood, this row was known as the Desert Road to Alexandria. Industry being what it is, cisterns have been dug, and now even the western desert thrives. On my right was pass dovecotes – giant conical hives dotted decoratively with openings for the birds. Not my idea of a good time, but beautiful. On either side are walled gardens or farms with arched gates, both imposing and welcoming. Or perhaps simply inviting. Billboards – some charming, some obnoxious, span the roadsides. How much soda do we need?

On the other hand, the rows of grapevines and citrus reminds me of home – both Sonoma and down south. We pass red sand, cacti, bougainvillea, and parallel telephone lines. It looks so natural, so permanent, and yet really – and recently – this land was just as clean a canvas as the hills of Giza.

The pyramids and Sphinx do rise out of the sand as if exposed by a massive earthquake, just as promised, but their magnificence and intrigue is dwarfed by the persistence of the minor merchants. I find myself becoming the ugly American in their presence. What worries me most is that I discover a rather intense longing for male protection here, and the sentiment is echoed by other women in the group – not ingrained, but suggested. Nancy is told she’d make a “fine first wife,” and an offer of 25 chickens is made for her – and the impulse is reinforced. What is not clear – who gets the chickens – underscores the real nature of the exchange. I think Nancy will not benefit from the union, flattering though it is, and tell her so. To my relief, she agrees.

Given the amount of time it takes to fend off the “gifts” (souvenirs forced upon us with the expectation of payment. Some of the group thinks this is dishonest and are angry. I figure it’s simply an accepted sales tactic, and they expect us to already know what’s going on.), 10 minutes here is not enough time. Between the disappointment of the practical addition of pavement and parking lots (clearly I have unaddressed romantic ideas) and my vague feeling of being assaulted (here, in personal space expectations, the cultural divide is blatant), my experience wasn’t the greatest, but perhaps salutary. I hate being rude, but a lack of eye contact is protection, provided you can live with being a stereotype. I find that my energy level is a strong indicator of just how rude I’m willing to be.

continued 9:09 am

Apparently I missed the billboard of a woman in a bikini wearing workboots. Guess what she was selling? Steve and Jackie want to know if, “she comes with the boots?”. Blergh.

Here’s where I realize just how much I missed by trying for ending summations. I had miles of thoughts – and not a few signs – carefully stored away for recording, all gone now. I miss my computer.

We’ve passed through the toll booth indicating Alexandria “sponsored by Pepsi” (who knew?). The sky looked dark, but not heavy, and I pronounced that it would not rain. About a minute later, the rain came down.

Have passed the sign for SOS Children’s Village, which directly fronts a ramshackle orange market and reminds me of passing the fish stall yesterday. Laid neatly in rows, the fish looked like the result of mass production, uniformly silver and extraordinarily large, it is still not as massive as the mummified example from the Egyptian Museum. I remain vigilant in my lookout for a matching exemplar.

Have been informed that SAE means something like “incorporated”. I did wonder how “Oscar of Agricultural Development by SAE” got hooked into the fraternity.

Were I to see this place at home, I’d label it a slum, but somehow here that doesn’t apply. The donkey trot rather than plod. The car horns remain a vibrant, alert choir. A tiny yellow truck passes to the side, carrying a solidly muscled black horned bull, munching contentedly on his hay. The rain doesn’t seem to bother anyone, although it does send the boat (excuse me, bus) shuddering from side to side a bit. My hips shift with it as though I’m on horseback. It remains secure and unalarming.

continued 10:46am

Passing from the new library to Kait Bey citadel, I am struck by the city. The water is alive, peaking and curling, and somehow the new city reflects this. The mosaics are vivid, the fountains evocative, alleyways hung with shimmering blue cloth and lamps – right next to a dentist’s office, the New Italy Fair, and the patriarchal church (Patriarcat Copte-Orthodoxe).

continued 3:08pm

Gad Restaurant – YUM! Looove Alexandria. Bright, clean, waving palms, charmingly French/Italian/Egyptian architecture. The consul of Finland abuts the Egyptian Ministry of Marine Equipment. Who knew there even was such a thing? Flags wave across the street from green and yellow “Ringo” phone booths. Everyone in the bus is happy, calm, well-fed. Today’s routine clearly suits us all – we’ve stopped now at the newly uncovered Roman theater and had both a lecture and a bit of time to wander down into the ruins and back up to the sculpture garden of recovered artifacts from the marine digs.

At the church, we saw mosaics by Isaac Farnouse, moulded ceilings, and the Christmas decorations of the modern church. Paper angels and poinsettias and star shaped lights. Downstairs, my favorite was the Noah’s ark at the baptismal font.

The musical lecture was, as Steve and Jackie noted, overly westernized in the sense that it felt incongruous to the church setting and to his very pro-religious message. The wedding ducks – a bizarre advertisement – reminds us of yesterday’s painting labeled, “evocative of ducks”.

Perhaps Alexandria is so stunning because everyone is so calm. I rather think the embassies are my favorite buildings here, just because they are little islands surrounded by gardens. We’re struck by the intersection of luxury and excess with practicality and recycling. Also amused by the red “x”s on blue backgrounds – what exactly are they prohibiting?

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~ by heycarahe on February 2, 2008.

2 Responses to “January 3, 2008 7:13am”

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Mike Harmon

  2. Thanks. Did something in particular pull you in?

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