A Tour of Alex

Thursday morning I rolled out of bed with just enough time to throw on some clothes and head to the breakfast room to grab something to eat before we all piled on to an obnoxiously huge blue tour bus for our first planned cultural activity — a trip around Alexandria. We were accompanied by a tour guide named John and three conversation partners from the University of Alexandria.

Our first stop was at Alexandria’s 100-year-old opera house, one of the few remnants of the city’s colonial heritage that hasn’t fallen into a total state of disrepair. The building has that open, Italianate look about it — majestic but not imposing, lovely but not in a pristine sort of way. We peeked inside, but it wasn’t open until 10 a.m. I’d love to go back some day, insha’allah, possibly even for a concert. One of our language partners, Ghada, has a sister who plays violin at the opera house. It’d be cool to go see her play.

This statue reminds me of the statue of John Carroll in Healy Circle at Georgetown. We were all joking that we should climb into his lap and take a picture, but that would probably have been considered disrespectful. 

Next we toured Alexandria’s catacombs, which were sufficiently creepy to last me the rest of the trip. As with the Pyramids, I just can’t wrap my mind around the fact that so much effort was put into building such an elaborate tomb for someone who wouldn’t even be able to appreciate it. Egypt was — is — a sparse country, barely scraping a living out of a narrow strip of arable land along the Nile. The idea that so many resources were left to rot in underground chambers while people living above the surface struggled to survive is unbelievably frustrating, even 2000 years later. Perhaps because it’s so easy to find parallels between the social strata of Ancient Egypt and the rampant inequality of today. The Catacombs are located alongside one of Alex’s poorer neighborhoods, one that looks distinctly different from the bustling downtown area where our hotel is. Laundry hung from every windowsill and Morsi signs were ubiquitous. I wasn’t able to take any pictures of the Catacombs, but I did snap some photos of the neighborhood.

Next we headed towards the Roman Amphitheater, one of Alexandria’s few remaining ancient structures. The amphitheater isn’t actually an amphitheater, but actually an ancient lecture hall. There is a smooth round stone in the center of the theater that you can stand on and hear your voice reverberate back to you as loudly and clearly as if you’d spoken into your own ear. Say what you will about the Romans, but they definitely had a firm grasp of physics. I’m pretty sure the acoustics in the lecture halls at Georgetown aren’t as good. At the theater, John, our guide, also talked to us about the underwater archeological digs that produced a lot of the other artifacts that were on display around the theater. Apparently the earthquake that dislodged Alexandria’s lighthouse 2000 years ago also shook a variety of other monuments into the sea, where they’ve been lying ever since. John pointed to a sphinx the size of a large dog, whose form was perfectly preserved on one side and significantly blurred on the other. The sphinx had been lying on its side in the water, and over the course of centuries the waves had eroded the exposed side until it was as smooth as sea glass.

Our next stop was the National Museum, of which I don’t remember a lot. At this point we had been out in the sun for most of the morning, and despite drinking an entire liter bottle of water I was feeling a bit woozy. The museum was beautiful, but I was mostly looking forward to stopping for lunch, and being able to sit down. For lunch we went to Alexandria’s most famous seafood restaurant, called the Fish Market. The restaurant’s lobby had a display case full of photos of famous dignitaries who had eaten there — everyone from . I didn’t eat any fish, but I did have salad and the various dips (hummus, tahina, baba ganoush, yogurt with garlic) that were provided alongside deliciously soft, warm pita pockets. The restaurant was right on the beach and had an amazing view of the Mediterranean.

Unfortunately, after lunch my headache worsened and I felt dizzy when I stood up from the table. Instead of continuing on the tour, two guys from the trip who wanted to do homework took me back to the hotel and I collapsed into bed, sleeping until 8 p.m. I woke long enough to do a little homework and eat some yogurt as my dinner, then went back to sleep.

This morning, having slept for almost 13 hours the previous day, I woke up pretty early (7:30). I decided that I didn’t really want to push it by going to the Nadi (sports club) today, but I did some crunches and lunges and things in my room so as not to feel like a total slug. I would kill for a good run in shorts right now. After breakfast, my roommate Barb and I headed to a cafe on the Corniche to do work. We wound up sitting there for about 6 hours, enjoying the breeze off the ocean and occasionally commenting on the view. At one point the waiter came over and said that he needed my name and number in order for me to use the wi-fi in the cafe. I was confused — how could my phone number be relevant to my using wi-fi? — but I did as I was told. After Barb and I figured that it was probably a ploy to get my number, though as my hair wasn’t brushed and my face was still red from the sun yesterday (I wore sunscreen Mom, I swear! But the sun here is more intense than I’m used to) I can’t imagine why he wanted it.

In the afternoon, Barb and I tried to go shopping to reward ourselves for studying so diligently. Unfortunately, this turned out to be more of an ordeal than either of use was prepared for. Both of us planned on buying clothes here and need more long skirts and long-sleeved shirts, but the attention our white skin attracted made it impossible to shop. In one store we went into, the sales clerk stood right next to us, following us every time we turned to browse through a different rack. In the next, a girl came up to me and asked me if I spoke Arabic. When I responded with, “shwaya” (a little), she burst into laughter. We tried to ask her where the dressing room was, which she seemed to find similarly hilarious. Finally one of her friends showed us where to go. After I had tried on my skirt, I planned to wait for Barb outside the dressing room, but one of the women who worked at the store came up to me. “Friend? Friend?” she kept asking, and even though I replied, “Aywa, hea sadiqati” (Yes, she is my friend) she brought me back into the changing room and opened the curtain to Barb’s stall. Luckily, Barb was fully dressed, but at that point we had both had enough shopping for one day. I paid for my skirt and we headed back to the hotel.

The rest of the night was pretty uneventful. A few of the other kids in the group and I went back to our favorite restaurant, Mohammed Ahmed, for ful and shakshuoka (eggs cooked with vegetables in a tomato sauce), and then I spent an hour trying to find a nearby gym where I might be able to go swimming in a suit that doesn’t resemble a Victorian bathing costume. There appears to be  Gold’s Gym in the city, but I can’t quite figure out where. A project for another day, I guess.

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