12-13 July 2008: Cairo, Alexandria, and Cairo Again

On the morning of our arrival back in Cairo, Suzanne and I dumped our bags at the hotel and hopped the Metro to the Coptic section of the city. Wandering through the Coptic Museum, I was fascinated by the peculiar religious mixtures that emerged in the wake of Christianity's appearance in the region. Christian mythologies mingled and merged with those of ancient Egypt and Greece, John and James beside Horace and Anubis beside Leda and the swan. I will say, though, that the shock effect of 5, 6, and 7 A.D. falls somewhat flat after a week spent amidst wonders from a few thousand years prior.

We went back to the hotel and hung out with those still remaining from our tour group, who were set to leave that night. We sat around and watched whatever happened to come on the English-language movie channel – I think Fatal Attraction (through which I slept, my apologies to Mr. Redford) and that one with Deniro and a very young Leo Dicaprio. An Axe Body Spray commercial came on, and we had to explain to our Egyptian tour guide what "bow-chicka-wow-wow" meant. ("Bow-chicka-wow-wow" apparently does not translate across cultures.) Later, we applied this new vocabulary when he left to go visit a "girl friend" at another hotel.

After finally saying goodbye to the others, Suzanne and I caught a few hours of sleep in their vacated hotel rooms before heading out early to Alexandria. Our tour guide had helpfully arranged everything for us, securing a car and dictating a day's itinerary to our driver. He had requested a small car, which apparently was not available that day, so we had the rather awkward experience of being chauffeured around just the two of us in a spacious 12-passenger van.

Alexandria is a beautiful seaside city, described to us a having a "distinctly Western feel." (I think this refers to the TGIFriday's in the downtown.) It provided an interesting contrast to Cairo. Mainly, though, I think I was just thrilled to see the ocean again. We toured the catacombs, Pompey's Pillar, the shoreline citadel, and the enormous Alexandria Library. At each stop, our driver would drop us out front, go to park our small personal bus, and promptly pass out in the reclined driver's seat, leaving us to sheepishly wake him upon our return.

I'm not sure whether it was the fact that we were two foreign women traveling around alone or if it was a distinction of the city itself, but Suzanne and I got more attention in Alexandria than we had anywhere else. Waiting in line to enter the Library, we attracted a pack of adolescent Egyptian boys, who somehow managed to entertain themselves for 20 minutes by speaking to us across a significant language barrier in broken Arabic-English. Walking through the citadel, I was followed relentlessly by one Egyptian man in particular, who wanted to take a picture with me. When, in hopes of getting rid of him, I finally assented and asked him for his camera, he said, "Oh no, I don't have a camera. It is a photo for you!" Thanks…but no thanks.

We ended the day by splitting a pricy (by our African-volunteer-and-in-debt medical-student standard, at least) seafood dinner and strolling down the trash-strewn beach that abutted the sapphire-blue ocean. As we drove away from the city, I tried to keep the sea in sight for as long as possible, storing up memories to take back with me into my landlocked life. Our tour guide called us once, ostensibly to check up on us, though I think he really just wanted to brag about his night. ("Bow-chicka-wow-wah-wee-WOW!!" was, I believe, the exact word he used in telling me.) Two hours later, we were back in Cairo, boarding the Metro out to our accommodations for the night.

In true Peace Corps Volunteer spirit, I feel, I both began and ended my Egyptian tour by imposing myself upon strangers tenuously connected to me through mutual friends. This final night's stay was with some friends of a PCV friend who, also in keeping with Peace Corps spirit, were living with an Egyptian host family on the outskirts of the city. This proved to be one of the most colorful, authentic, and memorable experiences of my whole trip.

Upon our arrival at the house, we shared tea seated together on the family's living room floor, the three women of the family, two little girls, and the five of us Americans. Our three hosts answered in Arabic all the family's questions about Suzanne and me, and we smiled and nodded and tried to look as agreeable as possible. I realize how much the Peace Corps experience has affected me by how little I'm bothered being in the midst of totally incomprehensible chatter. In fact, I could have sat and listened to them talk all night, just observing the scene, soaking in the moment, picking up words here and there and storing them away. Such has been much of my life in Ethiopia.

A cassette player was produced from the back bedroom, and before we knew it, tea time had broken into a belly dancing party. Washtubs and metal pots were beaten like drums in rhythm with the music, and we each took turns making fools of ourselves as the sassy little six-year-old daughter dragged us up in turn in front of the gathering. That is to say, the rather more Caucasian among us made fools of ourselves, while getting to see displays of incredible talent from the others. It reminded me very much of all those nights spent dancing in the living room with my host family in Welliso – except that now it was my hips, rather than my shoulders, that I was attempting to gyrate in ways that I believe are truly beyond my physical capabilities.

When the music and the laughter finally subsided, we bid the family goodnight and retreated to the girls' wing of the apartment, where we talked late into the night about our different experiences abroad. It was a perfect last night in Egypt, in my mind, one that felt less like tourism and more like traveling. It exemplified all the things that drew me overseas with the Peace Corps in the first place, all the things for which I have gained an even greater appreciation since.


Bill said...

Wow, it sounds like you're on a real adventure out there! Please forgive me for chasing a thread, but I'd love to know - what did they say in Cairo about the years 5, 6 and 7 AD? And what should I google to find their museum on the web?

Thanks so much, and God bless you for the work you're doing in Africa.

Christen Smith said...

Hey, Bill! The Coptic Museum in Cairo is online at http://www.copticmuseum.gov.eg/english/default.htm

It was just a a little ironic to be seeing all these "ancient artifacts" and then to reflect that we had been seeing things all week from 3 THOUSAND years earlier! So much history; quite incredible.

Take care! Thanks for reading!