40 for 40: Day 23 – Alexandria to Cairo

Today was the day of not enough signage.

With a 5 pm train to Cairo and, after seeing the general cleanliness of Alexandria’s beaches yesterday, a veto on swimming, our remaining time in the city would be devoted to mailing postcards, a nice breakfast, seeing just three things, and cheesecake. Varying degrees of adventure to be had.

The mail experience was probably the most pain-free thing we had to do today, as we were helped by a hilarious woman who worked there who spoken fantastic sarcastic English, at one point asking us “okay, why are you making this difficult” when she tried to explain how many stamps we would need to mail something to Canada (two 3 LE stamps per postcard) and giving Daina sass when he initially refused the wet stamp pad, saying he wanted to lick 40 stamps. After that adventure, we had brunch at Trianon, another café with a lot of old-school atmosphere. Went for another Oriental breakfast while Daina had a Croque Madam, and it was tasty enough, though pricier and not as good as yesterday’s breakfast at La Paix. From there, it was off to see the sights!

We had decided we would walk from place to place today, snagging an Uber either at the end of the adventures, or if we were running short on time. First stop was a short walk away, Kom al-Dikka.

From the Ptolemaic era, and thus younger than Egypt’s other ruins, Kom al-Dikka is home to Egypt’s only Roman amphitheatre, not the most impressive one out there, but also features a villa with some bird mosaics and various other columns, plus a more recent display of items brought up from the waters around the Qaitbey Citadel. It was here that we got a sense of how hot Alexandria would be today, as the actual presence of clouds and humidity made it feel every degree of 36. Once we were done here, we went down to the next site, Pompey’s Pillar, seeing Alexandria in its fully crumbling splendour, as run down Green and orange streetcars push past black-and-yellow taxis which try to avoid tuk tuk drivers and everything else on the road, with ashy-brown buildings in the background looking almost Cuba, without the decorative flourishes. We happily walked through the beautiful decay until we reached the Pillar, where we begin The Tale of Two Tourist Police.

Coming in at 30 metres high, the column is the only surviving monument from ancient Alexandria, and the only thing left at the site when Christians wrecked the nearby Temple of Serapium in the 4th century. People named it after the Roman general Pompey, for reasons ranging from his ashes allegedly being housed in top, or in memory of him being murdered by Cleopatra’s brother, though an inscription found at the bottom actually states it was raised in 291 AD to host a statue of Diocletian. The two sphinxes near it are from Heliopolis, so it can come off as artificial in some ways, but that doesn’t take away from its beauty.

Now, as we were approaching the pillar, a member of the Tourist Police (in full white uniform and red beret, with requisite machine gun accessory) approached us a started telling us about the site in the same way that robe-clad guards did at the temples near Aswan and Luxor. He showed us to the underground sections of the site, which would have featured the overflow texts from the Great Library and still contained a statue of Serapis, a bull with a sun disk on its head that cast a shadow on the wall that looked exactly like a moose. I mentioned this to the guard, who repeated “moose” in the same way I repeat sports news (by that, I mean, totally pretending to understand it), so I used my phone to show him a picture of one (thanks, Internet) before moving on, with Daina giving him 20 LE for his help.

Next stop was the Catacombs of Kom ash-Suqqafa. A more recent discovery, when a donkey disappeared into the ground a hundred years ago, the Catacombs were the largest Roman burial site in Egypt, eventually hosting 300 bodies through years of hacking into the rock, and one of the last sites built in Egypt dedicated to its ancient religion.

Anubis is dressed as a Roman Legionary and has a serpent’s tail. Osiris and Persephone share wall space in a faded painting. Egyptian funerary scenes are carved in the curvy Roman style, which made for some great pictures, which were totally allowed, because there were no signs to indicate otherwise, right?

Well….

Another member of the tourist police comes down and starts speaking in Arabic to a local-looking boy who was snapping photos with his smartphone who, after the guard spoke to his mother, put the phone away with no incident. He then turned his attention to me, as I had my handheld out and was also snapping away. He then gave me a disapproving scowl, demanded to take my camera and told me there was a 300 LE fine for taking pictures! Again zero signage indicating that photography was a problem. Fortunately, the woman he had been speaking to moments ago spoke English (turns out she was from Chicago), and was able to explain that there was no signage, at which point he countered that the people at the entrance should have seen my camera and taken it, at which point I explained that I walked right in with it in my hand and nobody stopped me. Eventually, due to this back and forth, he relented and, as we started to make our way upstairs, he gave the “Baksheesh pssht” we’ve heard at so many sites, as he pointed to an area we had already been to and invited us back down. Not wanting to engage, and happy to keep my camera and photos intact, we said no thanks to him, thanked the woman from Chicago profusely, and made our way out. An Uber back to Delices, where Kit Kat and Snickers cheesecakes took off the edge, and that part of our day was done.

We walked back to our hotel, the Triomphe, which shares in Alexandria’s faded glory, for a shower and a rest before our final adventure of the day, Alexandria’s Misr Train Station.

So, apparently, when we arrived in Alexandria, we got off at a station called Sidi Gaber, which is used by Alexandrian locals, but is the second last stop in the city. Misr was a twenty minute walk from the hotel, a ten minute drive, and it was where we ended up buying tickets for anyhow. You get into the station and the electronic, bilingual signs of Sidi Gaber are nowhere to be seen, and it’s mild chaos, with sand covered rail platforms and people waiting with very little intention. We showed our ticket to a guy who looked like he worked there who, after checking with a friend, told us the train was leaving on Platform 7. The platform signs stopped at 6, so we went to the next platform over that had a train, which was one of the most run-down trials I had ever seen. Like, I’m not even sure how this thing would move. In fact, it didn’t while we were there.

We walked up and down the platform, looking for carriage 1, before asking a guy in a uniform if we were on the right platform, to which he said no, and directed us to platform 5, where we had asked the other guy. Once we got there, some Egyptian dude-bros approached us and we asked them if it was the right platform, which resulted in some sort of affirmative, overly-happy mumble that was completely unconvincing, so Daina asked the guy at the chip stand, who pointed back to the train we just left, giving a message akin to “when that train leaves, the train to Cairo gets in”. I asked a third guy, whose English response was quite colloquial, as he told me “Yes yes! Lucky number seven!!!” He then counted backwards from eight to six to show me where seven is and, when I asked him when the other train was leaving so the Cairo train would arrive, he also responded “after.”

So, we went back to the Platform Believed To Be Seven, and I was frantically looking and hoping for any indication that the broken-looking train was leaving. Some kind of a sign, either physically or metaphorically. At this point, Daina has gone to actually buy chips from a vendor who tried to hose him at 50 LE, to which D slyly replied “you mean fifteen, right?” While this was happening, I looked over to my right through what appeared to be a connecting tunnel to realize there was no platform eight next to this seven, just as a much nicer train pulled in in the other side of the one we were in front of. At this point, it was confirmed that that was the train to Cairo, and we had to boot it to the real platform 7, making our way to the very edge of the front of the platform and walking through two cars before finding where we were supposed to be.

So, that was mildly rattling.

We got on and this First Class car was slightly worse for wear than the one we took to Alexandria, as evidenced by the armrest full of sunflower seeds I uncovered when I tried to see if I had a fold-out table to write on. Different trains have different levels in Egypt, and air-con is always appreciated, but this one was stretching its designation. Once we got got into Ramses Station, the chaos continued, as we ordered an Uber in a place where it was almost impossible to find your Uber, though we learned that having an Uber on standby is a great bargaining tool for cabs, who immediately either offered us a lower rate or to use their meter. Was going to bite on that before our Uber guy called us (local SIM paying off HUGE) and, in excellent English, which we hadn’t experienced yet with Uber here, told us where to find him. We finally rolled into our hotel, which was fine but slightly different than what we expected, before making our way to Felfela for dinner, where I finally had stuffed pigeon, which was pretty damn delicious.

So, from about 4:30 onward today, the day has been chaos, which we’re just now recovering from. One thing to see in Cairo tomorrow, one thing to do, and then we say goodbye to this crazy country. Worth every minute, though.

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