Ants, Trains, and Il Padrino: Adventures in Alexandria

The dust has settled from the holiday commotion (and thats totally a figure of expression – its just as dusty as it ever was in this city) and I can finally sit down and catch up on all the posts I’ve wanted to write. Never you mind those dishes in the sink, I’ll wash them later.

Alexandria was amazing, an island of calm in the sea of chaos and I came back much more at ease with living here. But let me start at how we got there:

There’s really three choices for long-distance travel in Egypt: personal vehicle, bus, or train. One could also mention microbuses but I consider that akin to riding a camel to wherever you’re going- hot, dusty, smelly, and uncomfortable. Having your own car and driving is the best way to go, but very few people including Mr MM and myself have a car, so we’re left with the other two choices. We have taken buses on many occasions like from Cairo to Alex and from Alex to Marsa Matruh and back again, and I have to say its not a very comfortable way to travel. At least not when you’re a princess like I am, I guess. (Mom I can hear you laughing.) And really, when you consider the price there are much more comfortable ways to travel, like the train when its available.

This last time when we went to Alex we decided to take the train and o bliss it was wonderful. There are two classes on the train (at least from what I can tell, maybe three, and four classes if you count the people who catch a ride for free on top of the train.) But for sure there are two classes of train ticket: 1st and 2nd. The 1st class is what we took and it was so absolutely wonderful that I am tempted to take the train everywhere I can. The seats were huge and comfortable, they reclined, and you had foot rests attached to the back of the seat in front of you but there is so much room between seats that in order to rest your feet on them it was almost as if you were reclining already. The car was so well air-conditioned that I had to bring a sweater and during the trip they went through multiple times selling drinks and things to eat. What was the price for this extravagance? 46LE, less than $10. And what is the price for taking the bus? 40LE from Alex to Cairo.

On the bus you are quite literally sardined between people, the seats really don’t recline, and the a/c usually does not work, or works in ineffectual spurts. When sitting normally on the seat your knees press against the back of the seat in front of you thats how little space you have. For the 6 extra pounds I think its worth it to take the 1st class train. The 2nd class, or what i think was the 2nd class and may actually be 3rd class, was basically a bunch of subway cars attached to the train, same bench seating, and half the people left to travel the two hours to Cairo standing up. I have no idea how much that costs, but I’m sure its probably relatively cheap.

So my advice to anyone in Egypt traveling: take the train, its so worth it.

On the way up to Alex we left early in morning and I wanted to watch the scenery go by as it is one of my favorite things to do when traveling. However I had been up all night finishing the packing and cooking suhoor that as soon as the train started going the comfortable seats and the rhythmic rocking of the car put me right to sleep. I woke up just as we were pulling into the station in Alex and we got out, hailed a taxi, and arrived at his family’s flat for our long weekend.

We took a nap, or well actually I took a nap while Mr MM unpacked all of the suitcases (God bless him) and when I got up we got dressed and headed down to the sea. One of my favorite things about Alex is the sea, I’ve always dreamed of living on the ocean, hearing the sound of the waves from my window, and watching the water continuously roll against the shore. It calms me.

One thing to be warned of when in Alex is that there is almost no public beach at all, every square inch was bought up by cafes and hotels and is only available for your sitting pleasure through a paid fee. The nicer the place, the higher the fee. The only exception I can think of is a section of rocky cliff on which some enterprising person set out chairs and little tables. You didn’t have to pay a fee to sit perilously close to the crashing waves a ten foot drop from your feet, but you were expected to order something to drink.

Mr MM and I walked to the shore, paid a horribly high-priced fee, and went to sit out on the ocean to soak up the sun and the relatively pollution-free air.

We brought our dinners over, I ate some fabulous grilled chicken and he got some disgustingly whole cooked fish. Like it had the skin and the head and all of that stuff. I couldn’t even watch him eat it and thankfully he was downwind from me so I didn’t smell it either.

I’ve got to say something about this amazing restaurant in Alex, its in the Miami district, where we were staying, and the name translates into Prince’s Palace or something. They specialize in grilled meat and sweet daisy is their food good. They have grilled beef (lahma mashweya) that tastes like honest to God carne asada straight from my padrino’s grill. Pasame las tortillas porfas! I was in heaven. If you are hungry in Alex, they’re right off Ibn Khaled Street by the water and down a little alleyway. Can anyone who knows Alex help me out with the name? Anyways, go there and partake of the grilled meat goodness. Their chicken is fabulous as well. But I would recommend staying away from the rice (unless you like goat meat baked into your rice) and from the lisan al asfour soup because it wasn’t very good. Stick with the meat and the salad and the tahini and you can’t go wrong.

In our little sea-side cafe lives a clan of cats who rally around, 30 cats strong, whoever happens to have food at that moment. Its pretty cute. And the first day we were there, Mr MM and I met Il Padrino, the godfather of the group, the HNIC, and one confident cool cat.

He was just laying in the sun and didn’t care or move in inch when Mr MM and I walked right past him. He was friendly and purred when I petted him. He was much bigger than all the other cats, he had these hard round cheeks that made me wonder if something was wrong with him, and his eyes were square shaped. Overall he looked kind of odd and immediately Mr MM and I thought he was sick, but subsequent days of being at the cafe and watching him I came to the conclusion that he was just secure in his place in hierarchy. Most of the younger male cats had his same head and eye shape and most of the female cats were his groupies including one very persistent female calico who circled him while he walked and kept shoving her butt in his face. Not terribly subtle I say.

I want a cat of my own and was on a look out for a cuddly kitten, but most of the cats and kittens in the pack, except Il Padrino, were afraid of humans and ran away. Sad. Mr MM wouldn’t let me keep a street cat anyways, apparently he thinks they will make mischief while we’re sleeping. You know, like play his FIFA computer game and beat his highest score.

Another of the adventures of the weekend involved ants. Ants in Egypt are incredibly persistent and industrious and omnipresent. The flat we stayed in is a weekend flat for the family, no one really lives there full-time but its a really, really nice flat, however ants had made themselves quite at home. You could literally see long lines of them stretching from corner to corner, across the wall, and they had done extensive excavation at entry and exit points as the mounds of dirt attested. I’m not sure if they came later or if the flat itself was built over a pre-existing ant migration route, but they certainly had made a presence. I didn’t even bother to spray for them, there were too many, we just made sure to step over the ant paths and get on with our day. They’re kind of fun to watch, if annoying. And they bite.

While in Alex I calmed down, took a deep breath, and reevaluated some things in my life. It was a much needed break and I would love to move to Alex if the opportunity arose. Maybe its because I’m from Minnesota and just not used to that many people in one place at one time, but the constant mass of people and cars in Cairo really wears on my senses. I avidly avoid large crowds anyways, but here there really is no escape, they’re everywhere. This city has 18 million people (that they officially counted) and maybe that doesn’t translate to much on paper, but its just so many people. Alex is, in contrast, calmer and less crowded, especially once all of the Cairo summer vacationers go home and the Gulf Arabs go home and the city goes back to its normal routine. Traffic is not nearly as heavy, the roads are cleaner, the air is cleaner, the buildings are cleaner. I much prefer Alex to Cairo and would love to be back there right now.

Also while I was there and reevaluating things I saw an example of the crushing poverty that exists here. To see poverty and horrible living situations one really only has to take a look at the bawebs downstairs who often live altogether in one single room without a bathroom or kitchen. But also from one of the bedroom windows in the flat I could see out into an empty lot of rubble and trash where one family built themselves a small shack out of discarded stone.

Their windows and doors are plastic sheets and the children do the wash and their homework outdoors. Sometimes I need to remember how blessed I am to have the things I do. Alhumdulillah.

Alex was a good trip, a trip I needed. And oh how I wish I were still there. But we’re all where we’re supposed to be.


8 responses to “Ants, Trains, and Il Padrino: Adventures in Alexandria

  1. For cats, I found my two kittens here

    For some reason I really, really didnt like that shelter I mentioned, but if you go there, let me know how it was for you… they kept talking about money and such, it made me feel like it wasnt really a shelter… I dont know, Allahu alim. But this site worked… and free!

  2. it seems like a nice site, but its in Arabic, is there an English version? I’m probably blind but I couldn’t find a link to switch to english.

  3. thanks for letting us in on your little trip šŸ™‚ feel like im there and cant wait to visit Alex in the near future insha’allah

  4. I prefer Alex to Cairo and Hurghada. It’s in the middle, crowd wise and there are more malls and stuff is cheaper there. I do love the red sea though.

    I was just telling UmmTravis I wish I could have a cat!
    Ant bites are the worst. Worse than mosquitoes.

  5. Hm. You know, maybe it’s a consequence of where I’ve been in each, but I’ve never had an impression that Alexandria is much calmer or cleaner than Cairo. Smaller, obviously, but back off of the coast and away from the downtown district of either at least … I don’t know, to me, aside from weather, they’re pretty interchangeable.

  6. I forgot to say I love the train too. We used to ride it with my parents and I wish there was a train to and from Hurghada, We’d be on that all the time! I really want to take the kids on the train sometime inshaAllah.

    I don’t know the restaurant you mentioned but my favorite restaurant in Alex is Tikka. They have this amazing puffy bread!
    Anyway, I’m glad you had a nice time Molly.

  7. Your trip sounds lovely!

  8. sorry molly, i had to get my husband to do it for me šŸ˜¦ i cant read it either, but another friend told me about it (she gave away 2 kittens successfully) and i found 2 kittens there successfully. i think its like the want-ads for cats in cairo.

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