copy Excellent Adventures in Egypt

Enter here to share Joni's adventures living and working in Cairo courtesy of the U.S. Fulbright cultural exchange program. Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of our civilization. - Mahatma Ghandi


Gigi and the Adventure of the First Solo Train Ride

Posted by Hello I have survived my first solo expedition by train and lived to tell the tale, hamdulilah. Eman graciously invited me to spend the weekend of September 23 with her family at their flat in Alexandria. Eman and her family went up early in the week, and I made arrangements to join them on Thursday afternoon, catching the train from Ramses Station. So the first step was getting a ticket, a relatively easy task, thought I. Wrong! I set out to acquire said ticket on Tuesday mid-day, right after Arabic class. Ahmed suggested that I go to the ticket office in Dokki, which is much closer (and theoretically less crazed) than the scene around the main station. He told me to go to the "central telephone exchange" where there was a train ticket window. My first stop was at the office of the Red Sea Sustainable Tourism Initiative (RSSTI), a USAID-funded project aimed at improving waste management, water handling and energy use in Red Sea resorts. The project has produced a plethora of valuable materials on best practices for resorts in Egypt that Eman and I are anxious to acquire. In a meeting the previous evening with Dr. Emad Adly, president of Arab Office for Youth and Environment (check out the organization's website at - a number of great activities around environmental topics and sustainability in Egypt and the region) I learned that the RSSTI was closing down in just two days, so I rushed over to see what I could learn before everything was packed away. After finishing my business, I asked the folks there for directions to the train ticket office. They had no idea where it was located - they have other people buy train tickets for them. (Having undergone the ordeal myself now, I understand their reasoning!) The RSSTI folks suggested that I get a ticket from Giza station, since that was closer than Ramses. So I taxi-trundled off to Giza station where I was informed that I could not get a ticket to Alexandria since trains from Giza onlygo to upper Egypt. I called Ahmed for more precise directions to the Dokki ticket office; like most folks here, he didn't know the address but only near-by landmarks. We finally settled on the Ministry of Agriculture as the taxi navigation point. Of course, none of the taxi drivers spoke English and my Arabic doesn't extend to either "ministry" or "agriculture." With aid of a map, my Cairene dictionary, a helpful passerby and several very helpful taxi-drivers-in-seach- of-a-fare I finally got myself seated in a Dokki-bound cab (paying exorbitant at-the-train-station prices, of course). I was dutifully dropped off near the Ministry and quickly realized that the elusive office was no where nearby. I started asking for directions - not many English speakers in Dokki - and spent half an hour gradually working my way up the street, eventually zeroing in on the central telephone exchange building. (Nobody knew where the telephone exchange was located - I got there by asking for train tix in Arabic. Go figure.) Once inside the building things got a lot easier. I took advantage of the "ladies go to the front of the line" rule and completed the purchase quickly. Back at the flat, I even managed to assure myself that everything on the train ticket was correct - after 30 minutes of careful Arabic translation using a magnifying glass. But I have to say that I was exhausted by all this schlepping around - 3 hours plus in the heat and dense Cairo traffic. Many people here point to Cairo's crowding, pollution and long commuting times as factors that sap people's energy and contribute to lack of productivity (not to mention that often frustrating phenomenon "operating on Egypt time"). This was my first personal experience of what they are describing. The train trip itself was a breeze in comparison. Ramses Station was blissfully uncrowded (a rarity), the train came in 25 minutes early, and I found my car through the simple expedient of going from car to car shoving my ticket under the nose of every conductor I saw until finally landing in the right one. Since I had come prepared for Egyptian air conditioning (sox, scarf and blanket - trains are usually kept at a temperature that would keep a side of beef fresh for weeks) I had a very cosy and relatively quiet two hour journey to Alex. Thankfully, there were no movies or radios here - only that world-wide favorite "symphony by cellphone" providing background music along the way. I arrived a little after 4 pm, was accosted by a number of taxi drivers at the train station, and finally settled on a fare that was only 3 times what it should have been - the best I could do as a foreignor. Locals here generally detest the behavior of taxi drivers, especially their rapaciousness towards towards foreignors, because they think it gives Egypt a bad name. In Alex, anyone who isn't from Alexandria is classified as a "foreignor" for taxi purposes, so Cairenes get stuck with the same kind of cut-throat behavior. In my experience, the worst places to pick up cabs are at train stations and in front of big hotels: the drivers there tend to hang out waiting for fares, then expect to make up for all that lost sitting time by inflating fares for "rich" foreignors. In contrast, the cabbies I flag down in the streets are, by and large, quite reasonable - I even had one driver tell me I was paying him too much on a trip to Mohandiseen. It takes all kinds! The Helmy's flat is opposite Gleam Beach, the beautiful public beach you see in the picture above. I was a little anxious about what to expect once I reached the flat, since I wasn't sure how Egyptian families dress or behave in the privacy of their own home. I needn't have worried: Eman met me at the door in a track suit (called "trening" in Arabic) while the rest of the family was garbed in anything from housedresses to PJs - as the Queen of Office Casual, this was a family with whom I could identify! They had saved me a "lunch" of kebab from their favorite local stand, and kept up a round of lively conversation (mixed Arabic and English) as I indulged. Mrs. Helmy does not speak English, and she had a lot of trouble saying "Joni" (it's a mouthful for Arabic speakers). So she re-dubbed me "Gigi," a name that suits don't you think? After lunch and more conversation, we all sat around and watched the family's favorite evening soap opera. I couldn't understand the dialogue, but that hardly mattered - soaps are soaps, and the plots don't vary much. After this episode's happy ending, Eman and I went out and strolled along the corniche for a couple of hours, enjoying the cool, clean Iskandriya air. I was very impressed by the changes I saw along the Corniche since I was last here two years ago. The Governor hsas undertaken an aggressive public improvement program, financed throgh the simple expedient of telling business people not to pay their taxes (thus short-circuiting the corruption cycle that siphons off so much of Egypt's investment funds) but to invest the money directly in public improvements. The result is a completely re-vamped corniche, with new breakwaters, strolling areas, beach furniture and a slew of exclusive beachfront resorts open only to "syndicate" (i.e., trade unions) members. There is also a lot of investment and upgrading evident in the private sector, with buildings being torn down (sadly including the quaint little San Giovanni restaurant I lunched at last time I was here) to be replaced by gleaming modern construction. Most notable is the Four Seasons mega-resort, a huge double-circle five star hotel and luxury apartment complex that reminded me of a space station for aliens. Overall, Alexandria feels full of bustle and promise, quite different from the easy-going, just-get-along atmosphere of Cairo. (Eman tells me that President Mubarak decided to transfer the Alex governor to Cairo - governor is an appointed position here - but the Alexandrenes went on strike to block the move.) One side effect of all this development is continual loss of public access to the waterfront, and I think the jury is stil out on how this will all balance out. On the way back to the flat, we stopped at a juice stand for granitas, a wonderfully cool juice-and-ice slushy. After licking the last of the granita juice off our fingers, we topped off the evening with big slices of Movenpick ice cream cake and toddled off to bed. I shared a room with Eman, bouncing her sister Nahla into her mother's bed and Mr. Helmy onto a couch in the front room.


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