From Alone in Cairo:
10pm. I remember sitting alone in a train station in Cairo. The sun had set, it was getting dark, and I had nothing on me except for a backpack and a wallet. I had no hostel to stay at and I had no plan to follow. Throngs of people passed by me to and fro without a care who I was. I had no laptop, no internet, no cell phone, and no friends whom I could reach. I was a droplet in the fog.
For the first time in my life, I felt an odd, confusing mixture of diametrically opposed emotions: I was structureless, I was formless, and I felt refreshingly yet uneasily liberated. I knew nobody, and nobody knew me. I wasn’t meeting anyone, wasn’t about to run into anyone, and I had no means to reach other people and nobody could reach me. Nobody was going to call me or give me a plan, or tell me what to do. I couldn’t even understand any of the advertisements telling me what to buy or what to watch. Everything was blank to me. I was wandering in oblivion. There was nothing and nobody in that moment whom I could communicate with other than myself.
This was one of those rare moments where you can finally say: “I’m free.” But what do you do with that freedom? For many going through this for the first time, it’s an overwhelming bondage: by freeing yourself from the entrapments of familiarity, structure and routine, you become enslaved by this bottomless fear of the unknown. This fear can choke you to the point of inaction; you may delude yourself into believing that by doing nothing you can hold onto any sense of stability or comfort. This inaction is what causes people to freeze in their tracks, get caught in the headlights, and forget what it means to be alive.
So when the thought of sleeping in the train station crossed my mind, I bit my lip and bought a one way train ticket to Alexandria.
I remember arriving into Alexandria in late evening, still without plan on where I would be sleeping. When I got off the train, I could no longer enjoy the security of procrastinating planning my next step to another train stop. Rather, I felt like I was once again a step away from being paralyzed by total fear; I was afraid to go outside but I was afraid that I wouldn’t leave the station. I was one step away from not taking a step at all.
But I kept telling myself: “keep moving, just keep moving, get the hell out of here and just keep moving.“
So going blind I walked, stopped, turned around, stopped again, turned around, and kept walking a few paces, and stopped to make a random turn without quite sure where I was going. I went over a bridge, down random stairs, under a bridge, and before I knew it I was already lost. The utility of using the train station as a landmark to orient myself had long been ruled out, and I had not yet accustomed myself to read maps. So I bit the bullet and hailed a cab.
We headed to a popular spot at the Corniche by the Mediterranean Sea, and from there I figured I would find my bearings and choose a place to stay. It was getting late.
I arrived at the Corniche a few minutes later, stopping at a well known hotel landmark. After paying my fare, I walked past all the bright lights into a few darker alleyways. From there I would look for the words “HOSTEL” or “FAMILY GUESTHOUSE” and begin to knock on doors for the next hour. 3 years later, I can’t tell you how I arrived at my choice of stay….but wherever it was, it was cheap. And it was pretty spartan.
The view from my room:
I woke up the next morning to a few mosquito bites and a horrible fever. But it wasn’t a real fever; rather, it was an unrelenting fear of leaving my guesthouse which I called a fever. This fear was becoming like a sickness.
I remember sitting in the lobby for a good hour before deluding myself into some fake courage. I ain’t gonna lie; the thought of walking outside and exploring a completely foreign city from scratch — for the first time in my life — took a bit of brass. But I eventually got there.
I stepped outside and didn’t look back. I couldn’t anyways; the guesthouse owners made sure the door was locked from inside for the day. On any other day I would be pissed, but not today.
It wasn’t so bad. After about 10 minutes in, I forgot why I was so nervous about this in the first place.
No more whining. Onto Alexandria.
The great thing about this city is that it’s a living museum. Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great himself, and it’s been destroyed and rebuilt by countless nations that once claimed Alexandria as its own: Greece, Rome, Byzantine, Persia, Egypt. That said, it’s still a sleepy, coastal city that only hints of a grandeur it used to enjoy in the ancient world. Don’t expect anything epic when you come; while there’s a lot of history on these streets, Alexandria is pretty modest. You’ll have to work hard and dig deep while here.
Similar to how you’ll navigate Beirut or Amman, on one street may be a modern apartment complex, but around the corner you might stumble upon some ancient ruins from the Roman empire. But with these ancient sites there’s no sign, post, tourist shop or epic light show…it’s just…there.
Find the Catacombs of Kom el-Shouqafa, known for its integration of Egyptian, Greeks and Roman styles for a public cemetery; one of Alexandria’s highlights.
Then of course, is the famous (and rebuilt/modernized) Alexandria Bibliotheca. Don’t expect anything historic looking; while it remains within the same city as the ancient Library of Alexandria, those of you expecting a building besotted by time, throwing back memories to a foregone era of Greco-Roman classical architecture will be disappointed. This is as modern of a library as you can get.
The nearby “Death Star” is the new planetarium:
From there, take a stroll along the Corniche from east to west, making your way to the Citadel of Qaitbay. Along the way, take in the life of Alexandria along the Mediterranean Sea:
And on the eastern tip of the curved Corniche is the Citadel of Qaitbay, built in 1480 by Sultan Qaitbay to protect the city from the crusaders who used to attack the city by sea, and of course, built on the exact site of one of the original 7 wonders of the Ancient World: the Alexandria Lighthouse.
It’s now a museum, so go inside and take it all in:
Time to go back.
Time to go home.