I decided to stop being a tourist and to spend a couple of days driving through the country, just to get a feel for it. I rented a car, braved the Cairo traffic for longer than I had expected, and finally made it into the road that heads south parallel to the Nile. It was not a happy choice since it is a narrow road, full of slow traffic, and going through lackluster towns.
Eventually I made it to the desert and headed toward el-Faiyum. The desert is . . . well . . . the desert. Endless expanses of sand, rock, and little else. Some portions look dug out, as if it were the training ground of every backhoe operator in the country.
El-Faiyum is a surprise when you come in from the desert, with its green agricultural fields. None of the fields is particularly large, and I was unable to figure out the general pattern of the irrigation canals. It makes for a pretty if unexciting landscape, and I am sorry to say the towns are not the quaint little “pueblitos” I had imagined. No, they are conglomerates of high-rise buildings, 8 to 10 stories high, set too close together and in a rather poor state of repair. The muddy streets, strewn with trash, don’t do much to improve the general mood.
Slightly depressed I decided to take the Desert Road and head north, to Alexandria. It was a pleasant drive, and I got to Alexandria by late afternoon, in time to enjoy a walk along the Mediterranean coast. I had to find a place to sleep, however, and to my surprise I didn’t find the beach front crowded with hotels. There were a couple of the super fancy hotels (200 dollars a night in the one I asked), but finding a modest hotel took much longer than I had expected, and forced me to drive up and down the seafront boulevard, each time pitting my abilities against those of the wild Alexandria drivers. I reflected about what made them so bad, and concluded that, being coastal folks, they behave like a school of fish, swerving left and right following the leader (irrespective of where the lines on the pavement are). The trick is to become the leader, but in order to do that you have to drive really, really fast.
That night I went meandering through the narrow streets of the city, grazing from street vendors. My favorite was something I bought at the butcher shop. They make a patty of ground beef with spices and salsa, pat it flat between to discs of dough, and then bake it on a little oven right then and there. Totally delicious!