Ancient History, Colourful People, and Stunning Generosity

Post No. 7 — Looking back forty-years to 24 January 1981

The road back into Alexandria took us past a large graveyard (see photo below) that surely must suffer the same problem from drifting sand as the El Alamein Allied War Cemetery that we had visited the previous day.

A widow’s walk, perhaps? The dark figure — up and left from the middle of this photo — is a woman walking back from a large cemetery behind the dark trees, top right. [Copyright image, 1981.]

Getting back into the hustle and bustle of Alexandria was like a shock after so many miles of driving through the desert.

One sight many of us wanted to visit opened our eyes to the fact that it would not just be Egyptian history we would be seeing in this remarkable country, but Roman, too.

However, the famous Pompey’s Pillar (photo) confusingly has nothing to do with the Roman General Gaius Pompey who was murdered by a Pharaoh in 48 BC when he fled to Alexandria.

It is actually a memorial erected around 300 AD for the Roman Emperor Diocletian, but the true significance of this archeological site is what was here before the pillar. It was previously the site of the Serapeum, Alexandria’s acropolis.

Alexandria was also home to the Pharos, the great lighthouse which was one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Sadly, of course, it has long been gone.

When I had first asked my ‘big boss’ — a police chief superintendent in the Cumbria Constabulary — about the possibility of getting unpaid leave for a lengthy trip through Africa, he had asked me why I wanted to go, and I told him truthfully that I wanted to do a lot of wildlife photography.

“How will that benefit you as a police officer?” he asked. “The Police Committee will want a more valid reason for the force to be a man short for several months.”

As a result — and a little glibly — when I submitted my formal, written request for permission to go on the trip, I included that I wished “to study the descended relatives of our [British] ethnic minorities,” and permission was subsequently given.

If, however, I ‘had my tongue in my cheek’ when I wrote that rather trite phrase, I was quickly going to bite my tongue — metaphorically, at least.

Alexandria really got me going with a genuine fascination for meeting and photographing local people; a new and genuine interest that did indeed take up quite some time throughout my trip.

Walking past the mat shop, while the shopkeeper (look carefully!) naps. [Copyright photo, 1981.]

Here are a few of my people-shots from Alex’, all ‘candids’ except for the two delightful little schoolboys who spotted my camera, posed themselves for me and made ‘click-click’ gestures until I obliged and took the shot.

There was serendipity in this photo. I saw that the young lady was going to pass in front of the car a few seconds before she did so, and just in time for me to line myself up for the shot.

The dignity of age and some very fortunate lighting and shade.

There will be a brief delay due to a technical hitch.

“Mister, mister! Click-click, click-click!”

>> click! <<

“Shokran!” (“Thank you.”) And off they ran.

Much less well-off than the school boys probably became, this child would no doubt be earning mere pennies per day for shining shoes. (We bought a falafel sandwich and gave it to him. Any money we might have left would have been taken from him by whoever was sending him out there.)

On a dramatically different note, my new-found Aussie mate Joe Tolley and I decided to try and get something a little bit more up-market for our lunch and eventually found the rather posh ‘Tikka Restaurant’ between the seafront road and the beach.

To say the food was good and the service outstanding would be a gross understatement. We were the only customers in there at the time but the four well-dressed waiters all participated in looking after us. One stood smartly against each of the four walls of the room and when we finished each course and correctly set down our cutlery, the four men moved quietly forward as one and silently treated us like royalty.

If I add that I have never had better service in top restaurants anywhere, I am not exaggerating.

My friend Joe, who had been travelling much longer than I, also gave the restaurant great praise when he came back from the toilets and in a very matter-of-fact voice said: “Luxury is having perforations in toilet paper.”

The ‘Desert Road.’ [Copyright photo, 1981.]

Later that afternoon, we took the ‘other’ road back towards Cairo. One of the two roads, which I had previously used (see the first Land Rover photo), runs close to the canals and the irrigated areas and is therefore known as the Delta Road in reference to the nearby River Nile delta. The other — the one we used on this occasion — for very obvious reasons is called the Desert Road.

That night, we camped behind an old ruined building, about 37 miles/60km from Alexandria.

As had already happened on earlier nights, local Arab people appeared as if from nowhere as we were setting up our tents. After apparently satisfying themselves that we were not likely to do any harm, they left.

Later, however, one of them returned with a crate containing oranges, eggs and tomatoes for us — a gift for their ‘visitors’. It was a wonderful gesture, and all-the-more heartening when one remembers that they are very poor people.

A verbatim excerpt from my diary: ‘Later, while we were sitting chatting around our campfire, a boy arrived, carrying a spoon and he gestured the act of eating. At first, we misunderstood and offered him food but then we realised he actually wanted another spoon, so naturally we gave him one.

The following morning: ‘Whilst we were having breakfast, our young friend from last night brought the spoon back. We were amazed, but try as we might, we could not persuade him to keep it…’

My eyes were being opened to the fact that poor people in poor countries can be stunningly generous despite having so little themselves.

This was something very humbling that I was to experience repeatedly during my journey.

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