Quite frankly, I was trying to avoid Egypt. Visiting the country can be as fascinating as it can be painful. Here are a few words that describe Egypt really well, and while all of these express facets of life in Egypt, none of them apply in isolation:
Chaotic – beautiful – old – cruel - young – poor – well educated – warm – friendly – dirty – loud – polluted – uncertain – hopeful – loving – savvy – embarrassed – fanatic – proud – hungry - tired
Alexandria is a Mediterranean port city in Egypt. During the Hellenistic period, it was home to a storied library and a lighthouse ranking among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Today the library is reincarnated in the disc-shaped, ultramodern Bibliotheca Alexandrina research center. The city has many Greco-Roman landmarks, old-world cafes and European-style parks. Its 15th-century Qaitbay Citadel is now a museum.
It is this mixture of attributes that can make it difficult to spend time here. You really need to have a strong stomach. I have been here before. I have seen dead cows floating in canals with children playing in the water right next to them, I have seen crippled children begging in the streets, I have seen horses with open sores and close to starvation being used to pull tourists around town and have seen the environment being abused in ways I didn’t think possible. At the same time, the exotic nature of all that is Egypt pulls you in and invites you to digest impressions of rich and poor, old and new, apathy and enthusiasm, order and chaos, joy and despair - life here is raw and essential – humanity as its worst and its best.
Alexandria’s infrastructure crumbles and garbage is everywhere, but this city of 7 million people is still beautiful, the people are friendly and the children happy. It is a sunny late afternoon as I drive around town, mostly along the waterfront. Lovers are walking hand in hand on the promenade and people are swimming in the ocean, sitting in coffee shops or enjoying a picnic. Despite much hardship and difficult lives, people seem happy here. They know how to enjoy life.
It has been years since I took the picture of the boy riding the pony. For all I know, he could be graduating from school this year. But such is the power of photographs: every time I look at that smile, this purest expression of unmitigated joy, I find myself transported back to that Sunday afternoon in Alexandria - a moment that is frozen in time, a moment I will never forget.