Catching the travel bug: Alexandria, Egypt

Welcome to Catching the Travel Bug, Gadling’s mini-series on getting sick on the road, prevailing and loving travel throughout. Five of our bloggers will be telling their stories from around the globe for the next five weeks. Submit your best story about catching the travel bug in the comments and we’ll publish our favorite few at the end of the series.

Week 1: Alexandria, Egypt

Living arrangements in Cairo vary across a wide spectrum — one can invest generously, stay at the Marriott in Zamalek and enjoy pampered service, fresh pineapple every morning, clean water and sparkling clean toilets — or conversely can spend two dollars a night to crash in a hostel on the banks of the Nile. Naturally, Allan and I chose the least expensive option and stayed near the archaeology museum on the east bank. We brushed our teeth with water out of the tap, beds were rickety and our room faced the street — but we were young and adventuring — nothing could stop us.

Outside of the bubble of four start hotels, city life in Cairo can be a bit dramatic. Merchants hawking their wares heckle you from all sides, everyone is trying to sell you souvenirs and one grows a hard shell that resists anyone that seems to be too friendly. It’s a difficult way to trust and learn about a culture, and frankly was one of the most difficult characteristics for me to adapt to.

But finally, on our second day in Cairo we decided that we had recovered enough from the long journey out to Egypt to enjoy a night out on the town. With the narrow, tree lined avenues and embassies in Zamalek, we decided that the island just across the bridge in the Nile would be a good place to start. Ducking into the first modern establishment we could find, this turned out to be a Korean Barbecue.
As we timidly worked through our skewered beef and imported beers, I spotted a young woman eating alone and reading a Lonely Planet on Cairo (in English), so figured that she might be a good person to ask about bars to visit in the area.

She ended up joining us for dinner. In town on her own, the woman was visiting from Jordan on a brief holiday into Egypt, and after dinner our new friend led us to a few excellent bars within several blocks of the Korean barbeque — Allan switching between a few different types of drinks and myself sticking with the vodka tonics. And at the end of the night, we all hugged and went our separate ways — she back to her nice hotel in Zamalek and the two of us back to the sketchy part of town, happy to have made new friends in a foreign country.

I’ve never had a particularly strong stomach, but when I woke up the next morning something definitely didn’t feel right. Chalking it up to normal indigestion, we headed down to the train station to our morning journey out to Alexandria. But upon reaching the port city at mid-day, I knew something was wrong. As we worked our way to the sea wall and what was left of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, my abdomen hurt so bad that I had to lie down on the stone construction. I hadn’t eaten all day, and by this point knew that I had a bad case of Montezuma’s Revenge.

Writhing in pain on the sea wall and looking at the sky, I didn’t notice the middle aged Egyptian gentleman approach me and curiously look down. I waved him off — no, I don’t want any, I’m ok thanks. But he wasn’t selling anything. He pointed to his stomach and rubbed it, and I nodded, but I continued trying to wave him off — at this point all I wanted was for him to go away. As I got my wish Allan looked over and asked what had happened. I shrugged and laid back down.

Five minutes later the guy was back, not with something to sell me, but rather with a package from the pharmacy. He dropped it in my lap and smiled. Inside, among the twelve different translated instructions were pills for treating stomach bugs and ten Egyptian Pounds. He must have thought that I was homeless. I looked up in amazement — the guy was already gone, back across the street and on his way without a word.

For a brief interlude, the Egyptian medicine really hit the spot. That afternoon I enjoyed a stable gastrointestinal system, saw the sights and headed back to Cairo. But Montezuma would return and continue to haunt me for the next week. It followed me painfully through the train station in Cairo, in the bathrooms of Luxor and curled up on the floor on ferries across the Mediterranean. Only after talking to a Canadian couple just off the coast of Turkey later the next week did I eat some yogurt with acidophilus, clean up my act and finally get back to normal.

Allan, on the other hand, got sick two days after I did and remained ill for the next three weeks. Something, perhaps in those drinks in Cairo or in that Korean barbecue really got to us.

But I will always remember that kind man on the sea in Alexandria, the man who, when I was in my worst health, sick of Egypt, sick of traveling and so far from home, was kind enough to buy me medicine and not even ask for thanks. Kindness of that breadth is what makes travel worthwhile.

Leave your favorite story from being sick on the road in the comments below and we’ll publish our favorites at the end of the series on November 13th.