Alexandria, Egypt 1988

Dust streams from crevices in my backpack as I watch it disappear beyond a pile of rubble. It appears to be floating but I know there’s a 10 year old boy underneath, his ability to carry my 20kg pack as captivating as the illusion he’s unknowingly created.

I hurry to catch up, knowing that although he would prefer the Egyptian pound I will surely pay him for this service, he will settle for a Westerner’s backpack and its contents as payment if necessary. Our destination is unknown but I am naturally suspicious. Trust is part of any adventure but if I believed everything I heard from the baggage touts at the bus station, then Alexandria is blessed with a plethora of particularly fine pensions, a situation certainly unique to this part of the world.

The boy waves away my feeble attempt to assist as he stumbles up a series of stairs, his sweat now dripping on his bare feet. The first floor looks lovely, light streams in from the setting sun and palms add some serenity. The second floor still holds some Middle-Eastern charm, though sans the appeal of the first floor. The third floor is acceptable, even if slightly seedy, and finally we arrive at our destination – the fourth floor. If you could call it a floor. It’s more like the place that time (and the builders/decorators/health inspectors) forgot.

My bag is dumped before a receptionist with a pigmented, wandering left eye, and an impatient young hand is outstretched. A look of indignity and defiance sweeps the boy’s face as he sees the amount I intend to pay him for his goodwill and toil. I double it and tell him to beat it.

The pension is quite simply, putrid. I’m afraid to even walk into my room, let alone sleep in it, and I’m sure I won’t be alone in there. But it’s late, I’m tired after a long day and I don’t fancy lugging a heavy pack into the streets of a strange city at dusk.

So I do what the (pre-gen Y) young do in such circumstances. I grin, bear it and learn. Hopefully the cool breeze as I walk along the Mediterranean shore and watch the sun depart will prepare me for the perils of the night to come.

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