2005 Time-out Diary
Wandering around Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon

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13-17 July 2005

Wednesday 13th July 2005    day 01     whereami     Satellite view

Heath And Reach:
Off to a flying start with Tuesday evening BBC reports of a suspicious car (bomb?) in Leighton Buzzard station. It didn't come to anything.

So here I go, striding out with a spring in my step to walk to Leighton Buzzard station. I got about 400m before I realised that my pack was bleedin' heavy! I barely made it to the station and was completely shattered and sweating buckets when I got there 75 minutes later.

here I go!

This is gonna be hard work. I'm either going to get superfit very quickly or I'm going to have to lose some stuff. Still, you gotta laugh innit!
Now approaching Athens for a 2hour stop and connection to Cairo.......
Aah Athens !! Smelling the Grecian air, admiring the Grecian urns, applying the Grecian 2000 . . . very peaceful and comfortable in the airport - well it was the middle of the night.

      High: taking off from Heathrow - It's really happening !!
       Low: the killer walk to LB station

Thursday 14th July 2005    Cairo    day 02     whereami     Satellite view

Landed in Cairo at about 3am - couldn't find a bus into central Cairo so got a cab for £4 (10 miles). 4am wandered around a bit - quite a night scene - locals in the cafes with tea and pipes - felt perfectly safe. Headed towards Cairo Tower to watch sunrise over Nile - got bothered a few times by outright beggars and by over-friendly people that want to help me find a hotel etc. Nothing to worry about, just a nuisance.

Cairo Tower 5am

Sunrise was unspectacular and it was about 6am when the sun finally forced it's way through the dieselly smog.
The dayshift "helpers" were multiplying now the sun was up so I picked up my rucksack and started moving again. Rucksack already seems easier today but feet are very sore - blisters already? Eventually found Hotel Dahab I'd been looking for - rooms turned out to be EP20/£2 a night! It's on the 7th floor (actually built on the roof) of an old building with a rickety open lift and it's basic/squalid - perfect !!

Hotel Dahab   Hotel Dahab

It's surprisingly peaceful and chilled-out up here despite the incessant chaos and beeping on the roads below. Doze, shower, check blisters (ouch - they're gonna hurt) - and out again at midday.

Went to try and find the Mogamma building where I have to register as a foreign visitor - this sort of thing would normally be taken care of by your package hotel. Thought I found it but not sure - many things are only marked in Arabic. Went back to hotel to recheck guidebook and put on some suncream - really hot in my room now and my sweat washed away the suncream as soon as I put it on - waste of time. I'll have to register tomorrow as when I went back the department I needed was closed.

Found a mobile phone shop and got myself an Egyptian sim card - no-one spoke any English but we managed and I don't think I was overly ripped off - £7.50 to register a 2 month tourist number and £6 for £5 credit! They always want a "tourist rate" for everything but that one was So blatant I had to laugh! And they wouldn't budge on it when I challenged it.
My new mobile no. is: 0020 126 516195.
Prices are generally very cheap though. I bought 2 mains adaptors for 50p each. The street-seller seemed very happy with that and I was happy 'cos l nearly paid £5 for one at the airport. When I got back to my room I had to fix them by carving out the earth terminal sockets - faulty moulding.
More wandering around Cairo backstreets and generally getting lost. Many of the streets are a filthy, squalid mess - and so are many of the people - but it doesn't seem to matter - everyone's just going about their business and they mostly seem pretty happy about it.

The Cairo traffic definitely lives up to it's fearsome reputation. the roads themselves are in surprisingly good condition and in some areas they have very modern flyovers etc. But it's a no holds barred contest out there. I've seen mad driving in various parts of the world and this is at least as mad as any of it. Where they really excel though is in their utter contempt for pedestrians.
There are Zebra Crossings but they are totally ignored. Women and children get hooted if they use them and get in the way of the traffic. Some very busy areas have policemen on the crossings (one each side of the road) and they blow their whistles and point at the most aggressive drivers bearing down on the women and children and no-one takes much notice of them either.
People trying to cross the road are regularly buzzed by cars for just being there - I got buzzed yesterday when I was a bit careless and only looked 6 ways before stepping out - he shot past me at about 30mph and about 2 feet from me - and he didn't need to.
One of the favourite tricks is that stationary, nose-to-tail traffic gets so close that pedestrians can't get between the cars, and if a pedestrian approaches they tighten up a little more just to be absolutely certain. It's hilarious - and it makes no difference if you're man, woman, child, local, foreigner etc......

I'm pleased to see that someone brought a big fan into my room while I was crashed out earlier, less pleased to see that my chest is all red and blotchy - ah well, I need some sleep.

      High: the Cairo backstreets - very alive, very real
       Low: nothing really

Friday 15th July 2005    day 03     whereami     Satellite view

Woke up about 7am - about 5 hours sleep - not bad in this heat. Sorted my stuff out a bit and had a lazy breakfast in the communal area. Was joined by Graham, an English bloke also staying here. He got fed-up with workaday England - chucked in his job - is travelling around Egypt to end up in Dahab and learn to dive. Sounds familiar!! Even our planned routes are quite similar but he's on a faster schedule.

Got a call from my mate Steve working as a DiveMaster in Cyprus - he's dead keen to come to Egypt and join me somewhen - probably not until Dahab so we can do some diving.

Went out to find an internet cafe and check my emails and to see if I could update the website. Noticeably quieter traffic today as Friday is the moslem day of rest (it picked up again in the afternoon) and there were loud prayers echoing from all the loudspeakers in the mosques - I love the sound of all that. Found an internet cafe for about 35p an hour. Email was easy but he wouldn't let me plug anything in so I couldn't get anything off my Pocket PC. I'm not sure if he meant that I couldn't do it on principle or that the USB ports on his tired old PC's didn't work. He was running Win98 so I probably would have had driver problems anyway. Not feeling hopeful I put my Orange sim back in the phone and to my surprise got a gprs connection - so updated the website via that.

I'd half-planned to do the Egyptian Museum today but after all the techie stuff it was too late - so I went to Cairo Tower. I walked a bit and was looking at my guidebook for some clues about using the ferocious bus service when a genuinely helpful bloke recommended a cab and advised me not to pay more than EP3. We had a bit of a chat - he was from Alexandria and was pleased to hear that I was heading that way. He was also keen to point out that it was not as expensive as Cairo! I got my taxi and paid my EP3. The taxis are all totally knackered wrecks from the 60s and 70s - mostly Peugots and Fiats. It was EP60 to go up the tower (quite expensive really) but well worth it. The view over Cairo in all directions was spectacular. I stayed a while trying to soak it in but the sun was fierce up there after 30 minutes.

Cairo Tower - north   Cairo Tower - north-east   Cairo Tower - east   Cairo Tower - south   Cairo Tower - south-west

Hotel Dahab is about half a mile behind the big hotel centre of the 3rd photo.
The faint blip centre horizon on the last photo is the pyramids at Giza.

I walked around the island a little but it was dull - posh hotels with manicured lawns and swimming pools - give me the downtown hubub anytime. The only interesting feature was the sheer number of police around, Regulars in their white uniforms, Tourist Police with their armbands, and Riot Police in dark blue with batons and shields and some with AK47's. In my 1 mile walk I bet I saw more than 200. Cairo is awash with police everywhere (you can always see at least half a dozen) but this was above and beyond. Cab back to hotel and catch up diary before thinking about eating - I've not eaten much the last few days and I'm definitely peckish.

Drifted out to the comunal area to see if anyone was about and ready to eat out. Nobody about so I sat and read some more of my guidebook. Then Shah introduced himself and sat down - he's British, of Bangladeshi roots, and on his way to Sinai to do 2 months medical work. We went wandering in search of food and found a reasonable looking place to try. I had a veal kebab with chips (I ordered rice) - I think my veggie ideals are going to slip more than ever here but you've got to try these things. It was basically a bowl of meat with onions in a spicey sauce and a side plate of chips - and very nice too for EP23.
The streets were heaving tonight and I wished I'd taken my camera - I will tomorrow.

My original plan was to get out of the Cairo chaos quite quickly and spend more time on my way back through when I'd be a bit more ready to take it on, but it's a great chaos and not the treacherous hellhole that everyone talks about. The rip-off merchants are easy to spot and you'd have to be pretty gullible and weak-willed to be taken in by them. Most people are courteous and friendly and take all the hassling and bargaining in relatively good spirits when you say "la shukrun" and keep walking. So I now have a rough idea to stay the weekend and head to Alexandria on Monday. It's SO nice not having the clock ticking away loudly as it does on the usual 2 week holiday!! - and having the freedom to change your plans along the way.

Healthwise, my chest rash has mostly vanished, my blistered feet are ok once bound with gaffer tape, no sunburn, and I can only look forward to seeing how my digestive system copes with the backstreet kebab.

And finally, as if that wasn't enough excitement for one day, I've just found another secret pocket in my trekking trousers! - could life be any better?

      High: the tremendous views from Cairo Tower
       Low: more street children around today, begging and/or selling tissues for almost nothing - they're a sorry sight (though they do appear suspiciously well fed ??)

Saturday 16th July 2005    day 04     whereami     Satellite view

Got up a lot later than planned but did manage to catch up on some sleep - I'd only had about 12 hours since I got up on Monday. Had a fairly quick breakfast and a chat with some of the others, showered and got going to the Egyptian Museum.

Egyptian Museum   Egyptian Museum   strange bird

The last shot is just an interesting looking bird that was hopping around in the museum garden.

EP40 entry and tight security again - security is a big thing here and I've been groped by more policeman over the past few days than I care to think about, and always bags through scanners. They wouldn't let me in with my camera so I had to go back out again, exchange it for a wooden ticket, and back through security again. Several of these checkpoints don't know what to make of my Pocket PC - I just say "computer" and I think they let it go rather than risk looking stupid.

The museum is pretty big and contains most of the major items that have been found in the pyramids. The ground floor has dozens of sarcophaguses and statues and hundreds of artefacts from as far back as 2600BC. Some of it is very impressive, especially the 7m high king and queen statues in the main hall. Upstairs was more of the same and you followed a chronological route around the whole place. The star attraction is of course the Tutenkhamen collection - it just blew everything else away. I had no idea there was so much - the collection fills an area the size of a football pitch. There's gilded chariots, gilded thrones, and no end of gold statues and other odds and ends. Then in a separate room are the famous caskets and the mask. They're all stunning - the solid gold mask weighs 11kg !! The inner casket is also highly decorated solid gold - and again there's hundreds of smaller items, bracelets, anklets, necklaces, brooches, etc. etc. etc. I couldn't begin to imagine how many thousands of hours work had gone into creating this lot - and he was only on the throne 9 years !! One for Mum - I couldn't help but remember how much Nan talked about seeing some of this collection in London 25(or 30?) years ago. A very interesting place.

I spent about 3 hours in there and then went off to pursue my favourite pastime of wandering the downtown backstreets again. It's such a sensory overload of people, noise, colours, smells, traffic etc. I bought a bottle of coke from a street stall for EP1.25(13p) and he called me back laughing when I walked off - I didn't know I was supposed to drink it there and return the bottle! He seemed pretty amused though and gave me a chair. I also bought some shorts with zip pockets from the market for EP35 - he started at EP50 and in retrospect I think I paid too much - never mind.
I then got latched onto by a very persistent hustler who just wanted to chat to practise his English - no, then wanted to buy me a coffee - no, then wanted me to visit his shop - no, then wanted me to go and smoke some good hashish with his father - no, then wanted me to come to his sisters wedding party that night - no, and then wanted me to buy him a bottle of wine (with his money) from the duty free shop in some big hotel - he was VERY keen on this one and was most upset that I wouldn't even do that for him. Eventually he settled for just a cigarette (I've only had a couple - honest).
Went back to the hotel to write this nonsense and decide what to do tonight.

Nobody about in the communal area so went out on my own to look for something to eat - wandered around in the usual madness and stumbled across a big fruit and veg market (at 10pm on a Saturday night!) and realised I'd not had any fruit/veg to speak of since I arrived. So I bought an enormous apple, 2 oranges and a mango for EP4, he saw my EP5 note and immediately made a grand gesture of giving me a "cadeau" of a peach - which clearly meant I shouldn't expect any change - you have to laugh. Right opposite the stall was a bakery where they were wheeling about trolleys of fresh bread, still really hot from the oven. A bloke outside grabbed a loaf and was eating it there and then. I asked him how much, "one pound" and as I reached into my pocket he started laughing - he didn't work there at all but he had a good laugh at my expense. I went inside - it was madness in there with loaves and money and people moving about in all directions - I couldn't work out how to buy some. Eventually I offered some money to a bloke who seemed to be passing bread around and it turned out to be the the friend of the bloke outside !! Now they were really laughing - it was funny. Eventually I managed to buy 2 of their hot mini loaves EP0.5 (lovely - sweet like brioche). I scurried back to the hotel (had to use my compass as I was totally disorientated by this time) stopping only to buy some cheese and water and scoffed the lot in my room. Very nice too and I immediately feel healthier.
I'm getting a bit more switched on to the Cairene's sense of humour - they're quite dry and do like to take the piss and have a laugh at other people's expense (usually mine so far!). Suits me - I'm a blackbelt in taking the piss - but they're beating me hands down with the language advantage !
I've got to spend some time on the language - the only phrase I'm fluent with so far is "la shukrun" for "no thankyou" - also must learn the arabic numbers.

      High: the Tutenkhamen collection - staggering !
       Low: shaking off the persistent hustler was a bit tedious, but it's all part of the fun really . . . .

Sunday 17th July 2005    day 05     whereami     Satellite view

Got up late AGAIN. It just seems cooler and easier to sleep in the morning, and I didn't crash until after 2am as I spent some time on the arabic numbers - successful too, I can say and recognise 1 to 10 and read them in the arabic script. Very useful for shopping and food as English prices are rarely shown except in the posh shops.
Quick shower, breakfast and hand-washed my smalls and a couple of t-shirts in the communal toilet/wash area - now I'm a bleedin' washerwoman!
I've decided I will go to Alexandria tomorrow so paid for one more night here. The guy on the desk said he could arrange my train ticket to save me some hassle so I said ok - it was going to cost me 15LE (LE=Egyptian pound - not sure why I've been writing EP) for him to do it. But I'm sure the ticket is only about 20LE so I said I'd sort myself out - and besides it might be fun(?). He recommended getting the ticket today as Monday would be busy - hadn't thought about bloody rush-hour! Walked to the Underground station and managed to get a ticket to Ramyses - the main terminal. The underground is amazingly clean and efficient - almost on a par with Hong Kong, and certainly streets ahead of London. I asked someone which way as signs weren't clear (I realised later that the minimal signs were indicating North and South) and a very helpful bloke pointed me and was going the same way - we had a bit of a chat - usual where're you from and where're you going stuff and I gave the usual short answers not wanting to get latched onto. Got on the train and still couldn't see Ramyses on the map but my new friend told me when to get off and got off himself (here we go again....). He directed me to the exit and told me the main station was right there and went on his way. I shook his hand and said thanks but felt mean as he was obviously a genuine bloke just helping me out and I cut him a bit short really. You tend to expect the worst.
Got into the station and found the ticket sales and joined a "queue". There was a kind of queue but people were also just barging in shouting and waving their money through the hole in the screen - and getting served. I got to the front but couldn't catch the eye of the seller, and arms and money were all around me and people were getting tickets. I shouted Alexandria a couple of times - nothing. So I spread myself out a bit to keep the arms away and finally got my ticket - 18LE for 11am tomorrow.

Outside the station, crossing a footbridge over a very busy road I saw a good photo opportunity of the mayhem and people risking their lives to cross. I noticed a bloke watching me as I got my camera out and when I was about ready he came over and said "NO, Why ?". I just smiled and shrugged and said "Cairo" but he just kept repeating himself. I put the camera away - he might have thought I was snapping the station - security risk - so I let it go and walked off.

Grabbed a cab to the "Citadel", the ancient core that Cairo has grown around. We hadn't gone far when he said it would cost 20LE - I said 15LE and decided that's all he'd get - we spent the rest of the 15 minute journey arguing about the price with the odd bit of tour-guide stuff thrown in by him. He was doing his best so I decided I'd give him an extra 1LE baksheesh as I got out. Trouble was 16LE would use up all my small notes - I gave him his 20LE to save my "change".

Into the Citadel 35LE and up to a big mosque on top of the hill. Great views over Cairo again. Shoes and socks off and into the mosque. A beautiful place inside and out. I sat down inside to take it all in and one of the attendants moved my shoes so the soles were touching instead of soles down - whoops.

Citadel Mosque   Citadel Mosque   Citadel Mosque   view from Citadel

Went on to the Police Museum - a strange and macabre collection of photos and oddments from Egypt's great crimes - mass murders, assasinations etc. and how the police had caught up with the perpetrators - and generally executed them.
On to another much older mosque - less spectacular - and to the Military Museum 1LE to take the camera in. An interesting place with tales of all their great victories - including that over the evil British (bombing of Port Said - Suez crisis) - photo's showing "wanton desecration of sacred tombs by British bombs" and "innocent peasant women killed and maimed" etc.

Military Museum

Left the Citadel and walked west towards the "City of the Dead" where the very poor live in and amongst the tombs in a big old cemetary. I was in a much poorer area than I'd seen but couldn't find the "city". Absolute chaos around a busy minibus station - and no western faces anywhere - off the beaten track here so just went wandering in the general direction of where I thought the city was. Walked up a long road of very scruffy shops and businesses and stalls where I was getting some unwelcoming stares and mutterings from some of the older men - but it wasn't worrying so I kept going. Kids flying kites in the street and getting strings tangled in passing cars and overhead wires (probably telephone but I wouldn't bet on it). Lots of donkey carts full of water melons etc. I would have liked some photos but it just seems too voyeuristic sometimes - and the stares I'd been getting seemed to say "sure, come and look at our squalid lives". Shame really, I like squalor and I wasn't being disrespectful.
Went down a side street and doubled back along a main road - and there was the "city of the dead" but it looked deserted - there were ramshackle houses and tombs alright but it was closed off and uninhabited. As I got almost back to the centre (with the minibuses) it did become thinly populated and there were ways in but by this time it didn't seem right to go in and stare so I just looked in as I walked by. Watched a scruffy little girl of 4 or 5, on her own, cross the fast and busy main road that few of us would even consider trying at home. Terrifying, but she seemed to know what she was doing. The kids are lovely with their big innocent dark brown eyes and they play quite happily in the building site type mess when they're not working. People got friendlier again towards the centre and were saying hello and welcome again.

I stopped in a locals café and ordered a tea - I love the Egyptian tea - and a bloke with quite good english moved his chair so I could share the shade from a tree. We had a really good chat, he was an accountant (not that you'd have guessed, in his grubby old clothes in this grubby old café!), probably in his fifties, and had learnt some english at university. I asked him how much I should pay for the tea 0.5LE and he helped me with a few arabic words. I got another tea and he was telling me loads about his life and Cairo - a really nice guy. They insisted on 1LE each for the teas when I left and I couldn't be arsed to argue so paid up.

Headed off in the rough direction of home down more poor streets (no stares) of fruit stalls and everything. Cooler today as there's some clouds so I just kept walking - checking the compass from time to time as I keep seeing interesting things down side-streets and get hopelessly disorientated! Eventually a few things started to look familiar and I saw a few western faces, then I was back at the hotel.
And my washing's dry! I might have found my calling here - laundryman!

Right, that's the diary done - I can't believe how much I'm writing but there's so much I don't want to forget. Now I'd better get my stuff packed for tomorrows journey into the next unknown. I'm sorry to be leaving Cairo but I'll be back on my way down south in a few(?) weeks - and I'll be stopping here a while again - I ain't seen the pyramids yet!
I reckon I'll handle that heavy pack better too - my feet are fine now, I feel acclimatised, I've walked MILES these last few days and I reckon I'm toughening up.

      High: difficult - I'll go for the less obvious tea and chat with the friendly local.
       Low: the stares and mutterings ? Nah, it was nothing . . . so, nothing.

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