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

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18-20 July 2005

Monday 18th July 2005    day 06     whereami     Satellite view

Didn't get a lot of sleep - up late doing my language studies and then just restless. Feel fine though and got up in good time, showered, packed the last few bits and breakfasted with a German guy who'd just arrived from Luxor. He said it was great and we swapped tips about what to see in Cairo/Luxor.

Walked to the underground and tubed to Ramyses station - nearly got into what I didn't realise was a women-only carriage.
In Ramyses all the signs around the platforms were in arabic only - a porter said "Alexandria?" and pointed me to plat4 - I thought I should have should have tipped him but I'm still finding my way around the etiquette on this. 25 mins to wait so I went there and sat on my rucksack. Another porter asked to see my ticket and said I was in the wrong place for my carriage/seat - I hadn't noticed it was so specific - and pointed me way down along the platform. In one fluid movement a 25 piastre note (3p) went from my pocket to my hand to his hand to his pocket - it was a masterpiece.
Boarded my 2nd class carriage to find it very comfortable, clean and air-conditioned. A little bit of luxury won't hurt - they'd tried to sell me 1st class yesterday but I refused - there's a 3rd class too that I'll try and use in future but they don't allow foreigners on them in some areas for security reasons - in the south I think where there are more fundamentalist areas.
The local next to me offered to swap seats so I was by the window and I gladly accepted. He had some kids with him that stared at me for ages until one of them plucked up the courage to say hello, and ask me my name - they all ran off giggling when I told them.
The scenery was great as we trundled along at about 50mph alongside an irrigation canal. Very green cultivated fields all the way, only broken by the occasional town/station. Not many people in the fields and the few that were there didn't seem to be working that hard. Old boys on donkey carts full of melons, kids loading the carts with freshly picked melons, men planting in what looked like paddy fields, a few men and boys with rods fishing in the canal, women doing the washing on the canal banks etc.
Some of the towns lined the canal with high-rise blocks that make the worst Glasgow tenements look like The Ritz - but they all looked happy enough with their lot - is it just the weather ???
Bloke with a trolley on the train selling drinks - Egyptian tea "shay" 2LE.
Arrived in Alexandria at 1:30 and walked to a cheap hotel recommended in my guidebook - full. Walked to the next on the list, Hotel Le Roy, and had to climb the stairs to the 7th floor reception as I couldn't get the lift to work - sweating buckets at the top with this bloody pack on (generally fine with it for the couple of miles today though). Thankfully they had rooms - it's a really shabby old place that looks like it might once have been nice - the phrase that comes to mind now though is "seedy, very seedy". There doesn't seem to be any other guests about and it doesn't really have a welcoming feeling about it - seems clean(ish) though and I've got a mini-balcony from which I can just see the Med. He said the room was 25LE, I offered him 20 and he took it like a shot - damn, foiled again, should have offered 10! Paid for 2 nights.

Hotel Le Roy   Hotel Le Roy   view north from balcony

Chilled out half-on the balcony and wrote this - now ought to go out and explore, get something to eat, and find an internet café - not looked at emails for several days. Must go and look at the sea too.

Had a very strange wander around this afternoon. I went out in a t-shirt, my new 3/4 khaki/brownish shorts, grey socks rolled down and my ancient and knackered black CAT shoes. Couldn't help noticing that people were paying a lot of attention to my lower legs. I admit it probably looks slightly comical but that wasn't it - it was almost shock. Was I insulting islam or something? I've no idea but it happened so much that after about 40 minutes of it I got paranoid and went back to the hotel and changed.
Went back out on my mission and all was fine again - "the Alexandrians prefer a man in a trouser don't they sir!".

No sign of an internet café anywhere - and most things are only signed in arabic anyway. Did my usual tour of the streets, sidestreets and backstreets and for a change didn't get too lost. Heaving markets again with hundreds of stalls selling everything at all hours - live chickens, rabbits, pigeons and pets too, caged birds, tortoises and some sorry looking puppies in too small cages. Quite a bit of smoked fish that smelt tempting and some interesting cuts of meat that didn't. Some fresh fish and lots of shellfish. One stall selling cooked chicken legs that smelt like nothing on earth - I can't imagine what he'd done to them.
Bought some fruit and some bread. Wanted something decent to eat but couldn't really find anywhere. Had a glass of fresh mango juice 1.5LE from a place just serving out to the street - lovely with big chunks of fruit still in it. Then found a takeaway place and got a "damia" (it being the only thing I can say that I thought they might have!) - felafel in pitta bread 6.5LE. He asked if I wanted salad in it and I instinctively said yes - only thinking properly when it was handed to me. Ah well, my stomach's got to learn to cope somewhen - I ate it - very nice but still hungry. Eventually wandered back to my room just after midnight.

A couple of minutes after I got back a big cockroach scuttled across the floor and under the wardrobe - oh great! And then I spotted another halfway up the wall near the sink when I was washing my fruit - oh great. I sat on my bed and ate my bread, cheese and fruit, and slowly sank into a bum-sized hole in the middle of the mattress. This place isn't seedy - it's a dump!
While I'm writing this (now 2am) a baby has been constantly crying and screaming in the room/apartment above me for over an hour and I can see people moving about up there projected in silhouette onto the roof of the building opposite. And now at nearly 3am there's all manner of banging and moving furniture(?) up there and and the same in the corridor outside my room. The peaceful haven of Hotel Dahab this certainly ain't - never mind.
I'm sure it's all innocent enough 'cos there's kids running up and down the corridor too - they might all just be bringing their market wares home after a busy nights work or something. I've definitely found myself in the poorer quarter though and think I'm mostly surrounded, in this and nearby buildings, by local's flats or just rooms. I feel just a little uneasy with so much noise and shouting and banging out there and don't go to bed, I feel happier sitting here fully dressed at 4am. I didn't feel like going out there for a pee just now either, so I peed in the sink.

What's really surprised me is that I've not seen another western face since I arrived here. It's quite different to Cairo - the average cars are a bit newer and in better condition and the driving is slower but they still have complete disregard for pedestrians - I got clonked by a wing mirror down a narrow sidestreet when a car squeezed through a gap that wasn't there - only slowly mind. The people don't seem quite as friendly - much fewer hello's, they mostly ignore me or stare and then look away as our eyes meet. But it's ok and when we do "talk" they're all smiles.
There's definitely some serious poverty here though too. From my 6th floor balcony I can see over most nearby buildings and many of them have mini shanty towns on the flat rooves. There's one only 200m from me and I can see people living in shacks made from corrugated iron, bits of wood and cardboard.

view south-east from balcony

Noticed a few times, old men shuffling about picking up discarded plastic bottles and examining them intently before putting them in their bag. And I keep seeing people carefully folding up a plastic bag - like a treasured possession.

      High: very pleasant railway jouney
       Low: this dilapidated and noisey hotel

Tuesday 19th July 2005    day 07     whereami     Satellite view

It finally quietened down about 5:30am and I dozed, still dressed, on the other bed until 11 or so. The communal shower doesn't look inviting so I skip it.

Going out to try again for an internet café in the other direction and see if I can get in the sea somewhere - there's supposed to be decent beaches here. I think a bit of seawater will do me good and maybe help clear up the persistent red blotchy rashes - mainly on my inner arms and legs now - I think it's just all the sweating but they're bloody itchy.
Getting ready to go someone puts a key in the door and mine on the inside falls on the floor. I call hello - no answer. Quickly unlock and the cleaning lady is halfway down the corridor apologising profusely to me - standing there in my t-shirt and boxers. Everything seems normal so I assume last night's riot was normal too.

Head east along the prom armed with a giant croissant and a coke. I heard a shout behind me, turned and saw a car doing about 50mph along the big multi-laned main road miss a teenage boy by inches - his mate pulled him out the way. The car made no effort to brake or swerve whatsoever - incredible. It's very hot out in the sun and there's no real shade anywhere so I keep going. I've noticed that when I say hello to people as we pass I'm saying it in a ridiculous "arabic" accent - like Bernard Breslaw in Carry On Up The Khayber - why am I doing this?
Got to the end of East Harbour and rested in the shade around some interesting modern statues and a nice water feature.

modern statues   water feature   Alexandria promenade

Getting more civilised now, there's some patchy beach areas and I can see proper tourist hotels in the distance. I keep going and walk for more than an hour in the blazing sun - there was no escaping it. Got to a café area but couldn't see one I liked. An attractive girl of about 20 in an expensive looking place leant out from her table of friends and said "welcome" in a jokey kind of way. The first woman to speak to me since I arrived apart from hotel and shop staff.

The young Egyptian women are really nice looking and very shapely and, like the women of all ages here, mostly dress traditionally with full body cover and a headscarf. About 10% also wear a veil with a slit for the eyes, some wear a full veil. Some of the more liberated younger women wear jeans and conservative t-shirts.

Eventually stopped at a too-nice place as I was shattered and it had a nice view of a new bridge. Got a shay and it came with a cold bottle of water. A well-dressed bloke sat at the table next to me and they brought him a shisha - the big hubbly bubbly pipes that they smoke scented rocks in (I don't actually know what the rocks are). After a while he apologised as his smoke was blowing my way - I said it was ok. I smoked one in Sharm-El-Sheikh years ago and didn't much care for it - sickly sweet, like smoking candy floss. He asked me where I was from and we chatted about Egypt. He worked offshore in Abu Dhabi and had seen a lot of the middle east. I ordered another shay. The lads serving were having a great time larking about and watching the girls go by - and hissing through their teeth to get the attention of those they liked the look of. One of them was wearing a red sweatshirt with the word "Queer" emblazoned across the front! My friend then told me that he was the owner of this place and we talked about Alexandria - it is a resort, but these days it's the chosen destination for Egyptians and other Arab nations where it get's too hot be at home in the summer. I read in my book last night that the Europeans were heavily involved the development of Alexandria - but they stopped coming when the port fees became too high for the cruise ships. Alexandria is now the main industrial port for Egypt and is in high demand. You can still see a lot of European influence in many areas - there's kind of an old (very old and neglected) colonial look to the older parts of it. I paid my 4LE and carried on east.

There were beaches but they weren't up to all that much that I saw. People, mostly kids, were enjoying themselves in the sea though. I turned inland where I might find an internet café and eventually found one - decent PCs, a fast connection and air-conditioned. I tidied up the website a bit and caught up with my emails for 2LE an hour. 9:30 time I'd finished, pitch dark and 5 miles from home - I decided to give the tram a go - it ran right by here and the terminus is only a few hundred yards from my hotel so shouldn't be too difficult.

I'd just missed a tram and there was just one well-dressed young bloke waiting there. I asked if he spoke english and he did, I asked how much the tram was - 25 piastres. We did the usual where're you from and started chatting. He was a Nubian (the darker skinned Southern Egyptian race) from Aswan near the Sudanese border, worked in tourism in Cairo and was in Alexandria on business. He said how sorry he was to hear about the London bombings and that he hoped the English didn't think it was a moslem problem. I've had this conversation at least once a day since I arrived in Egypt. I said not, extremists in all religions, races, cultures, nationalities etc. but he wasn't so sure. He asked me my religion and was very sorry when I said none. He said "please don't die this way" and that I should seriously think about it, and emphasised that he wasn't trying to convert me to islam. He wasn't preaching or pressuring me - he just seemed genuinely concerned for my spiritual well-being. He was a real nice, gentle person and it was kind of touching to see how concerned he was for me. He gave me his number and insisted that I should call him if I needed any help back in Cairo.
The tram turned up and I jumped on, paid my 25 piastres to the ticket man and we trundled noisily along through a dozen stops to the Raml terminus - it was almost too easy.

Wandered a little and stopped for a shay in a backstreet café - and watched some men play dominoes at an amazing and noisey speed. When I paid he didn't have change and went off for 5 mins to unsuccessfully get some. He wouldn't just take my 5LE and settled on a 50 piastre note - the only small change I had, which meant no baksheesh for him - unheard of. He shook my hand and almost pleaded with me to come back tomorrow.
Ordered a couple of damias from yesterday's take-away without salad. Ate them on the side of the road while they were still warm - they had salad in them! - Aah well, no ill effects from yesterday so what the hell.

It turned midnight so I phoned Dad to wish him an early happy birthday - but he'd gone to the pub - typical. Had a quick chat with Mum.
Drifted around and stopped for another shay to help me climb the 170 stairs to my room. In at 1:15 - no babies crying, the riot never came and my roommates haven't shown - here's a pic from last night anyway to frighten the children.

Le Roy cockroach

I've decided to move on tomorrow - try and get a bus to El Alamein on my way to the Siwa oasis in the western desert.
I like Alexandria but I've quickly got the flavour of the place now, uptown and downtown, and there's only the touristy museums, momuments and gardens left really. The people aren't less friendly, they're just less forward and more conservative/traditional. I would like to see the fishmarket on the peninsula in Anfushi Bay - it's supposed to be manic in the mornings, but I've got to come back through here anyway - and will need to stay.

      High: the various chats with such nice people
       Low: catching sight of my shirtless reflection in the wardrobe mirror - black man's head on white man's body !

Wednesday 20th July 2005    day 08     whereami     Satellite view

Happy 70th Birthday Dad !!

Packed and checked out from the fleapit at 1030 - I won't be back in this place.
Got a slow shay and something to eat on the way to the Raml tram terminus and got a tram to Sidi Gabr rail station where the buses go from. Noticed a women-only carriage on the tram. The tram was empty but I didn't want to take up 2 seats with my pack so stood, but a local motioned me to sit down so I did. It soon filled up and now I felt a bit in the way so bunched up as much as I could. A bloke (who looked like a handsome film-star compared to the rest of the downtown rabble), taking no notice of old men and old women standing, sat roughly down next to me. Clearly unhappy that he didn't have much room he pushed right up against me. I was sweating copiously from my walk with the big pack so I thought sod you mate - have some of my sweat. He squirmed a while and eventually gruffly motioned for me to put the pack on the floor but there wasn't room so I went and stood again. We carefully avoided each other's gaze for the rest of the journey until some friendlier types indicated my stop and I got off. I got a bit of a laugh out of it - ignorant git.

The train and bus station was predictably chaotic but I'm getting into the swing of it now - and jostle along with best of them. Got my ticket fairly easily, 15LE for the 2 hour journey - and "bus no. 3" leaving at 2pm - in 20 minutes. Predictably again, there's no sign of a no. 3 (and I CAN read the arabic) or anything like it - there all 4 or 5 digit no's. I asked at one coach and was pointed to "that one", where I was pointed to "that one", where I was pointed back to the first one! I did find it and boarded. I went and sat opposite a Bedouin Arab guy who I'd wrongly brushed off earlier when he tried to help me (first one I've seen). He was from Siwa - the ultimate destination for the bus. The Bedouins are just sssooooo coooool and laaaaiid back - they talk really softly and slowly. It soon turned out that I was in the wrong seat again and had to move - shame.
We drove for 15mins then stopped for 15mins - old men, old women and young hustlers boarded and walked up and down the aisle selling peanuts, tissues, papers and drinks while we waited. We got going again and the music system was turned up to full. A bloke singing, unaccompanied, a long, dreary, wailing, whining dirge about god only knows what - it was so horrible it was painful and set my teeth on edge - and it went on and on and on and on - after 15 minutes of it I was biting my lip trying not to laugh at my predicament. It was probably the worst thing I've ever heard. It did stop and I read my guidebook about El Alamein - it said don't bother unless you're really into military history - there's nothing there! Ah - should have read it yesterday. Dozed off - there wasn't much to look at out of the window. I woke up after what seemed like 10 minutes and in no time I was told this was my stop. I was the only one to get off the packed coach - hmm, maybe the book's right.

I was dropped off by a sign to the Military Museum in the middle of nowhere on the wrong side of a fast dual-carriageway - but not much traffic. I started out up the hill towards some very quiet looking buildings in the distance. The first place looked quite official and had flags on the roof so I thought it was probably it - but not a soul about. I went through the open gate and could see a couple of girls (early twenties probably) in a sort of uniform just inside the building entrance - they gingerly came out to meet me. I said museum? and they just looked at each other, giggled and said something in arabic. We looked blankly at each other and I tried again but everytime I said something they thought it was hilarious and just laughed. Then another girl joined in but we got no further. I was quite happy "chatting" with these coquettish girls but sadly a bloke came along and explained it was a hospital! - presumably they were nurses - and pointed me further up the road.
I got to the museum (deserted apart from a few soldiers) just as it closed. Not to worry - I was gonna stay here anyway - I'll do it in the morning. The museum is next to a one-horse (donkey) settlement but there's a café/hotel there so I go for a shay. There's nothing here so no reason to stay but I can see a towny looking place in the distance which I presume to be El Alamein. I walk all the way back to the main road to look for a taxi there. I get in a minibus and they drive me the 400m to the secure entrance of what turned out to be a very upper class marina! I didn't find out until I'd paid 15LE to get in and walked close to a mile down the long entrance road and started seeing Mercedes and Porches outside nearly finished villas - this ain't the place for me. I decided to go back to the hotel by the museum and walked there taking a shortcut along a rough track through some wasteland. Sticking to the track is important here as there's still mines about, and according to my book about 30 people a year get blown up by them.

I get there and order another shay and ask about the hotel - "it's complete" and he shakes his head which I take to mean full. I've spent 2 hours around this place and, apart from the soldiers, I've seen 3 people! I study the book more closely and conclude that this is El Alemein, and notice that all the beach hotels mentioned in the chapter are 25-30km away. I sit there for ages trying to work out what to do, back to the marina for £50 or £100 ?? a night ? if they have peak season vacancies ? Or, given that there's absolutely nothing around for miles I could just find a quiet place to sit the night out - seems preferable.
Undecided, I gaffer tape my blistered foot and put on my pack to go. The old boy then, in a resigned voice, said "Mister, this way" and showed me some beds in the inner part of the café - 20LE, or room 50LE. So I assume that he just didn't want me here and now he feels sorry for me - I'm not proud - I thankfully pay him the expensive 50LE for a reasonable room. Communal toilet with no flush - you fill a jug from a big drum in there and just slosh it down. Haven't really eaten today and I'm starving. They cooked me a nice omelette, served with loads of pitta bread, tomato and cucumber 4LE - I only eat half the salad trying to be at least a little bit sensible.
They keep as strange hours as I do in this country - it's 3am, and there's a whole family with young children noisily kicking a football about outside - and it's not unusual.

      High: getting somewhere to stay
       Low: thinking I had nowhere to stay

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