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

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21-24 July 2005

Thursday 21st July 2005    day 09     whereami     Satellite view

El Alamein:
It was lovely and cool in the room with a breeze coming through the window and I slept like a log not even stirring until 10:30. Quickly packed, shay'd and checked out.

El Alamein hotel

Got to the museum for 11:15, it was almost deserted again apart from a family of Germans - I didn't mention the war. Inside, it was mostly photos and written excerpts from the Monty/Rommel clash, dummies dressed in all the various uniforms and lots of guns, and the odds and ends of a soldier's life; outside was a good collection of vehicles - all of it recovered from the surrounding desert.

El Alamein museum   El Alamein museum   El Alamein museum

It was ok but it lacked something - kind of sterile - but it was interesting to think that it all happened right here - I spent a couple of hours there. As I'd made a late start I thought I'd better skip the cemetary and look for some transport west to Marsa Matruch or I'd be stuck here again.

Walked back down to the main road and, not really sure what to do, waited where I was dropped off yesterday - and ate a squashed flat croissant I'd been carrying for a day and a half. Plenty going east but only 1 vehicle a minute going west. I tried to flag down a minibus taxi but it went by - it looked full. Tried again and after 30 mins (2pm) and several attempts one stopped and I clambered in - relieved they didn't put my pack on the roof.
It was almost full - mainly Arab men, and 2 veiled women in the back. A few said "salam" and off we went for the 110 mile journey. Passed a garage on the other carriageway - carried on 100m and then through a gap in the barrier and 100m back to the garage. After filling up we drove the 100m back to the gap, going west on the eastbound carriageway! Had a "chat" with a couple of the younger blokes - no english. Then they were fascinated by my writing a few notes in a pad. It's a long, pretty straight good road - you see it for miles ahead in some places - and we motor along at 60ish. Not much to look at - wasteland, settlement, wasteland etc. We occasionally stop to pick up and drop off passengers. After about 40 miles we stop at El Daba and the driver motions to me to get off - but we're nowhere near there? But I just need to pay him 3LE and transfer to another minibus.
Pack on the roof this time but I get my PPC and camera etc into my small rucksack. An arab of about 60 climbed in and sat next to me on the only empty seat. He was wearing the usual full white smock. Also a white crotcheted skullcap and a white, very sheer, patterned headdress and he sat there fingering a loop of beads, counting them round and round and pausing significantly at the knot. He looked quite comical with his dark old weatherbeaten face peering out through all this lacey finery - as if Grandpa had put on Grandma's shawl to amuse the kids. He was huffing and puffing a bit and didn't seem to like me, and moved at the first opportunity. This is a much less sociable minibus and we motor on in silence.

It occurred to me on the way that I might be able to get all the way to Siwa today after all - thinking about what time the buses left Alexandria yesterday. Got to Marsa Matruch at about 5pm, paid 6LE, and was told a bus went to Siwa at 7 or 7:30. A pushy taxi driver offered to take me to the beach for 2LE and get me back in time for the bus. Good idea but too pushy so I shook him off, had a shay, and hailed a taxi. We stopped on the way for him to chat with his mate in a café - they were pointing at me and laughing in a not very friendly way. I'd climbed in the backseat with my big pack - I wondered later if only women would normally travel in the back. Gave him 2LE and not a word was said. Walked along a nice beach - could have been a euro-resort. White sand and some very turquoise sea over a sandbank. Families playing in the water - men in long shorts - women fully dressed. 2 middle-aged women in full black veils, were quietly chatting in chest deep water and inside big inner tubes.

Marsa Martruch beach

Walked back towards town, got a phone top-up card for 60LE, and taxi'd back for the bus. Only had a 5LE note but told him I wanted 3LE back - no chance, he just blanked me.
Had another shay and found my bus - ticket 15LE for the 200 mile, 4 hour journey to Siwa. Comfy and air-conditioned but very grubby and smelt strongly of over-ripe fruit. A very traditional-looking moslem guy opposite leant over and said we'd left Alexandria on the same bus yesterday - and asked me about El Alamein. He was a student doctor from Alexandria, now living in Siwa, and was travelling back with his fully veiled fiancee (although he and I spoke a lot during the 4 hours - she never moved a muscle and they didn't exchange a single word). We chatted about Egypt, England (sorry to hear about the bombs) and then what religion are you - here we go . . . Again, pretty horrified when I said none - he was a bit pushy and kept asking "how did it all start then ?" - I said about evolution and Darwin, which he knew a little about but thought it was ridiculous - "we come from worms !!??" - it was all in fairly good spirits but I'm terrified of insulting him or islam - or maybe someone else here can understand me and might take offence. We stopped once for 20 mins at a café in the middle of nowhere on the journey through the barren desert. Mohammed recommended a cheap hotel and we exchanged email addresses - "I will be very happy if you contact me in Siwa or Alexandria".

Arrived at Siwa just before midnight - veerry quiet here - no beeping, few cars - mainly donkey carts and pushbikes. I walked off towards the Palm Trees Hotel. Got to a village square where about 100 men were sitting along 2 sides of the centre monument - in absolute silence - you could have heard a pin drop. I hesitated then joined the few walkers quietly going my way. Then the men all got up and walked wordlessy across and around me and up a side street. Something religious I guess.

I found the hotel and took the only room left - 35LE for a 1st floor twin bed with my own bathroom - very nice and clean for Egypt (health dept closure in England!). I'm knackered so don't bother to look for dinner, just chill-out and do my diary.

The climate here is very different. Hotter again - I'm a bit further south than Cairo - but very dry and I'm hardly sweating at all after my walk with the big pack. The quiet is broken only by hushed conversations, pigeons cooing and some very strange noises from the donkeys - like an asthmatic, rusty see-saw! This really is a primitive place.

      High: the minibuses were pretty good fun
       Low: getting ripped off by the taxi - to the tune of 30 bloody pence!

Friday 22th July 2005    day 10     whereami     Satellite view

Crashed out very late as usual but slept well in my shorts on the CLEAN sheet (not bothering with my sleeping bag) - I wouldn't wash my car with the bedsheets I've been provided with up to now. My rashes, especially legs, seem a lot better - I'm sure it's the dry air. I have to pack up and move 'cos this room was only available for one night. I lethargically sort my gear out but find any excuse to sit down and then don't want to get up again. Decide to take the day off and recharge the batteries a bit.

I checked out and wandered off to find somewhere else to stay. Yousef Hotel looked nicely tatty so I went in. He only had twin rooms to spare, and apologetically said he could let me have one for 16LE - against the normal 12LE for a single. Well hang the expense, twin room it is. Very nice too - 2nd floor, clean and with a balcony overlooking a "lively" street. A giant fan spins furiously above the bed and seems to be hanging from a thread of cotton. I'll be having nightmares tonight about dying the death of a thousand cuts when it comes crashing down on me! Communal toilets and showers but they're the cleanest I've seen by far. The room wasn't cleaned from the previous guest so I went for a shay while he sorted it out - then paid for 2 nights, and clarified that I might want to stay longer - he said he would keep the room for me.

Moped around in my shorts and did a bit of diary while sitting on the balcony watching the ancient world go by. The ruins of the old citadel are only 400m away and make a terrific view.

Shali Citadel from Yousef balcony

Went out about 5pm for something to eat. I've only been eating sporadically and am pretty peckish again. The café directly opposite, where I had my shay earlier was nice so I go there and order a Kofta Kebab with Tahini salad - not quite sure except that it's grilled meat, and, naturally, a shay. It turned up on 4 plates; 5 skinless sausages of minced meat, a plate of finely chopped tomatoes and (skinned) cucumber with half a lime to squeeze, a yoghurty dip, and some pitta bread.

There was no cutlery, I waited a little but none came. It seems that cutlery isn't the Siwan way, and who am I to argue. I self-conciously picked up a sausage and had a bite (watching the waiters and passers-by from the corners of my eyes for any strange looks, and trying to think when I'd last washed my hands!) while looking at the finely chopped tomato and cucumber and wondering how on earth I was going to eat that ! Also bearing in mind that the left hand is generally considered unclean and should not touch food. I was the only customer in the place so no clues there. I was just about managing to scoop up the salad, or shovel it with my thumb, one-handed, onto bits of pitta bread but it was getting more difficult as it diminished and there was less to push against. I kept dropping bits of salad on the table and in my lap making a bit of a mess. The waiters were watching me a little but I thought I'd been doing reasonably well on my first attempt to fit in with their ways so I didn't worry. After about 15 minutes when I reached for the final bit of pitta bread I noticed a rolled-up napkin there - inside of which was a knife and fork! They must have thought I was some kind of savage! I had a right old laugh to myself - you couldn't write this stuff!

It was absolutely gorgeous though - very fresh and quite spicey - and I ate the lot with no worries for my health, given the plentiful supplies of fresh and clean water here. A desert safari (600LE and upwards!) hustler joined me when I'd finished and I think I paid for his shay and another for me - total 16LE. There was some back and forth discussion amongst them about my change (20LE note) and I wondered if I was going to get any, but it came and I gave the waiter 1LE - he seemed quite happy with that.

I went for a walk to get my bearings. I'm in Shali which is the main settlement at the Siwa oasis and it's only a smallish place, the population of the whole oasis area is only about 20,000 - and there's nothing around it for miles, in all directions, except empty desert. There's a military airfield somewhere nearby and a small military presence in the settlement - we're only 30 miles from the Libyan border. The oasis itself covers about 15 miles NS and 50 miles WE and is very fertile, being fed from several springs - most fresh and cold, some hotter, and some salt (with skin-healing properties). The economy here is based on agriculture - specialising in olives and dates (2 of my favourites!). And there's a big plant somewhere where they bottle the plentiful water. Apparently there's too much water and they cap the springs to control it - the level still rises though, 9mm annually! Interestingly, Siwa is is 150m below sea level. The Siwans themselves are descendants of peoples west of here, have their own (Siwan) language, and are very independent - only becoming part of Egypt in the 19th century.

I walked a while in the baking heat looking into a few shops/stalls selling nice looking fruit and veg (watermelons bigger than basketballs) and watching the people go by on bicycles and donkey-carts but was soon flagging again so turned for home. I stopped and bought a half-pint jar of olives and a box of dates (about 0.5kg) to snack on in my room. I could read that the dates were 7LE but the olives weren't marked - the lad of 18 or so said "talaata, 3". I gave him a 10LE note and he looked at it, seeming unsure of something, then brokenly said "7 and 3 is 10 ?" I said yes and showed him on my fingers saying the numbers in arabic. The guy was innumerate - and suddenly I understood the discussion about my change from my meal - I bet some of the waiters were innumerate too! I didn't see a school on my walk.

To my surprise I found an internet café. Just one PC and a slooooow dial-up connection, so I answered a few emails and checked the website for an hour 10LE - pricey but we are miles from anywhere. Quite surprised to get a gprs connection on my Orange sim last night too - must check my account somewhen in case there's a horrible surprise there for me!

There's a few westerners about but no-one I particularly want to talk to. Just some bolshy looking germans and I saw an unattractive girl who could have been english getting a lot of surprised male attention in her totally inappropriate shorts and t-shirt - pure ignorance, I hope they flog her.

Back to my room at about 9:30 having bought some water and some of their pitta-like bread. Did a quick check on the finances - I've spent the equivalent of about £95 since I arrived in Egypt - £17.50 of that was sorting out my Egyptian mobile, and I've got more than £5 credit left. It doesn't include my gprs charges for updating the website - currently unknown. I reckon I'm having a decent amount of fun for less than a tenner a day !!

Sat on the balcony, enjoying the tranquility, watching the world, admiring the (now floodlit) citadel, and writing this.

Shali Citadel at night

And eating olives out of the jar (strong and almost burn your tongue like chilli - lovely) and dates (very sweet and caramelly like the medjool dates I got hooked on at home, but fresher and dryer - lovely). It's so nice here I can't be bothered to go wandering - and don't feel hungry in any case. Also, the Siwans don't seem all that sociable with me (and that's fine - this is their home after all), and the only real english speakers are the safari hustlers. I realised just now that I've hardly seen any women at all today.
It's 2:30am and I'm still on the balcony in just shorts (they don't seem quite so bothered about male dress here - the german blokes were in shorts, but I'm not visible from the road below anyway), the breeze on my bare back from the ceiling fan is like a powerful fan-heater - it's luuuvly.

      High: Siwa! - this is a magical and primitive place - a glimpse of the past.
       Low: Bloody tourist girl in shorts - it so wrong here, and so obviously wrong.

Saturday 23rd July 2005    day 11     whereami     Satellite view

Woken just before 5am by very loud morning prayers from several mosques echoing around the otherwise silent and deserted village. The main mosque is only 300m up the road from me and it's speaker is particularly loud. I went out on the balcony to take it all in - it was incredible, powerful and spell-binding. It blew me away.

Didn't sleep much more and just couldn't get going again in the morning. Bread and dates for breakfast. Suddenly got the urge to unpack the travel guitar for the first time and have a play - did so for an hour and it was nice to play again.

Decided to listen to some music. A few months ago I treated myself to some really good studio-quality in-ear phones, they go right into the ear canal like earplugs, totally block out all ambient noise and they sound absolutely brilliant playing MP3's from my PPC - as good as anything I've ever heard. Spread-eagled on the bed under the whirling fan I drifted away, in my overtired and woolly state of mind, to Radiohead's exceptional Kid A album - it sounds even better than ever, just watching random patterns in my eyelids. Then Bjork's Vespertine - just drifting, just floating. Thoughts come into my head of my great, great mate Steve who died so suddenly last year, and I really wish he was here. I can easily picture him sitting on the other bed, fag in his grinning mouth, plotting some evil scheme to stitch me up yet again. I wonder for the hundredth time how much his going has influenced me to make some big changes in my life - must be something there - cheers mate. I drift away again thinking about Steve and drift so far I'm doubtful I'll make it back.

The music ends and I sit, dazed, on the bed waiting for normality to return to my head, but it doesn't come. I step out onto the balcony and am surprised to see the street absolutely deserted - at 4pm. Then 2 untethered donkeys come running out of a sidestreet and up the road beneath me - that doesn't look right!? Then a shouting bloke comes running out of the same sidestreet, jumps in a knackered old half-sized coach, starts it up and smokes up the road and down another sidestreet chasing after them. Normality has returned.

I make to go out but, even though I feel fine, my eyes keep welling up. I never really grieved for Steve - I tried but my habitual denial and avoidance tactics won the day. Maybe this strange and ancient place is breaking down some of my barriers - it'll do me the world of good.

Went out to top up the water stocks (drank 5l yesterday!) and see if I could pay for 3 more nights here. It's really nice just chilling here - but there's things to see to around the oasis and I haven't really got off my backside since I arrived. I can easily see me spending more than a week here - and why not?

Got phone call from my sister, Chris, wanting to check I was ok?? I knew nothing about the bombs in Cairo and Sharm-El-Sheikh yesterday. I remember that (Mastercare secretary) Tracey's daughter is due to visit Luxor soon, might even be there now. She'll be worried sick.
I'm miles from anywhere here and don't feel worried for myself at all, but I'll have to keep an eye on things - I might have to modify some of my plans. I really hope not - the Egyptians are great people and Egypt itself is fascinating - it would be a real shame to miss out on any of it because of a few madmen.

Went to the internet café to catch up on events but there was nobody about, had a shay over the road and returned to my room. Fell asleep on the bed and slept heavily until I was woken at midnight by a knock on the door. It was one of the guys who ran the hotel - he hadn't seen me about all day and wanted to check I was ok - I wondered if he thought I was scared to go out under the circumstances. He said 3 more nights was ok and that I could pay in the morning.

Went to shop below me to get a cold fizzy drink and had a chat with the other guy who runs this place. He said his friend had asked about the englishman 'cos nobody had seen me. He asked if I knew about the troubles and told me that 88 people, mostly Egyptians, had been killed by 3 bombs in Sharm-El-Sheikh and that Cairo was just a fire. We spoke about how terrible it was and he tapped his head to show that they were mad.

It's been a disgracefully lazy day but I do feel a bit re-energised. I'm going to get out into the oasis tomorrow and look around. Maybe I can into some of that healing spring water and clear up the remains of my rashes.

      High: listening to my music - not sure I've ever been quite so thoroughly absorbed by it before
       Low: hearing about the problems - it's madness

Friday 24th July 2005    day 12     whereami     Satellite view

Up late yet again this morning - and here I am just starting my diary at 2:20am! Time doesn't seem to matter here, everything is open until the early hours and there's quite a few people still up and about enjoying the cool of the night - having slept during the afternoon heat.

Went for a shower about midday and there was a new face doing his washing in the sink. Olivier is a french guy in his mid-late twenties, here with his younger girlfriend Attica (Algerian French) on a 1 month tour of Egypt. We had a quick chat and agreed to meet later for a shay to discuss maybe sharing a 4x4 for a desert safari. They're a really nice couple, very cool and laid back, we had a good chat - they speak pretty good english. They'd already been recommended someone by the hotel and we left it that they would follow that up in the afternoon and we'd meet for dinner to discuss further.

I went to try and get out to Birket Siwa salt spring/lake. I couldn't find a bike to hire or a donkey cart to take me as it siesta time and everthing was closed - so I just went for a walk around a different part of Shali. After a while a young lad of 17 or so invited me in for some shade. He was in a little room with 2 of his younger mates watching movies and playing games on PC's. They were good kids and we chatted for nearly an hour about movies, music and football. I walked back into the centre to look on the internet about the bombs in Sharm-El-Sheikh but before I got there a lad on a donkey cart collared me 'cos yesterday I had said "tomorrow" to him for a trip to Fatnas Island. It was nearly 6pm now and I wasn't sure there was time as I was meeting Olivier and Attica at 8 or somewhen-ish but I decided that maybe I wouldn't be toooo late so went for it.

I hopped on the cart - it had a roof so there was shade - and we trotted off for the 2km journey. Anwar (15) spoke a little English and we taught each other a few more words along the way, it was nice gently bouncing along on the cart through the date palm orchards and other crops and we got there in 25mins or so. He tied up the donkey and we walked through the palms and across a salt bed to a freshwater irrigation canal.
We changed there and left our gear on the bank (nobody else about at all). We swam across the canal which was pretty warm and climbed out the other side. Another 50m across sand and salt and there was the lake. It was huge - it could almost have been the sea. I was pleased to find it was a bit cooler as we paddled in, then it got warmer, then it got bloody hot! It never really got much more than thigh deep but we swam out through cool bits, warm bits and hot bits. I could feel the salt stinging my legs and arms. I touched some on my tongue and it was impossibly salty - it was saltier than salt! Floating along on my back I unthinkingly ducked my head and the stinging salt water went up my nose - very unpleasant indeed - I'm still sniffy from it now, 9 hours later. I kept trying to find cool bits 'cos it was almost burning in many places but eventually after 20 minutes we'd both had enough and swam back to the shore.
The canal was lovely and cool after that and I spent 10 minutes in there - admiring some small fish that one of Anwar's friends had caught. We swam back across the canal, picked up our gear and walked back to the donkey. There was a freshwater spring there with a 3m diameter block wall around it. We jumped and dived off the wall into the deep spring - I swam down 10m or so and I think I could see the bottom - might come back here with my mask for a proper look down there. It was 7:45 now so I said to go back - stopped for a photo of the sinking sun over the salt beds and lake - paid 15LE.

Fatnas Island Sunset   Anwar and cart

Met Olivier and agreed 30mins for showers and he would knock on my door.

We walked to restaurant and I had a "Shakshouka with meat" - it was very nice, a very hot and spicey bowl of stew with loads of pitta bread - + 2 cokes = 16LE. We spoke to some guys there about the safari and eventually agreed on a 1 day, 1 night safari with food for 100LE each. We also have to pay US$10 for a desert permit and 10LE to the army. But none of us are carrying US$, I have £ and the others have €. They can change € so Olivier agrees to sell me some € and we give the driver 30€ and our passports to sort it all out for us. We then have a great conversation in English, French and Arabic about how much change in LE he should get for $10 from €10 but we get there in the end. We agree to meet at 1:30 tomorrow afternoon.

Olivier and Attica went off for a shay and I went to a different internet café - even slower than the other one but I did what I needed to do. Back to the hotel, buy more water, chat with hotel owner and agree I'll pay for maybe 5 more nights in the morning. They're very trusting here (also, baksheesh is not expected here) and I've found them much more sociable than I first thought - must stop jumping to conclusions!

      High: bumping into Olivier and Attica - they're great company and I'm looking forward to safari'ing with them.
       Low: my poor nasal passages getting a nasty surprise.

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