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

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29-01 July/Aug 2005

Friday 29th July 2005    day 17     whereami     Satellite view

I was up late and was almost out the door when Olivier knocked at about 12:30. He and I went to Waha for breakfast - Atika had already gone to meet the women again with Gelgel. Had a quick bite and then got some bikes and we headed off towards Taghaghien Island.

We stopped at the hotel to pick up some forgotten bits and were about to leave when a troubled looking black guy came over speaking french. Olivier went off with him to help him out with something. It turned out that he and his friend were french moslem tourists and had just arrived in Siwa and had spent 2 hours in the police station (not their first incident in Egypt either). They wanted a phone number for the french consul. We assumed their police attention was due to security concerns as a result of the Sharm-El-Sheikh incident.

We got going north up the main road to Martruch and after only a short way it was clear that Olivier's bike was useless - his buckled back wheel rubbed hard on the frame with anything more than a gentle push on the pedals - but we kept going. We cycled about 3km and stopped near a water processing plant by what we thought was our left turn-off. We asked some lorry drivers outside the plant and they told us to double-back 1km and take a different road. They were wrong and we ended up cycling to the island on a rough track cut for heavy lorries that seem to move quarry output - maybe just sand. It was bloody hard work and Olivier's bike wasn't up to it. He walked and jogged some and then he held my shoulder and I pedalled for both of us.

We arrived at the deserted little "resort" and it was very nice - but not really my current taste. There was an alcohol-serving bar, a spring pool with exercise bikes and step-machines around it, and a wet-bike for the salt lake resting (off-season) in the pool. You could easily picture it full of well-heeled holiday-makers in their bikinis, thongs and Rolexes posing around and not straying far from it's comforts. But now it was empty, just a couple of blokes and a son keeping an eye on the place so it was ok. We had a swim in the cool pool - glad to cool off from our exertions, and then went for a float in the warm salt lake. The lake looked great here with crystallised salt - like ice - all around it's edges and in tiny islands where the water was very shallow.

salt islands   salt crystal

Olivier treated himself to a beer and I had a coke while I let the salt water dry on me until I was rigid, grey-haired and white with it, the photo didn't come out that well.

salt statue

We had a chat with the son (16 or so), who lived in Cairo, swapped email addresses and agreed to contact him when we were in Cairo. At 6:30 we paid a pricey 45LE and left - Gelgel rang my mobile as we left to say that Atika was back in Shali.

On the proper roads with the breeze behind us we sped the 5 or 6km back - Olivier only needing a tow up a few gentle hills - back in Shali, puffed and sweating at 7:20.

cycling back to Shali   cycling back to Shali

Had a quick Shay with Atika, Magdi and Sharif in the East West and then a quick shower while Olivier and Atika showered and packed. Then to Waha for a quick felafel, settle some bills and their goodbyes to Laclac and Gelgel.

Gelgel, Laclac, Atika and me

I helped them with their bags to the bus, we said au revoir and I waved them on their way.

I went back to Waha, had a couple of shays with Laclac, paid my outstanding bills and headed back to the hotel, but I stopped and had another shay and chat with Magdi and Ahmar in the East West before finally getting back to my room at 1am.

I'm gonna chill out for 2 or 3 days more here. This is a very special place and I want to soak up as much of it as I can. But I must then move - I'm getting far too comfortable and a bit lazy - soon be time to head out into uncertainty again.

It was really sad to wave off Olivier and Atika this evening. We've lived in each other's pockets for the past 6 days and have become great friends and had some great times - and more than a few great laughs. This is quite a romantic place and I occasionally thought that they should have some time to themselves but we were having such fun I don't think they even thought about it - and even holding hands here is taboo anyway so . . .
Atika is beautiful, charming and great fun, and every man falls in love with her within a few minutes of meeting her. Olivier is a very cool guy, a great laugh, and takes it all, admirably, in his stride. We've agreed that we will definitely meet up again - probably not in Egypt as our paths don't cross again, maybe in France or the UK somewhen.
Bon voyage.

      High: the salt lake was a great sight - and I love that floating feeling
       Low: saying au revoir to my great friends - but it's all part of the journey, and I'll see them again

Saturday 30th July 2005    day 18     whereami     Satellite view

A very lazy day after spending all night catching up on 2 days diary. The diary is taking at least 2 hours a day and on the busier days, of course, there's more to do and less time to do it. But during my lazy day I read back through all of it and it's all very clear in my mind - so well worth it.

I just slept on and off - we keep having power cuts in the morning which means no fan - gets pretty warm - listened to a little music - Morcheeba today - very mellow. I tidied up my stuff a bit, charged all my gadgets up and sorted out some washing to do - but never made it as far as actually washing it.

Went out in the evening for something to eat at Abdu opposite the hotel. Had a vegetable Shakshouka, a couple of shays and a couple of lemon juices - very nice too. I sat alone quietly reading my guidebook trying to work out a good route around the Nile delta area in the North - curiously known as lower Egypt. It's like one of those puzzles where you have to join all the dots touching each only once - but a semi-plan was forming.

Then Abdul Rhaman (the spaniard on the islam way) came and joined me. He said he had looked for me during the day but the hotel told him I was sleeping. He's an interesting bloke (probably early 30s) - he's a freelance film producer in Spain and just goes back to work when the money runs out, the rest of the time he travels. He was in Algeria in the early part of the year and felt his calling to islam and has grown the full beard, adopted his islamic name and wears the traditional smock (a gebel, or something like that). We chatted about our decisions to spend time travelling and, as usual, there were many similarities. He takes his faith very seriously and considers himself very much a novice student of islam - but he can joke about it too, eg. trying to order a beer in this bone-dry village. And he doesn't preach at all - he was very happy that I seem to have found my way by just having my freedom.

We were then joined by a young Belgian who teaches english in Alexandria (he only looked about 17 but clearly wasn't), and a Greek (30ish) who lived in Stockholm and was here on a 2 week holiday.
They asked about what to see in Siwa and I gave them a few pointers. Abdul asked about what to see further out, by bike - he's diabetic and needs to take regular exercise. I told him about Taghaghein Island and we're going to cycle there together tomorrow - and I think there's more to see further west as well.
We just chatted and drank tea until 3am and called it a night.

As the diary is short today - some notes:

I've been pleasantly surprised by the scarcity of insects in Egypt. I've seen few mosquitos - though I've heard from people who claim to be tormented and eaten alive by them - they do seem to like some people more than others - I don't think I've been bitten at all. There aren't that many flies though the few are very persistent - and they seem to bite - I've been bitten only a couple of times though. There are quite large ants running around but very few indoors - I warily opened my half-empty unsealed box of dates today, they've been on my bedside table untouched for a week - and they were fine. The only wasp I've seen is the little black one I tried to eat. And my cockroach roommates in Alexandria were no bother.

In Cairo it was mainly mid-to-high 30's and it doesn't cool much at night. It wasn't unbearable by any means but I did sweat more than I have ever sweated before - it's quite humid. In Alexandria it was cooler due to the Med. and being north - the sun was just as scorching but the air was cooler, quite humid again - same along the coast in El Alamein and Martruch.
Here in Siwa it's much hotter - I've not seen a thermometer (I shoud get one) but I've been told by locals that it's been 40+ during the afternoon - one said it was 48 in the shade a few days ago but that seems too high. Whilst there is no doubt that it's bloody hot it's manageable in small doses. It's much dryer though so you don't sweat nearly as much (actually you do but it quickly evaporates so you're not sweaty). And even on yesterday's mid-afternoon cycle ride it felt ok being exposed to the sun for over an hour at a time. It does make me lethargic though, and if I don't get up, get out and get moving I just can't wake up (like today) but even that is quite nice, just being a bit dozey and kinda stoned. In a way I feel like I've wasted today but I couldn't care less really. I have loads of time, I'm paying 12LE* a night for my room and I spent 25LE in the restaurant (total~£3.70) - so what exactly have I wasted ??!!
The locals think we're a bit barmy going out in the afternoon - they generally sleep. This is quiet season in Siwa 'cos it's "too hot" - it gets busy here in winter when the temperatures are down in the 30's.

*I paid 16LE a night for the first 2 nights here, but only 12LE since.

The Plan:
My original plan was to spend maybe 6-8 weeks travelling, and 4 months diving/working in Dahab. I'm now looking at much more time travelling and maybe a couple of months in Dahab. Living is cheaper than I expected so I have no money worries, and touristy Dahab doesn't seem so attractive to me now.

      High: a good old chat in the restaurant (as it's the only thing I've done!)
       Low: the hotel manager saying good morning to me when I went out at 9pm - cheeky devil!

Sunday 31st July 2005    day 19     whereami     Satellite view

Out for breakfast at Waha at about 11:30 and met Abdul there. Laclac went off and got us some bikes - we got my rear tyre pumped up and set off to Taghaghein Island. We got about a km out of Shali when there was a lot of hissing from my back wheel - the valve had failed. We flagged down a passing donkey cart and I got a lift 2/3 of the way back.

Roadside Rescue Service

The guy replaced the valve but then his pump wouldn't work. His son took the bike up the road to get it pumped - he was only a little chap of about 4 and could barely reach up to the handlebars - but he managed it. Abdul went off to pray while I got my bike sorted. Mahroud, the little lad, was chuffed to bits when he came back and I manfully shook his hand and said shukran. He just kept toothlessly grinning at me and it took ages to get his name.

Abdul returned and we set off again. We kept up a fair old (knackered old bikes) pace in the early pm sun and got there in a bit less than an hour - I reckon it must be about 8-9km - we were pretty worn out when we arrived as most of the journey was against the steady desert breeze.

It's a very picturesque place and I couldn't resist another photo of it.

Taghaghein Island

We had a quick dip in the spring pool to cool off, and a shay.

We then went into the salt lake for a float - it was great again. We'd looked at a small island with some ruins on the way over and said it would be great to get out there and we decided to go for it. It's very difficult to swim in the lake - it's less than a metre deep for a start, but the main problem is that you can't keep your legs in the water as you're so bouyant - up/down kicking just makes splashes and with frog-kicks you just wave your legs in air - it's ridiculous. So it's on your back or front and arms only - or the fastest method is to pull yourself along with your hands on the bottom - carefully, as the bottom is razor sharp salt crystal.

We got to the island in about 25 mins - it got very shallow so a fair bit was carefully threading your way through salt ridges and mounds that would cut - and you didn't want to stand up until the last possible moment 'cos the crystal floor hurts your feet. The island was very interesting with it's tumbledown little mudbrick dwellings - the ground was a hot and sharp salt/mud mix - very painful. We both wished we could have taken our cameras - but there was no chance.

Rather than hobble painfully back across the island we got back in the lake on the wrong side. This much meant more shallow-water crawling and we both managed to scrape our chests on unseen salt mounds several times - the other one laughing of course as a good friend should! It was quite painful as it just slices into you and then the salt really stings but you had to laugh. It took about 40 minutes to get back.

Abdul had brought food as he has to eat regularly and we shared his bread, tomatoes, tuna and tahina. Then walked back to spring pool, rinsed off and had a shay and a chat with the few people that worked there. Omda, the young lad that Olivier and I met here the other day came over and kissed me on the cheek, which was a bit strange but that's how they are with friends. A couple of french blokes who were staying there joined us later. Abdul's a bit of a clown and wound the locals up constantly and they thought it was great fun.

Abdul and me leaving the Island

We set off back to Shali at about 7pm and it was easier again on the way back with the breeze behind us and we were soon back. Abdul showed me where the mythical decent internet café is!

I went on my own for a shay.

There was a few locals there when I arrived but they soon went and it was just me. The worker there (who I know well but won't name for this story) came and sat with me. He said "I want to tell you something, how much are magazines in England?". I knew what he was getting at but played a bit dumb and said Car magazines, or Women's magazines were probably 20 or 30LE. "No, sex magazines" - I dunno, maybe 40 or 50LE. He then told me that a regular German visitor brought him porn mags, and that "they" (I had to assume "they" included him) show them to young boys and then have sex with them - for money. I said that I thought it would be dangerous for me to carry sex magazines in Egypt to clarify that I didn't have any. He then said in his very broken english something that seemed like either a direct proposition to me, or maybe an offer to find me a young boy, or both - I didn't try for clarification in case it was mistaken for showing interest. I said for me, only women, no donkeys, no boys, just women. I said why do you need magazines when you have a beautiful wife? and he just shrugged. I said aren't young boys "haram" - forbidden by islam - and he said "women haram, boys haram" and shrugged to indicate there was no difference - except, presumably, that boys are much less controlled and so are much more available.

It's crazy - this place is so strait-laced and heavily religious on the surface, but is clearly a den of frustrated vice behind the scenes - alcohol distilled from the dates, hashish and what seems to be regular sex with young boys and the occasional woman donkey - when available!!

Stangely enough I had a chat the other day with the same guy, we talked about his family and he'd asked if I was married. I said no, but there'd been girlfriends - and one I lived with for a few years and the odd fling since - and he thought it was quite wrong - quite sordid! "I think it is better our [clean and pure] way".

I went for a shower and then out to look for Abdul. No sign - I went to his hotel garden and sat there with some young tourist/travellers - but they were too young, too loud, too excitable and too opinionated and I soon left.
I went to Abdu's where I thought Abdul would find me - and was soon joined by 3 of the youngsters, including the very loud and sweary Israeli girl! I realised I haven't sworn for ages - it's taboo anyway - but I'm just happy and mellow - I used to swear like a #$#$ing trooper!!
She'd oviously guessed why I'd gone and said she'd be quieter but it didn't last. We had a reasonable chat over dinner but I made my excuses and left at 1am. Young people eh? - drive you nuts - it wasn't like that I were a lad (?)

Well, I've been kissed by a young lad, propositioned by a middle-aged man and/or offered a young boy, and talked at too loudly by too many excitable youngsters - a strange day indeed! I think I need to find me a woman - though some of those woman donkeys with their deep dark eyes, long lashes and a well-turned fetlock . . . . the saucy minxes!!

      High: the salt lake island - it was worth all the pain
       Low: the noisey youngsters were a bit wearing - the man-boy stuff was just strange

Monday 1st August 2005    day 20     whereami     Satellite view

Up late as usual and out for a wander, something to eat and see who's about. Stopped for Vegetables with Rice at the East West. The waiter said "tomato, zuchini, ochre?" I thought he'd noticed that many westerners don't like ochre and was making sure. It's not my favourite, a bit slimey, but a little won't hurt me so I said ok. When it came it was a bowl of just ochre in a tomatoey gravy, I managed to eat about 3/4 of it - it was ok, sort of.

I wandered around a bit looking for Abdul then went to the decent internet café but it's closed until 5pm. I went to the Palm Trees to see if Abdul was there, or Ahmed that I'd offered to help with his emails - neither. I decided to do some washing but then bumped into Abdul in a shop, and Omda (from Taghaghein) who'd been looking for me and was on his way back to Cairo. I said I'd see Abdul when I'd done my chores, and had a lemon juice and bought Omda a coke in Abdu's. He's a nice kid but seems very naïve for a city boy - you get the feeling he's in for some hard truths over the next few years. He was very keen to meet me again in Cairo, and Olivier too (presumably now in Aswan).

If they're up for it, and I'm sure they will be, I've decided that wherever I am in the Nile delta (or Siwa!!!) in mid-August when Olivier and Atika are back in Cairo I'll only be an hour or 2's train ride away - so will join them to see the pyramids and sphinx at Giza. It'll be nice to do it in good company and I can easily just pick up my journey again from where I left off when they fly home. It'll only cost me a day, and 30 or 40 LE.

I've bumped into my little mate Marhoud (who got my tyre pumped yesterday) a couple of times on my wanders and he's so pleased that I know his name, say salam to him and shake/clap hands with him that he grins the widest toothless smile you can imagine. He cracks me up.

I bought a cantaloupe melon for 2.5LE and headed back to my room. I saw the hotel manager who'd asked me yesterday to help him with a safari advert board, and offered to do it now. He just wanted me to write Yousef Desert Safari in big letters across the top of a blank poster. I think there'll be more to do when he's stuck some pictures on it. Up to my room and ate half the melon - bloody gorgeous - and I so wanted to eat the other half too! despite my bloated stomach! but I didn't.

Did a bit of diary while it was quiet (and as a way of avoiding the washing!) - might get to sleep tonight before 5am for a change!

It's struck me here that, despite being a small and very isolated community, there is not much evidence of in-breeding. There's a couple of albinos - one of whom I think is also deaf and there's a bloke works in Abdu who's clearly 1 melon short of a cartful. The majority of the people all seem healthy, fit and normal.

Oh well, 'spose I'd better do me washing . . . . got it done.

Sat on the balcony for an hour just watching the world go by. I've been here 11 days now and I still can't quite accept that it's real - all the donkeys and carts, and bicycles and all so primitive - it's still astonishing. There's carts going up and down carrying long-grass-like feed for the animals, big jerry cans of water from the springs, and families going home or out to work in the cool of the evening.
The 8pm call to prayer has just sounded and the men are streaming towards the various mosques until the streets are almost deserted.
I also can't get used to the idea of seeing so few women about. You see little girls playing (with little boys) like all kids do, and they call hello as the boys do - but that's pretty much it. You occasionally see fully veiled women (maybe 20 a day) on the family cart (man or boy always at the reins), and less often walking, and today I surprisingly saw a girl of maybe 12 fully covered but unveiled walk down the road. I've learnt that the full veil indicates married, that they marry at 14-15 or so, are very age concious and are pretty much written off at 30. One of the youngsters last night said that the girls were isolated from the men when they begin menstruating but I don't think they wait that long - as a rule you don't see any girls older than say, 8 years - and when you do, they're not with boys or men - maybe just the father. Atika said that when she spent some time with the women they unveiled and gossiped and laughed and swam in the garden springs like women anywhere.

Abdul was going to call on me after his 8pm prayers but it was gone 9 and I hadn't seen him so I walked to his Palm Trees hotel. Magdi and Ahmar, the hoteliers caught up with me just as I arrived. I found Abdul, who had been to my hotel and been told I was sleeping again - how lazy do they think I am??!! He went off to pray and I sat in the Palm Trees garden and chatted with Magdi and Ahmar while they ate some food they'd brought with them. I also bumped into Ahmed there and said I'd help him with his email tomorrow.

Abdul returned and we went to the decent internet café, stopping at a roadside stall for takeaway kofta - minced meat and onions in a mini hotdog roll. We had to wait 15mins while a class finished (it's actually an education centre - mainly for adults). We got into the classroom with nice networked Compaq PC's and DSL, and very clean - most of the PC's I've been using look like they've been assembled from scraps - and they're filthy - peering at the screen/keyboard through an opaque layer of grime and dust. BUT the first one I tried kept giving java error messages when I tried to use hotmail. And the 2nd one I tried refused to operate in English. I changed all the settings but the keyboard just worked in Arabic. It had several oddball toolbars that were probably doing all sorts to it - and I really hate them. It was bugging me and I found myself swearing under my breath so I gave up, left Abdul there (it was suggested I should pay but I refused) and went back to Red Star. It's a paaaiiinfully slow dial-up but at least it works and I got it done.

I left after an hour and bumped straight into Abdul who'd also just finished. It was 12:30 and most places were surprisingly closed so we went to East West to eat. Shakshouka again and it was very good. We also shared a MukhMukh - ground olives in olive oil, like a soup, that we dipped bread in - also very nice. Abdul clowned continuously all evening with everyone - it gets just a bit tedious 'cos he doesn't stop - but he's alright, and they all find him entertaining, and confusing. He kept on and on about could they get him a beer, no, ok a vodka, no, ok a whiskey etc. etc. despite the fact that it's haram for him and haram for the whole dry village. We packed up at 2am.

I've partly been hanging around here as Sharif had offered to take Abdul on a 3 day desert camel safari and I felt sure that I would be invited, Sharif always wants to chat when I see him. But he's been saying he must go to Alexandria for a few days first and he's still in Siwa so it doesn't look like it's going to happen. I've arranged to go cycling with Abdul again tomorrow - we're going to try and explore the south "coast" of the salt lake, and take some food and make our own fire and tea etc. Then I must seriously think about moving on Wednesday - 10am bus to Alexandria maybe.

      High: eating that lovely melon and watching the world go by
       Low: bloody PCs!! trust them to get me swearing again !!

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