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

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02-05 August 2005

Tuesday 2nd August 2005    day 21     whereami     Satellite view

Met Abdul about 11:30 and we spent about an hour breakfasting, sorting out some decent bikes from a different place and buying some food to take. Abdul went to midday prayers and I had a couple of shays while I waited.

We'd found out that there wasn't really a way along the south coast of the main lake so we headed out east past the Alexander tomb. We came to another salt lake that was mostly dry and cycled north-east along the edge on rough truck tracks. It was quite spectacular - the salt is so white you have to keep reminding yourself that it isn't snow/ice (in about 42C!).

There was nobody about anywhere - nearest person probably 3km away back in Shali. We came to a little island with a causeway and visited it. It was like something out of Robinson Crusoe, palm trees heavy with dates, some olive trees and a rough shelter made from palm fronds. We wandered around and out onto the dryish lakebed - occasionally sinking up to our ankles in smelly squelchy mud under the thin hard salt/mud surface. We cleaned up in a free-flowing freshwater source that seemed to be piped in and carried on.

It was pretty hard work on the rough track against a fairly strong breeze but we covered about 2km to another, really nice looking island in a very dry part of the lake.

This 2nd island had much less vegetation, but it had a similar rough shack and a very clean little freshwater pool fed from another free-flowing pipe. We cycled up the causeway and on the salt lakebed - crunching under the tyres.

salt lake island   salt lake cycle   salt lake cycle

We were pretty knackered and hot from the cycling so spent 30 mins just cooling off in the little pool - it was lovely.

salt lake pool

The beauty and strangeness of this environment can not be explained in words and the photos don't do it justice. You have to keep rubbing your eyes to make sure you're not dreaming it.

We got going again but soon stopped again where there was a deep-looking pool in the dry lake. We left the bikes and crunched our way over to it. We took off our shoes and slid and squelched through the shallows - and it was deep and dark when we got there. I was managing to gently move my weight around and slide my feet but Abdul was trying to walk and repeatedly sunk to his ankles in the black, sulphorous and slimey mud - very funny for me. There were little springs in the shallows that showed this pool to be one of the sources for the lake. It's only dry in the summer - due to evaporation. One of the locals told us later that it's a metre deep in the "winter". We wandered around on the dry salt bed, in amazement, and took some photos.

salt lake - island in distance   salt lake salt

salt lake resting   salt lake resting

We carried on and turned west away from the lake into agricultural land to look for somewhere to eat in the shade. After a little way some kids called to us and we went to their palm-frond shelter near where the older boy was cutting the long-grass-like stuff to feed his donkey. They were very wary and shy and left us to it. We ate felafel, tomato and tahina paste in the local pitta-like bread, and shared a cantaloupe melon - a feast fit for a king!!

We headed back towards Shali. A crowd of young people, sitting neatly in the shade of a building called to us as we went by, and a man invited us over. It was a Koranic class, about 15 young boys up to age 12, and 15 girls up to 18 or so, mostly unveiled, and the Imam (probably mid 30s) teaching. We established our religions - when he learnt I wasn't Muslim he said "ah, Christian" so I just nodded - it seemed more acceptable than the truth. He invited Abdul to pray in the adjacent mosque and he couldn't really refuse.
I asked if I could sit and watch the class while I waited - he said ok and pointed me to some shade. He carried on but they were all just staring at me open-mouthed, and whispering and giggling to each other. It's clear that few westerners stray this far from Shali as they were all fascinated by me - not for the first time here I felt like a circus freak! I made to move as I was clearly disrupting his class but he said it was ok and tried, and failed to get their attention back onto the Koran. The honesty of children is such a great thing. A few of the braver younger boys (aged 4 or so) walked over to where I was sitting and, from about 1m away, just stood there and stared at me - for several minutes - as if viewing an interesting piece of art or something.
Abdul returned and I moved nearer the Imam where they were talking. He was pleased that Abdul could recite a few bits and they went back and forth over some arabic Koranic verses. Then he brought out one of his star pupils, a fully veiled 16 year old girl, who could recite the entire Koran - and she sat there reciting it to us in her high monotone voice. The Imam told us that the younger children don't understand arabic (just Siwan) - they just learn to recite the sounds. He stopped the girl and translated, looking me straight in the eye, that it meant that "unbelievers should not hear Koranic recitals, as they are the enemy of Allah". I was a bit puzzled, did he mean I should go - but he'd invited me? I smiled, and nodded as if I understood, and stayed. There was some more Koranic talk and then we slowly left. He said very seriously to me "I loved you when I saw you, and I hope you find islam - and will be at peace with Allah". I said thank you and we went.
It felt quite an honour to have been asked to join them, and it was very interesting to hear and see. It was also interesting to get a rare glimpse of the young women in their brightly coloured clothes. But the heavy stuff makes me feel awkward and edgy - I don't know what to say.

We cycled on to Cleopatra's Pool for a shay - but the café was closed. A geeky looking Alexandrian (mid 20's) asked Abdul to take his photo against the pool, and we had a chat. He worked at The Faculty of Islamic Law and was intensely religious - you could see that it dominated his every move. He was a bit disturbed by Abdul's jokey manner - but Abdul was just having fun with him. He asked for my email address and I told him I didn't have one. We cycled on and Ali joined us - keenly talking religion to me - and me falling behind or speeding up to get away. We cycled right around Shali to the west-side and climbed a big rock hill to watch the sunset.

sunset from the hill

Then it was prayer time so we hurried to the nearest mosque. I waited outside and was soon surrounded by curious staring children again. We had a very limited chat and they mostly just giggled and stared.

Ali was now very lost and wasn't at all sure that we knew the way back - 2km on palm-fringed unlit dusty tracks in the pitch dark. We had a bit of fun winding him up but he was genuinely concerned and asked every passer-by if we were going the right way.

Exhausted when we got back, quick couple of shays and back to our hotels.

Wow, what a day! An overload of scenery and and overload, for me, of religion. But you certainly couldn't say it was dull!

My latest theory is that I should leave here Friday latest . . . . . . but then, what's all this "should" about ?

      High: the dry salt lake and the 2nd island - mindblowing!
       Low: the intense Ali was a bit too much in my face - but I did have a laugh when we got him lost

Wednesday 3rd August 2005    day 22     whereami     Satellite view

Opened my door to go for a shower, and Ali was on his way up the stairs (he's not even staying here?) - he said hello and seemed very pleased to see me. I get the feeling that I'm an ideal conversion target for him and he's on a mission. I just mumbled a sleepy, disinterested good morning and went for my shower. I forecast a day of hide-and-seek, I can well do without him hanging around me.

Wandered over to Palm Trees and found Abdul there having some breakfast. He shared his breakfast, then I went out and bought a 3LE cantaloupe that we shared. These melons are just incredible, so fresh and sweet and juicey. We sat around chatting, and with Ahmar who was nearby. Abdul went off to pray and I waited. One of the older waiters (40ish) was quite insistent that I should join him in his room - and he only mentioned it, a bit secretively, a few times when I was on my own. Not again!! - I suppose I could be flattered but it's not the kind of attention I crave! I told him we were going out, he said "later" - I waved him away dismissively and didn't answer.

Everyone here seems to want a piece of me lately! Either my body or my soul! Hands off!!
The interest in my soul is quite difficult to deal with. I don't really want to offend or upset anyone with my views and I'm already offending them just by not believing - and mostly they're very friendly and caring about it and just want to "save" me. It's tricky.
The interest in my body is much easier to handle, it's only been talk and I couldn't care less about upsetting them with my views - I'd have no qualms about thumping someone into the middle of next week if further clarification was necessary - but these aren't fighting people.

We walked up to Siwa House which is supposed to be like a Siwan Museum, but as we'd half-expected it was closed. It seemed veerry hot in the street in the afternoon sun today - and we just shuffled and scuffed along using the bare minimum of energy.

We stopped at a café on the Shali outskirts. Had shay and sharp lemon juices - they normally drink it with loads of sugar but I like it sharp, they think I'm a bit strange. We had a chat and a laugh with the young owner, and Abdul clowned around in his usual way. It was comfy and cool there and we probably spent 2 hours there on the ancient and smelly armchairs. I'd moved my shoes outside 'cos I thought they smelt but it wasn't them at all - it was the sweaty furniture! Abdul is very well travelled and we talked about India, which I'm thinking about for next year.

relaxing in the cafe

Not long after 5pm it was prayer time for Abdul so we left, he stopped at a mosque and I carried on back to my room. I had a look in Abdu café but only the noisey young'uns in there and I can't be doing with that. And besides, I might be hunted down by the predatory Ali - after my soul! We'd had some religious chat in the café but there was no preaching - and I find it very interesting, I'm keen to learn of their ways and can enjoy a philosophical/theological conversation when I'm not being targetted.

From my balcony I was watching some teenage girls walking by, Korans in hand, presumably on their way to or from school. A bloke with his young son on a cart full of donkey feed went by - talking into a mobile phone as he went - a very strange combination of technologies! The older albino went by on his cart with eyes tightly squinted, he's maybe 40. His skin is very badly marked, he must suffer terribly in this sun.

I nipped down to the shop below for some of my water from their fridge, Ali walked by and I ducked back in the shop before he saw me. Close one.

After 8pm prayers were finished I walked to Palm Trees expecting to bump into Abdul but he wasn't about - they said he'd not long gone out. I walked back towards my hotel and bumped right into Ali! Delighted to see me again, can I have your mobile no. - haven't got one etc. etc. and I know he doesn't believe me. He wanted to give me his no. to contact him in Alexandria but I said I was just wandering around - no appointments. He had to return his bike and wanted me to go with him so we could have some tea and chat but I said I'd just be in one of the nearby cafes and he very reluctantly went off on his own. I had a very quick look around - no sign of Abdul - and hurried off to El Waha - well tucked away up a sidestreet.

Had a quick shay and a chat with Laclac and then Gelgel showed up - just returned from a safari trip and looking tired. It was good to chat with him again, he's a great bloke. I shook his hand and thanked him again for our brilliant safari when I left in case I don't see him tomorrow.

Still no sign of Abdul (and thankfully nor Ali) so I went alone to East West and had another of their excellent Shakshoukas. Not long after I'd finished Abdul showed up - his blood-sugar had got low and he'd been crashed out all evening. He had a Shakshouka himself and we chatted and joked around with a few locals for a while. He had a great laugh about my hide-and-seek with Ali. About midnight I felt shattered so called it a night and we left. We arranged to meet at 9:30 in the morning for a proper local breakfast. I went to a stall and bought 2 mangoes 4LE and ate them in my room - lovely, but very messy.

I'm 99% commited to leaving on Friday now, probably get the 10am bus for the 8 hour journey back to Alexandria - where I'll find a different(!) hotel and stay a couple of days to see some things I missed before.

Must make some enquiries there about my visa too. It struck me the other day that I might only have a 1 month one 'cos I did nothing special at the airport. It's pretty straightforward to get it extended - so I'm told.

      High: a good old afternoon chat in the cafe
       Low: bleedin' Ali again - he's way too keen, and very tiresome

Thursday 4th August 2005    day 23     whereami     Satellite view

Up in pretty good time and was in the shower when I heard Abdul come calling. Met him outside at 9:30 and we went to a little locals café that I'd not really noticed before - no frontage. We went inside, kicked off our shoes and sat on the floor at one of the low tables. We didn't have to order - there's only one dish here - and we were quickly served with a stainless steel bowl of meaty stew each, a plate of salad between us and a pile of bread - and of course a little pot of Siwan tea and 2 shot glasses.
The stew had a very strong meaty flavour and was clearly not made from the choice cuts. I think it was probably goat, and it was all fatty lumps, odd assortments of pipes and tubes and a few bits that I couldn't identify and thought it was probably best that way. I managed to eat it all but I must admit that it was a little bit of a struggle. They offfered to refill the bowls - it's all-you-can-eat - but I said no thanks. The atmosphere in the place was really good - all the men taking a break from their work, chatting and joking away. Abdul paid - 3LE each, and we left.

We walked up to Siwa house again and the gate was open. We went in and found some men having their breakfast. They didn't have the key to the house and didn't know where the keyholder was or what time he'd be back. One of them came with us to enquire nearby but it was soon obvious that we were wasting our time.

My breakfast was laying very heavy in my stomach and I wasn't entirely certain that I'd be able to hang onto it - I wasn't bothered about it though. We scuffed back to Palm Trees, had a shay and shared an enormous watermelon - and in no time my stomach was fine. We chatted with a newly-arrived french bloke, Dominic, he seemed alright so we invited him to join us on our cycle to Gebel Dakrur - the rheumatism place. Abdul hadn't seen it at all - and we wanted to climb to the top - it's the highest peak for miles around.

We got some bikes and water and a few bits of food and set off - it's about 5km. After 2-3km my back wheel was making some unhealthy noises. At 3km it was clear that the wheel-bearing had disintegrated. I left the others and turned back to get a new bike and had to walk most of the way - it would just about go down-hill. There was no traffic to hitch a ride from. I swapped bikes and was pretty exhausted when I got back to the others. Some local kids invited me into their family garden where I washed and splashed my face to cool off.

We cycled on to Gebel Dakrur - I was shattered so we sat around in the hotel café at the bottom of the "mountain" and chatted with some locals. Dominic played one of them at backgammon - and won. Unusually, we were mainly chatting with the (unveiled) women.

After an hour's rest I felt ok again and we set off to climb Gebel Dakrur. It was quite hard going - some walking and some climbing. The others saw a fox on the way up but I was at the back and missed it. The view from the top was superb - all of Shali, the salt lake with Fatnas and Taghaghein islands, the dry salt lake we visited the other day, and a huge expanse of desert.

climbing Gebel Dakrur

Gebel Dakrur - view west   Gebel Dakrur - view nw over Shali

Gebel Dakrur - view ne over dried salt lake   Gebel Dakrur - view south over desert

We walked and climbed back down and cycled on to Cleopatra's Pool for a shay and a cool-off swim - very nice too. Abdul went off to pray and Dominic and I caught him up 45 mins later.

We decided to go to Fatnas for the sunset - and I was keen to get in a last float! 6km 'cos we're on on the wrong side of Shali, and then a 3km walk to the salt lake 'cos nobody wants to swim across the grimey canal. We'd picked up a Spanish woman on the way, and we're soon joined by a young egyptian bloke at the lakeside. We were further south than I'd been here before and it was much deeper - I couldn't touch the bottom. Very warm (hot!) in some parts and cooler in others. It was great again though and they all had a laugh at me as I stayed in there for more than an hour while the sun set.
We then swam and rinsed in the spring pool, got savaged by the twilight mosquitoes and cycled back in the dark.

Quick shower and some packing - and I realised I'd forgotten to go to the bank - and I haven't got enough to pay the hotel and buy my bus ticket to Alexandria! Luckily the cash machine worked later in the evening.

Met Abdul and Dominic and went for a quick shay at El Waha to say goodbye to Laclac. Then to East West for Shakshouka and MukhMukh - lovely again.

All absolutely knackered from such an energetic day and pack up around 1am. Swapped email addresses with Abdul and we wished each other well on our ways. His constant clowning with the locals goes on a bit but he's been good company the last few days - he's a good laugh, intelligent, well travelled and very interesting to talk with when he's not performing.

Back for a bit more packing but soon crashed exhausted - and I've got to get up before 8 to get my ticket!!

      High: the views from Gebel Dakrur
       Low: dragging my broken bike 3km back to Shali in about 40C

Friday 5th August 2005    day 24     whereami     Satellite view

Up reluctantly at 8 and went to the bus station and got my ticket 27LE - very easy. Back and finished packing, paid the hotel and grabbed a quick shay. Cheeky young Yousef had spotted me earlier and I agreed to ride his cart to the bus - save me a walk with the big pack.

Said a last few goodbyes, jumped on the cart and went - I gave him a generous 4LE and he still wanted more - I just shook his hand and told him to behave himself - he'll go far.

Got on the bus and we left Siwa - sad to see it go - it's a very magical place. I really hope that the inevitable development of it doesn't destroy it's character - but I'm not very optimistic really.

The music system is soon blasting out a Koranic song, but it's not toooo bad and not too loud, and it soon (20mins) finished. The fully-veiled girl behind me quietly sang for about 30 mins - Koranic song for sure - but it was very nice with her soft feminine voice and I could hear her quite well from my reclined seat. I thought again about how little time I've spent in female company since I arrived in Egypt - very little apart from with Olivier and Atika. I really miss it - and not just in the obvious way.

We stopped after 2 hours at the mid-desert café halfway to Martruch and I was surprised to bump into Ahmar - he'd said he was going to Cairo on Saturday. We had a coke and a smoke then back on the bus.

Nothing to look at so I did yesterday's diary. Quick stop in Martruch but I couldn't find out how long so didn't dare stray far. Got back on and someone was in my seat - minor disagreement but I persuaded them to move.

The TV went on and blared a terrible melodramatic movie of overacted romance and preposterous heroism. Sleeeeeeeeeep.

Another quick stop halfway between Martruch and Alexandria for a quick shay and we finally got to the Sidi Gabr station in Alexandria at 8pm - 10 hours/600km from Siwa! but it was ok - diary's done and caught up some good sleep.

Remembered another language funny on the bus. They call Alexandria "Skandirana" or something like that - I'm still not quite certain. When I was around here before, looking for the right bus or train or whatever people, trying to help me, would say "Skandirana?". I didn't know what they meant and was wondering why everyone thought I was Scandinavian all of a sudden - so answered "la, Inglaterra" and they'd walk off looking puzzled - unable to help the stranger looking for the bus to England!!

I said goodbye to Ahmar and we wished each other well - and I'm the lonely traveller once more. I made a lot of friends in Siwa and it was good to share it all in good company, but I like the independence that comes from being alone - and everything's a bit more challenging and it's got an edge to it.

I sorted out my gear - stuffing my small pack into the big pack - but it's not packed well and I'm carrying 2 bottles of water, 2 giant apples and a cantaloupe in there and the pack is now very big. I get several comments and lots of odd looks as it's bigger than me!

It's a lot cooler here - 30ishC I would guess this evening - but of course the humidity is right back up so it's very sweaty again.

I walked to the front looking for Hotel Cleopatra, a cheapie recommended in my guidebook - but it's full. It looked quite nice and I wonder if it was really full or if they didn't like the look of the sweaty tramp standing before them - I only noticed today that my trousers are filthy!

I walked back inland towards the tramline to go back to the downtown area - and lucked right onto a stop. Got the 25 piastre tram for the 20 minute ride to Raml terminus and looked for Hotel Cabry/New Capri - soon found it and got the shakey lift to the 6th floor reception. It looks very nice and the well dressed, posh-english-speaking girl on reception looked me up and down a few times before admitting they had a room.
It's pretty good by my current standards, big twin room with tatty furniture, peeling walls and ceiling, but clean sheets - it's a pricey 57LE a night (nearly £6!!) but it's 10pm now so I paid for 1 night.
I would think there are some nice rooms here - I saw a very nice looking bar opposite the reception.

Quick shower and sort out, and out at 11 for a wander and something to eat. I took the easy option of 2 Damias from my favourite takeaway - I couldn't remember how much they were and was pleasantly surprised at 1LE for 2 without salad. I ate them at the roadside while they were warm - salad in them again! - lovely. Walked around a while, had a couple of shays in a scruffy local's café and back at 1am. Ate half the cantaloupe and an apple - and bed.

I've an idea to get up early and get out to the fishmarket but it seems unlikely even now.

      High: listening to the girl singing on the bus - it was very sweet
       Low: feeling a bit of a sweaty fool with my too-big pack

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