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

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09-10 August 2005

Tuesday 9th August 2005    day 28     whereami     Satellite view

Crashed at 1:30 last night - very early - and slept heavily. I was woken by the 5am prayers, and stirred several other times but slept comfortably for most of the morning and caught up from the previous night.
I feel a lot better, my throat's not so sore but more importantly my nose has stopped streaming. But I'm up late and don't really want to rush to Rosetta so I nipped down to reception and told them one more night. I can have a fairly quiet day on the west-side trams and complete my recovery.

I look around at my shabby room and out the window at my shabby world where everything barely works and is just about held together with bits of string and nails. My own house and car at home, though very nice, seem absurdly luxurious, clean and comfortable now. We spend half our lives worrying about dusty driveways and squeaky hinges etc. and keeping all our treasured possessions in tip-top condition and I'm not certain we've got it right. I'm sure the people here get a lot of comfort from their faith but it's not just that - everyone here just gets on with living their lives and I reckon they're all much happier and more fulfilled than you're average materialistic UKer.
The only luxury I miss is my nice guitars - I've had one hour on my travel-guitar since I arrived and it's not that rewarding. My hard-earned callouses have gone and my playing must be getting rusty.
Also, and I know I'm biased on this, it's very nice not seeing drunks around in this mostly dry country. You can quite safely walk anywhere at night without having to worry about getting into a scrap with some pissed-up hooligan venting his frustrations on the world during his weekend binge.

I went out and had my "morning" shay. Watched an old woman hanging out her washing on her 4th floor balcony - when I looked back 10 minutes later she was hauling up a basket of tomatoes on a long rope - a bloke beneath her with a cart of tomatoes was putting some money in his pocket.
Two of the cutest little girls, beautifully dressed in brightly coloured traditional clothes tried to sell me some tissues, and just asked for money. I kicked myself a few minutes later for not thinking to offer them 1LE in exchange for a photo.

There's quite a lot of cripples in Alexandria, usually men, with a badly twisted foot or both feet, or very bent legs - I think it's probably polio - and they're often begging. You occasionally see limbless people too, and they're always begging. They see you coming and shuffle out so they're directly in your path and prostrate themselves into their most pitiful looking position and pathetically plead for money. I sometimes give them something, and I've been surprised at the number of locals who give too - but thinking about it, I know that charity is highly regarded by islam.
Without being cruel there is something comical in their little performances. I saw a crippled beggar in Cairo (on a dark evening) carefully position himself so his body was behind a telephone connection box and his useless legs stretched out across the pavement. He can only have been hoping for people to trip over him or tread on him - and then give him something to ease their guilt! It was a quality act.

Walked west towards my favourite market area and was soon there.

riding on the load

I stumbled across a nice café I'd been in before and had another shay. It came with a glass full of mint leaves so I put a couple in my tea - very nice indeed! Usual wandering around for an hour - I love these places - so much more interesting than the monuments and museums.

I jumped on a tram going west and took a few photos out the window. I was so busy looking for good photo opportunities I paid no attention to where we were going.

from the tram   from the tram   from the tram

We got to a very busy market that looked good so I got off. There were a lot of trams around here and a busy minitaxi place - the place was packed solid with people. It was great - everything you can imagine being sold - mostly food and clothes. I walked round and round, had another shay and walked out the other side of the market. I eventually found myself at a wide canal - that gave me some idea where I was but whereabouts on the canal I had no idea.

choose your dinner   fishing in the canal

I jumped on another tram - the ticket man suggested to me that I didn't want this tram - and I thought he just meant that it didn't go to the beach or something - I tried to look like I knew what I was doing 'cos I didn't really care where it went - and paid him. We went about 2km through an empty area - just old derelict buildings - and stopped at a terminus in the middle of nowhere. Not to worry, I walked back along the tramline and hopped on the first one going back - it barely slowed and I to make a running jump. We went for miles up and down interesting streets - I still didn't have a clue where I was and was too busy with the camera to pay much attention anyway.

mini-market between the trams!

skimming the stalls   leaving the market   and into a new bit

typical street   typical street   typical street

riding the pick-up and steadying the load   Lada taxi with alloy wheels, a common sight

People jump on the trams and walk up and down trying to sell things; wallets, tissues, pens, watches etc. They walk down and just put one on your lap then walk back and collect them - or money.
On one of the trams yesterday an old boy was telling his neighbour something that I think meant that they are a pickpocket risk - grabbing something from you when they collect their items. I'm not convinced - there might be a few - this is a big city, but generally the people seem very honest. They'll go to great lengths to coax you into giving them your money but I really don't think they'd steal it.

I brushed away a wallet man and he didn't put one on my lap, a minute later an old lady tried to give me a wallet - I waved her away too and said "la shukrun" but she seemed annoyed and insisted and kept pushing it at me and complaining impatiently. I realised she was just a passenger, trying to get off here, and wanted me to give it back to the wallet man. A family behind thought my mistake was hilarious and kept describing what had happened to each other and laughing again and again. I turned round and joined in the joke - it was funny but I don't know why they found it quite SO funny.

We eventually ended up at the big market again so I got off. It was getting dark so I thought I'd better try and find my way back. I walked around a different side of the market and realised that a big building I'd seen a few times already was the main train station I arrived at a few weeks ago from Cairo - so I wasn't actually that far from home. I walked homeward looking for something to eat. I fancy a proper meal rather than the snacks I've been living on but there isn't anything - just takeaway stuff or posh tourist restaurants on the prom.

I came across a bookshop with english books in the window so went in for a look. They had a surprisingly good selection and I bought Herman Melville's "Billy Budd" and an English/Arabic pocket dictionary for 56LE. I also bought a fancy wooden jewellery box from a stall for 22LE to keep my PPC in - the buttons were playing up last night and I'm worried that it's getting to much abuse in my rucksack. It's a bit bulky but at least I know the PPC is safe now.

Waste of time looking for a meal so it's 2 damias again and something I couldn't catch the name of: fried bits of goat-liver in a hotdog roll, with spices and a big squirt from a half-lime - nicer than it probably sounds - took them back to my room to eat.

Did my diary to the soothing sounds of Mozart and Brahms tonight - very nice too.

Another great day riding the trams - a real brainwave that one. You know you can't get too lost 'cos they pretty much go round in circles, and you're not going to find yourself 100 miles away in the wrong town. I found some great places yesterday and today that I probably wouldn't have found otherwise, they're so cheap they're as good as free, and you don't have to haggle or worry about being ripped off - you just pay 25 piastres per trip, sit back, and watch the world go by.

And I'm as good as new again - my bug's gone. Definitely moving on to Rosetta tomorrow.

      High: the markets, the trams, and getting totally lost and not caring a hoot
       Low: would have liked a decent meal, but in the scheme of things . . . .

Wednesday 10th August 2005    day 29     whereami     Satellite view

Didn't sleep particularly well - stayed up too late with my music again! But got up in reasonable time and was showered, tidied, packed, paid-up and out by late morning. Had a slow couple of shays and walked towards Raml tram station - I need Misr railway station but I think walking from Raml up the main road I might get a minitaxi. There weren't any and I walked the 2km.

My guidebook says minitaxis run to Rosetta from here - about 65km east. I head to where they're milling about in a big open area - it's chaos of course, minitaxis driving in all directions and people randomly hopping on and off. I said "Rosetta" to one of the drivers and he just grunted, seeming not to understand me. I tried again with someone else and got the same response. I showed him my little map in the guidebook and he pointed me 100m over the other side. I asked again there and again nobody understood me. They kept suggesting Abu Qir - which was in the right direction but only a third of the way. I kept saying no and gestured further but they just looked at me. Then one said "aah, Tabia!" and they all nodded and agreed and looked very pleased to have solved the riddle. I supposed that Tabia is the local name for Rosetta and cursed my guidebook again for not making that clear.

There's 2 things that really frustrate me with my book - why doesn't it use the local names for places? it's a travel book! - for people who are there! What's the use of "Alexandria" when everyone calls it "El-Iskandariya" - it's sounds quite different and the emphasis is on the EEya. And why doesn't it show it in arabic as well - none of the roadsigns / buses / trains etc are marked in english. It seems so obvious!

One of them walked me to where the Tabia minitaxis go from. I waited 15mins or so and one turned up. But before I could even think about asking "Tabia?" a scrum of 40 had formed around the door for the 14 seats. The same happened again 15 minutes later - this was hopeless. I asked someone if these minitaxis were going to Tabia - he said no minitaxis went to Tabia and pointed me towards the buses.

Aah well - a bus might be easier anyway. I went to the adjacent bus station and asked at the office "Tabia?". They didn't seem to understand but then one of them pointed me to a stop. He was saying numbers to me and I thought he was telling me the price - then he wrote 219 on his hand - which made no sense at all to me. I went to the stop anyway and asked "Tabia?" to every bus that stopped. Eventually one said yes and I climbed on. The bus filled up and the ticket man was doing his rounds. He got to me as we pulled away - I said "Tabia" - he said "la Tabia" and pointed me off the bus. I just about got off, wrestling through the crowd with my big pack, before it was moving too fast.

I kept asking every bus but they all said no. I went back to the office - he said no more buses to Tabia today - too late - and said "bukra" - tomorrow. He pointed me back to the minitaxis. I went there and asked again and they pointed me to the buses. Back to the bus office and an english speaker helped me. There was a bus at 4:30, no. 218 (doh!, so that's what the 219 earlier was about!). It was just before 3 so I went off to get a shay and something to eat.

2 damias from a takeaway - and a couple of shays in a sidestreet café. The young lad waiter was dead keen to talk to me but his english was no better than my arabic - but we had a laugh trying. Shay is always served with a glass of water that I never touch. The bloke from the next table left, and as he passed, without asking or even looking at me, picked up my water and drank the lot - passers-by have often asked if they could have some.

Back to the bustop at 4, a 219 bus came in at 4:20 - I asked "Tabia?" and they said yes. We crawled through Alexandria but eventually came out the other side into agricultural land. We came to a mini-town and I asked the ticket man if this was Abu Qir - not wanting to lose my bearings too much today - he nodded. Then he indicated 10 minutes to Tabia. 10 minutes??!! you must be joking ? Then I realised my earlier doubts were well founded, Tabia is not Rosetta after all. I remembered that I found a small reference to El-Iskandariya in the prelude that chapter, checked again for Rosetta and found "Rashid" tucked away in the bit you never read. We got to Tabia and the bus did a u-turn into it's stop. This was clearly the end of the line. Well I'm moving in the right direction but it's 6pm now and Tabia looks like a nowhere-town. There's a café there so I have a shay and consider my next step.

There's minitaxis going east so I go and wait where they stop nearby. A local came and asked what I wanted - definitely no english here - but he made it clear that I wouldn't get to Rashid from here - I need to go 6km back to Marmaru(?) and get a bus from there. Here we go again. Got into an empty westbound minitaxi and sat at the back trying to keep my pack out of the way. In no time we were overfull and I was squashed into a corner with my pack on my lap. A helpful bloke who spoke a little english (concerned that I was going west! to Rashid) indicated the Marmaru bus station, and half the passengers had to get out so I could get off with my pack.

Asked at the office - no more Rashid buses today, there's trains from here too but no more of them either - "bukra". The train station is only 200m up the road so I go and ask anyway. There are trains, but I have to get one back east into Marmaru centre and change there. 10 mins later I jumped on the scruffiest, dirtiest train I've ever seen and in 10 mins I got off at what looked vaguely like a station. Asked around and found out there's a Rashid train at 8pm from the opposite platform. I had to slip off the pack so I could jump down off the platform - cross the tracks - and climb the other platform. All the trains from here were going west, which worried me, so I moved off to ask around again and was shown the line on the other side of the platform - I'd assumed it was no longer used as it was in such a poor state.

About 7:50 another very dirty wreck of a train came in from the east - I asked and it was the Rashid train - it would turn back east. It was virtually dark now and the empty, unlit, dirty carriages looked like somewhere you really didn't ought to go. Just a row of plastic seats down each side and the rest open space. Dust, dirt and rubbish everwhere, no windows - like I'd woken up in The Bronx! But I know it's safe here and get on without a worry.

train to Rashid

A tramp-looking bloke got in the opposite end and shouted something to me - I just shrugged and he laid down across the seats to sleep. A couple of scruffy dirty blokes came in and quite deliberately sat opposite me. Again, anywhere else you'd be getting a bit worried now - and my english alarm bells started to ring despite the fact that I was sure it was ok. But in no time we were laughing - them laughing at little me and my big pack (packed very well today and more compact than ever) and offering me cigarettes. There was no english.
A young bloke (Monier) got on and joined in the joke - and he spoke some english. He moved and sat next to me and we had a good old chat. The ticket man came along and I bought my ticket while he clowned around. He looked like Alexei Sayle and was just as mad. He asked if he could have a drink of my water and made a daft elaborate display of drinking it. The journey took about an hour and a half and we were joined by another english speaker - (Mohammed) - they were both students in Alexandria - and we chatted and they translated for the 2 scruffies. They got off at various stops and we parted like old friends. Shaking and clapping hands and how nice it was to meet me etc. I swapped email addrs with the students - Mohammed is going to invite me to his wedding next year - and I bet he does.

Monier stayed and got off with me at Rashid - he and another bloke he just talked to at the station walked with me 2km to a cheap hotel - Monier tried to bargain with the young lad to get me a good price and helped me get a room before going off home. The room was 20LE, but when an older man brought my passport back to the room he said it was 20LE a bed - and I'm in a 3 bed room. We met half-way - I paid 40LE. I feel a bit stitched-up but I think it was a genuine misunderstanding.

10:30 and I'm settled - phew! I was too tired to move so wasn't going to worry about eating - I've got some fruit - but I had no water so had to go out. Got some bread, cheese and Tahina and ate it and some fruit in my room.

Blimey, what a day! The above tale is a precis of the actual events - going backwards and forwards, getting bum advice time and time again, drawing wrong conclusions and generally getting nowhere fast. I'm actually very surprised to be here - it looked doubtful at 6-7pm in the nowhere towns. Definitely the toughest day so far and a bit frustrating and concerning at times - but all of it funny in retrospect. And I still find it hard to believe that I met the nicest and most helpful people in a place that looked like something out of an urban nightmare. If I'd been dropped into that train and station 4 weeks ago - not knowing what I know now about the Egyptians - I would have been very worried indeed - and probably on the first plane home!
And I still can't believe/understand how much of a novelty I am to these people. I wouldn't get any more staring attention or astonished looks if I painted myself bright green and rode around on a space-hopper - it's quite bizarre. I can understand it a little bit in the nowhere-towns where few westerners probably go - but again, here in Rosetta/Rashid they look at me as if I'm the first westerner they've ever seen - and it can't possibly be true, or even close. I just don't get it.

      High: astonishingly nice people on the train - and so incredibly helpful
       Low: in Tabia - "what the hell do I do now!?"

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