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

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19-21 August 2005

Friday 19th August 2005    day 38     whereami     Satellite view

Up late - I can't believe how much I've slept the past couple of days - a good 9 hours totally crashed last night so I must need it. It's very easy to sleep here, it's very quiet and my room is cool.

Showered and then breakfasted with a french guy, just back from Dahab and trying to get to Luxor. He'd failed to get a train ticket this morning as the trains were full. Friday is a busy day on the transport network as it's most people's (religious) day off. I wondered if I might have problems getting to Tanta but it's not a popular destination so should be ok.

We were joined by the loveliest of the french girls and the french guy went off to try and get a ticket for the overnight bus. I could have sat there all day chatting with her - she has the easiest smile and the deepest dark eyes that look right into me - and I can see through her eyes that she's nice all the way through. Shame she's more than 20 years younger than me, and nearly a foot taller!!

At 1pm I decided I must go and tubed to Ramyses station. Got my Tanta ticket fairly painlessly 14LE for 1st class - all that was available. Now on the train for the hour and a half journey.

I've met a lot of surprise when I've described my route for the next few weeks, to fellow travellers or the egyptian staff at Hotel Dahab 'cos "nobody goes there". There's a few places where they have big "moulids" around the October cotton harvest - moslem festivals that attract visitors from all over the world - the biggest moulid is in Tanta. But other than that the delta area seems mostly very quiet. I'm hoping to get out into some farming villages for a good look around. I'm also hoping that I don't attract too much police attention again by being off the normal tourist route. I think too much local's attention is unavoidable, but I'm only there to look at them so I suppose it's only fair that they can look at me too.

Got to Tanta and went straight to a café for a shay. Nice welcome in the café without too much fuss. I liked Tanta as soon as I walked out of the train station - it seems chaotic and calm at the same time.

There's a big nice-looking Hotel Arafa by the station but it looks too clean and characterless - and expensive, so I went walking. Not many hotels about and the few cheapies I found turned me away - they don't seem to want non-egyptians - they all directed me to Arafa. In one place an old boy sitting on the dirty stairs spoke good english. He was a retired journalist and had studied in Liverpool in the early 70's. He gave me the address of a cheap hotel that would take foreigners. I headed off where he'd pointed me with a young lad in tow determined to show me the way - I decided to give him 1LE if we found it. Before we got there a policeman asked me where I was going and wouldn't let me go. We were right outside Arafa and they seemed keen that I should stay there but I said it was too expensive. Then a senior-looking policeman came along and said they would take me to where I wanted to go in their pick-up - a free but unwanted taxi! The driver didn't know where it was and had to keep stopping to ask for directions but we found it. I guess they're gonna be keeping an eye on me.

Hotel Zharit El Medina - they weren't all that sure of me either but let me in. He said the room was 30LE - I was hoping for something less than 20 in this backwater town but only managed to get him down to 25LE - and paid for 2 nights. It's a decent enough big twin room (clean sheets) with a big balcony you could fit 2 cars on. The communal toilet/shower doesn't look all that great but my standards have broadened considerably - it'll do fine. A fair bit of fuss with my details and passport but no real bother. As usual they wanted to take photocopies of my passport but this time I had to pay for the copy 1LE.

An english-speaking resident latched onto me. He's a decent old boy, knows England well - he has property in London. We chatted in reception while they fussed with my passport. He wants me to get him the contact details for Gardner Marine Engines in England. I said I'd look on the internet tomorrow. A wobbly bloke of about 50 with a little english joined our chat and the first bloke explained that he was an alcoholic - in Egypt!! He seemed quite drunk but I didn't smell alcohol on him. He got a bit abusive with the staff and was shooed up to his room.

I said I was going to get my bag and go for a look around. They all seem concerned that I'll get lost - of course I will, it's not a proper walk if you don't get lost!

Went walking down some narrow and dirty backstreets - saw several rats scurrying around in the rubbish and in and out of doorways - pretty big ones too. Found a main road and ended up taking a very round-about route to the town centre - around the edge of it really. The town was very lively, loads of typical markets and stalls. I didn't get too much attention at all really - I was noticed but not much more than that. I think probably because they must see many foreigners during the moulids so it's only strange that I'm here now, not that I'm here at all.

I ducked down an alley and found a welcome shay, and then a few stalls down got a kushary and ate it leaning on a wall - very nice and spicey, only 1LE. I walked up and down the streets enjoying the market throng and got almost no hassling at all. There's a lot of textile stalls selling plain and brightly patterned cloth from massive rolls - a lot of cotton is grown around here so presumably they weave it locally too.

Decided to head back at about 10 and cut through some sidestreets in the rough direction of the hotel. Found what I thought was my main road and stopped for 2 damias, they turned out not to be damias at all - they had meat in them. I ate one but it wasn't that good so I dropped the other in a rare bin. I looked for my sidestreet but couldn't find it. Went down one that looked a bit familiar and ended up back in the town centre. Stopped for another shay and bought some mangoes. Decided to play it safe and took the round-about route back to the hotel - back at midnight. I don't think I was that far out on my first attempt but this place is a maze of criss-crossed narrow streets - I could have been 1 street out and would never have known.

No photos for several days so here's a couple of my palatial room.

Hotel Zharit El Madina   Hotel Zharit El Madina

Ate 2 mangoes and got in a right mess again - there must be a technique to these things but I certainly haven't got it. I end up like a baby that's fed himself! And then I wasn't sure I could get cleaned up - my door wouldn't unlock - I could feel the key slipping past the mechanism and just turning without unlocking. It eventually opened.

      High: Tanta - it's very nice in an ordinary way
       Low: damned police got me again! - they were ok though

Saturday 20th August 2005    day 39     whereami     Satellite view

Got a text from Suzi - my Orange bill is £212 ! - ouch !! but probably to be expected. This might be the last daily update for a while. I think I can sort out a local gprs provider but not with my current "tourist" account. It may not be possible to get it without a permanent local address - I didn't find anyone that could help me today. Until I get it sorted I'll have to stick to updating every few days from an internet café - and even then I'll have to find one with WinXP.

Went out wandering again up and down the many interesting streets - walked for hours only stopping for the occasional shay. There's nothing much here really, just an ordinary town but I like the good-natured hustle-bustle of the place. The market areas are crazy with stalls all over the place selling everything and crowds of people milling about, and bicycles and motorbikes and cars and horse/donkey carts muscling their way though the middle of it.

Tanta   Tanta

Tanta   Tanta

There's a very big and impressive mosque in the centre.

Tanta mosque   Tanta mosque   Tanta mosque

In the late afternoon I stopped in an internet café - good PC, WinXP and DSL for 1LE an hour! Email from Suzi confirming my withdrawal amounts - my 2 withdrawals of 1000LE cost £100 and £101 so my 10:1 reckoning is closer than I thought - it's much better than I got at Barclays just before I left UK. Helped to ease the Orange pain.
Checked some financials and one of my shares has leapt up very nicely - Orange pain now totally anaesthetised.
Had a look at the news and noted that there were problems in Aqaba, Jordan - only 100-150km up the coast from Dahab - have to keep watching.
Spent quite a while resending a few movies to Suzi to see if we can get them linked to the website - takes aaaaages via hotmail but at 10p an hour it had to be done.

Back out wandering and still can't quite find my way around here. I don't get hopelessly lost 'cos I have plenty of landmarks now but I can't work out where they are in relation to each other. My sense of direction is very poor but I've managed to work out everywhere else fairly ok. I keep going down sidestreets expecting to find myself at, eg. the big mosque, and find myself on the other side of town - it's an absolute maze.

Crossing a busy road I heard a shout and looked round to see Gamil waving at me - the old boy who recommended my hotel yesterday. It was good to see him again, he's a nice and interesting bloke. I toyed with the idea of going to find him last night but didn't in the end. He was sitting in the wide central reservation waiting for a friend. It's quite amazing that we should meet - this is quite a big and very busy town. I went and sat with him and we got a shay.
He's a frail and toothless old soul you'd guess at least 70 (no offence Dad!) - actually 58! They age pretty fast here and look older anyway because of their swarthy features. And I look comparitively even younger here with my baby face and weak beard. I'm outclassed in the facial hair stakes by 13y boys - and many of the 40+y women! When his friend turned up he thought I was a student, about 20!
We chatted about Egypt and he was complaining about the "so-called democracy" that has kept Mubarak in power for 30 straight years. He said it was mainly due to lack of education, the masses being largely illiterate and knowing nothing of politics and the alternatives. Even the universities don't seem to encourage a questioning mind - just "fills students with facts, and they end up knowing lots and understanding nothing". He's well-educated and well-travelled and from his years as a journalist knows much of the ways of the world. He's also a member of an organisation for Human Rights and was keen to show me his card. He was fairly scathing about most Egyptians because of their ignorance and their shallow existences firmly rooted in tradition and habit.
He pointed to a filthy ragged woman sitting on the roadside with her pile of mangoes and explained that she probably wasn't poor - probably made 30LE a day, enough to live comfortably here. He pointed to a group of younger smartly turned out wide-boys and said they were just hiding their ignorance behind fancy decorations. He didn’t seem very hopeful for change in the near future.
I told him my theory on shoes and personal status and he thought it was very funny and said I was right. He couldn't care less about such trivial things and was very much his own man. One thing that did make me laugh was his constant swearing, "f#@#ing this" and "f#@#ing that" and "look at that ignorant mother#@#@er!". I was a bit surprised when he said he was a moslem - but clearly a moslem on his own terms. I liked him a lot, very glad to have bumped into him again, a great guy. We swapped email addresses and I went on my way.

Got a couple of damias for 1LE - they were huge and very nice. I was going to get a kushary or a ful and a canteloupe a bit later 'cos I haven't eaten all day but I didn't need anything else - too full for a ful.

I've seen yet another wedding party doing the rounds several times today - packed cars and pick-ups in convoy and hooting in unison. I stopped for a shay in the late evening, unknowingly right by the reception party and got a few photos of the noisey convoy when it turned up. A bit blurry as I didn't use flash - discretion.

Tanta wedding   Tanta wedding

Tanta wedding   Tanta wedding

Cut through some sidestreets and found my hotel about midnight - a bit lucky I think. My english-speaking friend was in reception and was chuffed to bits when I gave him the contact details for Gardner Marine Diesels I found on the internet - he couldn't thank me enough, kept shaking my hand and wouldn't let go.

Went to the bathroom and there was my shampoo by the shower - for the 20th time! I'd forget my head & shoulders if they weren't screwed on!

I can't quite decide what to do tomorrow - there's not much more to see here but I like the feel of the place and wouldn't mind meeting up with Gamil again - he'll be in the same place tomorrow evening - maybe buy him dinner or something. He reminds me a bit of old Jack Mortlock, a wise old reactionary who speaks his mind and just does his own thing, and mostly gives the impression that he doesn't care a hoot for what anyone thinks about him - but half-secretly smiles to himself about it.
Also, I've probably got a better chance of sorting out some gprs here - the next few places are much smaller. I'll see what time I get moving (looks like I'm staying then!)

      High: bumping into Gamil again for a great interesting chat and a laugh
       Low: the mighty Orange bill - but the financial gods have smiled on me and taken care of it

Sunday 21st August 2005    day 40     whereami     Satellite view

Blimey, 40 days in my new world - it seems like a week and it seems like forever. I think you can tell from my diary that I have no regrets about my big decision. There's a lot of uncertainty about my longer-term future but it doesn't worry me in the least - I like it.

Decided to stay in Tanta to sort out my gprs. Spent a very pleasant lazy morning on my balcony listening to my music and just chilling out - it's all the religion I need. Non-Koranic music is frowned on in Egypt, though they do have a sort of pop music and the trendy youngsters have pop star pictures on their mobiles.
I was rudely interrupted and startled when a clothes peg landed on me. It was one the guys from the hotel and my english-speaking friend trying to get my attention to confirm that I was staying. They've probably been banging on my door - he had to climb on the adjacent balcony to get me. These earphones are totally isolating. Mr english-speaker asked what I was listening to. I said english music and he asked who. Morcheeba, "ah, yes" he nodded knowingly "too much drumming". I had to laugh, I'd bet all my wordly goods against 1LE that he's never heard of them, let alone heard enough by them to form an opinion!

I'm quite comfortable sitting here in the blazing sun in my shorts. I think I'm more acclimatised now - I drink less water and don't get dehydrated. In Siwa where it was very hot and very dry I couldn't believe how much water I got through, 4 and sometimes 5 litres a day, and loads of shay. My stomach is holding up remarkably well too, I had a couple of iffy days in early Siwa around the safari time but nothing to worry about and I didn't take anything. I've almost exclusively eaten local food from grubby roadside stalls or cafes, salads, unpeeled fruit, etc. and I'm less afraid of the local drinking water - taking frequent sips from the communal cups at the communal taps. I'm not being reckless, I've built up to it and it all seems ok.

Oh well, I'd better move. My PPC is complaining that the battery has overheated in the early pm sun - it clearly isn't as well acclimatised as me!

I was sorting some stuff out with my music still going when the hotel man appeared at my balcony door - I guess I didn't hear him knocking again. They want payment for the room - I said I was going out in 15mins, I'll pay then. But no, he wants it now. They're so strange sometimes, they generally couldn't care less about anything - except when it's completely trivial, then it must be by the book. Ok, I should have paid by 12 and it's now nearly 2pm, but I can't possibly go out without walking past them at their little desk - and even then I'll want to get back in to sleep tonight!! I paid him.

I phoned Mobinil, my mobile company, and she said I could change my account to a different type and get gprs - just need my passport, and need to find the Mobinil dealer. She gave me the address and said it was near the centre.

I tried a new route in a dead straight line and found the centre in no time. I bought a nice-looking pizza from a bakery but it wasn't as nice as it looked - the middle was invisibly filled with some sort of ground meat that always seems a bit undercooked - I ate it anyway, it was ok. Stopped for a shay too.

All the roadnames are in arabic and it took a while to find someone who "knew" where I needed to go - right back towards the hotel. I asked again at the hotel and they directed me 3km down a different way. I started to think I was getting the run-around again but they weren't far out and I eventually found it just before 5pm.

Got my new 6 month account for 222LE, includes 30LE credit, and my gprs should be switched on tomorrow. It's a better deal really and is what they should have given me in the first place - never mind. I think gprs is about 10LE per Mb - about the same as UK - I can live with that.
New mobile no. 0020 121 108265. He gave me 6 numbers to choose from(?), and I think I picked a real beauty!

Stopped for a coke at a roadside stall just outside the phone shop and had a bit of a chat with the bloke while I drank it. He spoke a little english and told me that the slightly vacant-looking girl (18?) that showed up used to be a prostitute - "kiss, kiss, for floos" and pointing up and down at himself to show what had been on offer. She gave a slightly embarrassed smile guessing what we were talking about. Gamil also told me yesterday that there's quite a drug scene here in Tanta too. I've been offered hashish almost everywhere but he was talking about bango, which I've only heard of in books about central Africa - I think it's similar to hashish but not the same, and also pills, probably ecstasy - the first I've heard of them here.

I walked into town to try and get some photos of the chaotic markets but it was much quieter than before so I didn't bother. I bought a 2LE cantaloupe and some bread, tomatoes, cucumber, cheese and tahina - my body is telling me it needs something healthy tonight.

At 8pm I walked up to where I should meet Gamil for the evening but he wasn't there. I got a shay and sat there. The bloke next to me started a chat and we spoke about all the usual stuff. He was quite concerned that I wasn't married. This is another frequent conversation here, that it's dangerous for a man not to be married. He was quite coy about the subject, only vaguely hinting, but others have been more explicit. There's a common belief and fear that an unmarried man will be tempted into homosexuality. Monier, in Rashid, said that he wanted to get married young to avoid the dangers, and to avoid the suspicion of others. It doesn't make sense to me but I feel compelled to explain that I've had girlfriends but it just hasn't worked out, and I'm still looking for the right woman.
It's a strange paradox that the forbidding of sex between unmarried adults in an attempt to make a pure and clean world, instead has quite the opposite effect. They're obsessed by thoughts of sex, and as women are generally unavailable they seem strangely willing to seek alternatives. I've never heard a western man suggest that as he hadn't been with a woman for a while he was going to find himself a man!
I can't help wondering if the young women, deprived of young men, seek their own similar alternatives. They are very demure and it seems unlikely.

Gamil's friends showed up and recognised me - they don't speak english but we managed to establish that he'd had to go to Cairo - shame, I was looking forward to chatting with him again. I'll be back in Tanta in a week or so, and might stay a night, but he's moving to Alexandria and will probably be gone.

I decided to call it a night and went back to my hotel and ate my healthy dinner about 11pm.

It's 2am and yet another wedding convoy has just gone by for the 15th time - all hooting as usual. It never stops!

I've noticed several ants crawling over my pillow tonight - not seen them here before - maybe they've detected my food. Ah well, it'll be company.

Off to Damanhur tomorrow - about 60km north west.

      High: a very pleasant lazy chilled-out morning on my balcony
       Low: not seeing Gamil - he's a good old boy

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