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

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22-24 August 2005

Monday 22nd August 2005    day 41     whereami     Satellite view

Didn't sleep particularly well - kept feeling things crawling on me - pesky ants I guess but I couldn't be bothered to get out of bed and turn the light on. There was nothing I could do anyway - and they weren't biting or anything so . . .

Showered and packed and checked out at 12. Got a taxi 2LE to the bus station to look for a bus to Damanhur. Only big fancy aircon coaches about (no fun at all) so I went to the adjacent minitaxi centre.

Everyone wanted to help me and I soon found one going my way - 2.5LE for the 50-60km journey. When I'd got my big pack settled and was sitting comfortably he said it was 10LE but I just laughed and said I'd get off - he was just joking. It soon filled up and we set off. I really like the minitaxis, there's usually loads of chat going on, they nip through a lot of backstreets so you see plenty, and they're reasonably fast so you make good progress. We motored along through mostly agricultural land and the occasional small town or village. We arrived in Damanhur after a bit more than an hour - about 2pm.

I stopped for a shay and asked about hotels, they all recommended a taxi. I had a quick walk around but was soon getting very sweaty so stopped and flagged a taxi. I asked him to take me to a cheap hotel and we drove for 10 minutes to a place that looked a bit too nice. I had a look anyway - it was pricier than I wanted 40LE and he wouldn't budge. I was tempted to go and look elsewhere but to save maybe £2 a night it seemed like a poor use of my time.

I've got a nice room, with my own bathroom, a tv, a fridge and proper bedroom furniture* - and aircon! It's more than I want really - I prefer it a bit more rough and ready but it's definitely comfortable.
*my wardrobe in Tanta was an ancient steel filing cabinet with wood-pattern wallpaper stuck on the doors - real class.

I had a shower and went out for a walk to get my bearings. I walked around for quite a while and got a bit away from the town centre. I stopped for a coke at a roadside stall by a wide irrigation canal. He didn't speak english but was very keen to try and chat with me while I drank my coke. Then 2 of his friends turned up, just as keen to chat and we had a very broken chat in english and arabic. They were ok - we had a bit of a laugh. They didn't want me to go and wouldn't let me pay for the coke.

Damanhur canal   Damanhur canal   Damanhur canal

Damanhur feels similar to Tanta but looks scruffier - I like it. I carried on walking in the rough direction of the hotel - but of course I was lost again. It was about now that I realised I don't know the name of my hotel! I couldn't read the sign and didn't think to ask once inside. I kept going and after an hour or so found it again. A common problem I've had with navigation is finding landmarks that are visible from a distance - there's so many tall office and apartment blocks crowded around the narrow streets that you just can't see very far.

I'd got my bearings a bit now so didn't bother to go in find out the name. I went wandering again in the local markets and stopped for an eat-in kushary. Very nice and wholesome for 2LE. I went to an internet café to find out how to set up my new gprs but it wouldn't work - I phoned them and they said they'd switch it on tomorrow and sent some settings to my phone.

More wandering and bumped into the hotel manager - it's Hotel Dahab, should have guessed. Hotel Dahab in Cairo is so named as it has the chilled-out atmosphere of Dahab. Here, I guess it's because it's in the jewellery area - dahab is arabic for gold.

Stopped for a shay near a big chaotic roundabout. The complete lack of concern for personal safety still amazes me. People cross the road through the mad traffic, cyclists weave around through it - often going against the flow, and kids run around in it. I cross them too of course, there's not much choice, but I haven't got their confidence to just step out without looking and not taking a blind bit of notice of all the hooting and the taxis nipping their heels. Taxis wanting to turn left at the (anti-clock flowing) roundabout don't usually bother to go all the way around - just cut across.

About 8:30 I started heading back to the hotel thinking I might have the 15LE fish and rice the hotel manager tried to sell earlier but I was knackered so just bought some bread. I wanted some salad but could only find fruit so I bought 1kg of grapes (he wouldn't sell me less) for 1.5LE - I've got some cheese and a tomato left from yesterday.

Back to my room for tomato, cheese, grapes and tahina in pitta bread - very nice too, and good and healthy. I'd almost finished when all the power went. It occurred to me that if you'd asked me a year ago what I'd be doing in a years time, I probably wouldn't have guessed that I'd be sitting here, in the middle of Egypt, in the pitch dark, eating tomato, cheese and grape sandwiches!
The grapes are really nice, small and very sweet - almost too sweet - and none of the tough-skin sourness you get at home.

The lights came back on after an hour. Early night tonight, I'm tired and I keep being too lazy in the mornings.

      High: very easy and nice journey today
       Low: £4 a night for the hotel - outrageous!!

Tuesday 23rd August 2005    day 42     whereami     Satellite view

I'm gonna have to accept that mornings don't generally exist - I just can't do them! apart from the early hours that I like.

I was just sorting my gear out when there was a knock at the door - I presumed the hotel wanting to know my plans and wanting payment, I'd only paid one night. It was one of the young guys from the hotel and a big smart-casual man I didn't recognise - he was obviously police.
He wanted to know what I was doing here and the hotel guy roughly translated. He was extremely interested in what I was doing here, in Damanhur. We talked for 15 mins or so and he wanted a lot of detail about where I'd been, what I'd done, what hotels I'd stayed in, and where I was going and when. My previous police experiences have all seemed like they want to protect me, but this guy also seemed a bit suspicious about what I was doing here. They eventually went.
Bread, cheese, grapes and jam for breakfast and out.

Went for a couple of shays by a busy street and watched the action for a while. Did the usual big wander and got myself totally lost.

Damanhur street   Damanhur street

Stopped again by a busy roundabout after a couple of hours. Had a bit of a chat with a local with no english at all - I'm getting a bit better with the language.

Damanhur roundabout   Damanhur roundabout

I ended up a long way from the centre in dodgey looking backstreets but, like Tanta, they notice me and some say hello but not much more. I was wrong before when I said the moulids were moslem festivals, they're not all moslem - the Damanhur moulid is a jewish festival. Maybe they think I'm an early arriving jew. I don't think I look particularly jewish but I didn't think I looked japanese either until I visited Rosetta!

I found myself at a railway crossing, crossed the track and followed the line back towards the centre. I stopped by the canal and watched some people washing their donkeys.

Damanhur donkey wash   Damanhur donkey wash   Damanhur donkey wash

After another hour I arrived right opposite my morning café. I stopped for another shay and concentrated on the sound of the place.

There's a lot of very distinctive sounds - all the cars beep and creak and the bikes all squeak. The cyclists and barrow boys hiss through their teeth to alert you to get out of their way - and you best had. There's men with big barrels of fruit juice/squash hung around their necks selling drinks as they walk up and down - they all have 2 cymbal-like metal saucers that they slide around between fingers and thumb, and make a slidey-clanging sound. The shoeshiners bang a brush on their wooden box as they walk around. The gasmen, usually on horse/donkey carts bang a weighty spanner on the propane tanks as they ride by, market men selling glasses continually clink 2 together. You often don't need to look for what you want - just listen for the right sound.

Everyone seems to use propane(?) from their own cylinders so there's many gasmen. I saw a boy less than 12y today riding an adult's bike, way too big for him, with 2 propane tanks as panniers, 1 across the top of them, and one just balanced on the crossbar held there between his arms, an adult couldn't see over it - wobbling around in the mad traffic! I used to wonder sometimes about the wisdom of driving around with a few scuba cylinders in the boot!

Saw a funeral go by - the coffin was draped with plain cloth and was on a sort of solid stretcher and was carried by bearers up the street - much like at home. And a slow quiet procession of people followed.

I picked up some salad things for 1LE. As I wasn't far from the hotel I decided to drop it off rather than squash it in my rucksack. Had to wait while they reversed a big car into the reception area(?). Got up to my room and decided to have a shower - it seems very humid and I've sweated buckets.

Got comfy in my room. I've walked miles in all directions already and couldn't think where else to go, so didn't bother. I dug out my travel-guitar and played around for a while but it's very awkward. I rigged up a strap for it and it was much better - much better supported, much more playable. I played for several hours and my uncalloussed fingers got very sore. I still dream of my sweet-sounding real guitars though.

playin' dem sweet delta blues . . .

I ate in as well - got plenty of good food. I'm determined to have an early night and make a reasonable start tomorrow. I've enjoyed Damanhur but it's a fairly ordinary place and I think I've seen it. I don't like this hotel much either, too clinical and western - no balcony and no view from my window at all, I feel totally cut off from the world in my room.

Off to Disuq tomorrow - 20km north east. I don't think there's much there either but it's right on the big Rosetta Nile tributary so might be nice. I'd like to find a cheap hotel and stay a few days - it could be a good base from which to get out to some small farming villages. It ought to be very agricultural right on the Nile and I'm all town'd out for now - I need some peace.

      High: getting my travel-guitar a bit more playable - I've really missed playing
       Low: very inquisitive policeman, but no further interest from them all day.

Wednesday 24th August 2005    day 43     whereami     Satellite view

Not a very good night - a lot of noise in the hotel until 4:30am. I was feeling strangely lonesome and homesick too all of a sudden. I think it was that hotel room - I was very isolated from the world. Also, whenever I play guitar I always remember the great times in Dahab, Weymouth, Beautiful Days Festival or wherever where I played each song before and it really meant something - it makes me think of my family and friends. Who'd have thought it, me, Mr Solitude, getting lonely . . .

A late and sluggish start after not enough sleep but I packed and got moving and checked out about midday. I spent a bit of time fine-tuning the many adjustments on my pack to get it just right.

I walked to the busy minibus terminus I passed yesterday. My pack was very uncomfortable so I readjusted it back to how it was before. I asked for Disuq and they unconvincingly pointed me over the railway line. There were some shabby buses there so I asked a driver, he hesitated and waved me on. After a 5 minute journey he waved me off again at a different minibus station. I asked Disuq again and was pointed to a nearly full minitaxi by a rough-looking bloke mid20's - he grabbed my arm and almost dragged me to it until I could shake him off me. He was a bit wild and grabbed my water strapped to the outside of my pack. I told him to give it back and after a drink he did. We got to the minitaxi and there didn't seem to be room for me and my pack so I stood back, but he opened the door and pretty much shoved me into the front seat - grabbing my water again as he closed the door and walking off with it. I think it was all harmless fun - I don't care about the water - but it was the first time I've felt physically challenged here. Most of the people barely seem to have enough strength and energy to support their own body weight.

We drove for 10 mins and stopped at a terminus - for a horrible moment I thought I was back where I started, it looked very similar. But it wasn't and I finally found a minitaxi that was actually going to Disuq. The minitaxis are jammed solid with seats and they like to fill them to the brim with people so he asked if he could put my pack on the roof. I said "mesh" - ok - and gestured that I wanted it tied down. He threw it on the roof and fiddled around with it up there. I leant out and had a quick look and it didn't seem tied very well - but we're not going far so . . .

In no time we were charging along, rolling around corners on the bumpy road and I was worried about my pack falling off - I don't think anything would be badly damaged but we might not notice it go. There was some nice agricultural scenery but I couldn't enjoy it - I was watching for my pack to go flying off. I kicked myself for not tying it on properly myself. Everytime we stopped to pick up or drop off I reached forward and put my arm out the window to check it was still there. We arrived in Disuq after 45 mins or so and my pack was safe - it was actually much better tied than I'd thought.

Got dropped in a busy minitaxi station and went looking for a shay. Found a nearby café and got one - they were keen to talk but only in arabic and we didn't get far. I had a couple of shays and was thinking about going when an english speaker joined me at my table. He ordered some food and insisted that I had one of his rolls with spicey meat inside - and he bought me a coke despite my saying I didn't want one. He translated for the café staff. A sweet 16-17 year old girl, Dounier, was very interested in what I was doing in Disuq, what I did in England, was I married, children, religion etc. They were concerned that I wasn't a moslem and said I should read some islamic books. I tried to explain that it was different in England. The english speaker went but the girl still wanted to talk and she sat at my table and we struggled on. She was very sweet and kept on the islam subject but I could only guess what she was saying. She wanted to swap mobile no's but I said I didn't have one - we couldn't communicate by phone anyway! When I went she helped me get a taxi to find a hotel and insisted that I should return to the café again another time.

The taxi driver thought it was hilarious that I didn't speak arabic and seemed at a complete loss about how I could get by. We drove through the town and out the other side into some very rough narrow streets and found the dreary little hotel. Hotel Madina El Mahawa, or something like that.

You can be sure they don't get many tourists in this place but he seemed happy enough to let me stay. He showed me a 3 bed room for 30LE - I only managed to get him down to 25LE but that's ok. This is definitely the grimiest hotel in the roughest area I've stayed in but it's ok - it's got a bit of "character". I'm a bit isolated again, the windows open over a street but there's metal mesh screens that don't open and the inaccessible shutters are closed. The mesh is also preventing me from getting a gps fix so my whereami today is a bit of a guess from my inaccurate map. I'll leave it switched on my rucksack tomorrow and get it right.

I went out to see Disuq and typically walked off in completely the wrong direction looking for the Nile. I'd only caught a glimpse of it from the taxi and couldn't see which way it was flowing. I guessed I was east of it but I was wrong and some helpful and bemused locals redirected me.

The Nile looks very nice here, there's rubbish all along the banks as you'd expect but the actual river looks quite clean.

The Nile, looking north   A Nile cruiser   The Nile, looking south

I got a fair amount of strange looks but no hassle, just a few "welcome"s. I followed the Nile north a km or 2 and found myself near the town centre so went in for a look. It definitely seems like a rougher area and I don't feel quite as safe as I have elsewhere - nothing to worry about, just feel I should keep a bit more alert. I wandered through some extremely dirty and scruffy market streets and bought a small plastic tray 3LE to use as a plate for my in-room feasts. I got a couple of big damias and a cold can and walked back to the main avenue where there was a small park area in front of the huge and very impressive mosque - and sat down for my big snack.

Disuq mosque

I walked around the mosque then carried on north along the bank of the Nile. Men were fishing with rods and a few kids were swimming. A few mischevious boys of 12 or so latched onto me and were asking for money and cigarettes. They followed me for ages, left, and then rejoined me. They were overly interested in my (worthless!) watch and one made a jokey half-hearted grab for my sunglasses. I told them to back off. One of them took to following me very closely and I turned to see his arm out towards my rucksack. I told them all to go away - and they skulked off.

I ran out of Nile-side road so turned inland and doubled back. I'd walked as far as the minibus terminus and thought about having a shay in my café but I'm not sure how friendly I should be with 16 year old girls so I left it. My intentions are innocent enough but I might be misunderstood.

I doubled back towards the town and soon caught up with the pesky 12 year olds again but miraculously when I was right behind them they turned down a sidestreet and didn't spot me. I walked back into the centre and had a shay in a grubby café. I'm being charged very fairly here I think. It was starting to get dark so I thought I'd better head back to the hotel. It's buried in a maze of dirty backstreets and I want be sure I can find it. Took a shortcut from the centre over a railway bridge and soon found it.

view from railway bridge

Disuq seems like a very ordinary little town. The Nile is very nice and the mosque is outstanding but other than that I don't think there's much. Dounier said it was very nice at night so I'll have to get into the centre in the evening. Not sure if it will be tonight - I'm pretty tired after my disturbed night.

I feel a little concerned about my gear here and my door-lock doesn't seem very secure - I can see that it only just engages with the door jamb. I might dig out the "pacsafe" and chain my big pack to my bed when I go out tomorrow - first time it's been used.

Hotel Madina El Mahawa   Hotel Madina El Mahawa

Ate very healthily in my room. Noticed an interesting view out the barred window in the communal kitchen - nabbed a few sneaky shots while it was quiet. It's a mini fruit/veg market on some wasteland. It was very dark - these pics have been brightened on the PPC.

Disuq night market   Disuq night market   Disuq night market

I've been rechecking my map 'cos I'm confused. My guidebook map shows Disuq to be on the east bank of the north-west flowing Nile but I'm definitely west of it. Maybe I wasn't in the centre at all today, maybe there's more across the river. I'll have a look tomorrow. No wonder I'm confused. I'm still kicking myself for forgetting to look for a better map in Cairo.

      High: nice people in the café, especially Dounier; and my pack making it to Disuq
       Low: my light-fingered helper in Damanhur was a bit of a handfull

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