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

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28-31 August 2005

Sunday 28th August 2005    day 47     whereami     Satellite view

Kafr El Sheikh:
Not a great night again, a few mosquitoes that needed hunting down and just restless and bloated despite being very tired and not eating too much. Decided on a very lazy day if I could stay here. A flat "no" from reception, almost a dismissal - oh well, stuff 'em, I'll be on my way then.

I wasn't sure I was up for the trip to Baltim - it didn't look straightforward, maybe just a little south-east to El Mahalla el-Kubra. Decided to try for Baltim - I can always stop halfway if it becomes painful. Packed and out at midday.

Quick couple of shays in the local café and got a taxi to the minibus station. It was only a short trip and I was pleasantly surprised when he only asked for 1LE, so gave him 2. Asked "Baltim?" at one of the many minitaxis, and he said yes. We strapped my pack on the roof, I climbed into the last remaining seat and we left - I'm worried, this is far too easy!

We took off at breakneck speed through the Kafr El Sheikh traffic - most minitaxis lumber along but this one has a lot of power. We were absolutely charging along and making the kind of overtaking moves that are only fun in arcade games! He was really on a mission, and arriving in one piece seemed unlikely. I tried to plan my route forward for when we crashed - I was glad to be near the back. We belted through some nice countryside and barely slowed for the occasional villages swerving around donkey carts and tractors and generally going at least twice as fast as everything else. I could see from the shadows we were going east - seemed ok.
We reached a bigger town, turned north and hammered all the way to Baltim - it couldn't have easier, though it could have been safer!

Baltim is a much bigger place than my guidebook map suggests - it's a beach resort town, I'm guessing mainly for egyptians.

I stopped in a nearby café for a couple of shays and had a bit of a laugh with the young waiters who were trying to communicate with me. One of them took me to a hotel - there seems to be plenty around. I'm in Hotel Isis 2000 quite near the sea - they wanted 35LE a night and I only managed to get them down to 30 and paid for 3 nights. I thought later I should have looked around a bit more as there's so much choice here. I've got a nice big room with a decent balcony, but without a great view and not very private.

Baltim's got a nice feel to it - it seems quite lively without being too noisey. And it's always great to smell the clean sea air. I was still knackered so spent all afternoon dozing in my room and doing some website changes on my PPC. Had a bread and jam snack and forgot to put the lid back on - strawberry and ant jam!

I finally got a local gprs connection on my mobile last night - but couldn't get the PPC to recognise it. I phoned Mobinil again for some settings info and was told they don't support gprs modems. It didn't sound right so I spent an hour playing with all the settings and finally got it working - very happy indeed. I can't survive without my gadgets!! The future of the website (and my bank balance) is safe once more.

Hotel Isis   Hotel Isis - balcony view

Got moving about 9pm when there was a knock at the door. He didn't introduce himself but was obviously police. He checked my passport and wanted to know how many days I was staying here. I said 3-6, he was asking more stuff but we couldn't really communicate - he said "mesh" and went.

A few minutes later another knock at the door, but it was just the hotel lads asking if I wanted a shay - I think it's the novelty thing again, they just want to talk to me - but it's a little intrusive really.

Bumped into an english-speaker on the way out. He works in construction and lost a lot of money on Iraqi sub-contract work after the invasion of Kuwait. He seemed friendly enough but I know he's looking at me for business contacts.

Went out and walked along the front. Loads of families out enjoying the cool of the evening - it really is quite cool here, 25C or so I would guess. Loads of kids riding hired bikes and go-carts up and down. Teenagers playing pool on the many tables and arcade games on old Ataris and portable tv's out in the open air. Pop-corn, candy floss, fruit juice and fast food stalls everywhere. Tractors made to look a bit like steam trains towing brightly painted trailers full of holiday-makers up and down. A small funfair full of kids enjoying the rides on chair-o-planes etc. - assembled and maintained by egyptians, a frightening sight! It's not unlike a british resort town, like an egyptian Hastings maybe.
I got some fairly hard looks walking along the front, most just looked at me blankly, only a couple of friendly hello's.

Walked back into the centre and was spotted by my friends from this afternoon's café so joined them for a shay. They're a bit overkeen and they all want to talk to me in arabic at the same time, and I can't quite decide if they just want to be friends or if they think they can get some money out of me - probably both. One of them keeps saying he loves me but I don't think he quite understands what it means. They were making koftas that looked pretty good so I asked for one. It's the local equivalent of a burger really but it seems healthier, less processed - and with some nice tahina salad. I was joined by the café owner and I think we were on the england invitation subject again but I pretended to understand less than I did - a useful tactic in awkward/boring/unwanted situations. 10LE for the very nice kofta and 2 shays - probably a fair price here.
The young son (9 or 10) of the owner hung around longer than the others and was asking me to go swimming with him tomorrow. He was a nice kid, dead keen to chat and was frustrated that we were struggling.

Went back to the hotel for some peace and the english-speaker caught me again. He wants to set up a partnership - I get the work with my english contacts and he does it with his egyptian workers - and we split the profits. I agreed to think about it and give him my email address - it was the only way to end the conversation. He also told me that the hotel boss had been in my room to turn off the balcony light - is electricity that expensive or was he just snooping around? I'm not sure. I never leave anything expensive or vital behind anyway - PPC, camera, phone, passport and all money are always with me.

Sat on my balcony and did my diary but there's some roofspace right above me and some people have just sat on the wall there. I think they can see the open-air cinema from there but they seem to prefer watching me. I feel like I'm being watched all the time here - I don't think there's anything in it other than curiosity but I'm struggling to find any privacy. I wouldn't mind staying in Baltim and just chilling out a while but I'll be changing hotels if I do - I'm already a bit sorry that I paid for 3 nights here. Silly really, I'd got into the habit of paying 1 night to start so I can easily move if I don't like it. It's ok though really.

Not a bad day as it turned out after a sluggish start - an astonishingly easy journey to quite a nice place. I'm looking forward to exploring it in daylight, and maybe having a swim.

      High: getting my local gprs working (how sad am I?)
       Low: lack of privacy, beady eyes on me all the time

Monday 29th August 2005    day 48     whereami     Satellite view

A late sleep-in after a pretty late night, but I feel great again and have some energy today. There doesn't really seem to be anywhere to wash my clothes so I just hung them out to air on the breezey balcony. At least I'll smell better even if I don't look any better.

A knock on the door, it was one of the lads from the café - "You promised to come swimming with us" - I reminded him that I'd said maybe and said I'd be wandering around in the afternoon and would probably see them about.

Set out about midday for a good wander around. I only got 20m from the hotel when Fatih introduced himself. He's (plain clothes) police and told me he was my security. I laughed and tried to persuade him that I didn't want or need personal security but I knew I was wasting my time - he was surely just following orders. So I shrugged in resignation and set off to find a shay with my bodyguard in tow. I'd wondered if I was being paranoid last night about the beady eyes, but clearly not! I really don't need this and wondered what to do. I thought about having some fun by taking him on 50km cycle ride but guessed he wouldn't let me go that far anyway.

I stopped for a couple of shays and Fatih sat at a nearby table. I was mostly just blanking him to make it clear that I didn't want him hanging around me and didn't offer to buy him one. I lightened up on him later in the day - I don't suppose he was any more enamoured with his mission than I was. He didn't speak english and didn't seem keen to try and chat, and that suited me just fine.

I walked out to the beach, feeling even more conspicuous than usual with my shadow, and took a couple of photos. We were in a quietish spot with some unused sunshades so I decided to sit down and read my book a while. It was nice there by a little artificial bay full of families and kids playing in the shallow water. I lost myself in Billy Budd and managed to largely forget my friend standing under the adjacent sunshade.

Baltim Beach   Baltim Beach

I hadn't opened the book since I bought it but soon got into it - it was very good writing. I layed and sat around there for 4 hours and read the whole book. It's not very long but it's a while since I read a book in a single sitting - I recommend it, very good.

Towards the end of the book my ears pricked up to the sound of some random twanging on a hopelessly out of tune guitar (Dave Hickey? here? - sorry mate!). It was just a prop for a beach photographer but I hoped he'd come my way so I might have a play. He got close but turned back and disappeared into the distance. I'd got all fired up about a play on a proper guitar and was very pleased to spot him coming back a bit later. I got his attention and he handed me the guitar, but it only had 5 strings and the tuners were rusted solid - oh well.

I got up to go for a walk as my attempt to bore my chaperone into submission clearly wasn't going to work. We walked along the beach, him slightly behind and just to the side of me. It was ridiculous though - how could I relax and enjoy myself like this! I headed back to the hotel about 6:30, bought some food and went back to my room. My business partner was there and translated for the policeman - "there was no problem, they just want to be sure I'm safe". I told him that I didn't need a personal guard - I was fine on my own but the policeman just shook his head. He wanted to know if, and what time I was going out again. I told him 9 or 10 and shrugged vaguely.

Sat on my balcony, ate and did some diary. I couldn't help wondering if the 2 blokes that kept appearing on the balcony next door and looking over were also police - but I think that IS paranoia.

Hotel Isis 2000 - balcony view

I'm not sure what to do - I'm tempted to try and get one night's hotel money back and move on tomorrow. I could quite happily have stayed here 4 or 5 days and just rested up a while. But if I can't move without a police escort I don't really want to be here.
. . . just nipped down to the supermarket directly below me to get something to drink and the hotel manager came to find me all excited about my security - it seems he's under orders to get the police before I go anywhere. That's enough, I'm packing, I'm outahere tomorrow - shame really, it's quite a nice place.
I've been reading on the internet that Egypt is worried about their tourism revenue after the Sharm El Sheikh incident, but this personal attention is too much for me.

Fatih knocked on my door at 9:45 to see if I wanted to go out but I'm just not up for it with him following me around so said I was staying in my room. I played my guitar for a while and finished my diary - feeling like a prisoner.

I'll probably head back to Tanta tomorrow and resume my planned route. I'm tempted to head east along the coast to Gamassa or Damietta to try again for some seaside rest but I suspect the police here would be straight on the phone to their colleagues and I'd have a welcoming committee when I arrived. Damietta's on my route anyway and I might have a chance of at least 1 free day day before they track me down if I arrive, unannounced, from the south.
The other possibility is that I could phone Kadry and take him up on his offer of a visit to his farm around here somewhere - not sure what the police will think about that though.

      High: good book on the beach
       Low: tiresome over-protective police

Tuesday 30th August 2005    day 49     whereami     Satellite view

Slept well and woke mid-morning with energy again - but I'm extremely grumpy and irritable, I can't be doing with all this hassle. I packed my gear up still not quite sure where to go. Bumped into my business partner and said I was going - he tried again to persuade me that they were just looking out for me - I said again that I knew, but I couldn't tolerate it - it was too much.

I asked the manager for some money back but got the expected answer, and there was no shifting him. I'd rehearsed this conversation ("stuff your lawnmower" style) last night but couldn't be bothered with him when it came to it. It's only £3 but I feel that Baltim owes me something. A couple of hours later on the minitaxi the devil in me wished I'd stolen the key or something - just for some very childish sense of justice.

Went for a couple of shays near the minitaxis, thankfully without an escort. I cheered up a bit with some shay inside me and very nearly phoned Kadry but in the end decided against it. I'd like to visit his farm but I'd be the centre of a lot of attention again, and more than anything else I just need some peace and quiet and to be left alone for a while. I decided to return to Tanta and hopped on a minitaxi going to Kafr El Sheikh.

We went through one village where a lot of butchery was going on. It's common to see almost complete animals hanging up outside butchers shops but there was a whole street of them here. We stopped outside 1 to drop off some passengers - 2 dead cows layed in the street surrounded by big pools of blood from their freshly cut throats, a 3rd cow complete apart from being skinned was hung up and being butchered in front of the shop.

Easy journey 4LE at less of a breakneck speed than the journey here. Got to Kafr El Sheikh in a bit more than an hour and got a kebab (my first for some reason) and pickled veg for 1.5LE. Another minitaxi 1.5LE and 45mins to Tanta. I seem to be getting around very easily lately, not sure if it's because of my knowledge of the rules, or my improving language or if I'm just being lucky - probably all 3.

Got a taxi to the hotel - he didn't know where it was but I said I could probably find it. We eventually found it after several wrong turns, I gave him a generous 5LE.

Hotel Zharit El Madina again, they've got a room for me 25LE again - not quite as big as my previous room here and a much smaller balcony - but it's cosy enough and it's PRIVATE!!

Had yet another snooze for an hour and a half - I'm so bloody tired lately!

Went for a walk, a very nice kushary, a phone top-up, emails and to have a look around where Gamil sits just in case he hadn't moved to Alexandria yet. He's the one person in Lower Egypt I could happily chat with but he wasn't there. Very happy to be wandering in Tanta again - it's got a great atmosphere. I'm surprised that I'm seeing more rats here than anywhere else - sure it's a mess but I've been in much worse places - Disuq was much worse but I don't think I saw one.

Got back to the hotel about midnight and sat in reception chatting with a few people. We soon got onto the subject of religion and it got pretty deep. They were all ok, the alcoholic doctor was there and was pretty drunk again and wasn't quite so easy to handle - he's very smart and very well-read. At one point though he said I should smarten myself up and get some new shoes - I told him maybe he should drink a bit less! They were asking me how I thought it all started again and weren't very keen on my Darwinian answers. One of them, Dr Mohammed, had pretty good english and was really on a mission with me. Explaining that he too is a scientist at heart but that many things in the Koran have been proven by science - so it must be true. We broke up in reception but Dr Mohamed was keen to continue our conversation and we sat in the mini-lounge area near our rooms while he told me loads about the Koran and why I should believe it. I finally got away a bit before 4am. He's from Port Said and is very keen for me to contact him when I visit there in 2 weeks or so. He's a nice enough bloke but too much of the heavy stuff and on a major mission with me - I won't be in touch.

Well, it's nice to be back in Tanta but my night has been lost and I'm gonna be tired tomorrow - I'm supposed to be resting here! I'd planned a quiet hour with a bite to eat, finish my diary and bed at 1am.

      High: Very easy trip back to good old Tanta
       Low: Too much religion

Wednesday 31st August 2005    day 50     whereami     Satellite view

Didn't get up until late morning after my late night and just chilled out in my room for a while enjoying my solitude and privacy.

Tanta - a room with a view   and a giant turkey perched on the washing line, 3 floors up

I keep replaying the long conversation from last night and just can't get my head around the strength of their convictions. I've joked with myself that my exposure to all these conversations and the regular and frequent prayers broadcast loudly from the mosques might have a brainwashing effect on me and I might become a believer. But seriously I find the whole concept only more and more puzzling. I was talking to intelligent and articulate men last night who were well educated in the sciences - they were doctors. I've read about evolution and natural selection just because it interests me but I would have thought that these men would have learnt of it in their biology classes - but apparently not, their knowledge of it was very weak. Maybe it's not taught as it goes against the teachings of the Koran - it's not taught in several US states for similar Christian reasons.
They were using science to try and persuade me that their religious beliefs were right, eg. the similarity between the appearance of an atom and a solar system shows that it must have been created by the same hand, or that the complexity of the human body is too much to have occurred by chance alone.
They argued with logic (ill-informed logic, but logic nonetheless) against my explanations and mostly just dismissed them. But all the arguments for their case ultimately rely on a mighty leap of blind faith - and they don't see that as illogical at all. It baffles me.

Dr Mohamed is returning to Port Said today, leaving at 6pm. It's now 2pm, I'm off out before he gets back from work and tracks me down again.

Wasn't quite sure where to wander as I've seen most of Tanta. I fancied a quiet afternoon reading again but I've only got my Will Self book that I bought in Cairo and I only realised today that the picture on the front, that I originally saw as just a random pattern of colours, is actually a close up of a couple in a full-on tonguing kiss!! It looks like some sordid erotic sex book - and I remembered the strange look from Atika when she saw the book I'd just bought. I know Will Self and that is not what it will be about at all - but I don't fancy my chances of successfully explaining that to any curious local.
I walked into town, passing a couple of half-decomposed rats on the pavement, and walked right into a row of stalls selling used books - and one of them had a few english books. I got Captain Singleton's Adventures by Daniel Defoe with an original price inside the cover of 6d, and a 1941 reprint of H.G.Myatt's The Tale of the Bounty - orig. price 1s6d, 6LE the pair.

I spent the afternoon sitting in various cafes and in the central reservation area, where I'd met Gamil, reading Captain Singleton's Adventures. It turned out to be an abridged version of the first half of the whole story, and wasn't a bad yarn but a bit of a shallow "Boys Own" adventure. I enjoyed it though and enjoyed my afternoon's peace.
A few boys approached me selling flowers, I said no and they pretended to cry but were laughing at the same time. I told them to clear off and they grumblingly went - one threw a cup of water at me from behind me but missed, and they scarpered.

the central reservation area   plenty of strange traffic on the main town roads

A book is a great place to hide from the curious locals - most respect your privacy with a book under your nose. I had a couple of damias from a very grubby stall and felt sure I would finally get caught out - but no ill effects 12 hours later.

I was sitting on a wall just finishing my book and had just taken the cart photo above when a young girl of 10 or so selling flowers approached me. I said no and she pointed to her mouth and did her best to cry but I just said no. She bent down and kissed my knee and then the other one pleading for money, and then grabbed my hand and was kissing that too. It was a strange performance and I didn't give her anything - she seemed reasonably well dressed and very well fed.

I returned to the hotel about 8pm confident that the predatory Dr Mohamed would be well on his way to Port Said. He'd been delayed a day and was very pleased to see me again - groan. I said I needed a shower and would see him later. I decided to do some washing too to consume some time.

I joined the usual crowd sitting around in reception about 10pm and of course the subject was soon back onto religion. Dr Mohamed wanted to walk so I joined him for some fresh air - and more deep discussion. We ended up in an internet café where he showed me "proof" of the existence of Allah and the truth of the Koran. It was a website that took fairly vague statements from the Koran and compared them with recent scientific discoveries. The conclusions being made were extreme - in the same way that vague and broadly interpretable horoscope predictions can often turn out to be "true".
We returned to the hotel reception and I finally got away at 4:30am. It wasn't as bad tonight - I know these people now and feel more confident about voicing my doubts to them, though they were no less persistent.

Quickly finished my short diary entry and crashed at 5:30. I've got some photos to add somewhen, but not now . . zzzzzzzzz.

It's moving day again tomorrow - I'm going to Zagazig. It's where tobogganing was invented (joke for Stewart, my brother). I think it's another nothing town, but quite big and with some ruins that look worth a visit.

      High: peaceful, restful afternoon hiding in my book
       Low: too much religion again, but they're very nice about it

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