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

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01-03 September 2005

Thursday 1st September 2005    day 51     whereami     Satellite view

An unsurprisingly late start after my 2nd consecutive all night dicussion. Didn't really move until after midday. I was a little tempted to stay and rest but got packing. By the time I'd showered, breakfasted and packed it was 2pm and I wasn't sure about what the hotel would think about such a late checkout - but the manager was fine about it, I think he knew I'd endured some lengthy conversion attempts. They seem to really like me here - and not just the novelty factor.

Got a 3LE taxi to the minitaxi station but, to my surprise, no minitaxis go to Zagazig - the pointed me to the adjacent microbus station. Most microbuses are big old Peugot 504 estates with an extra row of seats in the back/boot. I'd not really seen these before. I found one going my way, put my pack in the boot, and climbed in.

Tanta - microbus station   Tanta - microbus station

A young bloke climbed in next to me and we had a bit of a chat. He kept on about Italy and italians and it was a while before I realised that he'd misunderstood me and thought I was italian. He bought a couple of coconut cakes from a wandering seller and gave me one. The microbus filled up and we set off. He asked me if I was moslem and I said no, nothing. Where does it all come from then? - gesturing around at the world. I said I'd had this discussion too often lately and closed it. There was a fairly heated argument during the journey and most of them were chipping in with shouted opinions but I couldn't catch what they were arguing about. My neighbour explained that they were talking politics.

There's a general election here next week, Wed 7th. It's the first properly contested election in Egypt. Mubarak is hotly tipped to stay in office. I've heard from several people that there is more opposition to him now than there ever has been, but there's no significant alternative to vote for - so the opposition votes will likely be diluted among 8 or so unknowns. I'll be playing it safe that day with a very low profile - maybe even stay in my room and read/rest all day if there's tension about. I'll probably be up around Damietta which I think will be fine.

Zagazig was further than I'd thought and we got there in about an hour and a half 4LE. We were dropped off on the side of a dual carriageway well away from the town so I grabbed a taxi 2.5LE and asked for a cheap hotel. He did me proud and found me a real dive for 20LE a night - Hotel Zahraar. The surly staff kept grunting "passport" at me but I insisted on seeing the room and agreeing a price first. I've got a dingey one bed room with the dirtiest bathroom I've seen yet. But it's conveniently right in the middle of town and I've got a view of a crazy roundabout opposite the railway station and loads of cafes and food places directly below me - it'll do just fine.

Hotel Zahraar   Hotel Zahraar

Hotel Zahraar view   Hotel Zahraar view   Hotel Zahraar view

I dropped my stuff in my room, quick sort out and went out for a shay. I stopped in the café directly below my window. About halfway down my shay the waiter came and took my tray, I quickly grabbed my shay but he was beckoning me to follow him. I indicated I was quite happy where I was but he insisted - it seemed urgent and I guessed that the police wanted to talk to me.

I downed my shay and we bundled into a nearby office. "You send fax" a bloke, with a crowd around him, gruffly shouted at me pointing to a fax machine. What fax? fax what? to whom? why? I wasn't sending anything anywhere until I understood what the hell was going on! I said I wanted to see the paper in the fax machine that they wanted me to send. He thrusted it at me and I looked at it but it was all in arabic. Another pushed a mobile in my face with a number on the screen "send here". We pointed and grunted and looked blankly at each other, with others crowding around me shouting their versions of my instructions too, for about 10mins. We weren't really getting anywhere and I was refusing to do anything until I understood, despite their protestations.
I finally realised that this whole business was nothing to do with me at all really - they just couldn't work the fax machine and thought I might be able to help them! I sorted them out and left a hero.

Communication is such great fun here - the way they were all hollering at me I really thought I was in a spot of bother (I wasn't particularly worried about it) and was focussing on standing my ground and not being pressured into doing something I didn't understand - but they were just "asking" for my help!

Went for a quick walk and got a kushary to take back to my room - I'm bleedin' knackered. Did some diary and snoozed a while. It's 10:30 now and I'm gonna have to go and get something to drink, I'm gasping.

Had a couple of shays and half a litre of water and felt much better. A bloke who sat opposite bore a striking resemblance to Einstein, relatively speaking. Zagazig has a similar feel to Tanta and Damanhur etc. - unsurprising really, they're not far apart and have similar farming based industries. And plenty of rats scampering around to give it some character.

I went wandering and stumbled across an internet café so did a couple emails and caught up with the general news. I saw there were some pre-election demonstrations in Cairo where the riot police had waded in. Also had a look at (my diving mate) Simon's website and learnt that he's off on his Antarctican adventure in early December - nice one mate - congatulations!

Headed back towards the hotel and stopped to buy some water. A couple of good english speakers asked me what on earth I was doing in Zagazig, especially this dirty old backstreet. They were pretty bemused by my story and thought it was quite funny. They insisted that I should come and see them if I needed help with anything - very friendly types. Back to the hotel just after 1am and the surly reception bloke surprised me with a big smile and a handshake. Up to my grimey room and dug out a few bits from my pack and found much of it slimey - bloody shampoo has leaked and I forgot to put it in it's plastic bag!

      High: the fax incident was pretty entertaining
       Low: shampooey towel, shampooey jumper, shampooey pack

Friday 2nd September 2005    day 52     whereami     Satellite view

Up shockingly late again and still knackered - I don't know what's up with me this last week.

Lazed around in my room a while idly sorting a few things out and went out mid afternoon. Paid 2 more nights on the way out to a different guy and he only charged me 15LE a night - which is a bit nearer the right price, this is quite a dive.

Had a couple of shays and went walking west - the way I was driven in. Walked alongside the canal a while and took some photos and walked on to the impressive mosque.

Zagazig canal view

Zagazig mosque view   Zagazig mosque view   Zagazig mosque view

Generally wandered around for several hours stopping for the occasional shay along the way. Got an eat-in damia that wasn't bad and picked up a few bits from a bakery to take back to my room. Slowly walked in a big circle until I got back the hotel area. Picked up a canteloupe, had a couple more shays and went back to my room about 7:30 - tired again. I'm getting a little bored with these towns, they're very similar, though they each have uniqueness too, but I'm not really finding anything of great novelty in them.

A lot of shouting down in the street and it seems that 2 lads were having a bit of a scrap but everyone just piled in and pulled them apart.

Litter: of all the strange things about Egypt their complete disregard for their environment is one of the hardest things for me to get used to. There's rubbish everywhere - anything not wanted is just dropped in the street. People sitting in cafes finish a pack of cigarettes and throw the empty pack into the street, women open their front doors and throw an unwanted cardboard box out. At the end of the day the fruit sellers clear out their old fruit and just tip great piles into the gutter. Empty tissue boxes, coke cans, takeaway wrappers and boxes come flying out of car windows. I'm so conditioned by my western upbringing that I can't join in and carry my rubbish miles in the vain hope of finding a bin. None of this bothers me greatly, it wouldn't be Egypt if it was tidy - it so typifies the egyptian slapdash character.

Women: I've become increasingly aware that the women seem to pile on the pounds under their figure disguising clothes. They still manage to look quite noble though when they walk around gracefully with great loads on their heads. Some of the loads look pretty heavy and some of them also look very diffult to balance, eg. a tall shopping basket full of fruit and veg that doesn't look like it would stand up on the ground.

Bicycles: there are many bicycles in all these towns and many of them are highly decorated with too many mirrors and flashing lights, several mudflaps, crinkle cut silvery paper wrapped around the frame tubes and multiple layers of frills around the saddle. They also like to mount loud and fancy chirping or tune-playing hooters that they beep continuously.

I'm going to have an early night and try and get out to Bubastis tomorrow. It's the remains of an ancient (2200BC) city where they worshipped and mummified cats. An interesting quirk from my guidebook is that if a family cat died, the family would go into mourning and all shave off their eyebrows.

      High: nice views along the canal
       Low: just having so little energy again

Saturday 3rd September 2005    day 53     whereami     Satellite view

Despite my early night I didn't sleep until gone 4am so . . . but feeling pretty good after a shower and a couple of shays.

Got a taxi to Bubastis 3LE - it wasn't as far as I'd thought. Went to the entrance and they gave me a few strange looks and the police asked me a few questions. I bought my 10LE ticket and went in.

The place was deserted, I was the only visitor. Some of the best extracts from the ruins were mounted on concrete blocks or old pallets in a little maze of footpaths near the entrance. I walked around them and took a few photos before a senior looking policeman came and joined me. I looked at him, expecting further questions but he said "mesh" and indicated that I could look around. He followed me around and explained some things about a few of the exhibits in broken english and arabic.

mini sphinx   heiroglyphics

We walked up to the main attraction - a giant 8-10m statue in pretty good condition and with clear heiroglyphics on the back.

large statue   large statue   large statue

Then on to the main remains of the city. It's very broken up, just a load of big rocks really and I couldn't get much of an idea of what it must have looked like 4000 years ago - except that it must have been very impressive. Many of the rocks have deeply cut inscriptions that are still very clear.
It was very hot out in the early afternoon sun and my friend was impatient to get back in the shade but that only made me more determined to take my time - cruel, but as they seem to do their utmost to wind me up sometimes I like to have MY fun occasionally!

the ruins   the ruins   the ruins

the ruins   the ruins

I spent about an hour in there all told and it was very interesting.

It was still only 2:30 when I came out and I had plenty of energy so decided to try and find a long route back on foot. Stopped for a couple of shays in a tatty little café near the ruins and got some very strange looks. I would have thought they would see tourists here but maybe the few that make it just arrive and leave on coaches. I knew I was south west of the centre so started walking along quite a busy road going east. I walked miles through scruffy little suburban villages and open farmland. I was looking for something to eat but couldn't find anything I fancied. Took a photo of a typical old cemetary behind a rice field.

typical cemetary

Eventually after 5 or 6 miles I stopped for a shay in an empty café on the outskirts of a farming village. The young waiter, Khaled (15), was very keen to talk to me and sat with me while I had my shay. His older brother joined us and they asked me if I would like to spend the afternoon with them and see their farm, sounds good. When they learnt that I'd not eaten they invited me to their house for lunch. We went up some stairs in the back of the café and into a lovely big, airy and well-furnished room - like several rooms knocked into one. I was introduced to their mother and father, and the older brother's wife - who were all a bit surprised to see me. We had a little chat with not much english while Khaled and the women prepared something for me.
They brought out a fair old feast for me - pasta, rice, potatoes in tomato juice, chopped salad, beef and some bread. There was a lot but I was starving so ate most of it - except that as soon as I was near finishing Khaled would refill one of the plates/bowls. It was all really tasty. I finished off with some pears, I've not thought much of the local pears up to now but these were very nice. They gave me another fruit to try, it looked like an elongated plum, but it was pretty nasty - bitter and dry like eating a sloe.

They were a really nice family and we had a good struggling chat and a few laughs. The father was wearing a t-shirt with "snowbiker" written on it. I asked if he knew what it meant - he didn't and we had a laugh when I explained with the help of my dictionary - they don't get a lot of snow in Zagazig! I wonder if he's now dreaming of zigging and zagging in zagazig's non-existent snow down the non-existent hills. It's only with this daft thought that I've just realised how flat the whole delta area is.

the family   the family   their view over their farm

I asked if we could have a look at the farm as originally planned and Khaled took me for a little walk into their sugar and rice fields. We bumped into Mohamed, riding his donkey, who owned a couple of big oxen. He seemed delighted to meet me and had a massive smile - he was a big, powerful guy and my hand disappeared into his when we shook. He encouraged me to take some pictures of his prized oxen and rushed around knocking pears off his tree and giving them to me. We had an awkward second or 2 when he learnt I wasn't moslem but he soon forgave me and seemed to forget about it. His little barn area was bordered by a big rice field - 2 inches deep with water. There was a lot of cricket-like noise coming from the field except that it sounded bigger. I went to investigate while they were knocking down pears and found that the field was full of little frogs.

big ox   me and Mohamed   Mohamed

We walked on a bit and talked about the irrigation methods and the seasons and harvests.

rice field - you'll have to imagine all the croaking   typical water wheel (and typical donkey) - and sugar cane

Khaled was keen to show me the farming village - I knew that really he was keen to parade me in the village, like I was some sort of trophy - as I experienced in the village near Disuq. But fair's fair, I've had my share of entertainment from him and his family - I suppose it's his turn. We walked around the village, men fishing in the canal, scruffy children running about, a woman walked by with a 21" tv balanced on her head! It was fairly typical but interesting all the same.

I said I ought to be heading back so we went back to the main road where Khaled found me a minitaxi going my way. I quickly shook his hand and thanked him for his hospitality and a great afternoon and hopped aboard.

We got almost back to Bubastis and that was as far as the minitaxi went. I found a small bus going near the railway station so jumped on. I was dropped in a place I didn't recognise and pointed down a sidestreet and was soon back in familiar territory about 8:30.

I stopped for a quick shay in my local café and some men who recognised me insisted I joined them at their table where they were playing dominoes. A bloke on a neighbouring table said they liked me here because I'm modest and don't behave as though I'm better than them, or superior. Probably the nicest compliment I've had here. I had a few laughs with the dominoers and left to buy some water and return to my room - they wouldn't let me pay for my shay.

Stopped in a little supermarket around the corner, got my water, and the english-speaking owner insisted I sat down and had a shay and a chat with him. He was a wise old fellow and we chatted about Egypt and England and the differences. He was complaining about how slowly Egypt was developing with it's very good resources of agriculture and oil etc. He was also a bit of a joker and kept asking me riddles. He also wouldn't let me pay for my shay when I left.

Back to the hotel and the reception bloke was back to his surly self and was insisting that I needed to pay for tonight before he would give me my key. I said I'd paid but he wouldn't have it. We had a little bit of an unfriendly dispute in arabic for 10 minutes about how much I'd paid him yesterday before I agreed to give him 10LE. So I've ended up paying 20LE a night here - I'm not sure now if they undercharged me yesterday for 2 nights, or if they overcharged me for 1 night. I think 20LE is a bit much for this place but at the end of the day we're talking about £2 a night! And I quite enjoy a little argument with these dodgy characters now and then.

What a great day! Full of energy, Bubastis was interesting and I had some fun torturing the policeman, met a really nice family and spent a very pleasant afternoon with them, friendly people buying me shay and complimenting me, and all rounded off with a hearty row over £1-2 - what more could you ask for!

Time to move again tomorrow. I'm heading 40km north-west to Abu Kebir from where I want to visit some more ruins at Tanis and Nabasha. They're a long way (70km) from Abu Kebir but there's nowhere closer marked on my poor map - and I still haven't been able to find a better one.

      High: great afternoon, and a terrific lunch with the farm-owning family
       Low: dodgy hotel bloke? - all good fun really!

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