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

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07-09 September 2005

Wednesday 7th September 2005    day 57     whereami     Satellite view

Didn't go to bed 'til late and woke at 10:30 after another good sleep. Went and had the inclusive breakfast - good one too. Pitta bread, bowl of ful, boiled egg, cheese and jam - it was as much as I could eat. Packed and checked out just before midday.

Walked to the Nile and took a few photos. These 3 can be viewed as panoramic-ish.

Damietta Nile   Damietta Nile   Damietta Nile

Got a taxi to the minitaxi station - he had a working meter that ticked up the reasonable 3LE fare, first I've seen here.

Found my minitaxi for Ras El Bar and he pointed me into the front with my pack - I'd said about putting it on the roof but he said no. He sat my pack on a seat and said "2 seats". I've seen this trick before and said I wasn't paying for 2 seats - he was insistent so I said ok, I'll get out. He gave in and threw my pack on the roof - I said it needed tying down and got out to do it and he waved me away saying it was ok. But no way, and I persuaded him to tie it down.
A nice journey with a great view from the front seat of the very nice agricultural land on both sides of the road. We soon got to Ras El Bar and we were dropped off in the main street that runs up through the centre of the peninsula.

I walked into the centre and got a shay. Then off to find a hotel - there are loads of hotels here in grids of criss-crossed tracks all down both sides of the main road - nothing but hotels. This is very much a beach resort. Most of the hotels near the centre looked expensive so I went searching for something a bit shabbier. I found a few with potential but I couldn't find anyone to help me. All the entrances on all 4 sides just lead to rooms and they're all of a similar layout. It seemed daft, like a shop without an entrance! I finally found my way into one and they wanted 85LE for a very basic room, I offered him 40LE but he wasn't interested. I left.
I asked a bloke sitting outside one place - he spoke some english and said he would help me - he seemed ok. He got a middle-man and told him what I wanted - something cheap and basic - maybe 40 or 50LE. I don't like the idea of a middle-man but I was getting nowhere on my own so decided to give him a chance. We went off to a shabby place and they showed me something for 60LE. It was 2 twin bedrooms and a kitchen and bathroom and I clarified that I had a bedroom to myself. It turned out that it was the whole flat I was paying for - I said I didn't need a flat, just a bed, and my hustler started complaining about how fussy I was.
We went to a different place but it was the same, for 55LE. I decided not to waste any more of my day and took it. Went back to do the passport details and pay but he said it was minimum 2 nights - I only want 1 night. He was insistent so I said I'd go elsewhere, he relented but wanted 60LE for 1 night - I paid up. Back to my room and my agent was looking at me expectantly - I knew he'd want baksheesh. I gave him 5LE which I knew was less than he wanted and he put it down on the table as if insulted. I told him we discussed 40 or 50LE, and I ended up paying 60LE, so 5LE was more than enough, he huffed and took it. He'll get something from the hotel as well. Then the hotel lad wanted something, and indicated he'd cleaned my flat - with the contents of a waste-bin by the look of it! I gave him 1LE and he went off happy.

I sorted my stuff out and went straight out to explore at 3pm. I desperately tried to memorise landmarks and distinguishing features for my hotel. They all look very alike, as do the dozens of criss-crossed tracks, and there's easily a couple of hundred hotels in this area alone. I took a quick photo just in case.

Ras El Bar hotel

With 3 good nights sleep in clean and comfy beds behind me, and a big breakfast inside me I was feeling pretty good and set out to find the mouth of the Nile, not knowing if it was 1 or 10km away. I walked to the seafront and the beach wasn't bad, reasonable sand and the shore packed solid with a continuous row of similar sunshade umbrellas as far as you could see in both directions. But of course there's litter everywhere - crisp bags, ice-cream wrappers, plastic cups, drink cans, cigarette packs etc. etc. - it's shocking really.

I walked north-east along the paved prom and along the beach a while and stopped for a shay. Around some private beaches and back to the front and along a newer nicer quieter prom - no beach here. I could see a lot of big ships out to sea - obviously Suez Canal traffic. The late afternoon sky was an incredible deep blue and not a cloud in sight. There was a lighthouse on the end of a long spit of a concrete walkway, and I saw a boat sailing out from inland behind it - I was obviously there, it was probably a 4km walk. I walked out to the lighthouse and took a few photos.

Ras El Bar lighthouse   looking back across the beach

The rivermouth was a bit of an anticlimax really - it was nice enough but no real sign of any turbulence where the 2 great waters meet, like there was at Rosetta, just a slick of brown Nile mud in the sea. There's considerable sea defences here. Great lumps of concrete, shaped like jacks, in piles all along the shoreline and the spits. I guess they dampen the turbulence to prevent too much erosion of the shoreline. Rosetta was more natural.

mouth of the Nile   mouth of the Nile   Ras El Bar Nile

I carried on walking around the peninsula - now going south down (up) the Nile. There was a very nice and not quite finished promenade that went a good 3km alongside the Nile. It was very quiet too and I enjoyed my peaceful stroll, watching the fishing boats coming back in with their loads and joining the dozens of others moored up near the opposite bank.

Nile trawlers   Nile trawlers   Nile trawlers

I walked on after the paved prom ended and came to an extremely scruffy little shanty town. Just huts made from corrugated metal sheets, scraps of wood and tarpaulins etc. It didn't seem too friendly so I crossed the peninsula west back to the beach side, and stopped for a rest and a shay in a café on the beach.

It was comfortable there in the shade with a nice breeze blowing and I read my guidebook a while until they started moving all the tables and chairs out onto the beach, presumably in preparation for the evening session.

Found my hotel without too much trouble and chilled out on my balcony doing my diary while it got dark. It's very noisey here but it's all the happy noises of people enjoying their holidays. There's kids playing everywhere shouting and screaming as kids love to, loud music blaring out from several rooms in several hotels, impromptu karaoke sessions on more than one balcony with one singer and everyone else clapping - even from opposite balconies, men walking up and down shouting their wares - drinks, snacks etc., televisions blaring, mosques broadcasting their prayers, babies crying and a general background hum of family conversations. It's quite nice really but I'm sure it could drive me nuts if I was in less of a good mood!

Went out about 9pm to see the centre by night and get something to eat. There was a good atmosphere in the centre, again just people enjoying their holidays, shays in the many busy noisey cafes, candy floss, ice creams, fairground rides etc. I walked past some fruit and veg stalls and suddenly felt a strong need for some healthy food. I got some cheese, olives and tahina from a nice delicatessen (first I've seen like it), tomatoes and cucumber from a stall and some pitta bread still hot from the oven. For 18LE I've got enough to keep me going for a couple of days if I can avoid squashing it too much in my pack - it's almost impossible to buy smaller quantities of some things.

Returned to my room and had a good healthy feast. I was pleased to see that the many flies had gone now it was dark - but I seem to have a plague of beetles and it's probably too late to get Rentokil out now.

I've seen nothing at all to indicate that there's been a historical landmark election today. Have to find out the result tomorrow.

I remembered something interesting on my walk today that I'd forgotten to make a note of. During my 2nd night of deep discussions with Dr Mohamed in Tanta, his alcoholic friend offered me a drink from his bottle of Chivas Regal. I explained that I used to drink a lot and it got me into trouble and didn't do me any good, and that now I never touched it. Dr Mohamed was delighted, interpreting that it was Allah's will and I was clearly on the path. His next idea that, now cleansed of that forbidden vice, I had been "summoned to Egypt to be with moslems" only encouraged him further. I happily agreed with the possibility in the hope that he would calm down a bit.

      High: very nice peaceful and scenic stroll beside the Nile
       Low: finding somewhere to stay was a bit of a pain, with my belligerent friend

Thursday 8th September 2005    day 58     whereami     Satellite view

Ras El Bar:
A rough night. The noise went all all night long only really getting quiter when the 5am prayers were called. But more than that my beetle infestation turned out to be a cockroach infestation. I walked past the other bedroom in the early hours and saw them scuttling under the beds to get away from the light I'd switched on. Closer examination of the little beetles I'd seen earlier showed that many of them were baby 'roaches. I got my torch out and had a look around my bedroom and found several under the beds and wardrobe. I closed the windows to prevent any more getting in and a big one clumsily flew off the window straight at me. I lashed out at it with the torch but missed - these things give me the creeps! They just seem so dirty somehow.

I didn't feel too sleepy with all the distractions so read my Will Self book until I finished it at 4:30. I just dozed on and off very lightly until I got up at 10 feeling very groggy. Once showered and moving though I felt much better and was checked out by 11:30.

I walked to the minibus station and asked for Port Said but, to my surprise, none go there - they told me to take a taxi. Forget that, it's quite a way! I took a minitaxi the 15km back to Damietta, they surely go to Port Said from there. I had to take my pack inside but managed to only take up one seat. The bloke next to me said I would have to pay for 2 - I told him no way, I'd offered to put it on the roof. They didn't try and charge me 2.

At the minitaxi station in Damietta I asked for Port Said and was told I needed a different station on the other side of town - quick 3LE taxi to get there. Got my 1.75LE minitaxi and sat in the same place with my pack balanced uncomfortably in front of me again - no attempt to charge me for 2 again.

The road to Port Said looks interesting on the map, it runs for 60km along a very thin strip of land between the Mediteranean and the big Lake el Manzala. It was quite interesting, I could just about see the sea on my left and on both sides of the raised (and in parts, bridged) roadway there was marshland and clear water. The areas of water were neatly sectioned with mud banks, I would guess they farm fish in them. We got to Port Said and were dropped on the outskirts. According to my guidebook Port Said is a Free Port so there are customs points and passport checks to go through. We passed through several checkpoints but I was never asked for my passport(?). It warns that valuables should be declared on entry to avoid paying duty on exit but I'll have to see what happens - I'm getting pretty good at arguing with officials so I'm not too bothered.

I grabbed a 3LE taxi to Hotel El Riviera - a cheapy from my guidebook. Port Said looks pretty prosperous and I wondered what my hotel was going to cost. I'd decided not to go too downmarket here as the very cheapies could be full of all sorts of itinerant rogues that ports seem to attract - and I don't want my gear stolen. The hotel looked quite nice and I was pleasantly surprised at 55LE for a room. I checked the room and liked it so much I didn't have the heart to haggle with the friendly and attractive receptionist. It's a very cosy little room and nice and clean. I'm about 3km from the mouth of the Suez and 300m from it's west bank, and I've got a 7th floor south-facing balcony with a great view down the canal.

Suez Canal from my balcony   Suez Canal from my balcony   Suez Canal from my balcony

I sorted my stuff out and ate some of my bread, cheese, olives etc. I was kind of ready to go exploring at 3pm but my rough night was catching up with me and I snoozed for a while and didn't go out until 5:30.

I stopped for a quick shay and walked north through fairly quiet and unfriendly streets towards the canal mouth. Reached the north coast where there was a very average beach. Muddy looking sand and brown sea crashing in. I walked as far east as I could on the beach but there were big piles of rubble there that clearly meant they didn't want you to go any further. The mouth looked pretty unspectacular as I'd expected. I could see 2 long jettys of the concrete jacks that guided the ships in.

Suez Canal - the mouth

Walked west along the beach and a nice paved promenade a while and turned back inland. Despite being a very uninspiring beach this seems to be the destination for the wealthy egyptian holidaymakers. There's a lot of very nice hotels and restaurants, and plenty of Mercedes' about.

Port Said beach - sunset   Port Said beach - sunset   Port Said beach - sunset

I headed back towards the town - I need a bank and I'm hoping to find a bookshop. Found a bank easy enough - I've spent the equivalent of £500 now since I arrived in Egypt (plus the careless £200 on my Orange gprs). Bookshop? you must be kidding. This is a big town but every shop is a poncey fashion boutique, or a coiffeur (no barbers here!), or handmade shoes, or over-elaborate trinkets for the home - mostly designer clothes, fancy clothes, smart clothes, trendy clothes and more clothes, clothes and clothes. The general theme among the well-to-do in Port Said seems to be "vanity" - and I'm not too taken with it. I walked miles up and down main streets, backstreets, everywhere but didn't find my bookshop.
It's not entirely a place of wealth though - there's as many beggars as there are beemers.

Port Said - nice fountain

I had a couple of shays along the way in noisey backstreet cafes. They prefer cards to dominoes here and seemed to be playing a noisey, argumentative and fiercely competitive version of rummy. I bought a bottle of coke and a cantaloupe - he tried to overcharge me - and returned to my room at 10pm.

A nice feast on the balcony watching the Suez Canal traffic. I've not seen much in the way of true traffic, mainly just tugs and ferries crossing back and forth, but there's something very relaxing and calming about watching boats of any sort . . . .

Suez Canal by night   Suez Canal by night   Suez Canal - mooring basin

I felt sure I'd see some non-egyptian faces here today and break my 3 week run - but no. Are they all hiding from me? I can't believe I'm the only westerner in THIS city!!

I'm not fully decided on tomorrow's plans. I've not really seen much of Port Said but I don't think there's much to see anyway. I'll probably head south, probably by train, to Ismailia - 85km. It's supposed be the nicest of the canal-side towns. Maybe spend a couple of days there before ending my northern tour in Suez.

      High: my balcony view of the Suez Canal
       Low: no bookshop, and nothing left to read

Friday 9th September 2005    day 59     whereami     Satellite view

Port Said:
Up, showered, packed, chilled out a while enjoying my balcony view and checked out at 11:30. Stopped for a shay on my walk to the railway station.

Got my 8LE Ismailia ticket and he told me "car 1". The carriages weren't marked so I asked someone if the nearest one, at the back of the train, was 1 and was told it was. I climbed on - it was clearly the cheap seats but nowhere near as rough as others I've been on. Some young lads moved to join me and we had the usual inane conversation I have with young teenagers - along the lines of: where you from, Ingliterra, ah inglaisie - TONY BLAIR, yes, Tony Blair, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, DAVID BECKHAM, yes, David Beckham, FOOTBALL, yes, good footballer, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, MICHAEL OWEN, yes, Michael Owen, FOOTBALL, yes, etc. etc. etc. etc. A bloke, I guess security, leant in my window and told the lads to move. I wasn't sorry, the conversation was monotonous and they were starting to show interest in what was in my pack, can I see your camera etc. They weren't really any bother but I can do without it.

An official asked to see my ticket and told me I was in the wrong carriage and took me to the front 2nd class air-con'd carriage. Much more peaceful and 80% empty. There was no customs checks or any sign that there might be, so no problems there(?). We set off and I was very pleased that we were chugging along only 30m from the canal bank. There were no ships though until we branched away from it near El Qantara where there were 2 military ships - US Navy I think. There's a nice suspension bridge at El Qantara that, according to my guidebook, has the highest clearance of any bridge in the world. I don't quite understand it because it's not particularly high. It's very high off the low ground and gently slopes up for 1-2km either side of the canal but the Severn Bridge, for example, is far higher above the water.

We got to Ismailia fairly quickly and I got off and went and found a shay. A young bloke joined me, he lived in Ismailia but worked as a barman in Hurghada. We talked about the terrorism problems - he was working in Taba last October when it was bombed (the day I flew home from my diving holiday in Marsa Alam). He said about the terrible things he saw and how he couldn't understand it - it definitely wasn't in the spirit of islam. He also said he'd never seen a westerner in Ismailia before.

I went off to find the hotel I'd picked out from my guidebook. I walked right across town but couldn't make sense of it until I realised I'd navigated to restaurant no.2 instead of hotel no.2 - which of course was right back where I'd started - bloody guidebook! Found the Hotel Voyageurs which had become the Travellers Hotel. It's a fairly run-down shabby place 25LE a night, I got him down to 20LE and paid 1 night.

Travellers Hotel - Ismailia

A quick rest and a cool-off from my sweaty walk and I went straight out to find the canal. I found Sweetwater Canal that was dug to provide fresh water, from the big Lake Timsah here, during construction of the Suez Canal. I followed it east, stopping for a kebab on the way, until the Suez Canal came into view. But I couldn't get to it for military buildings. I walked north and found Fornas Island, highly recommended in my book, but it's been taken over by a big private posh hotel complex.

I kept going north but was continuously blocked by hotels and military until after about 6km I got to the car ferry. The police weren't sure about letting me through just for a look but they relented and kept a close eye on me. I saw the 1973 Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War Memorial on the east bank - a big vertical bayonet. There was heavy fighting along here and it was the ferocity of this battle that brought them to the negotiating table. They fought on and off for several more years though until Egypt fully reclaimed the Sinai peninsula around 1982. Judging by the amount of shouting in the café downstairs I think it may have just started again - probably just a football match though. I didn't take any photos as they seem concerned about security. From the train I saw soldiers all along the canal bank. Only 1 every 2km or so, but they looked like pretty serious soldiers, well-armed with heavy modern rifles rather than the battered Kalashnikovs you generally see everywhere.

I walked another 2km north but I clearly was not going to get near the canal so turned inland a bit and doubled-back towards my hotel. There was nothing to see, just wasteland and I kept up a fair pace all the way and was shattered when I finally got back.

Ismailia is a nice looking place and is by far the cleanest place I've seen here. There's some nice statues, mosaic murals, old horse-drawn carriages mounted on pedestals, fountains, tree-lined avenues and parks full of trees - more and more-varied trees here than I've seen anywhere else. But, I know I was in the outskirts, and I know it's Friday, but it's like a ghost town. I've walked past a hundred apartment buildings that must house at least a couple of hundred each - and I saw maybe 200 people on my 3-4 hour walk.
I haven't seen it but there's a major road tunnel under the Suez Canal here - it's the main road route from Cairo to Sinai.

carriage and avenue   carriage   mosaic mural

I felt like I ought to go into town when I got hungry in the evening but I was exhausted after my long walk so just had some of my bread, cheese and olives in my room, and I've just remembered I've got some emergency biscuits stashed away somewhere.

I'm going to stay here tomorrow and go and see Lake Timsah, it's supposed to be very nice, and it's surrounded by parkland - and maybe I can get nearer the canal at the southern end of town.

My room seems like perfect cockroach territory but I've decided not to investigate - I'm happier with some doubt.

      High: nice train journey alongside the Suez Canal
       Low: not getting onto Fornas Island - I was looking forward to that

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