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



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10-13 September 2005



Saturday 10th September 2005    day 60     whereami     Satellite view

Ismailia:
Slept well after a fairly late session with my music, Morcheeba, Morrissey and Radiohead. I'd closed the window to keep the morning flies out and it was very stuffy and I struggled to wake up - but ok once showered.

Paid another night, quick shay and headed out towards Lake Timsah about 11am. Passed through a nice park on the way there.

Ismailia - park   Ismailia - park

Got to the lake but couldn't get near it again so carried on south-east as close as I could get - looking for a way through. Walked 3 or 4km when I got to a roadbridge that crossed where the lake jutted inland. Finally got a reasonable view of some water. The canal was quite some way away and I was surprised to see that the canal and lake are one - the lake just forms a very big basin. It was once a fresh water lake but clearly can't be now. Managed to get a photo of the Yom Kippur War Memorial on the distant east bank. Also a couple of the Lake Timsah inlet on the other side of the bridge.

Yom Kippur memorial   Lake Timsah   Lake Timsah

The bridge was heading straight towards the canal so I crossed it in the vain hope that I might get closer. Not far from the bridge a bloke grunted something as we passed and I just mumbled "salam" and kept going. Then he shouted at me - he'd stopped by a parked car with another bloke in it. I turned and he was sternly beckoning me to go to him. I guessed he was police but there was no way of knowing - plain clothes, plain car - and I didn't like his attitude so I stayed where I was and shrugged. He impatiently and rudely called me to him again, pointing at the ground in front of him - but stuff him, I don't know who he is. He finally said he was police so I slowly ambled over. He shouted something into my face and I just shrugged as disrespectfully as I could and said "Inglaisie". He wanted to see my passport - looked at it, said ok and waved me on my way. I wished afterwards I'd thought to ask to see his ID before I'd given him my passport - he obviously was police, but just to wind him up. Ignorant, self-important prick.

I walked and walked past seedy holiday villages on my left and seedy tourist entertainment on my right - tacky restaurants and take-aways, fairground rides, etc. It was very quiet again though, many of the holiday villages were pretty much empty and most of the entertainment looked closed. Quite a bit of it is still being developed - I guess they're planning it for Cairene weekenders etc.

My road turned more south as the canal got closer and I turned off where some big signs were pointing to the "Olympic Village"(?). I don't think there's ever been any olympics here but Lake Timsah is used for major watersports competitions as it's very flat and calm. Some of it looked like it had once been nice but had been left to ruin. Further on, closer to the canal, I came to some posh hotels and the inevitable security barriers. I gave up, went back to the main road and flagged down a taxi to get back near the bridge. There were already 2 people in the back but they commonly take more than 1 fare at a time and he stopped - I got in the front. We stopped again and 2 more people got in the back, then again and I shifted over to make room for one more in the front - 7 of us in a struggling little Lada. I offered him a fairly generous 1.5LE and he gave me back the 1LE! - a decent and honest cabbie! and a bargain.

I had a look at a row of grubby roadside cafes - all serving barbequed fish - and sat down in one to have a proper meal for a change. I moved tables to get away from too many flies and again to get myself a nice view of the lake. I asked for 2 of the small fish and some rice. 20 minutes later it was served up and looked very nice indeed - my 2 well-cooked fish, a generous mound of sticky rice, some well-presented salad with loads of their small lemons/limes to squeeze and a little dish with a few spices. The lad looked very pleased with his efforts, it was certainly a lot fancier than I'd expected. The fish was very boney and quite difficult to get at but was very nice. The salad was very fresh and very nice - the tomatoes and cucumbers here are very tasty and sweet. Once I'd drowned the salad in lemon and lime juice it was absolutely perfect - my mouth's watering again just writing about it! I was well stuffed time I'd finished and very happy indeed, and washed it all down with a shay. I kicked the table jumping for some loose pages that blew out of my guidebook and my coke bottle fell over and broke the spice dish - they couldn't have cared less. It was nice there too, watching the fishing boats coming in, birds diving for fish, 2 very big storks swam in and climbed out on the opposite bank.

Lake Timsah - from my table   Lake Timsah

I wanted to give the lad a good tip but my lack of small notes let me down again and I ended up apologising and giving him almost nothing.

Money: there's some strange rules in Egypt where money is concerned. Not giving someone exactly the right amount so they then have to give you change is the social equivalent of insulting their mother. And they've NEVER got any change. Many times I've been in busy cafes in the late afternoon, where they've been selling countless 1LE shays all day long (and I can see people paying the same as me), but when I pay with a 10LE note they have to go to the shop next door or have a whip-round among the regulars to find my 9LE change! It happens all the time - I just don't know what they do with it. The hole-in-the-wall gives me mostly 100LE notes so I try and change them paying for hotel rooms etc. - to gasps of horror and much ungrateful muttering.

I walked back the way I'd come and turned into the busy town. On the way I saw a bigger than lifesize statue of a pelican on a front doorstep - it sprang into life when I walked past! Predictably there were no bookshops in the town. Bought a bag of limes in the market as I'd run out. Stopped for a shay - I think all that rice was absorbing my water reserves - and I soon stopped again for a fresh mango juice. I still felt thirsty but my stomach was full to the brim.

It seemed like I'd seen all that Ismailia has to offer so I went and found an internet café and spent a couple of hours there doing emails and all the usual stuff on a decent WinXP PC with a reasonable connection. Also posted yesterday's diary update - for the first time in Egypt I can't get a gprs connection here. Not a bad record considering some of the backwaters I've been visiting.

Went back to the hotel, had a shay and headed back to my room about 8:30 - knackered again.

I didn't get as close to the canal as I'd hoped to again but I did watch a huge tanker sail by from the bridge. Lake Timsah was nice, plenty of fishing, fishing boats, and boat and net repairs going on for entertainment. And an excellent meal - a good day.

Off to Suez tomorrow. It looks like a nothing-place in my guidebook so it'll probably be a one-night flying visit.
And I'm quite looking forward to then getting back to chilled-out Hotel Dahab in Cairo for a couple of days relaxation, some western company, book-shopping, a haircut, and if I don't do some washing soon I'll be deported as a public health risk!

      High: lovely meal by the very nice Lake Timsah
       Low: disappointingly distant from the canal again


Sunday 11th September 2005    day 61     whereami     Satellite view

Ismailia:
Checked out at 11am and went straight to the station. Got my ticket 1.5LE for the 90km journey - train leaves at 1pm. Went back to the quiet hotel café for a shay and a comfy wait.

Back to the station at 12:40 and nearly got on the wrong train until some helpful locals pointed me to a different platform. The half-rough train was in and I boarded and waited. We set off about 1:15 through very nice cultivated countryside - loads of trees again. Massive orchards of olive trees with heavily laden date palms scattered amongst them. We slowly trundled along stopping at every station, and at villages with no stations - people just climbing up and down off the tracks.

2 men came and sat next to me and one said "how are you?". There was no further conversation and I didn't take much notice of them for ages until it suddenly dawned on me that I'd acquired a police escort. The train was quite empty and I didn't feel the need to be over-protective of my pack. We'd got quite close to the canal again and I went and stood by the open doorway for a better view. It's nice by the door, breezey and airy, and it's just something you can't do at home. I kept an eye on my pack and my new friends kept an eye on me. After 45mins or so by the door the "police" got off - so they weren't with me at all.

A shifty-looking character took their place and I wasn't so happy with him near my pack so went and sat back down with it. We trundled on through some very rough villages and nice countryside and eventually came into the very scruffy outskirts of a big town that I guessed was Suez. We stopped in the middle of nowhere and people were getting on and off. I asked if this was Suez and was told yes. But where's the station? - this can't be it - surely? A young bloke said I should get off here and got off himself. I put my pack on but had to slip it back off to jump down onto the tracks. My new friend was very chatty and wanted me to go with him - he'd get me a car. He seemed fine, and kept saying "don't worry" as I looked around for some clues as to where I might be. I said I'd get a taxi and I think he understood that I just wasn't too comfortable with him - here in the lost wasteland in the outskirts of a strange town, and he went.

I was starting to doubt the wisdom of getting off where I did - there MUST be a proper station in Suez, but it was too late now. Also, I've only got 8LE in small money again so need to be careful with taxis. One offered to take me to the White House Hotel I asked for - for 10LE. I said it was too much but was glad to have bumped into him - he'd pointed north up the road where I'd guessed south. I crossed the dual carriageway, fending off more cabbies, and found a minitaxi that took me, what I guessed was, about halfway.

A taxi beeped and pulled over and said he knew a better hotel. He seemed trustworthy so I gave him a chance. It turned out that I'd been right outside the expensive White House hotel. He, Khaled, spoke a little english and seemed like a nice guy but I'm careful about making friends with people I've yet to pay and was fairly short with him. We went to his recommendation but it was full, we tried 4 other places and they were all full too. He had one more place he knew, right out on Port Tawfiq which is virtually an island, so we went there. Hotel Arafat is a nice quiet little place, I was shown the room and it looked ok, 33LE. Once I'd got my change I gave Khaled a very generous 10LE - he'd been very helpful, was definitely a nice-guy and had saved me 3 times that amount - he was very happy. He wanted to be my tour-guide and "can I go and get you a sandwich" but I said no thanks. He's going to be here at 11:30 tomorrow to take me to the bus station.

It was nearly 5pm time I was settled and sorted so I went straight out to find the canal. Stopped for a kebab at a dodgey stall and ate it as quickly as I could as it was absolutely plagued by flies. I'd wave a dozen off my bread and by the time my arm was back on the table 6 would be back on there. Yet another tough challenge for my poor stomach - that continues to take all the abuse without complaint. It was actually quite tastey, served in a dish with loads of bread, but I couldn't enjoy it. He wanted an extortionate 8LE for the kebab and a bottle of water - I was so keen to get away and pretend it had never happened I paid it.

I'd underestimated the scale of my guidebook's little Suez streetmap so had to walk further than I'd anticipated but I found the canal and got right alongside and walked to the mouth. I was disappointed to see "no photo" signs about but people were taking photos so I grabbed a couple and watched a couple of big container ships negotiate their way out into the Red Sea. Pilot boats were whizzing about guiding the ships and collecting the on-board pilots from the big ships.

Suez - Suez Canal mouth   Suez - Suez Canal mouth

I walked back up the canal and followed the edge of Tawfiq as it branched away until I reached the causeway linking it with Suez. I crossed the causeway just in time to catch the Gulf of Suez sunset.

Gulf of Suez - sunset   Gulf of Suez - sunset   Gulf of Suez - sunset

I've noticed the big sturdy-looking crows in a few places in Egypt. Port Tawfiq is alive with them - they seem to be filling the role normally taken by seagulls. I walked along very quiet, almost deserted, streets where the trees, gardens, fences, walls etc. were full of them. They look pretty menacing and I wondered if Alfred Hitchcock had ever visited here.

I felt exhausted so walked back to the hotel picking up a few snacks along the way - and a very nice ice-lolly that soothed my gurgling stomach - dodgey kebab trouble looming?

I started to do a bit of diary but in no time was crashed out asleep. I've walked a lot of miles this past week and I think it's caught up with me. Woke up at 10:30 but didn't feel like going out. It looks like Suez is going to be my least explored place but from what I saw during the hotel-search there's not much here anyway - a fairly ordinary town. Port Tawfiq and the the Suez mouth was always my main target and I've ended up staying right on it - so that was good.

It's 1:40am and I've just had an insistent knock on the door. He was gesturing as though steering a car and I said no thanks - confused. I now think he was probably offering to do laundry. And why not? it's only 1:40am.

      High: getting close to the canal and watching the big ships go by
       Low: very dodgey and overpriced kebab at a fly-infested stall


Monday 12th September 2005    day 62     whereami     Satellite view

Suez:
I was just finishing up my packing when Khaled the taxi knocked at my door at 11:20. I checked out and we set off to the bus station. I wanted a photo of the Yom Kippur memorial - made from a few captured Israeli tanks - that I forgot to look for yesterday but it wasn't there, and Khaled didn't know anything about it.

We got to the station and I gave Khaled a 10LE note and had to weedle my fair 5LE change out of him - he was getting a bit greedy after my generosity yesterday and went down in my estimation a bit.

There was a kind of queue for tickets but people were pushing in as well. I was too far back to get anywhere without barging in myself so I gave up and went for a shay. I went back, it was quieter and I soon got my 7.25LE ticket for the 140km to Cairo.

The coach was full and I was barely in it when we moved off. Pretty boring 2 hour journey through desert wasteland. I just listened to my music and half-dozed in the uncomfortable seat. I've not been on a coach since the journey from Siwa and had got out of the habit of carrying my valuables separately in my small pack - nobody can get to my big pack on a minitaxi roof without my noticing. And I managed to worry myself with the thought of how easy it would be for one of the early dismounters to walk off with all my worldly goods. We crawled through the Cairo traffic and I was getting impatient to be reunited with my gear. We finally pulled up near Ramyses station and most of us got off there. I got my pack and we strode off, happy to be together again - we're a good team.

Quick tube to Sadat station at Tahrir Square and the short walk to Hotel Dahab. I pressed and pressed the button but the lift would not come down - someone must have left the door open - so I climbed the stairs to the 7th floor, puffing and sweating on arrival. I'm in the same room I had when I first arrived in Egypt and it feels quite homely. I would have preferred somewhere a bit more central but it's quite full.

I dropped my gear and went straight out to get something to eat - I fancied a kushary but couldn't find one nearby. Stumbled across a bookshop but they had very little in english - just the usual collection of technical and medical books. Then found another with a reasonable selection - bought Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" and 3 summaries of philosopher's works - The Essential Kant, Hegel and Spinoza. They should keep me going a while but cost me 180LE - 2 days total budget! I've really got back into my reading now that my mind is calm and time is not an enemy - I'd neglected it over the past 3 or 4 years. Picked up a couple of the tastey mini-pizzas and a couple of date cakes from the local bakery and went back to the hotel.

Got stuck straight into Bill Bryson, the pizzas and a date cake - happy to be reading something worthwhile again. Went for a walk as I was in desparate need of a shay. Hour and a half in an open air café with Bill Bryson and a couple of shays until it got too dark to read. It was a slightly pricey 7LE for 2 shays and a small bottle of water and then 3 of them wanted baksheesh and were very pushy about it. I gave one of them 1LE and told them that was enough - there was much grumbling and I had to push my way through them to get away. I walked back in the dark and picked up a kushary and something to drink on the way, and feasted at the hotel.

I was getting pestered by too many pitifully insistent beggars in the café. I'm not as generous these days - it's not meanness, it's just that the whole process seems very demeaning for both giver and receiver, and I can't be doing with it. Also, there are many, many people about who seem to make some sort of a living from the simplest things - a few dozen mangoes to sell, some packs of tissues, pencils, novelties, tap washers, little bags of limes or nuts or pumpkin seeds, or drinks etc. etc. so begging by youngish and able-bodied people just seems unnecessary and lazy to me. I do now make a point of buying things I need from the small-scale street sellers where possible.

The others in the hotel are in tight groups so there's not a great social atmosphere but my oddball turkish dropout friend is still here so I'll go and find him for a chat later - if he's semi-awake!

A fairly quiet and boring diary really but it's been a pleasant enough day. I'm going to have 3 nights here to relax a bit and get myself and my stuff up together.

Oh, and no ill effects from yesterday's extremely dodgey kebab. My stomach is clearly made of cast iron - possibly even titanium! eh Mark?

      High: decent books to read - and I'm really enjoying reading again
       Low: beggars - I just don't see the need for so much of it


Tuesday 13th September 2005    day 63     whereami     Satellite view

Cairo:
A very quiet day that barely warrants a diary entry at all.

Got up, had breakfast, went shopping for food and washing powder, did washing, ate food, lolled about in the quiet communal area reading Bill Bryson for most of the rest of the day. It's a great book - everyone should read it.

I did have a chat with my turkish friend who announced today that he thinks he might remember me from a previous visit to Dahab! He's been there 8 years, I was there for 2 weeks in 1999 and again in 2000 - why he should remember me, or imagine he does, I have no idea. I feel strangely honoured that he wants to talk to me - he doesn't talk to anyone else much. He's no fool, but I've never met a slower functioning person in my life. And he's so small, skinny and listless I quite expect him to drop down dead at any moment.
One of the subjects was Ramadan which starts on the 4th October. I'll have to see what happens.

Also had a chat with a nice australian girl here to learn arabic and staying in Hotel Dahab whilst between flats.
She made a strange point that I've often heard, that I must be particularly well-off here as there are 10LE to the £, and only 4.5LE to her A$, or only 7LE to the € for most europeans. I get a lot of confused and disbelieving looks when I try to explain that £1 is fundamentally more than A$1 or €1 in terms of gold or whatever, or that they'd earn more A$/€ than I would £ for a similar job. The £ is quite strong at the moment (as is the €) so there's a grain of truth in their argument, but it's mostly the misconception that A$1, €1 and £1 are basically the same at some level.

In the early evening I chatted with a young couple from Manchester who have just completed a 2 month journey from Turkey, through Syria and Jordan to Egypt and fly home tomorrow. They're nuts about the nice fruit juices available everywhere and I joined them for one near Tahrir Square.

And that's it.

Few things to do tomorrow, not least find the used-book market that the australian girl told me about. I feel obsessive about books all of a sudden and want a good supply to take south. I might have to consider trading some too before my load becomes impossibly heavy!

Oops, there goes the power again. Frequent losses of power and water are a fact of life in Egypt. I've experienced both roughly weekly. I overheard a german girl complaining bitterly about the lack of hot water in Hotel Dahab during my previous stay here - and could only laugh when there was none at all the next morning.

And one slight worry. I thought I could feel a crack in one of my dodgey molars last week and this morning noticed that a piece has gone. It's not giving me any trouble and I sincerely hope it stays that way. That could be a major nuisance - possibly even a showstopper if I really need to get them expensively fixed once and for all.

      High: just a nice relaxing and educational day
       Low: a bit of dental worry




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