2005 Time-out Diary
Wandering around Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon
27-01 September/October 2005
Tuesday 27th September 2005 day 78
I stayed up on the roof until 3am last night, it was really nice up there, so didn't move until 10am. Hot in the room and I struggled to wake up - there was no water so couldn't even shower to get going.
Breakfasted on a half-stale cake I've been carrying for a couple of days with lemon squeezes to liven it up a bit, and nice grapes. Went shopping for soap and shampoo etc. Got to get cleaned up - I need a haircut. Back to my room and we had water again so I could shower.
The tapwater here has a very strong smell - somewhere between peat and peanuts (I dunno?). It's not unpleasant, it's just surprising.
Went out and found a barbers - it looked a bit poncey but this is only a small place - not a lot of choice. It was run by 3 blokes who clearly loved their work. While one cut my hair the other 2 spent almost the entire 20 minutes preening themselves in front of the mirrors - get me out of here! 10LE for a pretty good cut. Back to the hotel for another shower to get rid of all the hair stuck to my sweaty self.
It's really powerfully hot here - you almost have to claw your way through the stifling air. I'd guess it's probably hotter than Siwa was - I'm further south but it's now later in the season. It's quite breezy too and the wind often whips up little dust-storms that throw all manner of stuff into your eyes.
Went out for a walk to find an internet café - not looked at emails for ages. Found a place with a decent PC but only Win98 and dial-up - extortionate 15LE an hour. Got a few answers off but Hotmail then seemed to go off-line - everything else was fine. Bit annoying really, I had a few things I wanted to do - never mind. Carried on wandering around the town - it's very quiet. I was a bit lost in thought and distracted and didn't think to take any photos.
Slowly headed back towards the hotel to see the birds arrive at sunset. It was pretty good, there's thousands of them all crowded among a hundred or so palm trees. The late arrivals struggle to find a roosting place and often disturb those already comfortable which causes great annoyance and lots of squawking. I'll get some photos of it tomorrow.
Went out again mid evening to look for something to eat. I'm starving and fancy a decent meal. Stopped at a local's "restaurant" and had chicken, rice, soup, bread and ful. It was pretty awful - only the soup was nice. I don't know what the chicken died of but it had clearly suffered, the ful was barely lukewarm, the rice looked like the congealed scrapings from the bottom of the pot - grim. And he had the nerve to charge me 15LE for it.
Went in search of a phone top-up and found a place. Can I have a 50LE card? - no 50's, we only have 5s and 10s - ok, a 10 then - can you come back tomorrow? - so you have no cards then? - none at the moment. What a ridiculous conversation, I despair sometimes but you have to laugh. Couldn't find anywhere else. I walked past the barbers and one of them was still there preening in front of the mirror - 10 hours getting your hair just right seems a bit excessive!
There's a big generation gap amongst the men here. The young men are very trendy, vain and westernised - it all seems very shallow. I've raised quite a few sniggers among them - which I've assumed is probably due to my non-trendy appearance. The old men look like they just emerged from the desert - they look like they could tell some interesting tales. And there's not a lot in between them.
There's not the same sharp divide with the women. The young women dress traditionally though in very bright colours. And they're quite visible here - many of the shops are run by women - of all ages.
Picked up some drinks and went back to the hotel. Mohamed, the owner, was sitting out in the front garden with 2 tourist police and asked me to join them. Sat and had a shay with them. He's a real nice guy - helpful but not at all pushy. The other guest, a german woman, joined us. She was ok though a little strange. We chatted a while about nothing much (she did tell me that the birds in the garden are ibis) and she went off to bed. She's off tomorrow and I will then be the only guest, and I think the only visitor in Mut. I was really thirsty all of a sudden and quickly got through 3 shays and almost a litre of water. Packed up myself about 11:30.
Mohamed is sorting me out a bike for tomorrow. I'm looking forward to touring the area properly on it - I like cycling and haven't cycled since Siwa. There's a big hot spring only 3km away so that will definitely be on my list. I'm not sure what else is within cycling distance but I'll soon find out.
I've bumped into yesterday's microbus driver a couple of times and he's keen to take me to some sights. He seems ok so I'll probably find him for the places I can't reach by bike.
A quiet day really, I don't seem to have done a lot. I think the heat has slowed me down, it's pretty intense - but I still like it. I'll probably stay 4 or 5 days here - I like the feel of the place.
High: this hotel - it's great, and Mohamed is one of the good guys
Low: very poor and overpriced meal, and I was really in the mood for a good feast
Wednesday 28th September 2005 day 79
Lazed about in my room reading for a while hoping the water might come back - gave up and showered under a trickle that ran out when I was all soaped up. Had to rinse off with mineral water - only just had enough - nearly had to rinse in 7up!!
Went down, quick shay and was asked to write and sign a statement that I didn't want police accompaniment - I gladly wrote it. Set off on my bike - Mohamed gave me a bottle of local water to take - half ice, lovely. Not a bad bike but the brakes don't work at all. Cycled around Mut a while and bought some apples - sudden craving for fruit. Headed out to the hot spring. It was further than I thought and I wondered if I'd missed it or gone the wrong way but eventually found it. It was closed for cleaning. Sat in the shade and ate my apples and enjoyed my freezing cold water.
Cycled back towards the town and stopped at Abu Hamdi's restaurant - recommended by several as the best in town. There was a tourist coach just leaving - full of english and germans but I didn't get a chance to chat. I wasn't really hungry, just wanted to check it out with a quick shay, and come back to eat tonight.
I was joined by Nasser who spoke good english. He was very subtley touting for business (safari and his hotel) but he was ok. He was telling me about the conservation work he does - organising work parties to clear up areas of the desert. Many people treat the desert as a rubbish dump much the same as we used to treat the sea as a huge thing that can swallow up an infinite amount of waste - which of course isn't true. He's a smooth talker but I think he's pretty straight. He invited me to his hotel to use his swimming pool - 5LE for non-residents - and offered to put my bike in his 4x4 and drive me there. I said I might visit but I would cycle, and he left.
They persuaded me to have one of their legendary lemon juices - it was really good. As I was a little bit peckish I had a lentil soup and some bread - delicious. And another lemon juice - 10LE the lot. I'll definitely eat here tonight.
The peaceful swimming pool described by Nasser sounded tempting so I started out to his hotel - 6km away. It was pretty heavy going back through Mut and out the other side on the exposed main desert road - there was quite a north wind blowing. It's not even remotely cooling though - it really feels like you're sitting too close to a fan heater. I had to stop several times for a swig of my cool water.
Got to the next settlement, Sheikh Wali, and the sign for Nasser's Hotel was right at the far end. Sheikh Wali is not touristy or developed at all - just a scruffy working village. I turned down the narrow track and twisted through some houses. Had to dismount a couple of times as the sand was too deep and soft to cycle on. Found the hotel tucked away in a back corner. A lad let me in the gate and went and got Nasser. He welcomed me, showed me the pool, told the lads to get me a lemon juice and went off for his afternoon nap.
It was really nice there, and absolutely silent - no other guests. I had a little swim and sat comfortably and happily reading my book. The younger lad, 13 or so, would occasionally quietly appear to see if I wanted anything. I spent a couple of hours reading and dipping and drinking lemon juice.
Nasser returned with his new wife of 1 month - the lads are her brothers. Only Nasser spoke english but we all sort of communicated - they're a nice family. The young lad has an extravagant white quiff sprouting out from his otherwise dark hair, like a young american from the 50's, and I couldn't decide if it was natural or bleached - he seemed to wear it with pride. His older brother and sister both had blotchy facial skin - like they were partially albino. When he stripped off to swim it was obvious that it was natural - half his torso was almost white. Albinism(?) is surprisingly common amongst these isolated communities - I'm sure it must be largely due to inbreeding.
I was so taken with the place and the people I soon decided to move here. I dropped into the conversation about 50 times that what I liked was the quiet - Nasser said if I stayed I wouldn't be disturbed. This'll really do me for a few days - I really need a decent break from the people. I'm not fed up with the travelling by any means but I'm really tired of being overly-noticed and often hustled by almost everyone I see. I joked with Mohamed in Bahariya that I was thinking of doing a "John Simpson" - dressing up as a woman in the full veil so I could go about without being noticed. A life-and-soul-of-the-party person who loves to be the centre of attention would be in paradise here - but my quieter nature is really struggling with it lately.
We moved and sat in the basic garden for a while where I had some fun with their 8 3-week-old puppies - soooo cute. I left about 7:30 for the 6km ride back in the pitch dark. Few people (cars, motorbikes, lorries) bother with lights here at night anyway so I'll just blend in. It was ok going back with the wind behind me. In the town I nearly collided with another bike when I swerved to avoid a donkey that suddenly wandered into the street.
Back to the hotel and I apologetically told Mohamed I was moving tomorrow - I felt quite guilty 'cos he's a nice guy. 30 minute snooze and back on the bike to Abu Hamdi's - Nasser was there waiting for me. Had a really delicious meal of chicken, macaroni, salad, bread and soup - and another excellent lemon juice and a shay. I expected the bill to be 25-30LE or maybe more - 18LE, great value. I'll definitely be here again - I really needed some good food and now feel great. Hamdi is Nasser's brother.
Picked up a few bits of shopping on the way back - no shops in Sheikh Wali. Got a phone top-up that I wasn't certain was the right type. Found it was the wrong type but it's still sealed so I hope I can get my money back tomorrow.
Back to the hotel and paid my 5LE for the bike. Sat and chatted with Mohamed and the tourist police. They seem to find me very amusing and laugh at most things I do or say whether I'm trying to be funny or not. There was loud music playing in the distance and Mohamed suggested I should go and see it - I'd assumed it was recorded. I went and found it - a surprising distance away. I keep being surprised at how sound travels in the desert regions. I think it may be due to high pressure, and maybe aridity and the general quietness make a difference too. It travels a long way and it's often difficult to distinguish the direction.
It was a live band playing at an open-air wedding party. It seemed to be open to all so I wandered in hoping it was ok - I'm a bit conspicuous to be gate-crashing! They were good and I stayed for nearly an hour and grabbed a few photos.
Back to the hotel and to bed at 1am.
There may be no diary for a few days again. I'm not sure if I'll get a gprs connection up the road and I might struggle to get a phone top-up tomorrow anyway.
High: Nasser's Hotel was a good find - a peaceful oasis within the oasis
Low: The closed hot-spring was a bit of pain - but without it I wouldn't have bumped into Nasser
Thursday 29th September 2005 day 80
Crashed quite late again last night so up predictably late as usual. No water again - it seems to be off more than on here. Brief power cuts - 30mins or so - are also very frequent.
Packed up and went down for a shay, settle my bill and checkout. Mohamed hadn't kept track of my considerable shay consumption and guessed 10 - and only charged 50piastres each. So I only owed 20LE - I gave him 30.
It seems my friendly police protection is coming with me. It's a bit odd really, I'm free to roam wherever I want but I must have at least one policeman guarding my hotel. I don't mind really, they're ok and are generally happy to leave me alone.
The cost of all the police in Egypt must be astronomical. I asked Hamouda in Bahariya how much income tax they pay and he didn't know - he guessed maybe 2% which can't be right. In Mut there must be about 40 tourist police on duty at all times. They work 12 hour shifts so that's maybe 100 tourist police in a village with a population of maybe 4,000 - and I think 1 tourist! Their job consists of sitting in a chair near the hotel door, or at key places like road junctions etc. - tough work. Obviously it's too much for a guy to manage on his own so they're usually in pairs. I've been feeling a bit guilty about my laziness the past week or so, I have been exercising my brain but I'm not moving much, but these guys are in a different league - they generally do nothing, all day, every day.
I left my big pack at the hotel and went off to try and sort out yesterday's phone top-up card error. There were 2 girls running the shop today and I just about managed to persuade them to swap my card for the correct one. Back to the hotel, picked up my pack and my security and we set off to the minibus station - a pretty hot 1-2km walk away.
My friend flagged a minibus that was full of 15-16yr schoolgirls - 3 climbed out the front and into the back, and we took the front seats. They were all giggling and making little remarks to each other and laughing. They asked me my name and several of the bolder ones at the back started singing a song with my name in it, the others laughing uproariously. They all got off in Sheikh Wali centre and we carried on to Nasser's Hotel.
Nasser and his crew were busy building a wall. The young lad, Zacharia, showed me to one of the rooms. It's all built of mud-brick and has 2 brick beds - it's very basic and I like it - despite being closed in it feels traditional and cosy. They sorted out my police friend with somewhere to sit and a shay and got on with their work. I sat quietly and very happily alone by the pool all afternoon until it was too dark to read - reading, dipping in the pool, drinking shay and lemon juice. Bliss.
I only broke off for a communal bedouin snack about mid-afternoon, and a play with the irresistible puppies.
About 7pm they stopped work and a couple jumped in the pool, the power failed - I couldn’t read, so I joined them. Swimming up and down in the twilight you tend to keep your head low as there are many bats acrobatically swooping around after the insects - they're very fast. I thought they were birds until I was put right - I'm gonna try and photograph them tomorrow.
Nasser announced that he was going to Abu Hamdi's in 20 minutes, after they'd prayed, if I wanted to join him - of course I do. They pray as a group at the base of the steps leading up to the pool. I can clearly hear their repetitive prayers from the poolside.
Nasser, his wife and I went off in his 4x4 and I had another great, if similar, meal 18LE - and another power cut. The conversation was a bit lacking, Nasser is pretty egocentric and is not really interested in anything other than himself and what he has to say. It gets one-sided as he pays no attention to anything anyone else says. His wife (his 6th!) speaks no english.
Back to the hotel about 10pm - Nasser and wife went home. I had a quick play with the dogs and joined the lads and the police at the the tv just to be sociable but soon got bored and went back to the poolside and finished my book.
The Language Instinct looked like one of those science books that's interesting for the first 3 chapters, and a struggle from then on, but it was excellent from start to finish, some great insights.
Retired to my room about midnight and did my diary. No update today - the walls are half a metre thick - no phone signal at all - and no gps fix. OK from poolside the next day.
High: it makes a boring diary but I'm just loving the peace
Low: longish walk in 40C with the big pack - it was nothing really though
Friday 30th September 2005 day 81
Sheikh Wali, Dakhla:
Up at 10, breakfast, swim, read The Essential Spinoza, swim, lunch, read half of Pride And Prejudice, swim, dinner at Hamdi's, took photos of bats, bed at midnight.
That's about it really. Nasser was better company tonight at the restaurant without his new wife to show off in front of.
If there was a contest for Egypt's Most Boring Guest I reckon I'd win hands down this past couple of days. And I haven’t had enough yet - I'm thoroughly enjoying myself engrossed in my books in the quiet here.
I did get some sunset shots (for a change?) from the roof
And I'm pleased with these bat photos. The best from about 100 shots - they're REALLY quick, and digital cameras are notoriously slow - 1 second between button push and photo. You have to anticipate, point roughly where they might go, and shoot.
They swoop down around the pool for the mosquitos, often splashing the surface, and splashing me more than once as they then flew over me. Fascinating to watch - and one roosted under the shelter for a few minutes too.
I'm pretty much at the halfway point of my stay in Egypt now. I've made much slower progress than I originally planned - I was expecting to be in Dahab in September. But my plans changed along the way, I like the travelling and I like these remote places. I'm not overly concerned about Dahab now - I'll certainly get there but maybe only for a few weeks rather than a few months.
I'll probably stay here 2 or 3 (or 10!) days more and read and read and swim and read. I'm very happy here, it's £1.50 a night, and £1-£2 for a decent evening meal - so I'd be crazy to leave! Nasser is building a house in the hotel grounds that he seems determined I should buy. I don't think so somehow but I'll be interested to learn how much it would go for.
There's not too many flies here either though mosquitos seem to like the pool at night. I was warned tonight to always wear shoes when it's dark because of scorpions and snakes - I thought he meant just in the garden when he mentioned it yesterday.
And the clocks went back yesterday so I've been an hour in front of everyone today.
High: the peeeace, the quiet, the books . . . .
Low: being attacked by mosquitos while photographing the bats
Saturday 1st October 2005 day 82
Sheikh Wali, Dakhla:
Up at 9:30, breakfast, swim, read The Essential Kant, swim, lunch, read the other half of Pride And Prejudice, swim, dinner at Hamdi's, "chatted" with tourist police, bed at midnight.
Dull day for the diary again but very enjoyable. It's good to relax the body and exercise the mind. And I'm feeling very chilled out again as a result of being left alone.
I think one of the tourist police was fishing for an invitation to England tonight and I had to pretend to not understand again to avoid the issue. I soon left for bed anyway as the mosquitos were mercilessly attacking my ankles.
Had some fun with the pups again of course. They're really funny, especially with there being so many of them. They're always fighting and biting each other, one dog biting the ear of another who is biting the tail of another who is biting the leg of another who is biting the neck of another etc. All accompanied by yelping when they hurt each other.
And that really is it. Stand by for tomorrow's thrilling instalment.
High: the peeeace, the quiet, the books . . . .
Low: having to fend off police and mosquitos