18th/19th alexandria while looking for an ...

Trip Start Nov 04, 2000
Trip End Nov 04, 2001

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Sunday, December 24, 2000

18th/19th Alexandria

While looking for an ATM to get some cash before heading out into the Western Desert oasis of Siwa, we got a bit lost. Standing on the street corner looking at a map is a sure sign to attract attention and we did - from 4 Egyptian college studes! Female too. They gave us directions which was great, then asked if we wanted to meet for Ramadan breakfast at 6pm. Sounded quite good, we had missed out on cultural exchanges while being in the more touristy areas so we were quite looking forward to it. And they stood us up! The cheek.

Wandered around the city to try and find a cinema to spend a few hours, but all we could find was Titanic(!) or some arabic nonsense which wouldn't be worth the trouble. Stumbled into the Havana bar for a last beer before going to the dry (aha!) oasis town of Siwa.

19th Bus to Siwa
Catching the bus from Alex, we headed west towards Siwa in a bit of a rickety bus, with the archetypal mental bus driver. Overtaking maneuvers were made even more exciting by the presence of sand-slides over part of the road which reduced the 2 lane carriageway to about half a lane. we ran a few donkeys off the road that day.

Some bumf i wrote in my journal....
It is nearing 5pm as we follow the asphalt thru the dry sand sea towards siwa. As the falling sun glows intensely, edging its way west over Libya, the anticipation of Ramadan breakfast is in the air on the bus. Nik and I have been trying to respect the locals by not eating during the day, though we would eat breakfast of bread and bananas or something in our hotel room. I bought us a couple of Danish pastries and some Fruit and Nut at the bus station and we can almost taste it in our mouths. Some of the people on the bus are getting their bread and dates down from the parcel shelf . Everyone with a watch is snatching furtive glances at the face. The sun has half-set beyond the dunes as western egypt sees the last of it's light for the day. People on the bus run to the front to get a better view of the sunset thru the windscreen, and then it's gone. The locals dno't hang about in filling their bellies. Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub - yaaaay God!

Arrived about 8pm and fended off some pretty pathetic hotel touts. They go all hang-dog, droopey eyed if you don't stay at their gaff. tough. Siwa at first appeared quite good, met mental Portuguese designer Fred, and a young local running a craft shop and bike hire place called Ali who was pretty sound so will check out his shop one day. And we met some Norwegian girls too which was nice.

Got up about 8 to try and make the most of the day. Unfortunately, everyone else had just recently gone to bed due to the Ramadan business of eating all thru the night. I wonder if Allah anticipated the purifiying act of fasting to be so warped into how it appears to the untrained eye. The people don't eat from sunrise to sunset, but as soon as the sun goes down, the stuff themselves and smoke themselves silly. All night! We've been in hotels and at 3:30 the dudes are still sitting around watching Xena: Warrior Princess and eating pies. And then they sleep all thru the day, or wander around in a daze like space cadets. Seems pretty pointless. But I hope the Thought Police of Islam don't read this entry or I'm gonna git it. oooo.
Yeah, so anyway we got up at 8 and the bakery was closed, as were all the shops. Nice one. Scrabbled together some bananas from the market, some jam and cheese in anticipation of Mr. Baker shifting his apron anytime soon.

Off to see the sights by bike...
Temple of The Oracle.
Surrounded by flies. I think this is where Alexander the Great came to have his claim to the throne of the Pharoahs confirmed by the Oracle of Amun in 330BC or something, sorry i'm a bit sketchy on the details. There wasn't much information in the visitors centre(!). Anyway, the Temple provided a great vantage point above the oasis to look out over the date palms and the salt lakes to the stupendous and fantastically named Great Sand Sea!
Visited a couple of hot springs around the oasis. These have been built up with natty bathroom tiles and ubiquitous coffee shop. The springs looked pretty inviting apart from the scummy algae stuff that had floated t othe surface and made the pool look like a green hairy water bed if you can imagine that.

In the evening Nik and I and the three Norwegian girls from the hotel climed to the top of the mud town Shali to watch the sunset which was pretty impressive and afforded good views of the town. There were a couple of new buildings around the town, including a salmon-pink sports stadium (25000 seats) for the exclusive use of the the local army base. Siwa might have open sewers running down the street, but at least Private Pike and Co can have a game of fives if they want. Nice one.

Went for dinner with the Norwegian girls which provided some interesting conversation and was they were better looking than the mummies we saw in the tombs of the Mountain of The Dead the next day. We had to pay the old guard geezer a few pounds to let us into some locked tombs, but it was definitely worth the money. Some of the paintings in the tomb were the best preserved we'd seen, and the mummies were fantastic. Just all lying there in shelves on the side of the walls. There were only three, but they really were all wrapped in bandages like you see in Abbot and Costello, and the other one had no bandages and you could look right and him, in his ears and up his nose (where the pull the brains out of). Fun time had by all!

Highlight of today (aside from the Mummy visit which i inadvertantly mentioned earling in this rambling mess) was the pain of breaking a filling on some lovely Siwan flatbread. It was in the side of one of my back teeth and I remember getting it done and it was huge. I dug out my Dental Medical Kit which I bought before departure as I was pretty sure I was going to get scurvy or something and would have to do auto-extractions. Anyway, put in some temporary cavity filler. Then did it again because it fell out. Then did it again. And again. Over several days. Anyway, will suss out some dentists in Alex. I think i'l contact the british embassy to get a list of their recommended butchers/surgeons, and also try and get some free invites to the Embassy Christmas party where i am sure the tailed butlers serve Ferrero Rocher on silver platters - oh commissioner, you are really spoiling us etc.

4x4 Safari to the Great Sand Sea
After resiting the urge to do any kind of tour on this trip (just too expensive for the meagre budget). The sight of the great expanse from the hills around Siwa was just too good to resist. We arranged the trip via the young local Ali who we'd met earlier and he was pretty sound. He ran a small craft shop in town, and we'd been in a few times for tea and just a chat. He was only 20 and was running his own show which was cool, but he has been called up for national service in the New Year and he was a bit down about that. I think he was happy to talk to some people of around his age and practice his english. He was such a nice chap that you have to wonder if going into the army for 2 years will ruin him, or make him more resourceful and able to take advantage of the growing tourism coming into his home town. Anyway, we'll give him some of our tourist dollars to take us out to the desert...

Off to the desert at 3 pm.
Leaving the road just a kilometre from the town, we were almost immediately in the middle of the beautiful desert. Of all the sites i'd visited so far - some historical, some physically prepossessing, this is the most stunning place I have seen. I think it is maybe second only to the Grand Canyon in my eyes.
Wave after wave of unsullied sand met us as the clunky Jeep we had chartered climbed and dived into each sweeping dune. We drove around plateaus strewn with fossils of sea creatures and littered with fragments of shells. As I had experienced in Dahkla, the thought of this entire area being underwater however many millions of years ago blew me away.

We stopped for a break at a cold natural spring situated in gully between two large dunes and surrounded by high grasses with feathered heads. The seeds had blown from many of the grasses and were floating on the pool like little golden flakes in the sun. There were also fish in the lake which I guess had been put there some years ago by the local Harry Ramsden and apparently if you went in swimming they would come up and nibble on you. The water was shockingly cold so we didn't bother testing the mettle of the piranahs.

A few kilometres beyond this lake was the hot spring of Bir Wahed. We drove a little further on to another plateau and climed to get a view of the area - fantastic. The Jeep drove on the the spring and we walked the last half K into the small oasis.

As it was near sunset, Nik and I left the oasis and walked a short distance westwards towards Colonel G's backgarden and climbed a gebel (hill/thing) to watch the sunset over Libya. Got some great pictures of us looking thoughtfully over the sand all in David Lean widescreen.

Wandering back to the hot spring (with the ever-present coffee shop), we waited until the locals had finished their breakfast before we ate. At this point the desert experience took on a sour note, though I won't dwell on it. Just that the welcome was less than jack, and the meal which we'd paid in advance for was pathetic. The trials of being a tourist. Anyway, once we had eaten and been told in no uncertain terms to B-off into the desert (so the locals could leach over some Japanese girls staying in tents at the sping - as is the National Pastime of most Arab males), Nik and I took our sleeping bags and a blanket and went looking for a suitable spot to sleep for the night. We'd been told it was unbelivably cold by a Norwegian Tourette Syndrome sufferer who had been staying at our hotel for 6 months (!). We had our thermals and scarfs (scarves) ready. We looked about for nearly 15 minutes, and Nik's helpful observation of "I wonder what's a good spot - it's all pretty sandy here" had us laughing for a bit and we forget the nonsense of the Bedouin coffee shop owner. We collected some brick-shaped stones in anticpation of WILD DOG attacks which never materialsed.
Sleeping under the stars is something I've done a few times, but nothing compares to the desert sky, miles from any unnatural light and without a sound in the air. During the night I had a very realistic dream that I was at work, filling my day of drudgery by testing my colleague Brian with movie trivia. Then I woke up, saw Venus and the Pliades above me and realised I wasn't at work, I was miles away and having a fantastic time! The best.
Woke for the sunrise at 7ish, which was about as good as the one on Mt. Sinai so you can read that bit again.

Impressions of Siwa? Bit of a twilight zone. Some nice locals who are genuinely friendly. The handicrafts are high quality. However, they seem to be keen to sell off any part of family jewellery they can get their hands on. Silver rings which have been in the family for generations are sold off to the tourist, which i suppose is fair enough if they need money to feed their families. I didn't like the idea and it felt a bit like grave robbing to me. Their call though.
Ok, after 4 days in Siwa it was time to get out.

Night bus to Alex.
The night bus left at 10pm on the 23rd so i wandered over at about 6pm to get a couple of tickets. However, due to it being the end of Ramadan, all the soldiers from the surrounding barracks are going back to their families all over Egypt. And the bus companies in true Egyptian forward-planning have not laid on any additional buses to cover the extra load. It was pandamonium at the small bus depot, with all sorts of fat cats in fatigues handing over wads of cash for tickets, queue jumping barging etc. pushed a couple of squaddies over in the rush to get to the front which was funny. There was a spanish girl at the front of the queue so I threw her the money and asked her to get us 2 tickets. Result - 4 travellers all along the backseat of a bus with no leg room. Cool, at least we were out of Siwa. The bus run was worse than the one from Turkey to Syria. And we had a late arrival from a Chinese girl who wanted out also so she sad in the middle (5 of us on 4 seats). There were 50 seats on the bus, but 80 passengers - very cosy. Even relating this tale gives me shivers. As we drove out of town, incredibly loud PAs from the driver would erupt over the speakers in Arabic. Nik translated - "We have left city limits - you may now kill the infidels at the back of the bus".
All thru the night the driver woudl play blaring arabic music at top volume, then show us attrocious Egyptian films which were just thinly veild propanganda for the soldiers (story : female egyptian spy infiltrates israeli secret service to blow up some planes or something). And then they flash the lights in the bus on and off and unspecified intervals. Man, it was like that bit in the Ipcress File where Michale Caine is getting brainwashed and he thinks he's in Yugoslavia and they're flashing the lights and depriving him of sleep and he has to stick a nail in his hand to keep himself conscious. Yeah, like that only worse. And then they showed us The Specialist with arabis subtitles. We cracked under the strain.
Made it out alive in Alex at 6am and headed for hotel.

Now it is christmas eve and nik and i will go to the pictures tonight, find a bookshop and treat ourselves, and then go and get some beers.

Will write more after christmas I guess. Hope all is well, I'm doing fine.

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