Living in a bustling metropolis like Cairo can take its toll. Thats why people retreat to the numerous resorts dotted along the coast for some relaxation. We decided to be more adventerous and ventured further to the red sea and the city of Marsa Alam, famous for its sea-life and and a haven for hardcore divers.
We arrived at a diving resort called Marsa Shagra which is situated at the heart of the coral and boasts one of the best diving places in the world. The red sea has a high salinity (4% more than average, apart from the red sea), making it abundant with many species of fish.
By the second day I had tried snorkelling and as I write this it is the third day. This morning I woke up early, wanting to get good visibility in the sea. After a leisurely breakfast, by 8am I put on my life jacket, goggles and snorkels and waded into the sea. Because I’m not a strong swimmer, the life jacket enabled me to go further without drowning.
It was the most inspiring and awe (insert more adjectives) moment in my life.
We had arrived on a wednesday and booked ourselves in a royal tent, complete with a mini fridge and fan. By the afternoon they warned us that there was a storm due that evening. As the sunset a flash of lightning struck. The monsterous roar of thunder sounded and a few moments later it started raining. A few drops at first, and then a heavy downpour. People started to panic and grab the cushions to take inside. Others fled into the restaurant. I hadn’t seen rain for a few months and it felt amazing.
That night we moved to a hut and slept to the sound of the wind strongly blowing against the shore, wondering what adventures the morning would bring.
I recently had the amazing opportunity to visit Japan for ten days. This place was out of this world. As soon as the wheels hits the tarmac and you file out of the plane, you feel the sense of organisation. Coming from Cairo I was shocked at how systematic and easy it was to do things. From filling out a landing card to navigating your way around the city, Japan was definitely another planet, and the people, another species.
We landed in Osaka, a modern Japanese city, home of excellent food. I crave food all the time. As soon as I finish breakfast im thinking about lunch, when I eat lunch I’m thinking about what to have for dinner and when I sleep I’m…well you get the picture.
Osaka is mainly famous for its pancakes and in the handy Lonely Planet guide that I used to navigate the city, it says that “the phase kuidaore (eat ’till you drop) was coined to describe Osakans’ love for good food.”
When you first arrive in Osaka, head down to Dotombori Arcade, but be prepared to be wowed on many levels. The place is a maddening crowd of shops, restaurants, Arcade pinball machines, tourist groups and advertisements screaming right in your face to buy this cream or eat in this restaurant because they have the best sushi. My head was spinning at all the information that is available. In an article in the Guardian in 2005 it says that in an entire day you’re likely to see 3,500 marketing messages. In Japan it must be triple that. I became a shopping whore during my time there, so it must have worked.
Dotombori is like the Leicester Square of Japan. Its dirty, sleazy, full of annoying tourists that congregate in large groups and unrefined restaurants in abundance that are over-priced.
When it comes to food, the Japanese know how to do it. It’s not just about the way it tastes, but the presentation of the food is very important. It’s the little details that count. When I have a curry at home it looks like a splatter of spices placed in a plain dish with plain bread and served in mis-matched bowls. That’s the no frills approach to food. When the Japanese do food they like to go the whole hog. A bowl of noodles isn’t just wheat flour floating in a brown broth, but a masterpiece of yellow dough surrounded by an array of fish and vegetables cut into fancy shapes, all served in stylish bowls. The portions are small, not friendly to a western belly, so you might need to order a few dishes each.
I even tried some Sashimi, which is raw fish (Tuna and sea bream). Yes i can’t believe I had some, but I even surprised myself as it was tasty. You need to make sure that you order this from a good restaurant as fish that isn’t fresh will just make you ill. Each meal is usually served with endless cups of green tea. You nearly reach the end of your supply, and in an instant the waiter rushes over with their jug to fill replenish your cup. You don’t even have to ask them, they just know. Service is just as important as the food, and I found the Japanese to be very attentive and helpful.
My only problem with the food was eating it with chopsticks. I still didn’t get the hang of it, instead having to adjust them again and again. I think I should youtube a tutorial on using chopsticks for dummies.
A delicacy I loved was octopus tentacles served in a ball made from batter. The octopus is placed in a deep rounded mould and batter is then poured into the moulds. When one side is done, using the wooden handle, the metal plates moulds are flipped over so that the other side can cook. The gooey texture of the batter and chewy octopus was delicious.
In Koyoto we had a savoury dumpling of vegetables served with green tea. Notice the quaint and stylish presentation.
Even the breakfast at the design hostel we were staying at was stylishly served, resembling a Monocle magazine picture spread. Home made bread served with apple jam, plain yoghurt, fresh orange juice and English Breakfast tea.
McDonalds got in on the act and transformed a plain milkshake into a green tea flavour which tasted nothing like tea, more like bubble gum.
Even the fake food that was used as a visual menu looked good enough to eat
“Live in this world as (if you are) a wayfarer or a stranger”
(Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him)
The American boy, now a young man in his early 20’s, at the prime of his life, decides to embark on a journey, to travel across the world. He has never stepped foot outside his home town, and the prospect of leaving his state is daunting for him. He didn’t own a passport until two weeks ago when it arrived through the post, freshly printed and the crisp pages still possessing the lingering smell of wet ink. It was to him, the smell of hope and excitement, of unfamiliar places he had yet to discover. The pages blank, ready for him to fill with his adventures and life changing experiences.
A young female, recently graduated wearily lies down on her bed, her flowery bedspread engulfing her petite frame. She craves for some independence in her life, and hoped she would achieve this at university, but living at home meant she didn’t quite gain the experience she had dreamed of. Unlike her friends, she didn’t know how it felt to cook for one, how to read the mundane bills that came through the door and how to solve real problems. Her parents did all that for her. A graduate, she felt she would be prepared for the real world, but she suddenly realised that she wasn’t. She had not even travelled far beyond her campus walls. How could she be independent if she hadn’t been introduced to the world, the one outside her front door?
A recently divorced father of three sits dejected in his compact one bedroom flat situated on a dismal road in East London. His family meant everything to him, but now that he had lost custody of them, he was numb. What were his interests apart from playing hide and seek and pulling funny faces which made his children laugh uncontrollably?
He had never travelled before, preferring Butlins or day trips to Margate to entertain the children. All throughout the holiday he would lie on a lounger and try to get a tan from the sun that was quickly disappearing behind a dirty cloud. Now he yearned for real interests, his own interests. He longed to climb the highest mountain and go scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef. To mingle with shoppers in an over crowded market in Delhi and to seek solitude in a Buddhist temple on the hills of Nepal. As he let his mind wander over his dreams, outside the sky had slowly blackened. The heavy clouds suddenly burst, releasing their burden and bringing fresh rain down onto the empty streets.
We travel to broaden our horizons and our minds as we are introduced to many different lands, cultures, food and way of thinking. We might get ripped off by the pushy taxi driver at the airport and charged too much for a hotel room with two single beds pushed together in the pretence of being a double, but that’s what travelling is all about. You make these silly mistakes, all in the hope that it’ll help you to grow as a person. Most of the times though you come back with lighter pockets, a lost passport and a journal full of amusing stories.
To view pictures of my travels click here or visit the ‘photography’ page at the top of the blog
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Today is my two year anniversary of living in Cairo, and I must say that it’s gone by quickly. I can still remember arriving at the start of the hot weather and being suffocated by a blast of warm air as I exited the airport. Also there to welcome me was a mob of taxi touts refusing to believe I already had a ride. They’d loiter on to me like flies on crap, and only moved away when I gave them ‘the eye’. ‘The eye’ is a certain look that displays displeasure and tells those who dare, not to mess with you. To achieve this you need to show no emotion on your face and instead stare directly at the person’s eyes. Staring intimidates people, causing them to back off. Of course there are some persistant people who won’t be affected by this, so you use the ignoring technique-play deaf and pretend they don’t exist.
I was put in the deep end when I first arrived in our neighborhood. An all Egyptian area, I was glued to the window of the taxi as we passed through bustling markets, lively ahwas (cafes) full of nonchalant men gazing at a battered television set whilst leisurely smoking on a shisha pipe, bare footed children playing amongst an abandon car and piles of rubbish lining the street corners. Even the sounds emulating into the house from the streets below all seemed unfamiliar. The animated voices of children playing football on the dusty streets, the morning chatter of neighbours from their balconies and the habitual daily visit of the street seller, his voice momentarily overshadowing the din.
It took me a few months to assimilate to my new life, but now every time I visit the UK I find the life there so strange. There’s no children playing on the streets, nor rubbish discarded at the end of the road. Drivers indicate when changing lanes and traffic actually seems to be following some sort of order. But I would always feel homesick and longing to be back into the hot and suffocating bosom of Cairo.
So to celebrate my anniversary, here’s some highlights over the past two years:
- Asking someone where the toilet is in Arabic and instead asking them where the donkey is
- Having to hold on to the broken door of a moving microbus to stop it from falling apart, until the driver stopped and pieced it together again
- Our neighbours always sending plates of fish, sticky rice and falafel stuffed in bread. I thought it was a nice gesture until I realised they did it out of sympathy because they thought I couldn’t cook
- The deafening music played every weekend from the wedding marquee behind our house, until 1am
- The warmth and generosity we received during the revolution with food, security advice and invites upstairs for hot tea and sticky baklava
- Having some of my pictures of the revolution displayed in a photo exhibition in AUC, titled Tahrir
- Living in a city full of thousands of years of history, art and culture
- Being chatted up by an eager taxi driver looking for a second wife
- The ubiquitous brightly coloured lamps appearing in front of every building and street, indicating the start of ramadan
- The excitement in the lead up to ramadan, with people stocking up on food and attending special events. The local youth club was always full of boys playing football until 1am and children sitting on the wall outside my window singing the shisha song all throughout the night
- The sound of the caller during ramadan, waking the neighbourhood up for pre dawn breakfast.
- Having the opportunity to visit Palestine, Siwa and Ain Sokhna
- Meeting great people who have passed through Cairo, some settling down, others who have now moved on
After all the excitement of yesterday I had a well deserved lie-in before stirring at 9am. We ordered breakfast and ate on our veranda overlooking the garden surrounded by palm trees. The faint sound of a rooster could be heard somewhere in the near distance, and the sweet chirping of birds rang loud. The sound of nature was graceful and some how unfamiliar to my ears that were attuned to the hubbub of the city.
Today we wanted to visit Lake Siwa and the small secluded Fatnas Spring for a dip before we travelled back to Cairo later that evening. We hopped on our ramshackle bikes and cycled the lengthy 6km. The road was easy to navigate and very quiet. After leaving behind the town centre we slowed down to a leisurely pace taking in our surroundings. Motorised rickshaws steadily passed us by reflecting the relaxed environment. At every opportunity, we would stop and ask for directions, just to make sure we were going the right way. We didn’t want to cycle for 6km and then realise that we’ve been going in totally the wrong direction!
By now we had passed no living soul for 15 minutes and it truly did feel like we had the whole oases to ourselves. Palm trees were dotted by the road side and small cement holes filled with water seemed to pop up off the beaten track. Soon the palm trees dwindled out and the landscape gave way to open land. In the distance I could make out the still reflection of water.
The vivid colours next to a derelict house grabs our attention and makes us stop to get a better look. Beside the house was a ditch that had caused the soil to turn an intense deep red, and stick to the bottom of my shoes when I ventured too close to the edge. Juicy dates were left out in the hot sun to dry, causing them to wrinkle and harden. Moving on, the perspective suddenly changed with the lake appearing on either side of the straight road. This in all its glory was Lake Siwa.
Soon the road closed in on a forest of palm trees and came to a stop besides the Fatnas Spring. With the sun now rising higher in the sky the spring looked so refreshing that I just wanted to dive in fully clothed! A hand-made sign reminded people to be careful as the water was deep and not for weak swimmers (Me!). Pass the sign and through the heavy foliage was a cafe ahead and a toilet to the left. Although the toilet looked promising from the outside, the interior was dirty and unsuitable to use. It was only good enough to quickly get changed in, which I did.
The Spring has a few steps that lead you gently into the water. I stayed besides these steps, and only when I mustered up the courage to swim across did I manage to leave it’s safety. At this time the place was deserted and we had the place to ourselves. Although the spring was hot, it still felt cooling to feel the water against my body.
After a good swim we walked through the thick canopy and to a cafe that overlooked the lake. During the summer when the sun is fierce, the water dries up leaving only salty terrain. Now though as the season was Spring, the lake was full. The water was intensely still and tiny fish swam by careful to not disturb the tranquility.
A palm tree had toppled over into the water creating a perfect spot to sit and admire the lake close up. I can honestly say that I did not want to leave that place. And as I sat on a mat in the shade of a tree sipping a cold mint juice, I knew I would return here one day. Soon. Please pray it will be soon.
We made our way back to the hotel and rested for two hours before eating lunch and then making our way to the Palm Hotel for the tour. The hotel was down a side road just off the main square and is more of a backpackers commune than luxurious. There was a large sandy garden with palm trees scattered around, but stagnant water from a makeshift swamp attracted an influx of mosquitos attracted to the smelly sulphuric water.
In our tour group were three British university students who were in Cairo studying Arabic on their year out and another British woman living in Alexandria. After much discussion regarding the seating arrangements, four people squashed in the back seat while we sat in the front.
The driver leisurely drove through the back streets, every now and then swerving to avoid the pot holes which seemed to appear from nowhere. Half built crumbling mud houses and asphalt roads gave way to a vast expanse of desert. The driver stopped the car and got out to deflate the tires so the jeep could drive over the sand easier. With that he slowly eased the jeep onto the sand and we were on our way into the wilderness.
The drivers are known to steer furiously over the dunes, swerving and zig zagging at top speeds, but ours decided to play it safe and keep to some limit. He zoomed over the dusty mountains, every now and then turning haphazardly so that we all gasped and screamed. Soon the jeep came to a stop on top of a large dune where we got out to take pictures.
The weather wasn’t ideal with it being overcast and now freakishly windy. Sand was blowing strongly in our eyes, nose, mouth and into every recess possible. In the distance we saw the outline of two more jeeps navigating up and down the dunes, edging closer towards us until they screeched to a halt next to our jeep.
With sand-boards we tried to whizz down the dune but with the wind against us and the poor quality of one of the boards it was a loosing battle. After a few attempts I did manage to go down, but then climbing back up was a KILLER. My legs were burning as i struggled to keep a constant pace, with every step causing the sand to crumble below me. After numerous breaks i managed to make it up and it felt like I had just mounted the summit of Everest. I did not try it again. My shoes felt weighed down after all that, and when I tipped it upside down, it produced a tiny mountain of sand.
The jeeps left and made the short journey winding round a dune where suddenly we caught sight of a row of palm trees and a lake in the middle of the desert. It was an amazing sight. Even more amazing was swimming in it. I had bought my swimming gear and quickly changed into my leggings in the car.
The first step I took into the water shocked me and made me shiver in pain. After a few minutes though my body got used to the cold and it was fun to splash about. I’m not a strong swimmer, having last swam at least ten years ago, so I stayed near the bank and made use of the wet sand to gently exfoliate my body. This was one spa treatment you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere.
A group of people started wrestling in the water. Others bravely swam to the opposite side of the lake, whilst some lazily sat upon straw mats in the shade of the trees. After 30 minutes I got out to dry in the sun before we quickly went on to the hot springs.
Seeing the desert spring made me say quietly to myself “Is that is?”, for its size was a quarter of the Spring of Cleopatra. But my disappointment soon gave way to relief when I went in. The water was strangely hot, like being in a hot tub but with a crust of algae floating around. Fresh bubbles were bubbling from the mouth of the spring below and it felt wonderful when you put your feet there. There’s no words to describe the feeling of sitting in a hot spring other than bliss. Sheer bliss.
Sitting cross-legged under the palm trees on woven mats, a group of Siwan men (our guides) were brewing a pot of the famous Siwan red tea. We had that served in mini glass cups whilst enjoying the last of the sunset.
After our tea we quickly drove over to a site in the desert which many years ago used to be immersed in water. Now all that was left was fossils buried in the rock hard salt. I managed to pick up a few lose shells, but the majority of the ornate ones were stuck and needed a pick to get at them. Obviously I wouldn’t do that as it would damage the site and leave nothing for others to appreciate.
To enjoy the sunset we went to the top of a dune where the view was astounding with nothing but the vast desert for miles and miles. The sun was still out but slowly disappearing behind a mountain of sand. The thing you notice out here is the absence of noise. The only sound was the gentle blowing of the breeze and it was so peaceful and tranquil. It’s definitely hard to find that calmness in this day and age.
A group of Bradford boys were busy burying their friend in the sand until only his face and closely shaven head showed. Some, probably feeling the need to make the most of the peace, ventured far into the desert until they were nothing but a tiny dot on the horizon.
I looked over at the last of the suns rays disappearing on the skyline, and it made me appreciate what I have and to also appreciate God’s attributes – Al Majid (The Majestic), Ar Rahman (The Merciful) and Al-Malik (The King). Sometimes we need to come to a place like this to truly be thankful for what’s right infront of us.
Men formed in a straight line to pray the Maghrib prayer, the gentle breeze carrying the words out into the unknown. Darkness had fallen as we drove to an isolated camping spot deep in the desert, where those who had paid would spend the night. A fire was already lit and mats laid circling around the flames enticing us to lie down. The cloudy sky had cleared up and a few stars were visible but unfortunately not the whole milky way which i’ve been told is not unusual to see here.
It felt magical just laying there and gazing up at the black sky dotted with tiny stars. It would have been even better if the camp had enough food for us to stay and eat but as they didn’t we had to make our way back to town. We drove through the darkness with only the sand infront faintly lit by the jeep’s headlights. As we made the descend from sand to gravel I looked back to say goodbye. But all I could see was the pitch-black desert surrounded by an eternal silence.
Today we were going for our desert tour at 2pm but before that we had time to explore the various historic edifices around Siwa. After a satisfying breakfast of white cheese and tomatoes, foul and a sweet date and yoghurt smoothie we set off on our bikes ready to explore. On our list was The Cleopatra Springs, Temple of Umm Obeyda (Amon) and The Oracle Temple of Alexander.
There are few cars in Siwa, infact the only ones I saw were the giant desert jeeps used by the tour groups. The transport here consists of donkey and cart, bicycles, motorbikes or converted rickshaws. This means there is literally no noise pollution coming from traffic or the loud honking of cars from frustrated drivers.
We cycled through the windy streets passing through simple built villages and dusty roads lined with drooping palm trees, their branches burdened with dates. Cheeky looking children, their clothes marked with dust and grit smiled and pulled funny faces as we cycled past waving. The roads were every now and then bumpy with clumps of sand collecting at the sides making it a challenge to cycle on, but as the road is plagued with minor traffic it was easy to make use of both lanes.
Sign posts line the road directing you to the sights and suddenly after 15 minutes a rounded concrete oasis appeared in the middle of the road. This was the Spring of Cleopatra. Young bare chested boys dressed in voluminous cotton pants were busy splashing in the crystal green spring, trying to cool off in the morning heat. Every now and then they would swiftly pull themselves out of the water and in groups run from afar and screaming, throw themselves into the sulphuric deep waters. With every jump, the clumps of slimy algae floating on the surface was momentarily disturbed, settling after a few seconds.
One boy tried to impress with his dive, instead he was left scrambling to hide his modesty when his baggy pants started to slip down his slender waist!
The water looked so refreshing but I didn’t venture in because of the lack of privacy and the guide book warnings that advise women not to swim in a local pool (Siwa is a conservative town where you should respect the local customs). I thought I’d wait until we visited the desert spring later in the day.
The Temple of Um Ubayd was originally connected to the Temple of the Oracle and must have been a spectacular sight. Unfortunately today all that remained of the original construction was a piece of rock bearing some drawings and inscriptions.
In the near distance I could hear the continuous thud of rock colliding with rock. Further down amongst the mountain was a group of youngsters hurling large stones down into a shallow pit. A heavily built boy who seemed to be the ring leader, reached down and carefully searched for the ideal sized stone. With a swing of his chubby arm he flung the rock into the pit and the familiar thud rang out again. His friends were staring into the hole, mesmerised by what they saw.
I peered down and was taken aback to find a human skull minus the jaw bone! The boys got a little telling off from us and the words of “Haram alaik” (its forbidden for you) was used. With their interest waning they drove off in a motor rickshaw, presumably searching for other dead bodies to harass.
Our final destination was the temple of the Oracle, built in the 6th century BC and once an important temple dedicated to the god Amun. A group of bored children stood at the small ticket booth, some trying to give us berries, whilst others were simply begging for a pound to buy a bag of sweets.
The temple had some interesting dark passage ways that winded itself into dark rooms and a great view over onto the palm trees of the oasis. There was nothing to see though in terms of architecture or artifacts, which is a shame as so much of the rich history has been lost.