Journal: Sunday 5 January 2003
Abdul and his Peugeot taxi were parked outside the Ciao Hotel and we were all loaded up and ready to move. It had taken a while because our driver had decided to have the taxi serviced early this morning because he wanted to make sure everything was just right for our journey, so it wasn’t until 11.00am, with Sam in the front, Jane and I in the back and all our luggage piled high behind us that we set off through the busy Cairo streets on our way to the Faiyum. We drove out to Giza and down al-Haram, the Pyramids Road, under thick heavy clouds with rain threatening. Then we were on the new fast road to Faiyum and we even caught a glimpse of Meidum Pyramid over to our left rising through the mist.
We hadn’t pre-booked a hotel, preferring to wait and see what was available, with the idea of perhaps staying by the Lake, but the police at the first checkpoint we stopped at had other ideas and tried to insist we went into Faiyum City to a tourist hotel of their choice. Sam has been here before and knew the hotel the police suggested. She definitely didn’t want to stay there and held out for the lake. After quite a bit of argument (Sam has a real stubborn streak) they agreed to escort us out to the lake to the Panorama Hotel at Shakshouk.
The large lake of Birket Qarun is on the northwest edge of Faiyum and has a developing tourist industry which we could see from the number of smart hotels and apartments being built. We had followed the police truck along roads bounded on either side by agricultural fields through the area known as ‘the garden of Egypt’ which provides much of the country’s fruit and vegetables, wheat, rice and cotton, as well as dates from the many groves of palm trees. After driving all the way along the eastern shore of the lake we arrived at the Panorama Hotel to find a lovely low modern building right on the lakeside and we all trooped into the reception area. The hotel rates were much more than we were used to paying for rooms but Sam and Abdul between them managed to negotiate ‘Egyptian’ rates for us at EL110 per night. As Jane and I had already decided to share a room this didn’t seem too bad and got even better when we reached our assigned room and I immediately fell in love with it. In fact, it wasn’t just a room but a whole suite, with a huge bedroom, lounge and bathroom under high domed ceilings and curving archways it and even had a little terrace outside that overlooked the lake. There were comfy sofas and armchairs and a little kitchen area with a fridge. I think it’s going to be difficult when the time comes to move on from here.
Birket Qarun supports a small fishing industry and I went out with my camera just before sunset to the little beach to see the tiny colourful boats coming in with their catch. The sky was a blaze of colour as the sun went down, the shimmering blue turning first to a pale delicate apricot and then quickly deepening to an incredible dark red. It really was a heavenly sight. A little later we drove back to Medinet al-Faiyum (the capital, Faiyum City) which is towards the centre of the oasis with all the roads radiating from it like spokes in a wheel. We had been informed that we were not allowed to go anywhere without a police escort and so we had to take a policeman with us in the car and also to eat with us. Our policeman was very grumpy and obviously didn’t like this job of being our nursemaid. He spoke no English and our attempts to make conversation were studiously ignored. While we ate dinner in a restaurant he sat at a nearby table and glared at us and when we all went to a coffee shop later he sat apart and glared at us some more. I’m sure he could have been a little more friendly, but he refused everything we offered him. During the course of the evening we were entertained by a man in the coffee shop, whose party trick was to bend coins in half with his teeth. It made my own teeth ache just watching him. By the time we left the city at midnight it was freezing cold and all the locals were shrouded in woolly scarves wrapped tightly around their heads and most had several warm shawls draped around their shoulders too. I even began to feel sorry for our policeman who had probably never come across western tourists here before who actually wanted to leave the confines of their hotel. On the drive back we saw two small wolves run across the road ahead of us and Abdul told us that Faiyum still has many wild wolves (or maybe they were wolverines). It was an exciting end to the day.