Friday, 23 January 2009

More ramblings from the amazing brain of Simon!

A bit graphic in places, very long, but an amazing read!

Hey there,

Trying to wrestle my way through all that's been happening without making this the longest epistle since records began.

Soz. I left you in Cairo, and this is going to cover most of the desert experiences.Sarah & I had to get up early to catch a bus out into the desert. Luckily Sarah has a preternatural ability to sleep whenever she's moving, so was soon safely ensconced in the land of nod as we thundered out past the Pyramids, despite the Qoranic chanting turned up, as usual, to the edge of distortion.

I've been to a lot of deserts this trip, but this first stage of the Sahara was unequaled by any save perhaps the Eastern Desert of Jordan in its emptiness, flatness, and hostility to life. I would doze off for an unspecified time, and awake to see nothing had changed but the position of the mighty southern sun. Black stones over yellow sand reflected its brilliance whitely; colour could get no purchase.When we finally dropped down into the Bahariyya Oasis it was a relief, visually if nothing else.

Suddenly the plain was dotted with small mesas all of roughly the same height - the depression used to be a mangrove swamp similar to the Florida everglades and they had been islands poking above the primordial ooze. Then there was the oasis itself. Sarah had never been to an oasis before and had picture book visions of 2 palm trees next to a small pool.

As we arrived at our hotel next to a hot spring and overlooking acres upon acres of palms I think she was suitably impressed. When we went for a wander in them at twighlight she kept having to remind herself she wasn't in the paddy fields of Cambodia and that she didn't have to worry about landmines.

The next day we wandered around the dusty little town, meeting its somewhat eccentric inhabitants. The most interesting of these was one Mohammed, who invited us into his house for a tea after he got back from praying. After a few initial formalities, such as the offering of dates, he got down to business:

"In Islam, we are allowed 4 wives.""

Oh right, as long as you treat them all equally, yeah?"
"That is not important. We are allowed 4 wives - I only have 1. There is a problem."
"Oh dear.""Yes, once a month she bleeds. You understand?"
"I really hope not."
"When she bleeds, I cannot have sex. This is problem. You understand?"
"I t h i n k so."
Explain to me."
"Ummm, perhaps you should run it past us again."
"Once a month, blood. No sex. I need new wife."
"So you could have a different wife and you would be okay at this time of the month."
"Yes. She must not bleed."
"Not ever?""Yes. I need a western wife."
"I think most western women may have that er.. problem."

"Find me a western wife - age is no object."

"Well, we might be able to find an older lady for you."

"Age is no object, unless she is over 40.""How old are you?""36" " What do you think of the conflict in Gaza?"

After a brief discussion on this Sarah was taken for a tour of the women's quarters, and I listened out for her voice to make sure she hadn't had Rohypnol inhected into her dates (really bad joke itching to come out there).

Mohammed came back in a few minutes later.

"In the West, if you have sex with a woman, does the father not mind?" "Generally not if the girl is old enough, and she wants to. Do they mind here?" "Oh YES! HAHAHHA. That is why we have sex in the oasis gardens. Do you have sex in the garden in Britain?" "Umm, well, normally the weather is very cold and" [Sarah walks back in] "there's a lack of privacy so we tend not to have sex in the garden." [Look of puzzlement on Sarah's face]

The next item on our itinerary was a trip out into the desert proper. After hustling around for the best price (which involved riding donkey carts round some camps seeing who would do it cheapest) we finally went with the guy from our hotel, who didn't speak much English apart from "Me crazy driver." He had a shock of henna-ed ginger hair across the top of his head and Sarah drew attention to his over manicured eyebrows which he shared with his cross-eyed brother who ran the hotel.

Our journey took us out across the so called black desert, past many of the afore-mentioned mesas, one of which we climbed much to Sarah's distaste. In places the black stones drew together leaving the yellow sand to form into great drifts. But the trip really came alive as we entered the white desert.

Here the rock is all chalk and limestone, with a thin covering of beige sand in places. The wind has eaten it away into odd shapes, varying from the mad mirangue land we started off in - where the ground was littered with 'flower stones', which resemble petrified pine cones but are weirder - to areas where the bizarre protrusions have names such as the Mushroom, the Chicken, or the Rabbit. It's described as Dali-esque, but this does a disservice to the infinitely more inventive brush of nature.

The day had a thin covering of cloud, which with a wan sun shining through it gave the impression of being on some Venus like mass. It's been described as lunar but the difference is like chalk and cheese (oh God I am sorry).

We set up camp under the open sky, which cleared to reveal Orion and some lesser known stars, whilst Magdi our driver built a fire and sang a song which later transpired to be a nonsense song about his friend Haani. He cooked on this flame what turned out to be the best rice I may have ever have had, all spicy and partially fried, and transcended the usual meal of chicken and vegetables in a lovely stew.

You may wonder why I'm drawing attention to this but for some reason all the chefs in Bahariyya had agreed to cook exactly the same meal at each time of the day. I got thoroughly sick of chicken, vegetables and rice and am still distrustful of it, but this meal was something else.

After that we headed out over the sands, past fox cries and footprints, to find Haani's fire. It wasn't hard, as he was in the middle of teaching an Australian family how to dance Bedouin style, and his beats echoed round the softly glowing shapes. It turns out that Bedouin dancing involves raising your arms, shaking your ass, and marching on the spot.

Advanced practitioners can go up and down which makes it look a bit like skanking. The Ozzie parents were fairly hippy and obviously game; their son ("Ahm thee mayn serfer een thee fahmeelay") was not quite so up for it - "Ahm sexteen, Ah onlee dahnce to bass meeyusic - ye knaw: [insert highly embarrassing bass solo here]"

Sarah took fairly well to the moves (little would we know the consequences) and we saw a fox skulking across the sands. The whole trip was amazing.Back in town we put our new moves to practice when we met little Yusuf, a 4 year old who enjoyed playing a pretend flute, and enjoyed our response to it even more. If there are any celebrities looking to forcefully adopt an ethnic, might I recommend a candidate. We also went to the local artist Naagla's workshop. She's very naive, and only a couple of her paintings could really be described as much cop. However, the whole experience was awesome, particlarly when she started playing a slowed down tape of an easy listening version of Wind Beneath My Wings.

We decided you could enter the whole thing into the Turner Prize and get an honourable mention: in this context everything started taking on extra meanings - why the Donald Duck amidst a plethora of local scenes, is it symbolic of the way America has become a cultural hegemon? etc. etc.

We were also invited to/crashed a wedding, with some great live music on the percussion tip with the haunting sounds of the arghul droning clarinet over the top. They were all very keen on Sarah, and were determined to get her to dance. Eventually an old fella dancing with a stick got her up, and she dragged me onto the floor as well. Our tutoring in Bedouin dance certainly came in handy, though horrifically they were not only videoing it, but relaying it onto a telly so you could see our pained expressions as we minced around live, Live, LIVE!

Our dancing may have been helped by the vodka that a couple of Australians we'd met had slipped us. At first I thought they were joking when they kept badgering us with "Do you wanna go and listen to some Actual Tunes?"; repitition plus the promise of gin finally won us over.Up on the roof, playing us Air and the soundtrack to Donnie Darko, Kate began reeling off the never ending train of unhappiness that their trip had been.

They had managed to be miserable in every part of Egypt, bar Sharm el Sheikh. When Sarah said she'd only been in Egypt for 2 weeks the response was "Bet you can't wait to get home now, eh?" They bristled at every approach from Arabs, hated Egyptian culture, and managed to find the cloud in every silver lining. They had basically come to the Middle East for a piss up, and were angry that it didn't seem conducive to these ends.

Eventually, it was time for Sarah to go. It had been so good to see her, like having a holiday of homeness, as well as recasting my eyes as fresh, as to what things would be like if I'd been in Bedford but a few days before. Of course, you are all cordially invited to come out and visit - it'd be good to see all of you. You're running out of time if you want to see Egypt, though, and I'm guessing Sudan isn't on too many of your must-see lists, though everyone I've met who's been through has raved about it.

Having said that, it's now looking like the ICC will push forward with their trial of Omar al Bashir, and Obama is looking to Get Tough with Sudan, which may mean stormy times ahead. Does anyone fancy starting a few 'Fuck Darfur!' protests, at least till about Junetime? I stuck around for another day to see a couple of temples, and have a soak in a hot spring. Sarah & I had been wanting one all week, but the large number of local males and passing donkey traffic had meant that it wasn't advisable if Sarah wasn't to become a tourist attraction in her own right.

Anyway, it was absolutely rubbish to soak in the naturally hot minerally waters in the midst of plam groves, as the sun set behind me and the moon arose afore.The next day I moved onto the next oasis, Farafra. Everyone warned me against it. It was apparently boring, dusty and horrid, accordinf to the Bahariyyans.

As I was preparing to get off the bus an Italian man grabbed me and told me he'd come yesterday and gone straight back - I should continue on to the next oasis, Dakhla. "The people here, they are... strong!" I tried to grasp the prejorative sense of this, but decided to try my luck anyway.

After initial troubles because no-one was in the hotel I wanted to check into I went and photographed a beautiful pipe graveyard, where all the old pipes had gone to die. DON'T WORRY, photos on facebook soon. Ish.

Who said there was nothing to do?I went and visited the local artist Badr, who's built a rather grand museum to himself, which is pretty good. He's actually pretty talented, if a little over influenced by the surrealists. His bizzare back garden of driftwood mud sculptures was pretty awesome though, almost aboriginal in its inspiration - he described it as one of his dreams, a never ending one. Unfortunately he's been forced down a bit of a commercial path doing sand paintings of the locality, but as he confided to me, he can't help making them a bit modern.I then wandered through the old mud citadel which has been collapsing and being patched up since Roman times, had a lovely evening meal of Kofta - meatballs with nothing chickeny at all about them - before heading of into the desert for a moonlit soak in another hotspring.


I sometimes wonder if other people are visiting the same country.Having said that, the next day I headed onto the next oasis, Dakhla, and it's just one of the most beautiful, wonderful places ever. The first place I stayed, Al Qasr, is perhaps the most fantastic Islamic monument I've ever visited throughout all my travels, whether on the silk road, in Turkey, Pakistan or Morocco. It's an incredible mud brick village from Ottoman times, complete with a couple of mud brick mosques, numerous shady corridors and passageways, and with many of the homes and buildings still having their original beautifully carved accacia lintels.

What's even more remarkable is that many of these homes are still lived in, so you can be winding your way though the labyrinthine lanes when someone'll step out from a low wooden door, or a donkey cart will push past, or you can be stopped in your tracks by the heartbraking sound of an old woman singing to herself as she grinds corn on the other side of a wall. I just don't think there's enough superlatives to cover this one.Before you worry for them, mud is actually a great building tool.

The houses are cool in the summertime, and warm in the winter - the shade from the winding, high, tall passagways between them keeps the sun at bay as well as preventing sandstorms from hetting in. Inside, they're spotlessly clean and generally very pleasant, from what I've seen. Their only slight problem is their tendancy to collapse. You can't have everything though, can you?The whole oasis is dotted with similar villages, though none quite of this magnificence. I rented a (really old, low seated, flat tired) bike and rode out to check out another one. The scenary was bucolic, idyllic. I rode down quiet country roads past farmers in straw hats and hot pants (I said it was bucolic), waving at the donkey carts that passed by and gazing after the fantastic birdlife.

If you've never seen a Hoopoe before I suggest you google it so you can see why I got so excited. It flexes that crest when it gets excited, which seems to be all the time.The countryside was dotted with technicolour villages, often done out in the abstract, geometric prints the Egyptians do so well, though in eyebleeding tones. Between them you run down quiet lanes lined with handsome eucalyptus trees, before veering closer to sand dunes.At one time I thought I saw something in the desert so pulled over to have a look. As I trudged over the nearest dune I found I was walking through sand sown with pottery, and that as far as the eye could see the sandscape was dotted with the skeletons of an old settlement, bricks clawing desperately out of the drifts to prevent their oblivion. As I stumbled round this dream a grey haired man in a white galabiyya shimmered out of the haze towards me."[This is Amheida]" he told me in Arabic, "[Yes, it's Roman]"Memory is like the desert, what is not faught for is lost. The slow waves of the dunes are as inexorable as any ocean. He was one man, and old.Continuing on my way I saw the next mud village, this one from Mamluk times and slightly more tumbledown, though still lovely. It was a pretty long roundtrip and due to the unfriendliness of the bike my knees were shot the next day. So I decided to climb the escarpment which towers above the oasis.Even reaching it took an hour across a crazy desertscape of red through green (copper?) with bits of the black desert & white desert thrown in for fun. It also turns out that the desert is hot at midday, particularly if you choose to climb a mountain. The views were awesome though, but more fun was running all the way down via a sand dune. 90 minutes up and 10 down. I did have vague fantasies about starting a sand boarding resort here - the dunes were certainly bigger than most slopes in Scotland.I then moved onto Mut, the biggest town in the oasis, with a mud citadel at its core. The main gateway is pretty impressive, and the walls look like they'd withstand much bar a spot of rain. I got into a nice daily routine where I'd go and get some Falafel & bean mush for brunch, have a few teas, go and do some philosophy on the roof of our hotel, have a quick walk about the old town before heading back to the hotel for sunset.Now, not only was the sunset, over dunes in the distance with the old town and plam groves before me, quite lovely in its own right, but the palm groves at my feet were the dormitory for quite literally thousands of geese who came back from all round the oasis at sunset. This was the real David Attenborough shit. Squadrons of birds would come flying in from all directions, sometimes gliding in sedately, occasionally pulling some sick-assed moves and just avoiding death whilst coming in to land. Every now and again the whole lot would take flight and play a game of musical trees, whilst hundreds more would be spilling in around my head to join the fray. I was content in my soul.I think I'll end there for now as otherwise This E-mail Will Not Die and also because upon leaving the paradise of Dakhla things took a darker turn. OOOOOOH! How's that for suspense? Eh? EH?Love to you all for ever and ever,Simon

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Lovely Soup!!

I thought you might want to try this recipie.

My DSIL tried this out on Douglas and co. when we went up to Scotland, and it was so good I decided to buy the book it came from!!

Its from Jamie Olivers Ministry of Food. he says anyone can learn to cook in 24 hours, and asks eveyrone to learn one recipie from each chapter of the book and pass it on.. so here is my first one!!

ASIAN CHICKEN NOODLE BROTH (takes 17 mins to cook) and this serves 2.

1 tablespn mixed seeds.. pumpkin, poppy sunflower - whatever you like
a small handful of cashew nuts
2 Skinless chicken breasts (We just used some already cooked chicken from a roast we had in the fridge)
2 teaspoons of five spice
sea salt, black pepper
olive oil
a small lump of fresh root ginger
half or one red chilli.. depends how hot you want your soup
1 chicken stock cube, or some of the real stuff from your roast chicken
100g rice noodles
a few mange tout peas
6 thin asparagus spears, or 4 normal ones
6 baby corn (or some frozen niblets)
soy sauce
1 lime (juice it)
a few spinach leaves

Boil the kettle. Put a medium frying pan or wok on a high heat and add seeds and nuts whilst its heating up. Put a large saucepan on the heat and put a litre of boiling water in from the kettle .. put a lid on it. toss the seeds and nuts around until they are heated through nicely. Slice your chicken lengthways and put them in a bowl. Put the five-spice and some salt and pepper on them and stir. Pur the empty pan back on a high heat. Add some olive oil and put your chicken in when pan is hot and cook for 5 mins until its golden brown. toss the chicken around now and then.

Whilst the chicken is cooking, peel and grate your ginger and finely cut your chilli. Crumble the stock into the hot water, and add half your veggies chilli and ginger and noodles to the pan of water, add 2 tablespns of soy sauce. Bring pan to the boil and cook for about 2-3 mins, stirring it. Squishthe lime. When the noodles are and veg are done, check the chicken is cooked properly (slice it and have a look inside) Put the chicken in the bowls with some of the spinach, pour the broth and veg over, then scatter the seeds and nuts over the top, and any spare chilli.


PS dead easy to do a veggie version of this.. just use a few more veg mabye, and veg stock cube!

I do hope you try this, and pass it on to some of your friends or family.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Simon again

Well, apparently broadband internet access is not the first priority in the Sahara. I'll send you a proper e-mail detailing the wonderfulness when I can. In the meantime I'll just finish off Cairo...:
The day we went to the Pyramids, Sarah was having her usual long lie whilst I was trying to finalise my Visa extension. Bureaucracy has been a fine art here for the last 4,000 years so I scttled around their giant building buying various stamps (NO - THE ORANGE STAMP) and trying my best to please them. We finally got underway after half 1 and were worried we wouldn't make it in time. Whilst waiting for the bus a guy called Mohammed (like everyone else in Egypt) in a typical act of Egyptian kindness decided that his personal driver would take us to the Pyramids road. This not being enough, he then flagged down a cab and paid the fare for the rest of the way.
The Pyramids themselves are more about what's going on in your head than the actual sights - though Sarah was pleased to note that they were actually bigger than the Oasis swimming pool in Bedford. It is incredible how large and old they are, and there weren't too many tourists when we were there. We even got to go inside the Great Pyramid, which was amazing, though pretty claustrophobic. Naturally there was a guy telling me how I was 'inside the Pyramid' and then tugging my sleeve for bakhsheesh - boy did he add to the experience.
Anyhoo, better shifty. will try to reply to everyone by the time I get to Cairo, at least in the next week or so.
Love as big and ancient as said monuments,

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

An interesting blog

some very strange food on here.

I think its Malaysian!

Friday, 9 January 2009

Lilly News!!

Its not often Lilly makes the headlines in my blog... but read on and you will find out why she has this evening.

I came home via the parents this evening having helped mum with a few computer issues. I sorted out a few simple (for me) problems she had, and enjoyed a mum - daughter chat whilst several hundred more New Zealand photos uploaded onto her Photobucket account. It was nice to see them both, and to admire their new tall plant that they got at a knock down price from a garden centre earlier.

I got home and Douglas told me that his friend Dangerous had called to say he was popping round. Dangerous, aka Dave is a friend from the Pagan camp we go to, and a member of the security group called The Dagda.

Dangerous is a lovely bloke, very calm and chilled, and most of the time not dangerous at all. We both enjoy his vists, and this one was very special. We know that he has a special magical gift when it comes to cats.. on visits in the past, Billy has been almost comfortable in his presence and has not scrammed which is what he normally does.

Lilly normally runs and hides faster than speed of light when a visitor comes, but tonight she hung around, and a while after Dave had settled, the amazing thing happened...

Our dear little shy puddy walked up to Dave and sniffed him!!!!!!!!! She then lay down in Sphinx position, just a yard or so away from him, and eyeballed him for quite a while. She came up to him and sniffed his fingers about three times in all, and almost, almost allowed him to stroke her!!

Dave is the very first visitor that Lilly has ever gone anywhere near.. he knows he is very honoured, and we are absolutley delighted.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Compost news

Many of you know that I work for the Environment Agency, and that I try to do my little bit for our planet, including composting waste from home and work.

I have just got some great news.. the Powers that Be have agreed that it is ok for us to have a compost heap at work!!!!! We will have a twin heap like this one .

We will also get a compost cork screw, to keep it aireated and to keep the rats from making their home in it. Click this to see what Im going on about.

I got a compost screw too!!!

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

New Year.. new us!!

Just before the New Year D and I decided to join the local leisure centre..

We went last weekend and had a swim and steam, and this evening as soon as D got home I vanished off out and did..

a whole 10 mins on the treadmill... and a whole 5 mins on the cross trainer!!!!

Ok.. it wasnt very long but it got my heart pumping and my legs walking, and I went lobster red and got hot and knackered. I'm sure I will manage more than 15 mins gym as I get used to it.

I then did 15 mins swim.. pretty good as I have a sore shoulder, then, after 10 mins steam, I had a lovely shower and came home.. hot, happy, and bright red in the face!!!!

Douglas and I will go together on Friday for a swim and steam :-)

Oh.. by the way.. this is NOT a new years resolution.. we decided to do this in late December, and New Year is just a co-incidence.

New Years Day post from Simon

Hey there,

Thanks for all your wonderful Birthday wishes and mails. (His Birthday was on the 27th I think) If you were picturing me weeping little Simony tears on the big ole streets of Cairo for I was all alone in the world then fret not - the hotel threw me a Birthday party with cake and lots of baklavy like things, and a candle that said 2 and one that said 9. Loads of people I didn't know came; for me, I'm sure, and not the cake.

It was actually a really sweet thing of them to do - especially as they chewed into their own pocket for it - and left me with a warm glow and a disconcerting sugar high. Some might know that both Tom & Sarah have issues with me 'not really being a desert person', but the sweets out here are awesome - the best I've had. I've actually been craving them, though now the very thought of them makes me a little queezy so I'll probably lay off them for a bit.

So, how's Cairo? It's really amazing. It's got a real vibe to it which seems to grab everyone immediately. I'd heard such stories of dread from whingeing ex-pats that I was wondering just how busy/polluted/crazy it could be, and the answer is a bit like London before the congestion charge, with older, dirtier cars. Crossing the road is an exciting game but if you position someone with a kid between you and the oncoming traffic then it's easy, though it does take the fun out of it somewhat. Some of the roads are pretty tranquil as well, like Ecclesall road when it's not the weekend.

In fact, the really mental part is the pedestrian(ish) parts between downtown, and the so-called Islamic Cairo - basically the historic part from the Islamic age, as opposed to Old Cairo which is before that. Islamic Cairo itself teeters on the edge of touristification, especially in the gentrified bits. But it is astonishing walking down essentially medieval streets, surrounded by mosques, madressas, karavanserais and old ottoman houses - history is very present, even if in some streets you see more tourists than locals. Between there and Downtown where the Hotels are there is a frantic mess of market streets where real Cairenes come to shop. Some of the traders have turned selling into a performance art, with genuine screams, claps and group chants, whilst someone beats time wildly on shirts still in their packages, and another tosses silks expansively in the air. Anyone who thinks Muslims are a threat to capitalism would do well to remember that Muhammed was a merchant, and consumerism here has a whif of the divine.

I squashed my way through these streets the first time, burled about and bouyant in the streams that form in the too and fro. The current took me as I would, and fearing I'd gone too far pressed round the same few hundred square metres looking for what I sought - instead I seem to have found the Christian cobblers souq, which was pretty fascinating in its own right. It appears there's a small community of Christians there who just make shoes. I decided to retreat, though, and it was only on my second foray that I realised I hadn't gone very far at all the last time, but the churning back and forth had made me feel I'd gone miles.

That's something I do find quite unusual here, but which I actually quite like. Cairo makes me lost. None of the streets in Downtown are quite at right angles, and they all bend e v e r so imperceptibly, so that although you think everything is normal it very much isn't. Even today, when I was sure I had it all mapped out, someone moved one of the bits I'd been to many times before. It's quite a pleasing sensation. I actually find Islamic Cairo much easier to navigate because the twists and turns make wibbly wobbly sense, in Downtown they sneak them in under a facade of normalness.

Christmas was a great day as well. I went to see their Philharmonic String Quartet play for free at an Art Gallery - unfortunately they left all the video art playing on full volume and it rather interferred with the quiet bits. They had lured me in with rumours of Schubert, but I was disappointed to be faced with a Beethoven double bill. However, in another 'generally agreed world beating genius not as shit as you thought they were' shock I really enjoyed the first piece - it would seem I prefer his earlier, Mozartian stuff before he got a bit carried away, like.

I then went to one of the local bars afterwards, which is straight out of Mahfouzes descriptions of bars in the 50s, all bright flourescent lights, cackling, wonky locals and wooden fittings. They give you these plates of disgusting lupin seeds to munch on, and for some reason I feel quite compelled to do so. They're slimy with a glutinous shell you nibble off and discard, before eating the wet, crunchy, and ultimately tasteless, centre. But it makes more sense than munching your way through a plate of rocket, or slightly over ripe tomato chunks. The bar staff seem to live it up as much as the regulars, and there's the odd sing-song and banter.

My final destination that night (for the complete Christmas experience), was to a belly dancing bar. In the big hotels, Gulf Arabs pay hundreds of dollars to see the superstars move with a sublime graciousness in this ancient art form. I paid a tenner for 4 beers and some lady wrestlers to shake their bits a bit.

The room was old Orientalist fantasia, with pictures of sultans and slave girls and red velvet curtains which could have been a lot cleaner. Th staff were single minded in their pursuit of tips - one followed me into the toilet and stood behind me mumbling "tips, tips, tips", like Crack addicts were rumoured to do when we were kids.

The ladies themselves seemed to be getting through the night by blowing their tips up their nose, unless the glassy eyes came from trying to shut out the dingy scene. Apart from some fairly severe push up bras, the costumes weren't too titilating; many were wearing body stockings so there wasn't much belly on offer. In fact, I've seen much more on rare visits to Kingdom (and am more embarrassed to admit to having been there). The only thing I found a bit disturbing was when one man, instead of throwing his money in the air in a fit of excitement, placed it carefully on one ladies head - that just seemed a bit sordid. But then, exploitation is like art, in that it doesn't matter what the content is, it's the fact that you're all witnessing it as such which makes it so.

The best part of the evening was the band. They had 2 drummers and a tambourinist - he had a few solos which were better than anyone could have imagined. The main drummer looked like he was on one; at one point whilst he waited impatiently for the bloke in the suit to do some introductions he started knocking out the Amen break, so I'm pretty sure he was loving it old skool. He got into raptures as he beat out the rythyms, it was some of the best live music I've seen out here. Unfortunately any live singing was slothered in reverb to an almost painful level.

I have a couple of favourite Ahwas now. One is totally authentic, with chess, shoeshine men, sawdust floors, peeling paint and marble table tops, but you can get beer in it as well, and check your e-mails on wi-fi. T'other is down a little back alley and every wall is covered in these weird naive paintings of just about everything - Pharonic stuff, ballet, English fields.

Sarah has come out to visit me and we've been playing Backgammon there, drinking tea and SaHlab, this lovely milky, semolina-ey, nutty, fruity drink, so we've been kicking our evenings Arabic stylee. For New Year she brought some wine out which was like a merciful peice of heaven - who could have guessed I'd missed it so much? - and there was a guy who'd got some puff in the hostel so we all had a merry old time. We went to a rooftop bar for midnight, then watched their sheesha guy dance round and round in a santa hat. It was a great night.

All in all, it's been great here - the city is so alive and vibrant, I'd highly recommend that all of yu try and visit it at some point. There's 20 million inhabitants, and all of them seem to be in the street, either driving or just chilling with their friends. There's always something going on.

Happy New Year to you all, and a Merry Christmas. I'm sorry I haven't replied to any e-mails for ages. I'll try and do that over the next few days before we head out into the desert for a bit. I massively love getting them hugely so please keep sending them.

Make sure you all stick together to ride out the Credit crunchy, and can you do something about the falling value of the pound? Keep warm, with the glow of my love inside you if nothing else.

Happy thoughts,