After a 4.30am arrival and traumatic 12 hours trying to get Habibi, my cat, through Cairo airport cargo and Customs, we arrived in Siwa.
30 hours of airports and flights, then the half day racing from office to office collecting authorizations to claim Habibi left us both exhausted, and after settling her in the minivan, feeding her and changing the bedding in her carrier, I slept fitfully for most of the trip across the desert. I must have drifted off almost immediately, waking some time later to find we were still on the outskirts of Cairo – I had forgotten it was Thursday night, the start of the weekend here. From then on, I took in only lullings of the music the driver and his relief were playing, except for stumbling out at Wadi Natrun for tea and toilet stop. A curious site there was a Coptic priest in dark robes leading a string of what I guess were tourist pilgrims, into the spread of fast food / restaurants at this stop. Despite longing to watch the desert drive, I slept again, waking at the outskirts of Siwa.
I felt an immediate lift of the heart – I am home. I watched familiar buildings slip past, but managed to overshoot the turnoff to the house on the street darkened by palms. After only a minute I realized and we turned back, found the house where I was met by M. with the key. He seemed surprised to see me with a cat, don’t think he was aware she was joining me. I did not like to wake him as it was now after 3am, but could not wait to get the bed made, set Habibi free after her several days of enclosure, and both of us were soon settled. I only slept until 7am, but I did manage to sleep through the first call to prayer. Then a much needed shower, and the house now seems to have (some) hot water, either that or it is just warm from the sun on the pipes – time will tell as winter closes in.
Walked the two minutes into town to buy basics, some food, cooking pans, glasses and plates (which I wanted to bring from Australia but could not fit in luggage), gas burner and meat for Habibi. Familiar faces at every turn, and not many changes, just a few new buildings, a few stores have disappeared and others replaced them. Had breakfast at Abdou’s as a welcome back treat, as I will be mostly self catering from now on. The coffee was good, but the cheese omlete cooked in too much oil for me, or perhaps it was just that I had not eaten anything for 20 hours, as the efforts to get Habibi had made food a last priority. The butcher’s stock of the day was camel, so that’s what Habibi got, and she wolfed it down. Since then she has also had sheep, but if I can get camel again I will, as it had no fat and the sheep was about 60 percent meat to 40 per cent fat. The camel meat also smells cleaner. I have learnt how to tell what carcass is hanging on the butcher’s hook each day – if there are sheep or goat head on the floor at the front of the shop, it is sheep or goat, if there is a tail hanging, it is camel – who needs the little plastic signs our butchers use, or the plastic wrap with printed labels of our supermarkets? Habibi hasn’t really wanted to touch her dry food since arriving, which is good because I won’t be able to get it here (I brought a pack with me, until I found an alternative for her). But this, and the ant plague (hundreds of them, I am not exaggerating) which any food left out seems to be attracting, means I will need to find someone who will feed her fresh food and clean up immediately, if I am away from Siwa any time. She has explored the house a little, likes to be lifted to look out the window, and sometimes sits happily on the bed under the mosquito net. But mostly she has been under the blanket, any loud male voice (you don’t often hear women’s voices here) scares her, as do passing carts. Surprisingly, the braying of donkeys has not worried her, or the very loud cat that comes calling at the neighbor’s house.
I have been writing an article for an academic journal, between catching up with people and getting used to which stores stock what. Instead of a supermarket, Siwa has multiple small stores which each have slightly different stock, so I might get yoghurt at one and not another, candles at one and not another, and lentils, soap and matches at another. Vegetables are fresh and plentiful, and I have enjoyed a guava and banana feast for breakfast on the days I haven’t bought bread hot from the bakery oven with felafel laced with chilli from the next doorway. Yet to go swimming, I have promised that to myself once I complete emails which I know people will be waiting on, and that article. Longing for the water, but needed to get settled in, and did not want to leave Habibi alone for long at first, she has been through enough.
Yesterday I bought my first two olive trees – seedlings about 20cm high, about $Aus 1.50 for the two. I have cleaned up the many cigarette butts, bottles and other debris left by previous tenants in the backyard, and the little trees are already making the space look happier. I will build an enclosure for Habibi out there soon – need to search out wood and chicken wire supplies in the next few days.
Daily round includes sweeping the house, sand dust is inescapable, and some hand washing. I have reduced my clothes hanging in the room to what I will be wearing mostly here, and packed the rest back in the suitcase to keep them sand free. The house now has a fridge, which is wonderful, as I don’t need to buy milk daily (I rarely managed to use the whole sachet and then felt bad about throwing remains away) and I can keep meat for Habibi for several days, and yoghurt and cheese. Days are warm, wearing summer clothes but arms and legs covered of course, and changing into warmer clothes at nightfall. Whoever invented mosquito nets was a genius. Having put up with constant bites on past visits, my new net is bliss – I can hear the little monsters buzzing, but they can’t get me. Only problem is that Habibi can get out from under the net, but not slip back under it and on to the bed, so at night she thumps all around the outside of the net and over me, until I wake and let her back under it. She also likes chasing the mossies that land on the net, so I suspect I’ll have cat claw holes in it to patch soon.
Have seen some friends from previous visits and spent some time with A, the English woman who is back in Siwa for a month or so, and who I enjoy talking with. Of course the local people I am in contact with are all men, but I hope to meet some of the women eventually; some are already nodding recognition when they see me out walking, one even opened her covering and smiled at me, and said hello – I hope to see her again. I will have to find out what the protocol is here for having women visit me in the house. The children either bound up to say hello and ask “wasyrname” (what’s your name), or watch me in unsmiling silence – westerners must still look strange to them in many ways. My few words of Arabic sometimes work, sometimes my useless pronunciation baffles people, and sometimes the Siwans surprise me by answering in very good English, when I am trying to buy candles and describe them with drawings, for example, making me feel very foolish. Back to work now, and hopefully a swim at last…