Setting up home, revisiting some favourite things

white birds in the palms oustide my bedroom window

Woke this morning to the cries of a flock of white ibis in the palms outside my room, gave up counting after 50 birds. They looked like white lights set in the dark green of the palms.  Last night the usual breeze that just sets the greenery swaying slightly increased to a light wind, and the sound in the palms is like waves against a shore, a lovely way to be lulled to sleep.

The previous evening went to the hot spring with A. and a visiting American artist. The waters were warm as I remembered, and incredibly relaxing. We stayed several hours and wandered back to town in the dark. On the way a young woman in a black abaya, not the blue cover of the older oasis women, and her younger sister approached us. Between her few words of English and my few words of Arabic we were soon engaged in a sort of conversation, and we walked together until her house. On the way she lifted her cover to show a beautiful, round, golden face, and I realized she was younger than her confidence had indicated, possibly only fourteen or so.

The women here are mostly at least a head shorter than me and very slim, so it is difficult to guess their age from their silhouette. When we reached her house, she grabbed my hand in hers, and pleaded with me to come in to eat with the family. As I was with the other women and knew they were keen to get back to town, I tried to explain I could not stay then, but maybe some other time. I really need to learn at least enough Arabic, and probably Siwan as well, to refuse gracefully. I always feel very clumsy in turning away invitations which are made so wholeheartedly here, and worry that I have offended. Hopefully I will meet her again, as she showed a curiosity and eagerness that it pleases me to see in any young woman, but even more so in Siwa where the women’s lives are more secluded. 

I am almost settled now and getting into a rhythm of work (writing), cleaning / washing, and cooking, walks, swimming, and catching up with people.  There needs to be more writing done each day from now on, to earn a living, but for the first week it has been a mixture of getting things for the house, settling Habibi in, and seeing people I have not seen since last visit a year ago.

As everything is hand washed, it is easiest to do a little every three days, and reuse the water gets to clean the bathroom. I have the choice of light and the sight of sky and palms, with additional sand dust, or no light and still a fine coating of sand dust over everything, and as I am working mostly in the house I have chosen to live with a bit extra sand. Keeping it out of food is the main thing – not pleasant getting a crunch of sand in your salad.

I am getting used to cooking on the single gas burner, but look forward to my larger stainless steel pot and wok arriving with freight in a few months. The small saucepan and fry pan are fine for now, and to cook for up to three people, but I don’t want to buy larger ones here as they are all aluminum. Also miss my ceramic bowls for eating. I understand why so many people here use plastic plates – the china available is thin and easily broken with a hit against a tap (as I discovered) and of course would break easily if dropped on the ceramic tile floors.

Starting a list of things I need to get in Cairo. A computer monitor was always on the list, as the little screen on the net book isn’t ‘t great for working long hours or viewing images and video. Next is European style coffee. Options here are Nescafe (I would rather no coffee at all than Nescafe) or Turkish / Arabic coffee, which is what I am using in the plunger and stove top espresso maker for now. It is passable, but its strength doesn’t give the richness of a proper espresso grind. Now I am sounding like a highly spoilt Western brat. It was not so long ago that I grew up in a tea drinking home, and recall the first time Mum wanted to make coffee when we had guests for dinner, she had to find instructions on how to make it; now we take our daily lattes for granted. There is Euro style coffee available at one café here, but they charge tourist prices, and I am not on a tourist budget anymore.  Large candles are also on the list, as I seem to only be able to get thin ones which last half an hour, and there are regular, though usually short, electricity failures here.

I have found however that there is much more variety in other stock here than I had previously noticed, probably because I was eating half at home, half restaurants and now need to search for things. I had thought there were only two cheeses, the soft white cheese and hard Rumi, which is close to pecorino, but have now found Edam and even Danish blue vein, so a cheese and olive salad is a delicious possibility.  A. found a chicken shop that has a plucking machine, so I can get a whole plucked and gutted chook for 25LE (about $6 Australian). This is a relief, as the usual way of buying chickens is from a boy who goes around town with two live ones hanging upside down from each hand, and killing, plucking and preparing them yourself, which I don’t think I can bring myself to do.

While I don’t like to kill anything, I am having an outright war with the ants. Even though I leave no food uncovered, and clean up immediately after Habibi has eaten, they are visiting us in waves each evening. Suspect I disturbed a nest when cleaning up the backyard, and I am trying to follow them to source and will then try boiling water down the hole. Meanwhile, trying everything recommended on the internet – don’t want to use nasty chemical sprays, so have tried eucalyptus oil, cinnamon, vinegar, with only a few minutes success, then they return, and even the neem which works well l for mosquitoes. Next on the trial list are black pepper and mint. The Siwan herbalist, who has a store packed with natural remedies, Siwan and other traditions he has studied, has given me benzoin to burn for mosquitos, and as soon as I heated it I realised this is the smell I have enjoyed so many times walking past Egyptian houses – much more to my taste than citronella.

Habibi is still spending much of the time under the blanket, but when she comes out she is happy and quite curious, trying to get out the doors whenever I open them, so I have to be careful not to let her slip out. She has had some time outside in her portable enclosure, and I must build her permanent one soon, so she has something to live in when I go to Cairo or elsewhere.

Another perfect blue sky calls, and the house is cold (it is winter here, after all) so I’ll head out now to do the vegetable shopping. Still reveling in the tomatoes – only ones I have tasted that come close are those grown by last housemate A. and my Dad, but the Egyptian ones surpass even those for flavour, you can’t imagine how perfect they are. Don’t know if it is the water, manure, or what, but they remain one of my favourite things and if they had more nutritional value I could happily live on them alone.

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