Christmas and Habibi’s first donkey

Not as many Europeans in Siwa as expected for Christmas, perhaps due to so many airports being closed and general weather chaos outside Egypt. Even here the winter has hit hard – in Alexandria the Corniche (the sea wall and walkway) was closed – the waves were even tossing fish into the street, and Cairo was reportedly also miserable. Siwa is definitely colder at night than it year.

Christmas Eve was spent swimming at the hot spring in the desert, thanks to T. and Ad. driving us out there. A perfect circular pool of hot water, chest deep, with its spring source bubbling up in the centre, surrounded by sand touching star filled sky as far as you could see, and the moon just past full glowing in the distance. The lights of town are far away, and until two groups of tourists arrived it was also blissfully quiet. By that time we were out of the water and enjoying music and tea (there is ALWAYS tea to accompany company and conversation) by an open fire.

Christmas Day was a gathering for some friends in Palm Trees Hotel garden. After others left to return to work, a party or their lives elsewhere. T joined us briefly, he is planning a party and wanted the English on his sign checked. A. and I continued on to dinner around the fire that had now been lit, where another interesting group of locals and visitors had gathered.

A French couple shared their red wine, and others joined us during the night with conversation stretching across several languages as it often does in Siwa – French, Italian, English, Arabic, Siwan, and lots of gesturing – which can be confusing but is always entertaining and you never leave a conversation without learning something. I left after midnight, though it was difficult to tear myself away from the fire for the chill two minute walk back home.

Habibi saw her first donkey this morning. She has of course heard them at a distance, along with the frequent sounds of sheep, goats, chickens, cats, dogs and geese that pass the house. But this morning a donkey unattached to a cart appeared under the bedroom window, braying loudly. Habibi was looking for the source of the sound and did not do her usual dash under the blanket to hide, so I held her up to the window and she watched the donkey for five minutes, completely fascinated, until he moved out of view.

I am becoming more practiced at cooking varied meals with the single gas burner, though would eventually like to buy an oven. Locals insist on feeding me also when they eat, which has introduced me to more options and has me exploring the spices and spice mixes available. I am mostly working out what they are by combination of smell and taste, as no one seems to know their names in English, and as the mixes often look similar but produce substantially different tastes and levels of heat, for example in pasta sauce or baked on chicken or fish.

For the Christmas Day afternoon tea A. and I bought various edibles, and I bought several types of Egyptian produced packets of biscuits for the first time. In the past I have bought local sweets from the bakery, but it was closed so packet supplies had to do. Each biscuit is about half to two thirds of the size of biscuits in Australia, so they look like miniatures made for a children’s tea party. While there are the expected choice of flavours such as cream filled biscuits in chocolate, coffee or orange, I also found some with cardamom flavoured cream, a flavor I would not have expected and which is as striking in the cream centre of the biscuits as it is when used in coffee.

Winter days are still warm (mid twenties) by midday so that I still walk to and swim at Cleopatra every second day or so, as it is not too cold when you get out of the water to dry off. Next week we are expecting a drop to 19 degrees, so I will switch from Cleopatra to the hot spring again then.

I have been given some good Egyptian music by some friends, which is helping me get used to the sound of Arabic words more easily than hearing them spoken, as speech is so often too fast for me to do more than pick out the words I already know. Store owners are also being helpful providing me with the Arabic words for items after we go through a clumsy game of charades or pointing to establish what it is that I want. I am yet to brave the carpenters to get the frame for Habibi’s cat enclosure made, and now think I will need to take an Arabic speaker with me to explain it, because if I rely on my Arabic and mime I could end up with a very strange construction.

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