“People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the oceans, at the circular motion of the stars; don’t pass by yourself without wondering.”
Most days are now up to 40 degrees and night minimum can be as high as 34 degrees, and we are only in the first week of summer. I always grizzled about the cold in Melbourne, for me an ideal day being no lower than 25 degrees and up into the 30s, and the warm weather here was one of my many reasons to move to Egypt.
I enjoyed the Siwa winter days that sometimes reached 28, and the nights down to single figures just meant evenings sitting by an open fire, hot chocolate and sahleb (a drink made from orchid root and hot milk, laced with coconut, banana, and topped with sultanas and chopped nuts) and snuggling up under an extra blanket.
My first trip to Egypt in 1993 was in the middle of summer and trekked the Valley of the Kings and all the major tourist sites in peak heat, but this was a mere five weeks and included siestas in the cool of the hotel. The reality of working and living in this heat in Siwa is….interesting.
Most days I sleep through the first call to prayer, which in winter was around 5am but is now at 3.30am. I often don’t get to sleep until after midnight as people are out on the streets, enjoying the relative cool, or at least the darkness, men are hammering and chatting as they work on the apartments being built just across the street, and it is simply too hot to lie down until 11 or so, unless you want to sleep on a wet bed, drenched in sweat.
The reflected sun on sand here makes daytime temperatures seem even higher than they are. I squint for the first few minutes when I go out, and when I come inside the house seems as dark as an underground mine for some minutes, even though light filters in through the shutters and amber glassed windows, and it takes a few minutes for my eyes to make anything out.
My neighbor is now wearing Rayban style sunglasses, as from his Arabic and sign language I gather he has already had some eye damage from the sun, probably the surface of the lens drying out as I have known to happen in Australia to those who work outdoors a lot and don’t protect their eyes. Seeing him in his Siwan attire of long white robe and trousers, teamed with the rakish sunglasses always makes me smile, I still get a little thrill of culture shock sometimes when I see men here in traditional dress, driving a donkey cart, chatting into their mobile phones with watch glinting in the sun, and sometimes wearing sunglasses. There are similar moments of disorientation in winter when a man on a motorbike zooms toward me, his traditional red and white or black and white scarf wrapped around head and face as protection from the morning or evening chill, only his eyes showing.
I haven’t opted for sunglasses because I have a crooked nose and glasses never sit comfortably on me. Instead I am using a Chinese paper umbrella with tiger painted on it, which I am sure looks very strange to the Siwans. The near constant breeze means you can’t keep a sunhat on for two seconds when walking, and the umbrella provides shade for face and hands at least, though my sandaled feet, the only other exposed bits of me, have developed strong tan lines. I would like to find an old fashioned canvas umbrella, which would be more hard wearing. Synthectic rain unmbrellas just trap the heat (I tried using mine) so are useless.
The moment the sun begins to disappear, about 7pm, you really notice a difference even if the temperature has not dropped more than a few degrees. That’s when I go into town to get meat for Habibi. I don’t have a fridge, so if I buy her meat at night I can feed her half then and the other half, kept in a glass jar which is placed in cool water in an esky, is ok for her in the morning. The butcher is used to my very small order of meat for her, and now starts to chop it for me as soon as he sees me coming to the store. Most nights I am not eating hot food, instead salads and fruits, because it is too hot to work even briefly at the single gas burner.
The sun is up at 5.30am, so I get up then as it is cool and quiet, and I can work with the windows and door open letting in the now cool breeze for 4 or 5 hours. I avoid being on computer in peak heat of day as I am concerned about the netbook overheating, which it seems to do rapidly now, and I can’t risk it exploding. After 8 the sun is warming the air again and I close up all windows, and cover the kitchen and bathroom windows with small towels as they do not have shutters. I do other things in peak heat time, like clean house, go to bakery and get vegies etc, go for a swim if the walk out to Cleopatra pool in the heat is not too daunting, do work related reading in the light from a single window I leave ajar, see friends, or try for a nap to make up for short sleeps at night.
Between everything I do I return to the water bucket to mop myself down with a cool cloth, and a cloth and bowl of water sit by the bed at night now with a large bottle, not just a glass, of drinking water. I am back to work by mid afternoon, until it is dark. Post dinner it is either trying to learn Arabic or, if I didn’t get a nap earlier in the day, a lie down before the night noise starts on the street again, with the children out and young men playing football until early next morning.
Naps during the day seem indulgent, but this is the only way to function. The first week of heat I tried to just sleep the hours between 1 and 5, and then in the heat of the day found my brain was just not functioning.
Summer fruits are coming in, we’ve had peaches, now watermelon, apricots (called Mish Mish in Arabic, which I like saying and hearing) and plums have arrived. Oranges are on the way out and I will miss my daily juice – tetra pack juices are available here, but all are laden with extra sugar, no pure juice. Lemon juice watered down makes a cooling replacement, and the golfball sized lemons here are not as tart as the larger ones we are familiar with (those are also available here) and make good juice if you are patient enough to juice half a dozen for a small glass. Cold hibiscus tea is replacing much of my hot Siwa tea and Turkish coffee intake.
T. has gone back to work in Sharm el Sheik, following a few weeks in Alexandria for the wedding of one of his sisters. He had planned to return here for a brief visit, but work doesn’t allow and he won’t return to Siwa until after summer now. There is no work for him here now as tourists in summer are a rarity, while the lower temperatures in Sharm (still high 20s to 30s) attract plenty of visitors from chilly Europe and the UK. He and some friends have rented two boats, and work off the beach of a hotel complex taking tourists out to see the reefs.
It is a long time to be apart, it was already six weeks since he left Siwa and I miss him even more than I anticipated. Who knows how things will be when he returns to Siwa, so for now I just have an empty feeling house and must get used to this.
Habibi lies about all day, I don’t know how she is coping with the heat with her long fur. She has certainly discovered that the small, ceramic tiled area around the washbasin, between the bathroom and kitchen, is the coolest spot to lie. It also gives her a view of the gap under the front door, where her friend cats come to sit on the mat outside and talk to her. I have wiped her down with a wet cloth sometimes, and she seems to like this. The local cats seem to be active as ever, but they are short haired and also probably adapted through generations of living here.
One beautiful young cat who frequents Abdou’s café has just had kittens, or at least a kitten, I’ve only seen the one. Last night baby was happily playing with mother’s tail, and seemed to have plenty of energy.
Ramadan I expect will turn Siwa into an empty town by day, more so than usual this year as it falls across August, the hottest month. I don’t fast, but in respect for the Muslim population I don’t eat outside or cook hot food that sends tempting scents wafting during the day, so I may buy a fridge before then as the stores will be closed and it will not be possible to get fresh, cold food or water until sundown.
Fortunately Ramadan ends the day before my birthday, so I won’t have to wait until evening to have cake with friends – everyone will be indulging in the feast that ends the month of fasting.
Enough weather ramblings, I’ll stop now as I am dripping again; I estimate the curse of being a naturally sweaty person is amplified 100 percent in the Siwan summer. Unfortunately the icy showers I was lamenting in winter become the opposite in summer – just when you WANT cold water, the water is hot. Whatever the outside temperature, that’s what the water in the pipes echoes, so now it flows at about 30 degrees. I have resorted to storing water in the early morning, after it has cooled a little overnight, just so I have some large containers of refreshment to throw over myself in the middle of the day. I pine for the sprinkler on the front lawn of my childhood, and for the beach. And for red jelly studded with tinned peaches or pears and topped with vanilla icecream!
There are some beauties the heat brings – incredibly clear night skies with the stars and moon even more luminous than in the desert winter, and the sunsets will soon be as intense as the one in the header of this blog. Many people ask was this image photoshopped, but this is a real Siwa sunset, photographed on one of my first visits when I fell in love with this place.