Birthday bliss

Yesterday I enjoyed a relaxed and almost work free birthday. Family and friends called early in the morning, and I left the house by 8.30 as I wanted to have a special breakfast and walk to Cleopatra Spring before the worst of the heat.

I had decided to treat myself to a banana honey pancake at Abdu’s, because cake bakery owner N. has returned to Alexandria to be with his family for Eid, so my choice of cake was not available. The packaged cakes here are like the soft chocolate or vanilla sponge rolls with artificial cream that are stocked in supermarkets in Australia, and I am not a fan of those. The deluxe version here has the addition of a thin shell of chocolate, but even that is not so tasty. I have not had a restaurant / café pancake since moving here, and most of the cafes do a good one. After pancake and coffee I strolled out to Cleopatra, and was stopped on the road for greetings by several Siwans who knew from Facebook that it was my birthday. We also exchanged greetings for Eid, as it was also the third day of these celebrations.

Eid meant that on the road I was passed by many donkey carts and motorbikes piled with the girls in their amazing dresses, their hair slicked into braids tied with red ribbons and other carefully crafted styles, the boys and men in new white robes and waistcoats.

Seeing people dressed up anywhere appeals to my sense of beauty, but in Siwa’s neighbourhoods this is accentuated as the sand colored environment and prevalence of crumbling or roughly finished buildings, and increasing litter (I am sad to say this has become a big problem here over the last five years, with the increase in packaged products) are some days aesthetically challenging and numbing. I just want to get beyond the town and walk through the gardens and to the spring pools to escape the sameness, just as most dwellers in big cities crave sometimes to escape their urban environment, no matter how well designed and cared for it is.

When I see the girls so carefully dressed and coifed, hands traced with intricate patterns in henna, it is especially a stirring contrast. Glints of metallic lace and trims on dresses of many bright colours, groups of sisters and friends flitting between houses or nestled in donkey carts instantly lift and the eye and heart.

Tourists are starting to return, and T’s café has reopened this week with young Siwan O. setting up the furniture and stocking the bar again, and the addition of a generator assuring cool drinks. O. will run the cafe until T. returns to Siwa, and he seems to be enjoying the responsibility.

Cleopatra was busy with people for most of the day. Large groups of Japanese, Italians and some smaller groups of independent travelers came to sightsee, swim and chat in the café. The Japanese had a wonderful time in the water, including many of their children equipped with floaties. They provided one of the funniest tourist moments I have seen – a man snorkeling in the pool as though he were inspecting a coral reef in the Red Sea, with a child in an inflatable ring perched on his back.

A group of Siwan youths and boys also came to swim and had great fun pushing each other into the pool, splashing each other and generally being loud and playful. I had three swims, with drying off time between, and each time the water was as refreshing.

I love to see tourists enjoying the water; many just come to look at the famous spring, but you really can’t appreciate the spring or the clearing it sits in, and why it was referred to in the past as Eye of the Sun, unless you get into the pool.

After the hot walk back to town I returned to Abdu’s for a second treat, but they were out of my favoured lemon juice so I was tempted to a luscious icy mango juice instead. Back at the house I did a few hours writing work and some time in the little front yard with Habibi, then into town again to do the food shopping. A light dinner at home, I am mostly eating salads and not cooking much as it is still too hot to eat cooked meals most nights. However there is a noticeable shift in times of sunrise and sunset, and cooler morning air, so soon I will get back to hot meals and before I know it I will be no longer complaining about layers of clothes, and instead wanting to hide under two blankets again.

I met a Tunisian man while at Cleopatra who has lived in Cairo for some time and was visiting Siwa with his wife and little daughter, and we got into discussion about building for climate. He says that in Tunisia, as in many traditional Arab buildings, houses are built to make best use of ventilation, and with high ceilings because heat rises. This is also true of Siwan homes – windows are set higher than we are used to and catch the nearly constant light breeze, and high ceilings are usual. But he has also lived in Yemen and explained that people there have a specific winter room, a smaller room that can be closed off, with rugs on the floor and mattresses for lounging and sleeping, to maintain a cosy living space. After experiencing the desert chill of mid winter nights in January, I think if / when I build in Siwa, this definitely gets added to the plan – a smaller room that can be the all purpose reception and sleeping room in the cold months, and additionally have a brazier and / or some outlet for smoke, to allow for a small fire.

All up this was a happy birthday, except for missing family and friends in Australia (despite the flood of emails – thanks everyone), and except for T. being away. The twinges of missing favorite people aside, I could not have spent a more peaceful and indulgent day.

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