One amazing year in Siwa, Egypt – “Sometimes the wrong choices bring us to the right places”

It is a year since I left Australia and moved to Siwa. As the Egyptian people’s Revolution continues to burn in Cairo and Alexandria, Siwa remains unruffled, although the changes in this year are having an impact here as fewer tourists choose Egypt as their winter destination. The impact of the Revolution and the Global Financial Crisis is being felt by me and people close to me, and where one year ago we felt sure of our plans for the future, now everything is uncertain.

Is the expression “personal growth” just psycho babble or New Age speak for “I had a s**t time but I learnt from what happened and from my mistakes” ? I had that thought this week as I was reflecting on the last 12 months and the many experiences and deep changes I have gone through.

It has been a year of “personal growth” beyond the changes of any other year in my life. Negative financial growth, unfortunately; my struggle to get enough freelance work has not as successful as it needs to be, and for the next year I can only keep trying or look for alternative work. Positive growth in my efforts have a more sustainable lifestyle – I have not bought clothing since leaving Aus, only two pairs of modesty sleeves, $2 Australian each, which give me more wear from tshirts and dresses that revealed too much flesh for Siwa. I brought with me enough clothes to last a few years, although some of the underwear is falling apart faster than expected due I suspect to combination of the minerals in the water here and strong washing powder (I am yet to find a natural alternative that I can source in Siwa, must try again when in one of the cities).

I have consumed much less packaged and junk food, even though I thought I was fairly low junk or additives food consumer in Australia, but I have now become an even more natural eater, with only occasional splurges on chocolate or icecream. I have drunk almost no alcohol during the year, a big change, though I definitely miss a glass of red or a scotch sometimes. I definitely miss a good Melbourne coffee, although I love Arabic coffee, finding a good Italian style coffee is near impossible in Egypt. I have lost substantial weight thanks to the change in diet and additional exercise provided by walking and swimming in the Oasis pools, and extra exertion required by doing all washing by hand and carting food and any other purchases the short distance to my home without transport to lighten the load.

I am sure that learning a new language, even though I am still only just beginning this, has flexed a few brain cells, and living in a different culture with traditions unlike those back in Australia has made me more tolerant but also increasingly inquisitive, wanting to know more each time I learn something new about the Egyptian and Siwan traditions and beliefs. Generalizations start to fall away as friendships form and I get to see more and more differences amid the similarities. I am discovering how entrenched beliefs and cultural practices are here, but also how entrenched my own ideas are. Although I had always thought I was a broadminded, flexible person, I have found I have many solid beliefs that can manifest as walls if I am not careful and do not try to work out why I feel so challenged by the differences I see between my beliefs and social patterns, and those of the people around me.

But the biggest changes have been through a close personal relationship with a wonderful man. We have both had a difficult year due to financial constraints forced by the Revolution and the global financial crisis and its impact on tourism here, and as he is not from Siwa we are both living away from family and old friends in a place with many unfamiliar ways. It is uncertain whether he or I will remain here, or what the future holds further ahead than even a week from now, but whatever happens, knowing him has changed me deeply. He has worn away many of my lifetime low self esteem habits, given me a belief in myself even in this tough time. He has cared for me and watched over me like a brother, even though my strong feminist and independence instincts have fought against accepting many of his demonstrations of protection and concern. We have stumbled through language misunderstandings and the far deeper misunderstandings which result from such very different cultural perspectives. While I have needed reserves of patience to try to understand his ways, he has needed double that to understand mine, and also to survive being close to the constantly churned up emotions I have exhibited, the volcano boiling over at least once a week. In the midst of our internal feelings of dislocation and the external pressure of the changes in Egypt, we have both also gone through times of questioning our spiritual beliefs.

But we have also had so many moments of delight, often in the simplest of things, and in each other, and I suspect he has learnt from me as I have from him. I go into the second year here knowing I will probably lose what has become the most important thing in my life, and it will be so hard to be without him. We may have little or no choice in where our paths take us next. For this year though, no matter what regrets or anxieties I may have had about anything else, to know this person and this relationship has been worth every dream, every dollar and every hope I invested in coming to Siwa. I will be thankful for this experience for the rest of my life.

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