A new year, a new life, on the other side of Egypt

“Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending”
– Carl Bard

It is more than a month since I posted, and so much has happened since then that it seems so much longer than a month.

Egypt has had the first sitting of its new Parliament, the first anniversary of the Revolution was last week, and the hopes and disappointments of the past year continue here.

The Revolution has impacted on everyone, on some in bigger ways than it has on others. For many it meant cutbacks in work, especially for those who work in tourism.

Last time I wrote I was happy that my Visa had been renewed, but I was facing many other uncertainties and some difficult decisions. I decided it was necessary to move from Siwa and I am now based in Nuweiba, a small town nestled between the magnificent Sinai mountains and the Red Sea. Like Siwa, Nuweiba is a beautiful place with desert at the doorstep, but with beaches instead of mineral water springs for swimming, the mountains instead of features like old Shali, and Bedouin locals instead of the Berber Siwans, which means a different culture to learn about and from.

Nuweiba has very few donkeys compared to Siwa, but many camels, some of which roam the main streets here. This is a special delight for me as I have loved camels since my earliest experience of them.

Siwa was of course very quiet compared to a city like Alexandria or Cairo, but Nuweiba is even quieter. I suspect it won’t be so quiet when tourism picks up again, but no-one knows when that will be. At the moment I see three or four foreigners a day at most, and some days none at all, and also very few Egyptians from outside Nuweiba. Yesterday I walked 6km along the stretch of beach known as Tarrabin where camps of small huts and chalets rest cheek to cheek along the water, maybe 50 camps in a row along this stretch. In a four hour walk I saw only two foreign women and one family of Egyptians from outside Nuweiba, and I was the only one swimming. I hope we can attract more people here; with as many hotels and camps again on the other side of the town to choose from, I can’t see why anyone would stay on the crowded beaches of Sharm el Sheikh instead. In Sharm you must pay to go onto the “Public Beach”, but here there are plenty of free beaches, and if you stay in a hotel or camp many of the chalets and huts are just a metre from the high tide mark.

My dear T. sadly had to close his cafe in Siwa which he had worked so hard to establish, and returned to Sharm el Sheikh for work. He really does not want to be there because it is not a good life, just work for survival, working with tourists who are mostly here for sun, “fun” and drinking, they are not here to experience Egyptian culture or get to know the people.

We could see in November, at the beginning of what should be the peak tourist season, there were just not enough tourists making the trek to Siwa. However they still come to Sharm because of the international airport and all inclusive package deals, which have also dropped in price because of the Revolution and Global Financial Crisis, so T. returned in mid December to work there as before.

On the last two days of 2011 I visited Nuweiba to investigate a writing opportunity. It was the first time I had been here, despite many trips to Egypt since 1993. I came to St Catherine’s and climbed Mt Sinai on a previous trip, but did not visit the Red Sea towns. I liked what I saw in a two day visit,and moved here in mid January. The brief first visit meant I had New Year’s Eve and part of the first day of 2012 with T. It was a very different New Year to our previous one in Siwa.

When I returned to Siwa I had a sad few days packing up the house and saying goodbye to people, and making last visits to the places so dear to me, especially Cleopatra Spring where I met T.and we got to know each other, and had spent many happy days and nights.

Leaving the house was heartbreaking. I did not think it would be so hard to go, especially given that I still hope some day to return and live in Siwa again. I will miss the neighbours, especially the children. After some frustrated outbursts on my side and bewilderment on their side, they knew to leave me in peace when I was writing, which was an unusual concept for them as they are not used to seeing women working like this. But when I was cooking or cleaning and they joined me in the house or we met in the street, or sometimes when we shared an English/Arabic lesson, they brought a lot of joy into my life. I will miss A’s three daughters and his wife especially. Despite lack of fluency in a common language we managed well enough to communicate. Smiles, hugs and sometimes tears went a long way to sharing what was happening in our lives, when words could not. While I have had a hard year, I know they have their problems too.

Leaving the house also meant closing the door on so many happy memories of time with T, and knowing we would not be living together again for maybe a long time, or maybe ever. The year in Siwa I had been so blessed to have him in my life; even through the months when he returned to Sharm to work it felt like he was not so far away, because we knew he would return and we would be together again. But now I do not have such great hopes for us.

While there is only 2 to 3 hours between us instead of the 20 plus hour trip we faced between Siwa and Sharm, the distance remains problematic because both of us have 6 to 7 day a week work commitments and the bus between our towns runs only once each way each day at 6.30am and 4.30pm.

I am happy in many ways, in a beautiful place with more chance of fulfilling work, new sights and cultural experiences to discover and people to get to know, but I am also sad for what I left behind in Siwa. As we are repeatedly reminded in life, I see so clearly that you can’t get back the times that have passed, so you must appreciate what is good in your life as it happens. Despite the many hard times during 2011, it was a life changing year for me and I packed more emotional highs and lows into it than in any year previously in my life.

Many of the Egyptians have been going through one of the most dramatic years in both their country’s history and in their individual lives. Being in Siwa I was isolated from much of this and it did not impact on me in the frontline way it did for many Egyptians, but personally I have undergone as much change as anyone here.

The next year will also be difficult but I hope for the people and for myself it will bring at least a little more stability, and I must continue to be hopeful. As we say here after every sentence in the future tense, Inshalla – God willing – life will improve for us all.

PS For followers of the “Adventures of Habibi, Aussie stray in Egypt” Yes, I did manage to bring Habibi cat with me. Animals are not supposed to travel on the intercity buses here, but A. took me to the bus station in his donkey cart loaded up with the children, Habibi in her airline travel cage and my suitcase, and argued forcefully with the bus driver and station manager that I must be allowed to take her on the bus, because she was not a Siwan cat and had come all the way from Australia with me. He even said we would go to the police if they did not let me take her! I had at least bought a ticket to reserve a seat for her as well as a ticket for myself, so I would appear to be doing the right thing, and also because in her cage she is too heavy to stay on my lap in the cramped seating for such a long journey. She is settling in to her new home and has a garden, something she has missed since leaving Australia. Despite the trauma of a second 30 hour journey in just over a year, which I never intended to subject her to as Siwa was supposed to be our final destination, Habibi seems content. She also clearly misses T. and looks for him every day, so we are both glad to have each other to curl up with at night.

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