Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Strawberry Juice

We are back from Tripoli. While Bob worked right through each day of Easter, I had a wonderful time. While there was a little official ‘stuff’, I managed to see his credential presentation ceremony, go to the old Roman cities of Leptis Magna – twice, Sabratha once. I walked the Medina over three days, and had so many adventures I am afraid I will never ever be able to write them all up.

I ducked out to the shops late tonight to pick up a few basics. They are open till midnight all over the city. I bought a tray of strawberries on impulse because they were there, and they were so cheap, and they looked delicious. You have to really commit when you buy strawberries here, as they come in kilo packs, and a kilo is a lot of berries. They cost about ten Egyptian pounds – about two Australian dollars for the kilo. I bought eggs, which also come in a much larger tray than Australia, and potatoes, and because the bag was getting heavy I decided to leave it at that.

Outside the shop was a small boy, with a makeshift trolley with old pram wheels. He looked about seven in the light outside Saudi’s Market. Then I walked into the dark and he fell into step beside me.

“Faroula?” (Strawberries).
Now I could write the Arabic and the translation, but I think it will be easier to read if you know that he spoke in Arabic, and I will write it in English.
“No thank you.”
“Very Cheap – only twenty pounds a kilo?”
“No thank you.”
“OK. Ten pounds a kilo?”
“No thank you.” However, I was now kicking myself for not buying from him as his were much fresher than the supermarkets, and he was down to the same price. He had only two packs left on his little trolley, though there had obviously been more.
In some desperation now he picked up both packs and offered them to me. “Two for ten pounds?”

This was really cheap – two kilos for about two dollars, and really big and perfect berries. Only the “What on earth would I do with three kilos of berries?” question was stopping me from buying them. I go to Kuwait and Abu Dhabi and Dubai in three days and I am BUSY! No time for jam making. No jars either – you never have them when you have just moved.

Then he moved into a patch of moonlight and looked straight up at me. His face looked small and thin, and I thought that though he was working at ten at night, he was younger than my youngest grandchild, who would, at this time, be tucked up and sound asleep.

“I’m tired”.

I bought the berries. I would have bought ten packs. I also gave him five pounds for himself. Tucked into those two words was the fact that he couldn’t go home until they were sold, that he was little and underdressed for a night that was rapidly cooling, and that he had probably been walking all day with wealthy Egyptians and foreigners like me brushing him off as a nuisance.

I gave Bob fresh strawberry juice, and the rest will be blended and frozen. I buzzed them with the juice of a lemon, a little sugar, a good shot of Cointreau and the juice of one of the really luscious navel oranges around at the moment. I half filled a glass with this and an ice cube or two then topped it up with soda. It was absolutely delicious.

Just because I can’t resist, I am sending a few photos from the old Medina in Tripoli, in Libya. I still can’t believe I have been there. If you think I am peppering you with too many pictures you are wrong. I am showing unbelievable restraint. I took three hundred pictures in five days. Trying to decide what to send is so difficult.

I love getting comments on this blog – so thank you to my regulars who leave a comment. I can’t answer them directly – it bounces – but it is always lovely to know that I am sending this to real people who actually read it. And – for my good friend who told me to ‘ease up on the foodie stuff as I keep dribbling on the computer keyboard’ – well – enjoy the strawberry juice. I have saved you from the hotel breakfast buffet.

From the sublime...
From the sublime ...
Wedding carts are used to take the bride to the ceremony - or even just to take a tourist along the waterfront. They are bright with plastic flowers, and some are really elegant, fit for Cinderella. the ridiculous
To the ridiculous

A more sombre cart, with lovely silver pieces
A more sombre cart, with lovely silver pieces

From the copper souq
From the copper souq
These are intended to be seen from below - they are tops for Minarets made in copper. I have always thought of them as a crescent, and it is interesting to see that in Libya at least, they are a circle, much narrower at the top.
Copper displayed against an old wall
I liked the way the green in the wall echoed the verdigris on the copper. I think this is one of my favourite photographs.

Broken tiles on an old building
Broken tiles on an old building

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Postcard from Tripoli

Postcard from Tripoli
I have been walking the old Tripoli Medina (old walled city) all day. I spent five hours there this morning, until my bladder and hunger drove me back. I then took Bob back about an hour later. My feet are falling off but I am tired and very content.

The Libyans are delightful. I had not one pushy seller, not one lecherous male, and met with great charm from children, women and men alike. The Medina has a wall around it - mostly. It is missing in places. While it was good against smaller attacks from the sea that it was built for, it wasn't much use against shells from Mussolini.

Inside the wall the old town has some areas that are delightful, some where the garbage has piled up and areas where the smell of urine is strong and pungent.

I walked through the gate behind the taxi station (pungent) and had a choice of three roads. The most traveled by the most people was being worked on and had a long deep ditch down the centre which forced heavy pedestrian traffic against the wall. Another had room for cars. I opted for one that stretched off on my left, the road least traveled - but which had arches over it like the old city of Jerusalem. It was obviously the beginning of a residential area.
Boy in the Doorway Little girl in a wheelbarrow of water
This was charming, full of women and children and they were obviously out to do the days shopping for food, as many had baskets of vegetables. Walls were natural pale stone or whitewashed, and many doors and details where picked out in blues - every hue from turquoise to cobalt to ultramarine. Faces came in many colours and while most women had their heads covered I was interested to see many African features in faces and clothing not quite so common in the Levant where I lived before. Many older women had chin tattoos and hennaed hands, and often I could see red-hennaed hair beneath a white traditional burnoose.
A touch of Africa

I am fascinated by old walls.

I am fascinated by old walls.
I am fascinated by the sense of history of old walls - especially where they are obviously internal walls where houses have been stripped back from the street. I was photographing a particularly beautiful piece of wall with layers of paint and plaster that moved through the curiously Mediterranean colours of ochre, turquoise, cobalt, pale apple green, and had ended its days as white. A friendly young man walked out of a nearby house, and greeted me. I said "hello" and smiled. I could see he was curious about the subject I had chosen to photograph and was trying to explain why I liked it. His English was better than my Arabic. He asked where I came from, and said "wait" and disappeared into the door in the wall that led to his house.

He reappeared with a woman who beckoned me in. I really liked the sensitivity that understood that there is no way in the world that I would have followed a young man into a house.

Inside was a pale painted courtyard, with two levels of rooms all around it. Upstairs had a balcony so people could lean over it to chat to those below. Downstairs had a simple kitchen, and two or three (I didn't want to peer) larger rooms with mattresses and seating. Karen was actually English, married to a Libyan. I was warmly welcomed, introduced to about eight people very rapidly. Her husband walked out of the bathroom wearing a t-shirt on top, but only wrapped in a towel below. He handled the fact that he had just walked into a foreigner while in a state of undress with panache, and stood to chat, gesturing heavily at some stages - enough to make me worry about the security of the tuck in his towel. I had a drink of water - pulled from the tap - Bob may kill me if it doesn't - and headed back into the souq with photos of the children and new friends.

Mosque with the green door

Mosque with the green door
I found a beautiful green door, and the wall and minaret behind made it obviously a mosque. I knocked, and the guardian let me in. It was so pretty - not like the more stark and simple mosques of Old Islamic Cairo, this was decorated on every surface. It had simple marble columns throughout, and at the base of each column was a puddle of pale green worry beads for people praying to use. In fact, they are used like a rosary, and are very similar in form. I took about forty photographs. Every wall was tiled and there would have been twenty different designs. The mithrab was marble with twisting borders of inlaid stone flowers, the walls had stone carved borders at the highest edges, the ceiling was either pure white domes - at least fifteen - or beautiful dark carved and stained wood.
Mosque Mosque

Spices of Arabia

Spices of Arabia

While there are areas of the Medina which are obviously intended for tourists, most of the area is local - housing and shops with cheap dresses, toys, makeup, walls of hanging shoes that look like torture to wear, and marvelous spice shops with rolled back sacks of spices - and each spice priced by the kilo. There are things that we don't use as well as the familiar - like hibiscus flowers dried whole, from which a drink is made, called something like Khakadoura. It is a glowing ruby red, and for a while I thought I was drinking a sweetened plum juice, as it is rich and tangy and very fruity.



Black and white pattern sheets that look about the size of A3 paper are everywhere. These are patterns for henna for hands or feet. I photographed some. They stick lightly onto the hand, then henna is smoothed on as a paste. The stencil is lifted away leaving a pattern in lumpy dark brown paste. This is left on until it dries, then any debris is brushed away to leave a crisp pattern which can last seven days if you don't wash too hard. As I photographed them a young woman stopped to tell me that this is a new craze, to use the stencils. "Not as good as the old way, which needed some skill", she said.


There are far too many skins of rare or endangered animals. Hyenas, leopards, gazelles - I was really horrified by the number of animals who have died to supply some of the shops in the tourist souq. There are points where the bad taste becomes almost laughable. A stuffed leopard in a straw hat was quite distressing.

The Silver Shop

The Silver Shop
This afternoon Bob and I went into a shop with a lot of older traditional silver in the window. In a shop about the size of a toilet cubicle we spent a fascinating half hour with a lovely gentleman who fondles his pieces as if he cared about them. He pulled out a book on the jewelry of Libya, and would show us a page, then lay his antique pieces onto the page on top of photos of similar pieces. We looked at crescents to decorate heads, and ears, and the sides of scarves.


I have always been fascinated by fibula. These always come in pairs, and were worn by Romans to secure their togas. If you have ever lost yours at a toga party you obviously were not wearing a fibula. They usually have a large triangular head, then a long spike below, with a rotating ring attached which can be fed over and under the spike to secure folds of clothing without actually putting the spike through them.
We fell in love with a beautiful piece, obviously a piece de resistance. It was simple, heavy, and a circular head ornament, like a bracelet in form, but triangular in cross section with a smoother centre and heavy decoration on the other two sides. There was a companion piece, much slimmer and simpler, but both with the same hallmark - which according to the book was the jeweler's signature mark. These have become our souvenir of Tripoli.
I am fascinated by the role of souvenirs. To me a purchase made to remind you of a place is so much more than an object. They hold, securely locked within them, a whole swathe of memory. Years later I can pick up my piece of silver and the whole day will roll back, complete with smells, music, people and even the sun on my back in a sun-drenched blue and white souq by the sea in Tripoli.

Presenting Credentials

Presenting Credentials
I was very surprised to be invited to attend the presentation of Bob's credentials. This is an old and very formal ceremony, where his credentials are presented, and his predecessor's recalled. It is unusual to have anyone other than the main players present.
A black car picked us up. Bob was presenting with two other ambassadors - Burundi and Chile. We had chatted to the Chilean as we waited to be collected from the hotel. The cars arrived, black and formal, one for each ambassador. Flags were handed over, ready for the return after the ceremony when flags would be flown on the cars.
We whipped through the city with sirens screaming if traffic dared to pile up in front of us. This is a lovely city, clean and organized with white major buildings with the touches of blue and turquoise which are very typical of North African cities. Date palms surround buildings and rim the sea. It is fertile and surprising green, with the usual Mediterranean crops of oranges, olives, almonds and the less common (in the Mediterranean) dates.
The presentation of credentials is usually done to the Head of State. Bob represents the Queen, through the Governor General. However, in Libya credentials are not received by the Head of State.
Birundi was first and Chile second. We waited in a decorated anteroom, and while the furniture was gilt as in Cairo, it had coloured twirls of flowers in pinks and greens and yellows, and they crept over all the wooden surfaces.
When we were called in the whole process moved like a well-choreographed play. I was shown where to stand, and "our" group was in place in seconds.
Bob stood on one end of a large patterned carpet with an interpreter behind him. Opposite at the far end of the carpet were eight men, a row of three in front, and five behind. All stood at attention while Bob read his speech. It had to be read, as he had submitted it a day beforehand, and it had to be the same. He would read a sentence, and the interpreter would translate.
He then stepped forward and handed over the formal paperwork with the Governor General's seal.
Then the acceptance was read, and we retired to an adjoining area for a little "informal" conversation, under the glare of many cameras.
I am not sure how many women have been privileged to see such a ceremony in this part of the world, and I feel deeply honoured.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Weekend at Agami

We went to Agami this weekend. The Embassy has the use of a house in the north of Egypt (which is not Upper Egypt, for those who have heard the term, as that is in the south). We do not have an embassy pool and none of our houses has access to pools. In the long hot Summer it is considered essential for health and sanity to be able to get away from a city that can reach fifty degrees. What is worse is that the nights are not much cooler.

This is fine if it was a day or so of such weather, where you could hole up in air conditioned rooms and hide. But you can’t – as the heat goes on with minor fluctuations in its intensity for at least five months. During that time housework and office work has to be done, traffic is still appalling, shopping has to be purchased, and while it is not a time you are going to try on leather jackets, food must be purchased, and more often than usual. Salads and the few vegetables available in the heat of summer wilt as you walk home, and only survive in the shops with generous and frequent applications of water. And – you still walk as there is still nowhere to park.

It is not summer yet, but now and again a hot wind blows across the city, as if to say “testing… testing”.

I drove up to Agami. This is a milestone for me. I had so many people who told me not to buy a car, not to drive. “There is no point, you can’t park, it is dangerous, taxis are cheap, no-one drives here …” Well, all of that is probably true except the latter. Five minutes in a traffic jam and that is obviously not true! As for the rest – the point to me is the sense of freedom I get from having a car in the drive. I don’t have to go out often – but I need to know that I can if I choose to. You can’t park in many places – but having a car gives me access to places like Carrefour in Ma’adi which is a serious supermarket – they might even have cream cheese and sour cream, but I haven’t managed to get there yet.

And yes – the traffic can look dangerous, and sometimes it is – but I would rather be in the driver’s seat than trusting someone else at the most dangerous points.

There is a strange courtesy in traffic here. If you indicate, and start to move over places open up. If you realise in the third lane to the right that you actually have to turn left –believe it or not, it can be done. In fact, Egyptian drivers rarely position themselves before turns come up. This results in a strangely unchoreographed ballet of sinuous weaving of cars at each intersection. The positive is that I have never seen a driver lose his temper, never seen anyone abused – the worst I have seen is a hand turned palm up in a silent “Why??” Every driver knows that in allowing someone else to do the unthinkable now, it might be his turn tomorrow.

Even on the highways cars wind and twist as they drive. From behind it looks amazing, but in actual fact they are avoiding potholes, selecting flatter pieces of road or avoiding rocks left by trucks that have broken down, then just driven away leaving their warning stones behind. Now and again there is a slow and stolid donkey trudging under a weight of greens as high as a house, like a moving Burnham Wood. Occasionally someone drives steadily, if a little warily, down the wrong side of the road.

It is a good two hours to the turnoff from the Alexandria Road to the house at Agami. So that we could take two other families to Agami with us, we had opted for the Embassy Mercedes (which Bob pays to use while he is here) and the red Jeep Grande Cherokee that we have just bought. I was to drive that. We only had it delivered back to the house after all the mucking around organizing registration and insurance so all I have been able to do is start it and drive it up and down the side of the house, with the odd bit of reversing into the curve of the drive. It is a bit worrying that Gamal at this point always leaps to hold his roses aside. I would like to think it is so I don’t risk scratching the car – but then, he loves his roses…

I had taken a careful look at our narrow gate in our narrow curved drive and chickened out. The friend who arrived to show us how to find his house drove us out of Cairo. Then I took over. This was near perfect driving practice, as I had time to get used to being on the wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car, with the rear vision mirror on my right, and the gears on my right, and the indicator on the left – all on a straight-ish highway. As we turned off that, and turned again and again into progressively small roads, lanes, tracks – whatever – I felt able to cope. I even drove all the way home, through Zamalek in traffic, stopped at two houses, and negotiated our gates and drive! I noticed the guard moved two poles out of the way instead of the single one he usually shifts for our drivers though.

Agami was beautiful. The house there that we use is a big ‘villa’ in a row of others like it behind high walls in the centre of a small and poor village. It has a lovely lawn and pool, and enough space to sleep ten. This was one of those weekends where within minutes every man was stretched out on a padded lounge by the pool, and asleep. They work such long hours here, and the work has been so hard lately. Barbara, Maureen and I (all embassy wives) read and pottered. We had allocated meals and contributions and had the sort of feasts that come out of casual allocations – wonderful food, in about the right quantities, but with gaps like tea bags and sugar, which everyone forgot.

No one swam as it was surprisingly cold, especially when the breeze sprang up in the afternoon. Most of us spent the weekend in jumpers, or at least in long sleeves.

I feel all smoothed out now – and have even felt the benefit of two days of breathing clean air. Cairo is now rated with one of the worst pollution levels in the world, and as you approach the city from the north we could see a dome of dark grey smog sitting malevolently over it.

Reflected in a bus

Reflected in a bus

I saw this somewhat distorted view of buildings reflected in the back
window of a bus near the American University hostels. They might even
be the hostels, but if so I hate to think what fees they chargethe

The road outside the corner shop

The road outside the corner shop

We have roads and car parks in Australia too where the bottle tops
have dug in and embedded themselves in the road surface.

Here there is as much bottle cap as road. The difference is that they
are not from beer, but from soft drinks. The slightly more ominous
indicator is the level of heat that must be on the tarmacs in Summer
to melt it to this extent.

I have always loved squashed bottle caps. I can see people of the
future wandering our archaeologiccal sites, and thrilling to find
evidence of long dead people who opened the bottles and drank the
contents. Unless, of course, they assume that this is a form of

Exhibition of artworks by Farouk Hosny

Exhibition of artworks by Farouk Hosny

We attended an exhibition recently at the Opera House Gallery. If I am
honest, I went as much to see the gallery space since we have beeen
offered it for an Australian Quilt Show later this year.

This is the first piece I saw as we walked in and I assumed, since I
had heard that the artist (male) was a painter, that it was dribbled
paint. It wasn't, it was textile, worked and overworked, mostly in
finer DMC pearl cottons and every sort of fabric scrap you can
imagine. I wanted it, but at the price they were asking I just
couldn't have it. It is the same price as the four wheel drive Jeep
Grand Cherokee that we have just bought!

Detail of stitching in the top corner

Detail of stitching in the top corner

This reminded me of the wonderful freeform knitting I have seen at
some of the shows, by Prudence Mapstone and others. This is only a
very tiny part of the piece, and there were three other pices of this
scale in the show. One was much more organised, but I did not like it
as much.

More stitch details

More stitch details

This is a small detail to show how intricate and hectic the stitching
on this piece is. I really loved this. It has scraps of everything on
it, even bits of old stockings and fur and carpet. The stitching
remeinded me of Kantha gone mad with the heavy wrapping of threads
around edges, and occasional lines of dull beads.

Onyx walls

Onyx walls

Photographed en route to the bead suq last week.

For those wondering why I keep changing the spelling of suq - there is
no right way except in Arabic! It rhymes with Luke, but ends in a q,
not really a K. In Arabic you can hear the difference as it is further
back in the throat.

Boxes for Sale

Boxes for Sale

Inlaid wood and mother of pearl boxes with wonderful quilt pattern
ideas on their lids.

A puddle of pearls

A puddle of pearls

This was rejected last week by the webhost which looks after my
photos, as was a closeup of the duck - the batta balady. I suspect the
problem with the duck was its caption. I have no idea why the pearls
bounced (no obvious comments please) so am trying again.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Champagne and Caviar

I have had an interesting and busy week. Our social life has gone from steady to busy, with frenetic on the horizon. I am aware that being an Ambassador’s wife is, in the eyes of many, a wonderful string of parties and entertainment, at others expense. There are times when that feels like the truth. The fact that this is a public forum and can be accessed by anyone restrains me from some of the behind-the-scenes stories that you might find hilarious. Buy my memoirs – after I am dead!

Two nights ago we had had a drinks session – hot and cold running waiters, cheese platters, blinis (made by me of course as we still have no cook and are unlikely to have one) and caviar, mushroom tarts and feta and mint crisps. Fifteen people and Bob and I were a happy and convivial group. We like these arrangements as they are easier than dinners, cost a lot less so we can see a lot more people in small groups, and both of us manage to talk to everyone and this doesn’t happen at dinners.

Let us go behind the scenes.

Let’s look at the blinis and caviar. The blinis were tiny pikelets and I had made them. Aside from the fact that it took me two weeks to find a source of baking powder, and that you buy it by the teaspoonful in tiny packs, they were fine.

I had been told that the shop on the corner had sour cream so went to get some. No – they didn’t and had never had it. OK. Sour cream was obviously not available so I would think of a substitute. Four days earlier I had bought Philadelphia Cream Cheese here and that would be fine. “Sorry – we don’t have it and had never had it”. OK. Philadelphia Cream Cheese that I used for a dip was obviously a mirage - even though a tiny bit with the remnants of its sweet chili and mint topping was still in the frig.

I was offered a local substitute. They happily opened the sealed container, scooped out a lump on the end of a vicious looking knife, and offered it to me. I tried it. First taste was fine – coolish and creamy. Then the salt hit. It was almost strong enough to make me gag, and I only had half a teaspoonful. I declined and watched a bit amused as they folded the foil top back down and put it back on the shelf.

Now I was walking to Alfa – a bigger supermarket about six blocks away, but long blocks by Aussie standards, over execrable pavements, and I was in a hurry. I would buy pistachios while I was there as theirs were cheaper than my corner shop.

As I walked out of the shop and started to cross the road a taxi swerved at me (it certainly gets your attention) and beeped. Great – I would take a cab. I climbed into the back, legs wedged tightly in the minimal space there is for legs in Egyptian cabs. I had forgotten that the one way streets meant that the simple and direct walk to Alfa now became a long and winding road halfway around the island, choked with after-school traffic. In the middle of a road which was surprising free of traffic the driver reached back and casually grabbed me by the thigh, kneading as if he was punching down a loaf!

I am a grandmother of five, of generous proportions, graying in stripes, and well past my use-by date, and I was so shocked that for a minute I just froze. Then he turned and looked at me so I opened the door. I very nearly collected a car trying to squeeze into a tight parking spot – but it made the driver stop and I jumped out. I have to say that I get cabs all the time here and the drivers range from delightful to helpful to silent – but this was a first. I haven’t even heard of too many problems for other westerners.

Now I was a long way from Alfa, and just gave up, decided it was now peanuts instead of pistachios and I would rethink the caviar. On the way home I found a tiny cupboard of a shop which had Vache Qui Rit and decided that would do. Laughing cows seemed appropriate at that point. I was hot and dusty, fed up, and still had a really unpleasant and brackish taste in my mouth from the salty cheese. It reminded me of a time when I managed to open my mouth in the Dead Sea.

I picked up the caviar – I keep calling it that but of course it was lumpfish roe – and a container of tiny beautiful mushrooms for mushroom tartlets back at the corner shop again. I had run through my money and needed flowers, so walked to a nearby handy-teller and put my card into it. The machine ate my card.

By now I had decided that this was not my day. I bought the few flowers my money would stretch to and decided to prop them up with green stuff from the garden.

At home I realized there was no time to make pastry now so I pushed Arab bread (the thin aish balady) into mini muffin cases brushed with oil and baked them. I chopped mint and mashed it with feta and black pepper and spread that into the centres of mini Arab breads, brushed them with olive oil and dry fried them till they were golden and the cheese melted. Cut them into wedges and put them on trays ready for baking when people arrived. I cooked the mushrooms with cumin, black pepper, lemon, a bit of salt and olive oil and wedged them into their cases, then tore upstairs to change into something a bit slinky and cocktails-at-the-residence-ish.

Back down and the Vache Qui Rit which I had opened and left out to soften a little looked decidedly different. I had left it under the fluorescent light and it was now a cemetery for thousands of almost microscopic bugs. I scraped off what I could, added a sprinkling of herbs to hide any remains, and slathered it with elegant (I hoped) haste onto tiny pikelets, I had quartered little slices of limes ready to top it, and started to gloop on portions of black roe.

Then I realised that it was about ten minutes to arrival time – and the waiter who is always at least half an hour early to set up a bar hadn’t come. Now I was charging around trying to set up the bar and wondering which of the array of lovely Australian wine in the locked basement coldroom was the ‘quaffing’ quality, and which was the ‘extra-special-Prime-and-other ministers’ quality. A frantic call to Bob’s delightful and extraordinarily efficient PA and she rang the waiter. Then rang back to say he was on his way, there had been a mix-up over the time. Then the doorbell rang and everyone seemed to arrive at once.

Needless to say the waiter did arrive, and took over the efficient serving of drinks, but I was left realizing that I can never, ever assume that things will go as planned here. What takes an hour at home might need triple that here.

This function was like Bob’s favorite definition of diplomacy – like a duck on the water – all calm and serene on top, and a huge flurry of activity and effort below.

Monday, March 14, 2005

And a closeup

And a closeup
Meal one was roast duck with orange sauce for Bob and I.
Meal two was the carcass and legs simmered for hours until all shreds of meat fell off, the soup thickened with the stuffing until it was a delicious, orange-scented bowlful which was more stew than soup. There is still one small bowl of this in in the refrigerator.

Photos from the bead souk

Pearls on walls

I promised pictures from the bead souk - even on a Sunday when most shops were closed it was spectacular. You can see the beginning of a wall of pearls with a glimpse of turquoise behind. There was amber below.

A glowing wall of coral

I couldn't get over how wonderful the colours seemed in the corals. They may well be chemically boosted. Somehow I don't really care. It reminded me that I tell my students to use every red, not just one or two, if they really want a piece to glow.

About one quarter of the turquoise wall
About one quarter of the turquoise wall

This is not a picture with a lot of impact as the details are but I really want to get across the scale of this one shop. Add in the walls of amethyst, carnelian, peridot, malachite, lapis, coral, pearls and multiply that by perhaps another thirty shops in the streets nearby and you are getting an idea of the possibilities here.

The better quality
Better quality turquoise with the rough rocks at the bottom.

My favourite are the oddly greenish turquoise of the lowest grade with almost as much rock as semi-precious stone.

Smaller turquoise
The little ones.


We went to one of the most astonishing bead shops I have ever seen one in a street of closed shops. Walls of turquoise, walls of pearls , walls of coral. Semi precious stones all mixed up in huge vats – treasures I can hardly bear to think about. I priced two necklaces. One has a thick triple strand of amethysts and a heavy silver pendant. Fifty dollars Australian.

The other had four ropes of lumpy turquoises of that strange shade between green and turquoise which I love, and a heavy pendant greenstone mounted in silver, with delicate flowers and leaves twisting sinuously over the pendant front. It was seventy dollars.

In the street around the corner was a row of shops with sterling silver – findings and glorious beads.

Most of the shops in both streets were closed for Sunday – it is obviously a Coptic area. I can hardly believe what it must be like when all of two whole streets are open for business, all with the same sorts of beads. The choice must be breathtaking.

“What are you looking for?” from the urger in the souk.


“We have nothing. What colour would you like?”

We had to go to the licence registry to organise an Egyptian licence. I had organised something else, but arranged to meet my friends later so we could go – most paper work is a long and complicated process in Egypt, and can require several signatures in several different locations.

I was told it would be ten minutes. I rather cynically assumed about forty.

We drove to the area – and the traffic was heavy so that was complicated.

We realized Ashraf, one of the Embassy drivers was standing at the entrance, elegant in his suit and waving.

The car was waved straight in. It pulled up, we stepped out and followed Ashraf. We went straight into a room so packed with people that I couldn’t see how we could get through. A word from Ashraf to a man at the end and they all melted away like water on a hot bonnet at Bondi.

We moved into a small crowded room at the end, and once again, as we entered everyone vanished. They closed the door. I sat on a row of chairs at Ashraf’s suggestion, and the whole thing tilted back dangerously. I sat a little more gingerly.

They asked me to move to another chair almost immediately.

I did, my photo was taken, then Bob’s, and we were out. It must have taken a maximum of three minutes – and Ashraf stayed to organise the paperwork while we went off with Mohammed, another Embassy driver. I now have a licence to drive here. Our car is now registered, and in a few days we will have coped with insurance. Then I have no excuse not to drive.

Our favourite restaurant in the souk, Naguib Mahfouz, was booked out completely by a tour group.

We headed for another coffee shop nerby.

They came to take our order. We asked for mezze with Aish Balady (local bread). No Aish balady, but they had other bread.

What did they have.?

“Potato, falafel, and ful.” The latter is a broad bean and garlic mix common here as a breakfast dish – and it would guarantee you a seat of your own on most buses at home!

We asked for one of each and sat to enjoy our little dishes of food.

What we got was three sandwiches – half a piece of local bread, one filled with falafel and salad, one with ful medames, and one with potato – mashed!

Friday, March 11, 2005

Cough Medicine

We have had computer problems - and though I have been writing I have not had internet access that would allow me to update. So - there are three separate logs in rapid succession and one has some very weird symbols! Keep reading.

In just over a week we have done trips to Alexandria and Al Arish and Wadi Hitan (with whalebones). We have hardly had a night at home with the highlight being a wonderful dinner in our honour with the Irish Ambassador and his wife – who are very nearly Australian as they have three children in Australia. We have held three parties at the Residence – one for forty five people. We had a dinner theatre invitation for tonight at the British Residence, a dinner with a friend from the US Embassy tomorrow night, and a recital from a classical guitar player followed by a reception on Saturday night – and I have just pulled out of the last three.

I have had a cold for more than ten days – which is really too long, especially as I feel worse today than I have before.

I had a call from Bob this morning telling me he had organised a doctor. He knew very well that I would have refused if he had checked with me first. Now for the real evidence that we are no longer in Australia. The doctor would come to the house at 5.00 pm.

At 3.30 there was another phone call. The doctor was a little earlier in his appointments than he had considered. Could he come between 4.00 pm and 5.00 pm?

At 4.20 there was a ring at the doorbell. Bob opened it to find it was Gamal – our gardener who had knocked off at 3.00 pm because it was Thursday (Friday is the day off in Egypt and most Moslem countries). He had a large and gift wrapped parcel in his hands, which he gave to Bob. It was cold and very hard, but impossible to guess from the shape. He kept telling us that it was a ‘batta balady’ and indicating me.

Seeing our total mystification he charged through the house and to the cleaning cupboard. He pulled it open, dived into its depths, and emerged holding a box with on of those gadgets that tucks in the sides of the toilet to ‘clean and deodorize as you flush’. ‘Batta’ he said, indicating the picture on the front, which showed a fat and happy duck!

He had brought me a frozen duck to make me strong again. ‘Balady’ means local.

He has a small farm on the roof of his apartment – a pigeon house, some goats, chickens and ducks. After dinners I give him plate scrapings, and vegetable trimmings and leftovers that we won’t eat to take home for them.

I was so incredibly touched. He lives a long way out of town, and went home and came all the way back as he had heard me coughing and was worried.

The doctor arrived shortly after Gamal left.

He looked the consultant physician he was in his perfectly fitted pin-striped suit with one button fastened, pure white shirt and yellow tie. He had dark hair silvering at the temples – just enough to say ‘trust me, I’m a doctor’. His English was perfect, his manner professional. I was quickly but thoroughly examined, and diagnosed as having a secondary infection in the lungs. With a lot of pneumonia around he didn’t want it to get any worse so I am on antibiotics.

There was another odd moment when he asked me if I preferred my antibiotics to be ‘front door or back door’. I was prepared to believe that the chemist would deliver (and I know that they do), but thought it was oddly worded.

Then I realized what he meant. The French influence here lives on and he was asking if I would prefer a suppository.

It is hard to imagine that anyone would!

Trip to Al Arish

Trip to Al Arish

The photo of the dune was taken from the car (stationary) on the way to the middle of nowhere.

I am writing this sitting in a small hotel room in Al Arish. The Mediterranean is licking softly at a white beach only thirty metres away. I think it would be an accurate guess that no-one reading this has been here, unless you are in Australia's armed forces and have had an MFO posting.

This is a small town on the top end of the Sinai Peninsula, nuzzled in a friendly way against Gaza (unlike the occupants of the countries).

I would like to say it was an interesting drive. Most of it really wasn't just flat scrubby desert with an occasional small town until we reached the bridge over the Suez Canal.

Then it became sand dune after sand dune, encroaching on the road in sly drifts, a strange light to medium landscape that was somehow more like the sea - grey sky, grey road, and wave after wave of sand. The water table here is high, and now and again in dips in the sand were date palms, or even more strangely, sheets of very still water lying in silver sky-coloured ribbons beside the road. Houses in the occasional tiny town were poor with shutters and no windows.

Al Arish means 'the feather' - a great name.

The road to Al Arish
The road to Al Arish

Just to show you what I mean - this is a shot taken from the window an hour after we left. Nobody said that every picture had to be good. Even taken from a Mercedes.

and again....

This one was another hour later.

And more.....

The road ahead half an hour after that.

A short stop near the power lines
A short stop near the power lines

And again - aken on a leg stretch I the middle of the Sinai.
Then suddenly there was traffic banked up ahead of us before the gates and checkpoint that would let us onto the bridge. A large US ship was going under the bridge, so they had just closed it. Bob chatted to friendly guards, I sat in the car and read a book.

The Sinai Peninsula was much more interesting with large sand dunes encroaching on the road, scrubby growth, very poor looking towns without even glass in the windows of the houses, and surprisingly prolific gardens - though most of it looked the same. A large number of power poles followed the road through the sane dunes, and it looked odd - just sand and sky and masses of power poles, with the odd glimpse of grey sea. Bob is a historian (by interest) of the wars in this region, and enlivened the trip with stories of the campaigns in the towns we drove through, and the problems they had keeping enough water and food coming in for men and horses. I looked at the region we were driving though, and wondered why anyone would want to fight for it. The answer was, of course, control of the Suez Canal.

We are staying at a "resort". The room is fine - sparse and clean with two large beds. I have a heavy cold and I am recovering form a couple of days of the Pharaoh's Revenge. Bob went off for his meetings and helicopter ride, I walked the beach, and then the bed looked very inviting. Five am starts are just not my thing! The bed was very solid. I reached for the pillow and could hardly lift it!

The dining room in the middle of nowhere
The dining room in the middle of nowhere

We left again at 5.45 in the morning. I doubt if I will ever be used to these very early starts - but next time I am going up in the helicopter!

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Breakfast at Alexandria

I promised more about Alexandria. Several days late, other than a truly spectacular seafood dinner at Abu Ashraf's the thing that has most lodged in my head is the oddity of our breakfast at the Windsor Palace Hotel.

We sat down for breakfast at a table with five seats, as there were no small tables left. Bob collected what he wanted quickly while I cruised an excellent buffet. When I returned he nodded quietly towards a plate with a single segment of orange on it, and a half cup of black coffee.

“She has been to the table twice and hasn’t yet acknowledged my existence.”

Then a gentleman sat down in the seat beside me. He didn't look at us.

In good Australian style I said ‘good morning’ and was ignored.

Then the lady (blond and slim enough to snap if she attempted to pullup her socks) came back with a half piece of burnt toast on her plate.

Bob waited till she was seated and very clearly and loudly said “good morning.”

She did not even look our way, but sat and gave all her attention to the man beside her.

Both began chatting loudly and very enthusiastically, with lots of nodding and ‘ja, ja’.

Bob said loudly “It is odd being ignored isn’t it?”

I nodded. The conversation had reached a rattling pace on the other side of the table. He was eating, she toyed with her half piece of burnt toast, then examined the segment of orange carefully, peeled off some stray white bits and put it back on her plate. She didn’t actually eat even one mouthful.

Bob said “I couldn’t keep up this level of conversation at the breakfast table.” He couldn’t either – he tends to move into business mode at breakfast, and ask me things like “What’s on your itinerary for today?”

He smiled across the table as the woman almost glanced our way, then her eyes skittered away like a frightened pony. She went back to talking with animation to her partner. It was all I could do not to just sit and stare, as it all felt so peculiar.

It reminded me of a time when I had dinner with an Austrian friend while living in Jordan. After the meal she rounded on me and accused me of terrible table manners, and said that was very bad for an Ambassador’s wife.

I was a bit non-plussed, and asked what I had done. She pointed out that while eating soup I had my left hand in my lap, not resting at the wrist on the table as it was supposed to be.

I pointed out that it seemed to me that hardly anyone had a wrist on the table, and she said “but they are not cultured, you are supposed to be.” I pointed out that I suspected that it was European manners, and was not known in Australia or Jordan and she said that she was glad she had told me so I could get it right in future.

Anyway, it suddenly occurred to me that this couple at the breakfast table was probably as appalled at our bad manners in acknowledging their existence, as we were appalled at theirs in not acknowledging us! Both of us were breeching etiquette according to our customs.

She ate nothing through a long breakfast, just reduced everything on her plate to very small pieces. We left without them ever even looking at us.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Desert Trip

Desert Trip
We were invited on a trip into the desert to visit a site known for its whale skeletons coming through the sand and rock in the site of an Eocene Sea.

It was led by Roger (pronounced Roget and perhaps even spelt that way) who runs these trips regularly for anyone interested. He has a large group of followers, and I think I wish to be one of his very best friends. He has an extraordinary knowledge and love of the desert.

He also cooked a superb lunch - whole marinated barbecue filets of beef, tender and succulent and done on small round portable pans.

Breakfast, where we met the travellers for the day, was on an outcrop just before we dropped down into the desert. Croissants, pastries, strawberries, coffee and orange juice were all laid out on the bonnet of a car while we stood and chatted and ate.

I have to do this in reverse - as the first email (this one) has to be sent last and the last one first so they line up in the blog as I want them to. It is a little complicated, so forgive any discrepancies. I have a blog fairy - my wonderful webmaster, Kate Andrews, who will
flitter in and make it all look like one email instead of lots, so it doesn't push everything else off the front page. (Done now! - Kt)

Breakfast view
The view, in the direction we had to go.

We had to cross large areas covered in stones, and a crust on the underlyng sand and gravel like creme brulee, firm enough to look at, but likely to break through to the softer sand below.
Here every track ever made by a vehicle remains like a ghost. Tyres push the gibbers aside, and the white sand is left gleaming through.

Desert outcrops on the way

Outcrops in the desert
Desert as far as the eye can see, sand and gravel, and occasional areas of gibbers - strange stones that look as if they have each been melted and spun into weird smooth shapes. These areas looked firm, but the gibbers float on softer sand under the surface crust, and it is easy to bog even here.

Through the desert
We followed the tracks of our leaders. Though they scar the desert now, a few good winds will remove them, and you would not find this place without compasses and a global positioning system.
The glitter you see to the sides of the small escarpment is all shells, from a long ago ocean floor. Oyster shells were bigger than two of my hands, mussles, bivalves I didn't recognise, great sheets of shining fossilised mother of pearl and smallet turret shells. All in amazingly perfect condition, and spilling in profusion down every hillock of sand.
The trip was astonishingly, breathtakingly beautiful.

No roads
No roads, and no tracks, and just the desert spread out before us. We drove down steep inclines to get down from the plateau, some of it hair-raising, and had to roar up sand dunes to get over them before we ran out of speed.

Waves rearing overhead
I thought it very appropriate that the area that was an Eocene Ocean should have great rearing waves, with beautiful water patterns on their sides.

Spectacular outcrops along the way

Fossilised mangrove roots at the whalebone site.

The laid out backbone, and the most solid fence.

Whale bones
I was fascinated by long lines of whale bones, left in the sand for people to look at. The bones are from an Eocene whale who swam in this ocean forty million years ago,but was able to come up to land as well. They are not a precursor of our modern whales.
I couldn't believe that the bones were just left for people to look at in the absolute understanding that they would not be stolen - how long would they last in Australia before they were souvenired? This area is a long way from towns, but is visited regularly, and the sites of skeletons are surrounded by a 'fence' of small sticks in the ground - about a metre apart.
I should have given you a scale - the big bones here are about eighteen inches long (for patchworkers who work imperial).

I thought this was a funny sign - motor boats was the last thing on our minds!

The lake in the desert
The drive home took us by a different route. We ran up sand dunes - fast, as even slowing down would have bogged us - we followed a long flat wadi to Fayoum, then after about an hour of desert driving hooked around on a very busy highway to Cairo. We passed this lake on the way - and it felt almost surreal lying there quietly in the desert. It is artificial, fed by the Nile via canal (like most of Egypt) and already had very large fish.
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