Thursday, August 18, 2005

Tehran, Esfahan, snippets

We are in Tehran. I have been so busy I have not been able to keep this blog up to date. For this I apologise - but most of all, I am annoyed with myself as there are so many wonderful things to write about and no time at all to write.

I had hoped to wait until I could download the photographs with the text, but this is not going to happen. I simply cannot find a way to connect my laptop to the internet here. The hotel system is fine when working, but the idea of trying to transfer images with CDs when time is so tight is just too hard. So - some text now, and photos later.

Rather than try to get this into a coherent order, I thought I would send you a lot of snippets.

We had a wonderful dinner in a traditional restaurant in Tehran.Buildings here are mostly brick, and this had lines of turqupise between some areas, which picked out linear patterns. Photos to come, so I will not try to describe it. The food started with a plate of herbs and a paper thin bread. The herbs were so strongly flavoured - basil so hot it left me reaching for water, basil that was strong and sweet, basil that tasted like licorice, lemon verbena, a thing that looked like soft frilly rocket that almost took the roof off my mouth. The bread looked as if it had been steamrollered over pebbles.

Then grilled egglant, and tomatoes baked till the skin was pitch black, but the most intense, sweet melting flavour in the bloodred and almost seedless heart. We had 'special' kebabs - the type you have when you can't decide between chicken and lamb - each morsel was a piece of lamb wrapped with chicken and grilled, then topped with smooth yoghurt and spices.

The drink we like best here - forget alcohol as this is a totally dry country - is a yoghurt drink blended with ice and water and mint. It is slightly savoury, very smooth and delicious with most local food.

Do you know that in Iran you can get a 'smoothie' which is a cup of fresh pistachios blended with mild and ice cream and a little caramellised sugar? For those who think of pistachios as a pale yellowish green - you have never seen the Iranian version. These are a bright as fresh cut early summer grass, and with something of the same scent of summer and green with the slight nutty sweetness.

Tea here is delicious. It comes with a cut lime - sometimes half and sometimes whole, which you drop into the cup before you pour the tea. As it steeps the lime flavour intensifies. I watched as locals squashed it with a teaspoon to extract maximum flavour and added sugar to sweeten the tea. Limes come in three kilo bags for a few dollars, and many of my students just add lime and sugar to hot water, topping up the glass all through the day.

Lime also comes with all the lunches that are brought to us. These are, it was explained to me, 'student food'. They are so much better than student food in Australia - today's was zeresht pollo - rice with saffron, barberries, pistachios, almonds and chicken. The barberries are tiny red berries with the punch of a whole sour cherry in each tiny globe. Meal servings are large and always contain meat - I think a vegetarian would have real problems here as the idea does not seem to exist.

Some of the girls squeeze the lime into a spoon at the end of the meal and tip that into their mouths, explaining that it was good to take away the fatness of the meal.

I will talk about Isfahan when I have photos to show. For now - let me tell you of a tiny tea house built under a bridge hundreds of years ago.

We sat in the window sill looking out over a broad and fast flowing river. Our guide, Mr Shah had suggested that this was a nice thing to do.

Tea arrived with a bowl of thin flat oval discs (if I can be permitted an oval disc?) of golden brown toffee. The caramellised sugar comes with many flavourings - saffron and lime rind, but this was plain. The Iranians put the sugar disc into their mouths, and can make one disc last a whole small glass of tea, sip by sip. I tended to crunch as it started to dissolve, so dropped it in whole the first few mouthfuls were normal tea - but the sugar had layered at the bottom and the last few were straight golden caramel.

Our host had demonstrated how to put it into your mouth, and sip past it. Bob unfortunately took a piece that had two discs stuck together to make a long tongue-shaped piece of toffee. He put it into his mouth, sipped his tea, and it all slid sideways and tried to wedge his mouth open. He gurgled and mumbled at it like an old man with loose teeth and our guide lost control totally, chuckling and gurgling and snorting with laughter - and so did I. It was fun - Bob was obviously not in real trouble and all through the rest of the pot of tea Mr Shah kept gurgling.

Later I realised there was writng in Farsi on the sugar, and asked what it said. Before our guide could read it, Bob cut in with "Do not feed to Australian Ambassadors."

We saw people standing outside a food stall in the main square - the Map of the World Square - in Esfahan - with what looked like very large flat yoyos in bright yellow. "It is ice cream - it is delicious" said Mr Shah. It was - light, creamy, flavoured with vanilla and rosewater and saffron, and in a sandwich with a large circular pair of wafers. Oddly enough, it didn't seem to melt as we ate it.

I found a wonderful pair of scissors here in Esfahan. A tiny shop, gnarled old man in a strange green hat. Stuff everywhere - bulging and dropping from shelves and hanging from strange projections. I will send photos later. Bob found a bowl in copper (Safavid dynasty) and my scissors were huge old shears complete with brass inlay writing and a maker's signature. They are from the Qajar dynasty - about two hundred years old.

We bought both, and they were both wrapped, the scissors were propped, pointy end up, in the bowl, and off we went. We shopped for a bit longer, ate huge icecreams like overgrown wagon wheels - large wafer discs around bight yellow vanilla icecream which was superb and didn't seem to melt in the undoubted heat.

Back to the car, and we were taken by our guide to a wonderful bridge which we walked on and admired. When we returned to the car It was parked an awkward distance from quite a high kerb. Did I put my foot at road level (twisted at an odd angle) to get in, or did I try the swoop from a great height which meant a very difficult doubling over as I tried not to knock my head off at the door? I went for the
latter, seeing myself in a beautiful swooping manoever.

Unfortunately, in the awkward moment with head twisted sideways to avoid the top of the car I tried to see if anything blocked my descent and all looked clear so I descended - on top of the pointy end of the scissors carefully propped in Bob's Safavid bowl. I was impaled on the Qajar dynasty.

I managed to haul myself off reasonably elegantly, muttered to Bob that I had sat on the scissors and we continued. The day was spent hauling my shirt down tightly to cover a decided three point tear and small amount of blood, and I now have a blue spot on my behind! No photos of that.

I thought of putting a patch over the hole but decided it would look a bit odd. Bob suggested embroidering a slogan. I thought that "If you can read this you are too close" would work - he thought it should just be "Esfahan".

Enough for today - I am off to dinner. More another time - of my lovely delightful students, of what we are doing here in Iran, and how happy everyone is.

I am going to a friend's home to eat Faisinjan - checken cooked with pomegranate and walnut sauce, rich and dark and fruity.

Be jealous.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Back and Sewing

I am home in Cairo. It felt like home as we landed, and yet so did Canberra! I think that means I am destined to feel somewhat split in two as I live here with children in one place, husband in another.

I am buzzing with wide-awake-ness even though I had a restless four hours sleep and it is now only five am! Worse - I have just finished Harry Potter and am rattled by the end which I think contributed to the lack of sleep. Jet lag is horrible but at least my email is all cleared and a lot of the computer based tasks I have meant to do for ages are now done.

Cairo is hot, and very very humid. It is not a nice combination. The first step outside and you think “well, this isn’t too bad, I can live with this.” Two minutes later you are slick and wet all over, sweat starts to run down the back of your legs, and you realise you are really uncomfortable.

We still have flowers on the poinciana. I looked at Google Earth while away – and like all the world, I found my house. I can see from the brilliant red of the poincianas that it was taken in early summer.

We also have flowers on the jacaranda – again. It is heavily in flower, but unlike the spring flowering it is now loaded with deep purple against sharp grass-green leaves. There are two other trees in flower. One has a crown of brilliant yellow and Gamal hates it as it drifts a constant confetti of gold onto everything below – white marble steps, driveways, just-washed cars – and every balcony. The other is amazing and I haven’t the faintest idea what it is. It is heavily covered with what looks like Victorian posies of small flowers, tightly bound in discs in palest pink on the outside shading to deep pink in the centre.

From my studio I look down onto it all, and from the reading room I look straight into the heart of the jacaranda. You could drown in that colour.

There was an absolute delight in sitting quietly in the studio yesterday sewing (deadline is looming for Across Australia). With over forty degree heat outside there was little temptation to leave the air-conditioning. I watched a queue of rosy bronze pigeons at the drips from the iced-up air conditioner – drinking, one after another, then getting back on the end of the line again. What a pleasure that must be if you are a hot pigeon. Bob came up with cups of tea, and sat and read while I stitched and we talked a bit. I had Eva Cassidy (current favourite) singing Fields of Gold on CD. Sting is a wonderful song writer. I realised I was absolutely happy. I have really missed sewing.

I realised yesterday though, that I don’t like living in a huge house. Tabbi calls this ‘the palace’ and in a way she is right. It is not the distance between things, or even the height of the climb to the roof to my studio in a very hot stairwell. It is the sheer loneliness of cooking dinner in a very state-of-the-art kitchen in white and ice cold grey, with granite benches and absolute silence. It is such a long way from the study where Bob tends to sit over a mountain of newspapers that I can’t even hear the television when it is turned right up. Because we cook with gas I am not even comfortable putting things on to simmer and walking away.

It is so different form the intimacy of a kitchen that is open to the family room, with its ongoing conversations, and switching in to odd bits of television that we have in Canberra. Cooking here is not something you do without noticing, it is a task that holds you separate from others.

I have fixed it though, with a decree that a pre-dinner drink is to be served in the kitchen from now on.

We thought we had a cook and now we haven’t. It was a brief fling with the idea of efficiency. Lucas unfortunately was found to have stolen alcohol and drunk himself out of a job –in fact – out of the country as his previous employer deported him.

I go to Tehran to teach next Friday. I only have a single day off in the time I am there – but just wait for wonderful pictures. I will be the blob in black as you have to cover up there – head and all!

We follow that with a trip to Sri Lanka where we meet Sam, my son, on the first stage of his Grand Tour, then after only a few days we are off to Syria.

So – watch this space as I am back!

Thursday, August 04, 2005

More from Tabbi

It is Jenny here and I am back in Cairo! I managed to hold off on sending boring details of my Australian travel to the blog, on grounds that it is hard to relate to 'Postcards from Cairo'.

There are two more emails from Tabbi though - that cover her travel in Cairo and the rest of Egypt. I love her writing - it is fresh and vivid and she sees things differently from me. The first is on her return from Damascus, somewhat tummy-bugged and a bit frail. The second is more on Agami and Alexandria. But - I will let her tell you!

Here she is.

Due to doctor's orders I've been doing relatively little for the past couple of days. Have somewhat subdued the bug (probably due to the cocktail of 5 tablets I take twice a day) and lounging around in air conditioned comfort.

Thus there is no massive adventure to be documented, and this email should be as chilled out and relaxed as our gorgeous fellucca ride on the Nile at sunset. Breezey, delightful, and full of lovely images.

The latter might be hard to recreate, but I'll try!

First, I believe it is necessary to devote a full description to the house we reside in in Zamalek. I think of it as 'the palace'. It's gorgeous, regal, built in the 1920s - complete with large slabs of marble and swampingly high ceilings. Changing a lightbulb looks like it would involve a crane, or at least 4 men standing on each other's shoulders.

The garden is greener than I ever would have dreamed in such a dry climate. Due to proximity to the Nile, our lawn is flawless, our palms look like they are in a rainforest on the Daintree, and the flowers bloom through the lush green. (My father was inspired to tell me about a time in our embassy in Damascus when a chief clerk was happily running an illegal florist out of the embassy. If Gamal, our lovely
Egyptian gardener, was so inclined, he would have plenty of stock.)

Everytime I walk out the front door I feel like a wealthy countess - wish there were a way to stand out there with a brandy balloon and a long cigarette holder in evening wear. The columns outside deserve such embellishment.

But I don't smoke and I'm not a fan of brandy.

Ok, enough rambling, but my friends, you must come and visit. If nothing else, to see this beautiful palace. There are plenty of bathrooms and spare beds. I'll ensure my parents keep the fridge stocked with sour cherry juice, just on the off chance you are coming by.

On Monday evening, while I was still a little bit fragile, Dad suggested the least strenous activity in Cairo - a ride on a fellucca (a type of boat with a long sail) along the Nile. We left at 6pm, and the temperature outside the jeep was still 38 degrees (and it would have cooled down since midday).

The banks of the Nile, particularly in the CBD, are shrowded with giant hotel monstrosities. High rise apartment blocks blocking out any ambience to be able to charge higher rates for 'a Nile view'. So we braved the Cairo traffic (as Lonely Planet aptly puts it "like Ben Hur with Fiats") and drove down the Nile and away from downtown.

We boarded our Fellucca, and Ahmed skipper/pilot/captain of our vessel gently released us from shore, and took us on our 2 hour tour.


I took far too many photos. But the sun setting over the Nile cast light in shades of coral and apricot across the water and lit the buildings gold. The palms and bullrushes on the river's edge were a rich green.

On the river, it is hard to remember that you are in the world's second most polluted city. That it is 38 degrees on shore (as a breeze comes up from the water) and that the Nile itself is the central sewerage system for 22 African countries.

The last fact caused me to hold the boat tightly as we went around corners.

It was such a beautiful experience. 2 Hours cost $20 Australian.

The next day, at 7am, my darling father was whisked away by a presidential car (complete with guard on motorbike) to present his official credentials to President Mubarak. He looked so smart, and returned 3 hours later officially 'His Excellency the Australian Ambassador to the Arab Republic of Egypt'.

Despite Dad's efforts to avoid the office, we had to duck into the embassy before he went to an Asian Ambassador's luncheon, and I went to the dentist.

The view from the Australian embassy is indescribable. A full 270 degree view of the Nile. On a clear day you can see the Pyramids in the distance. Incredible.

Next Mohammed (one of three embassy drivers) dropped Dad at his lunch (complete with the little Australian flag flying on the bonnet of the Merc!) then took me to the dentist (without flag).

I hate dentists. The estimated bill for the work I needed in Canberra was so high I cried - I could have bought 2 ipods and have $100 to spare! and that's WITH my private health insurance! - so I decided to get the work done here, as services are much cheaper in Egypt.

She was lovely and gentle. I felt guilty for cringing and crying out when it hurt. One filling done, one to go. At least the worst one is over.

Here begins the first of my small victories - I managed to walk from the dentist back to the house! I found my way!! There were a few beautiful shoe shops which nearly lured me off the path, but I fought the temptation and made it safely home!

Small individual victories such as this, in a place so unlike home, in a city so full of chaos, one way roads, identical gorgeous old buildings and people with as little English as I have Arabic, equate to confidence. Triumph over adversity. The beginning of understanding the elusive 'Other'.

It was great.

I also went and bought groceries, was given a choice of olives to taste before purchasing, and found the right money.

I am woman, hear me roar!

(Well, maybe not, but I did walk home with a silly big smile on my face)

Today I am going out to get my birthday present from my parents - a leather coat. Then Dad will join me and we will head to the Cairo museum and gorge ourselves on mummies and artefacts, before heading to a rather formal dinner at a fancy restaurant with a business colleague of Dads.

Tomorrow (My 22nd birthday!!) we leave Cairo for Alexandria, and the house in Agamy - on the coast to the west of Alexandria.

I guess you'll hear from me on my return.

Look after yourselves my lovely friends and family.


And the second one!

Hello everybody!

This isn't going to be as long as my previous emails, as we're about to leave for a long drive to St Anthonys Monastery, out in the middle of the desert in the middle of nowhere. Should be incredibly hot but interesting! We're staying overnight somewhere on the Red Sea, then returning by tomorrow afternoon.

The embassy has a villa 2 hours out of Cairo, in the town of Agamy – about a 45 minute (due to dodgy roads) out of Alexandria. While this may sound like one of those over-the-top perks to diplomats, it's necessary to give people who work in an environment like Cairo occasional respite.

And it is fabulously relaxing.

The villa has a pool and a wall of Jasmine, honeysuckle and hibiscus fragrances the air. We drove down on my birthday. When we left Cairo it was 10am and 36 degrees. When we arrived in Agamy it was 28. Bliss.

That night we headed into Alex for my birthday. We went to a restaurant called 'the Fish Market' where you select the fish/seafood of your choice and they cook it to your instructions. It is situated high on the waters edge, and has an incredible 180 degree view of the harbour. Just awesome.

The next day Dad and I headed in to explore Alexandria. What an AWESOME city! The sea is beautiful, there is so much history, and the air is so CLEAN after being in Cairo. The new national museum was fabulous, and there was a photographer from Egypt's main newspaper wanting to take photos of people in the museum. As we were the only visitors at the time, he sort of stalked us around the building with a
camera. As we were leaving, Dad gave him his card and asked to have the paper sent. The look on the camera man's face, on seeing who my father was, was priceless!

So nice to travel with my most Excellent pa.

On leaving the museum the tourist police came up and offered my father and I a guard for the day. It was so surreal. We declined and went to lunch at Abu Ashraf.

Abu Ashraf is the best seafood restaurant I have eaten in. Basically, a couple of Egyptians have covered over an alleyway with some sort of roofing, filled it with plastic tables and chairs, put in a television blaring some Egyptian soap opera, then succeeded to turn it into a local's paradise.

Once again, you choose your fish/prawns and they cook them to order. We picked out the most beautiful looking Snapper. He was gleaming and pink (sorry my vegetarian friends!) and you are charged by the weight of the fish (Our 1 kilo snapper was $20 Australian. With the addition of prawns our meal came to $30AU all together. A free and delicious spread of dips and an awesome eggplant dish!) Running out of time, but it was one of the best meals ever.

We then headed into the Bibliotech – the new national library of Alexandria, about 200 metres west of the original. Incredible building, stunning architecture and a great tour guide was counteracted by a security guard who followed us around hassling dad repeatedly for a Visa. So odd.

We spent the next day just loitering around in Agamy. Jumping in the pool, swimming, drinking Kakadae (A tea made from Hibiscus flowers), lying on lounge chairs in the sun to dry off, and generally relaxing.

Then headed back to Cairo, where Dad and I had dinner at a local
restaurant on the Nile.

Yesterday I went on a 'Mosque-crawl' with a good friend of my parents. We saw about 5 mosques, all interesting and different, then had a fantastic traditional Egyptian lunch – I have discovered the world's BEST student food in Koshuri – cheap to make, filling and totally delcious – lentils, rice, pasta and an awesome tomato sauce with
crispy onions. It sounds bad but its SO good.

Hope you are all fantastic well and happy!

The Merc is in the driveway waiting.

Love and all that Jazz

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