Snaps for today

Today I wandered in one of the older ares of Cairo where several of the truly great mosques of the world cluster together.

I have downloaded some lovely women, a collection of coffee shop chairs, and one sign that I thought Benetton would love.

Snaps for today Snaps for today
Snaps for today Snaps for today
Snaps for today Snaps for today


Snippets for today

The hairdresser on the corner has a doll's head on a tall spike which was probably intended to hold a large candle. The hair is elaborately curled and waved, with a cascade of flowers tucked into its convolutions.

It looks like Ann Boleyn, after the beheading.

I hear a susurration of giggling from behind a guard box in Zamalek as I walked to the supermarket. There were a group of seven women sitting on the ground enjoying a joke among the mud and broken edges of the pavement. From the propped brooms behind them I gathered they were street sweepers. One comment was obviously ribald and aimed at the guard, as he looked at me and went bright red.

Outside many of the doors is a simple wooden chair. Many are occupied – always by men. In one place as I approached a dark man in dramatic black robes hitched his chair over his arm and moved down one shop front to join his neighbour. When I reached them they were reaching for a third chair and the smell of coffee was fragrant in the air. They smiled and greeted me, and as I responded in Arabic I was smiling. He asked why and mimed the smile when I didn't understand. I pointed out that he had three chairs and there were only two people. He asked "how could I ask another friend without another chair".

In the pharmacy window near my house is a brand of condoms called Camel Sensitive. My mind is still boggling.

Among the spices in the supermarket is Crutched Nutmeg.

What is it about the sights and sounds and people of a country that is not your own? I wouldn't dream of taking photographs of people in Australia – or not those I don't know. Here I am enchanted by the faces – especially the older ones. I have also found, to my amazement, that many women are letting me photograph them. With the digital camera I can even show them the photograph I have taken.

There was a furniture cart standing near a tiny market. The base was brightly painted in patchwork patterns – red, orange and green with black and white, but faded to a tint in the silvered wood. The horse was somewhere else. The cart was piled with new chairs – gold painted with stiffly padded seats and red and gold flocked upholstery. At the top the last one lay on its back with the padded back facing up. On top of it a skinny tabby cat had found a secure place in the sun. It had classical Egyptian features (well, Egyptian cat features) with a

long slim face and elongated head and beautiful green eyes.

It washed with long slow licks and barely flicked me a glance when I took its photograph.



In Cairo and on line

I have arrived and am tired but fine. Our house is a mansion - like a well worn aristocrat in a slightly tired dress!

My stuff has arrived but can't be cleared until we have our diplomatic immunity sorted - and that takes time. It might be a few weeks yet.

I have decided which of many rooms is to be my studio and have started the process of organising shelves in a cupboard which stretches the length of the room and has only hanging space - and that so high that I have to stand on my toes to reach it. I think it was designed for someone with one hundred evening dresses.

We had dinner in a lovely local restaurant last night and it had eight different areas of tile patterns on the floor - this will be my crusade here I think, collecting these fabulous quilt blocks! I have a new digital camera and have been snapping away for the last four days.

I can't believe I managed without!

I must say, stepping out of Business Class on Emirates into the tube, shaking hands with the Chief of Protocol while everyone on the plane is held back, being whisked sideways back onto the tarmac, and taken in a blacked-out limo (ducking and weaving through landing jumbos),

to a room with awe-inspiring chandeliers and Louis Farouk furniture all around the walls, then being fed orange juice and baklava while someone else organises passports and luggage - well- perhaps I could get used to this!

And to keep the balance - we have one bedroom which has snakes breeding in the air con system. Not dangerous as they are a common garden snake as seen as good luck by many. However, there are people who don't like to be woken by them moving around the room, even if they do reduce the rats.


Dubai and arriving in Cairo

Dubai is a really interesting city - an amazing combination of Arab oil money and Asian efficiency.

We walked around an area last night that would have had people who play with beads lusting helplessly. There were mountains of bags of beads and drilled shells and stones - and each bag cost about the same as a teaspoonful of the contents in Australia. There were not many that were special or unusual - I had been hoping for sterling silver - but if you wanted a kilo of any single type you were in luck. Buttons were there too, in the same bulk. Tight plastic bags bulged with every sort of button you could imagine in a size that could cover a bread and butter plate, with a bit hanging over at the corners.

I have bought a digital camera and have been trying that out. I have photos of really interesting feather boas, rounded and lush, hanging in festoons outside haberdashery shops. These were a far cry from the rather uninteresting boas at home. There were pheasant and partridge and wonderful black and white spotted guinea fowl feathers - and a boa cost about fifteen Australian dollars. If I ever learn how to send photos you might be deluged!

From the ridiculous to the sublime we went from the haberdashery to the gold souk!

I have never seen so much gold. One shop had reinforced railings that slumped with the weight of belts of heavy gold coins that drooped in what looked, from a distance, like a great sheet of gold. No-one could have called this jewelery discreet.

It was butter yellow, twenty four carat and arrogant. As Bob was asking questions which seemed to imply that he was trying to see what was to my taste I asked him not to buy me any. His response, somewhat unflatteringly, was that he had no intention of buying me any. I think most of the pieces on offer would have cost more than a year's salary, but he slightly redeemed himself by pointing out that we should wait for Kuwait where we have a friend with a brother in the gold souk.

We found a small Iranian restaurent for dinner - plastic coated menus with six coloured pictures of kebabs, and a pair of bakers competing in a dough swirling contest at the door. The walls were yellow-glazed bricks, the light ultra-bright flourescent, the floor bright and shiny yellow tiles - possibly for ease of cleaning though I don't think that had happened lately.

The bakers would roll a ball of dough to a sphere, then roll it flat until it was the size of a dinner plate, then flour their hands and toss it until it was wider and much longer. then it went back on the bench as they attacked it with stiffened fingers until it looked like thick lace. This was strewn with sesame seeds, placed reverently onto a pillow, and whacked hard into the side of an oven like Ali Baba's pot.

We ate mixed kebab - one lamb in chunks, one chicken in chunks, and one beef - like a packed and wavy ribbon of spiced mince. This was served with yoghurt in small bowls, and a pile of greenery on a plate which I thought was salad when it arrived at the table. It was actually herbs - fresh and fantastic - mint, rocket (not the tiny curled leaves of Australian trendy salads, but larger and more peppery), and long thin strips of garlic chives. Bob resisted with mutterings of arriving at a new post with stomach problems. Just as we started to eat a baker materialised beside me with a sheet of crisply curled bread. We exclaimed with delight and tucked in.

Perhaps two minutes later the other baker (from Afghanistan and with a Mongolian slant to his eyes) appeared beside the table with a bigger and better slab. I had been over when he was baking, and had, with his permission, taken several photographs as he worked. With a slightly deprecating sound he whisked away our somewhat gnawed piece and laid his on the table instead. We looked over at the other baker, worried that he would be offended, to find him roaring with laughter.

I found the combination of a crisp edge of hot sesame bread, a morsel of grilled meat, a scoop of yoghurt, and my choice of green herbs was utterly delicious.

Along the edge of The Creek - a large inlet of water which serves as Dubai's harbour for smaller boats - is a six-deep barrier of dhows, some laden and some in the process of having their loads unpacked.

They are solid and chunky boats painted in bright colours. The goods pour in all day and disappear into the markets and lush shopping centres of the city. Any boxes or packages not moved by evening have a tarpaulin thrown over them and are left where they lie. I find this

level of implied honesty is impressive - especially in a part of the world where many westerners worry about theft.

Tomorrow - Cairo, and the beginning of our next three years. I will have to arrive in a suit and looking like an Ambassador's wife. It is a role I have played before, but it always takes a while to find my feet. More from Cairo!


Pack and follow

There is a well-known story about Richard Burton. On leave from his posting in Damascus he went to the foreign office for consultations. They cross posted him. Isabel received an email which said “Dahomey, Pack and Follow”.

We said goodbye to our beloved family on Wednesday 26th January. Unlike most families, we left home and our children stayed behind. The dog and his staff (or the chowhouse) will be Sam (22) and Tabbi (21), Emma (21) and Richard Scrivener (37).

Australia Day was not the best day to fly into Perth. Our plane touched down at 8.30 Western Australian time with fireworks visible from the window. The Sky Show had just finished. The CBD was always closed for the Sky Show.

Our taxi went around and around the city as the meter climbed. Not one road was open. Bob tried his legendary negotiating skills on several police at barricades, but WA police are tough. We were welcome to walk – Miss Maud’s Swedish Hotel was about twenty minutes away. It was at this stage that I started to doubt the wisdom of bringing our luggage with us - all three large cases, two carry-on bags, a laptop computer, a suit carrier, and a handbag.

The taxi dropped us on a slightly sleazy street corner outside a Fast Eddy’s. There I sat with a mountain of luggage while Bob chatted to police on street corners to see when they would drop the barriers – then when the barriers were dropped he spent nearly an hour trying to locate a cab.

Meanwhile a constant VERY cheerful stream of Sky Show watchers poured past me – several had done a lot of pouring the in the last few hours. One fell over my pile of cases and lay there hiccupping occasionally until his friends hauled him out. Several insisted on shaking my hand. A Swiss group was a bit indignant that the party was over as soon as the last firework blinked out.

The best one asked – with a glance at the luggage – if I was “leaving the old man?”

I told them I wasn’t – that he was in the small case.

“Little guy isn’t he?”

“No – just smallish pieces!”

Miss Maud’s Swedish Hotel is called just that and is a ‘medium’ accommodation – no porters, lots of stairs and right angle bends and narrow corridors but heaps of charm and very nice staff.

Food is legendary in Perth – just for a smattering – breakfast came with fresh pancakes and a mountain of blueberries and raspberries and whipped cream. Dinner had an even bigger mountain of every type of seafood you could name and some I couldn’t. There was also a selection of pickled herring and roll mops that had Bob’s mouth watering and made him smell like a cat who had eaten sardines.

I’ll skip the time in Perth – while relaxing and interesting for me it was hard work for Bob.

We are now in Dubai courtesy of Emirates - business class as it was a long trip. I will never really be content in economy again.

They kept asking stupid questions – like “would I like lobster for dinner, or chicken thighs or steak?” We had incredible leg room – I had to use toes on the touch screen as it was to far away otherwise!

More later – if I don’t send this my email time willrun out!