Friday, February 13, 2004

February Ride

When my alarm clock went off at 8:30 this morning it dragged me out of such a solid sleep that I had thrown myself into my riding clothes, loaded dogs into the car, and headed for the horses before I was really aware of being awake. Friday is the first day of the weekend in Egypt and there are a group of people in Abu Sir who meet Friday mornings to ride in the desert. I wasn't meeting the main group today because I had opted to go out later with a couple of women who ended up not coming out for various reasons. Instead I loaned my younger gelding to a French woman for a desert ride with her husband and another riding friend.

The ride was gorgeous. The air was clear, crisp, and all of the pyramids from Giza to Dahshur could be seen almost to the individual blocks of stone. This is the kind of morning that causes an addiction to Egypt. The horses were energetic to say the least and we enjoyed a number of good gallops across the desert on our way out. As we turned home the wind shifted to come out of the west and the palms turned inside out like forgotten umbrellas over the fields and horse farms.

Palms are amazing trees. Arab tradition is that the palm was the tree in the Garden of Eden, and this would make a lot of sense to me. There is no part of the palm tree that is not usable by man and/or beast. Ask any Arab horse. They love the fresh dates that fall in September, the dried dates that we give as treats for the rest of the year, the fresh fronds that hang down over the paddock, and even the bark of the tree. It's all good to eat as far as they are concerned. I love the grey sea green colour of the branches and the red, gold and brown of the dates.

By the time we finished our ride and I was headed for home, the wind had shifted a bit again, and was definitely not from the usual north west. My clear beautiful day had turned cloudy, dusty and ultimately rainy. Welcome to Amsheer. That is the month of the year if you ask one of the farmers, while if you ask a taxi driver he is likely to tell you the name of the month in the Islamic calendar, and if you ask a businessman or a visitor, you'll hear that it is Friday the 13th. We have an abundance of calendars, just as we have an abundance of almost everything in Cairo.

When I lived in Alexandria, most people kept track of what they called the Alexandrian fisherman's calendar, which is the same calendar that the farmers use because this calendar did the best job of predicting our weather. I looked for information on the web about this calendar so that I could give a better explanation, but unfortunately didn't have much luck. I'm going to have to do better research on my own, I guess. The fishermen/farmer's calendar is similar to the Coptic calendar which is similar to the ancient Egyptian calendar, but there are some differences.

To go back to Amsheeer, it is the month of changeable weather, when it may be sunny in the morning and stormy in the afternoon. Monday might be foggy, Tuesday blazing hot, Wednesday cold and windy, Thursday clear and cool. Amsheer is our transition into summer and for the fishermen on the North Coast it is a month to be reckoned with, as the storms at sea can be violent. For myself, the main question is how many layers will I wear tomorrow morning when I go out to ride and the definite hope that the sandstorm will have ended by morning.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Avoid Allergies, Live Dirty

Reuters | Latest Financial News / Full News Coverage

Researchers have apparently decided that children who live with a dog in the house are less likely to be allergic than children who live with a cat.

"Gern explained that dogs may help curb allergies better than cats because dogs tend to be dirtier, and exposure to dirt early in life may help kick start the immune system into fighting allergies.

"Along this line of thinking, dogs are larger, and are more likely to lick you in the face compared to cats," he added."

SOURCE: Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, February 2004.

I quite like the idea that dirt is actually somewhat healthy. The current fascination with sterile environments seems to me to be part and parcel of the idea of risk-free life, which is itself something of an oxymoron. Life by its very nature is random, spontaneous, and therefore risky. The concept of a risk-free environment or life is one that I find actually abhorrent. This is probably one of the reasons that I like living in Egypt. Risk is part of the life here. We don't have liability insurance for every little eventuality, and that is just fine with me. If people want to ride with me, they wear a helmet, I make sure that we don't do anything truly stupid, and if they fall off, I'll get them medical attention but suing me is not part of the bargain. Riding horses is a risky activity.

Likewise, having a spotless house in Egypt is a hopeless task. With the quantity of dust that circulates 24/7, everything that you eat, drink or breathe is going to be somewhat contaminated. This doesn't mean that it's all right not to wash or to clean the fruit and vegetables. I take care that my food is as clean as possible, and visitors to Egypt who stay in my home have never come down with the dreaded intestinal diseases that so many seem to expect. It's just that the PERFECTLY clean surface is a pipe dream. And now the doctors are there to tell you that this is probably a very good thing.

I have an instant allergy prevention at my home with my ten dogs. I don't lock them up when people come over, which bothers some people. They are welcome not to visit. The dogs do not bite, don't chew on visitors' shoes, and the ones who are likely to try to sit on someone's lap are, on the whole, the size of cats, so this is not entirely inappropriate behaviour. It's nice to know, though, that they are serving a higher purpose than keeping my kitchen floor free of any dropped cookies and keeping my lap warm while I type.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

A Good Mare is Gone

One of the reasons for my wanting to move to Abu Sir has been the wish to be able to spend more time with my horses. I have a small herd that I keep together in sand and grass paddocks with a large run-in shed for shelter. I started out with one chestnut Arab mare who was a present, the proverbial gift horse. Dorika and I had a rocky start because I'd spent twenty years out of the saddle when one of my husband's friends asked him if he could give me the mare. I had to re-learn to ride and no one in their right mind does this with an unbroken Arab mare. I had help in training her and a couple of calmer mounts to get me back into riding, so we both survived.

About a year after Dory came into my life, an American friend in Alexandria brought a lovely grey mare down from a stable in the Pyramids area. She had bought the mare for jumping, having been told that the mare was about 9 years old. When her mare refused to jump after about 3 weeks, Betty asked a British vet who was living in Alexandria to check her over. Rebecca checked as asked and announced that the 9 year old mare wasn't a day under 15 years and that, even more important, she was at least 5 months pregnant, which was why she refused to jump. Betty was at a loss as to what to do because she really didn't want to take care of a horse that she couldn't ride in the way she wanted to, but she couldn't exactly turn her out on the street either. Luckily for all of us, I'd fallen in love with this mare and I offered Betty to buy her for a relatively low price and the promise that I'd never sell her. Nimbus was mine. Six months later she delivered a mule that was the delight of all the children who frequented the stable and she and Dorika became inseparable companions.

Nim lived with me from 1991 until January 12, 2004. She taught innumerable children to ride and was my first choice of a mount for any friend who didn't know how to ride at all. Invariably, she was an honest, kind babysitter for the worst rider, and she was an opinionated, bossy, stubborn mare for those who were foolish enough to think that they knew more than she did. As far as I can tell, she had done everything that a horse in Egypt could do before she came to me. If the mood was upon her, she was quite capable of strutting her stuff in dressage, especially if there was a goodlooking stallion watching. Riding her clockwise on a grass racetrack in Alexandria past an empty grandstand, she showed me that she could remember very well what her job as a race horse had been. It didn't matter that she had no one to race with, the ride was hair-raising and wonderful at the same time. After that, I made sure that I rode in the opposite direction.

When we moved to Cairo, Dorika and Nimbus came with us. They each gave me a son after breeding them to some purebred Egyptian Arab stallions, and they raised their sons together in a small band that insured the boys learned their manners very well. By the time that we started doing a lot of desert riding, Nimbus was probably quite close to twenty years old. She never was as fast as the Red Rocket, Dory, but one time she got the chance to race her stablemate and win, and all of us who were there that day remember her happiness at finally putting Dory in her place. I never knew that a horse could gloat before that day.

For the past few years, Nimbus had been retired to the pasture for the most part, but she still enjoyed getting out for a nice ramble once in a while. We saved her for children who were small, light and willing to be cared for. Her snowy white winter coat was always a source of joy and delight as we never clipped her and left it long to keep her warm during the winter months. This year I'd noticed that she was losing some weight although she was healthy in every other way. We tried to tempt her with favourite foods, but she was just gradually withdrawing from life. During the week before she died, she asked to be moved into a paddock on her own away from Dorika and she decided that she didn't need the grain portion that she'd always gotten. We respected her wishes and granted them, moving her into the sunnier sand paddock, giving her a blanket against the chill, and letting her enjoy her sunny afternoons in her own way. The day before she died I was there checking the horses, and she was lying in the sun on the sand in her blanket. Usually she greeted me with a whinny when I showed up, but that day she rested there quietly, her legs drawn up under her and her elegant white head just gazing in my direction. I could feel that she didn't want to be disturbed so I greeted her from a distance, knowing that if I approached her she would have felt it necessary to rise.

The next afternoon I got the call that every horseowner dreads and that I'd been expecting. I was already on my way out, so I called the vet from my cell phone to tell him to come to attend Nim. She was in some distress, almost as if it were colic, but the signs were that her cardiopulmonary system was shutting down and her heart just couldn't pump the necessary oxygen to her body. We gave her an injection that would let her go without the pain of a full blown heart attack and I sat with her head in my lap while she left.

I still look for her when I go out to the paddocks. I know that she's not there and I'm thankful that I have her son and grandson, for Dorika foaled a chestnut colt by Nimbus' son about 18 months ago. She was a grand old lady. She did know everything.

Fixing Two Houses

A letter from a reader of my blog asked me today if I'd quit posting because she hadn't seen anything new since the end of December. The time has been slipping past me so quickly that I haven't even noticed. January was a busy month for me. I found a place to live in Abu Sir so that I can finally move out to the country with the menagerie and I found a tenant for the lovely old house in Maadi that is much too big for me now that the children are living outside Egypt.

Naturally (for anyone here in Egypt at least) that meant that first I have to arrange with the owners of my leased house in Abu Sir to finish the portions of the house that were still unfinished in some kind of reasonable time frame. Since the house was essentially unfinished, this has been rather instructive. Having gone about all the negotiations through the area omda (family head, boss, capo da capo, take your pick) I could be fairly sure that items agreed upon would stay agreed. Luckily for me (and the omda family too) they also take care of much of the local construction, happily at fairly high levels of competency. So I had to pick tiles for floors on the owners' budget, arrange for elecrical outlets, have a bedroom cupboard constructed, order a small kitchen, measure all my appliances (Hooray! everything fits!) and the furniture that I want to bring, design new flight cages for the parrots, pursuade the landlord that they REALLY do want to build a small laundry/storage/freezer room out back, look for curtain materials, reupholster furniture, and pack a seven bedroom three story villa into sufficiently small boxes to fit into a two bedroom cottage. Not much going on, really.

The packing of the old house has been going on apace with both of my children's rooms almost finished. The main thing to pack has been books, which in itself has been very satisfying, not to mention the thrill when yet another of my missing treasures has shown up in a child's bookcase. Some of these books will go to the house in Sharm, while the second bedroom in Abu Sir will be a library to house my personal collection. Over the years I've accumulated rather a lot of Arabic literature translated into English, Egyptian history especially as related to some of the odder aspects of the British occupation and the peculiarities of cohabitation that evolved, and some very good literature in general. I think that the time has come for me to re-read a lot of my books. I bet they will have new meaning for me.

Then there is the renovation of the Maadi house to arrange. The new tenant is an English engineer for a multinational oil company and this is his second stay in Cairo. He fell in love with the villa and fortunately his ideas and my own are very much in synch with regards to the renovation. We've found contractors that both of us are comfortable with and now I just have to get out of the house to be out of the way. Right now I feel very much like someone with one foot on a boat about to set sail and the other on a dock that is fixed immovably to the shore. Someday very soon I will get both feet on the boat and be underway, but right now I'm getting very good at doing the splits.