Saturday, July 02, 2005

A Countryside Jewel

I have Blogger to thank for this. They've changed things so that I can now post photos throughout my blog and that has given me the incentive to work on my riding blog and now to be able to share a favourite spot in the neighbourhood. One of my neighbours went riding with me a month or so ago and offered to show me a new trail. He's known me a long time and is very aware that there aren't many trails in the area that I don't know by now, so this was an irresistable offer. What he had to show me was exquisite, a tiny patch of countryside untouched by cars, appalling villas or roads.

Today I set out with a couple of friends, one of whom hadn't seen this wonderful little patch of land. It's been hot lately, in the high 90's F or high 30's C, and we set out about 10 am which seems late to avoid the heat but actually the timing was good. About 10 am the air in the valley floor begins to heat up and rise, which in turn causes breezes to set up in the open areas. As we left the more confined area of the paddocks where buildings cut off the airflow, we all sighed with relief at the refreshing wind. We still rode relatively slowly at a brisk walk, however, because the heat index was real even if we felt cool from the breeze. Children from the village were either helping parents in the fields or playing beside the paths in the shade of mulberry trees or the shelters built for the animals. One of the joys of riding in the countryside is the fact that one can ride every day on the same trail and never see the same thing twice. Today one of the first encounters that we had was with a donkey left hitched to a cart. Usually they are left tied to a tree or hobbled because donkeys, having extremely independent natures, are inclined to head home if they get bored. We had to walk carefully past this one to be sure that some poor fellow wouldn't have to be running after his donkey and cart in the heat.

This particular donkey was happy to rest where he was as we passed and we continued on our way past a group of homes belonging to some farmers and grooms for horses in the country club just down the road. Flocks of geese paddled happily in the canal as a couple of girls tried to coax them out and back to their pens. The geese weren't having any of it and the girls were helpless to get them out of the canal, so they sat at the edge of the canal tossing stones at the opposite bank. Other children tended flocks of goats and sheep who were mostly resting in the shade. Some of the families in this area collect wood from people who cut down trees and then burn it slowly in pits to produce charcoal. The piles of wood make marvelous climbing places for human kids and the four-legged kind as well.

We made our way past beside some of the enormous villas that the city folk are prone to build out here. These ghastly piles of brick are a blight on the countryside, but on the other hand, their presence has kept away the random low-rise apartments that are the hallmark of the expanding villages. At least the countryside will be transformed into large gardens rather than solid chunks of brick and concrete. Finally we found ourselves at the entrance to the path within the gardens. From the herbal tea factory there is a dirt road that cuts into an area in which there are stables and country houses, but if we continue straight ahead rather than turning left, we find ourselves on a narrow dirt track that winds through a mango grove.
The mangoes are almost ripe and we were thankful that we were wearing helmets because if one of these hard green fruit smack you in the head, it is memorable. The horses, on the other hand, were dying to stop and graze in the tall green grass. From the mango grove the path winds along a bamboo wall that separates the farmland from the back of the tea factory. The other side of the path could be a scene from an illustration of Egypt one hundred years ago. There is an area of about 20 feddan (roughly 20 acres) surrounded by mango and palm groves, within which a few families farm plots of corn, peppers, berseem, okra, and other vegetables. Scattered through the plots are small shelters for the farmers and their animals over which banana trees lean and grapevines wind. If I were wealthy, I'd love to buy the land and leave it to be farmed just as it is for a sort of agricultural museum to remind the people who are living in the increasingly crushing, stressful city of what they've lost. But I'm not wealthy and can't possibly buy this land or even a part of it, so I try to ride through as often as possible to soak it into me before it disappears like so much of our farmland.

Leaving the area we travel through another magical passage, this time along a shallow irrigation ditch that waters a grove of pear trees on one side and small vegetable gardens on the other under the towering palms. The richness of the land is unmistakable and impossible to ignore. I've taken many of my riding students through this land on their lessons and as many friends as possible to let it live at least in the memories of others.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Fooling Around On A Thursday Afternoon

Egypt is really hot during the day and it's pretty amazing how little you can get done. I was supposed to be taking some friends riding this evening, but they had to be home by 9:30 pm and at 7 pm it was still 30 degrees C...way too hot to ride in the desert. We postponed the ride to Saturday and Tracy and I hung out in the garden instead. I cut some dried sunflower heads for the parrots, pruned some bushes and trimmed some shoots from my white mulberry tree. The parrots also got the mulberry branches since they are a real treat for parrots. Someone told me that the bark and wood of the mulberry have medicinal value to birds. I don't know if it's true, but they certainly love chewing on them. The dogs thought that it was great having everyone home in the garden in the afternoon and they ran about barking at whatever nonsense that was occurring outside the fence or chasing the hoopoes that were mining grubs in the lawn. Morgana, my Great Dane pup, wrestled with Daemon, my last Rat Terrier pup and her boy toy, all over the grass. The two of them are the original odd couple as Morgana grows larger and larger.

As the sun set about 8 pm, the heat finally dropped to bearable levels and a couple of neighbours dropped by to have a cup of tea in the garden. We sat and talked about medieval history, horse training and gardening as the sky darkened above us and the music for tonight's wedding began wafting from the neighbouring village. Every night during the summer there is an engagement, a henna party (local tradition has the women dye their hands with henna just before a wedding) or a wedding in the area. Years ago I was visiting Sudan and one of my husband's enormous family in Khartoum was going to be married in a few days. I was invited to the henna party for his cousin and the family insisted that I try the full henna treatment. The Sudanese paint intricate floral designs all over the bride's feet, hands, legs, and arms. The part that I thought was really nice was the fact that having all of this herbal paste painted all over her hands and feet meant that the bride could not even feed herself for a number of hours while the henna dried and the design set in full strength. Therefore on this day, the bride was waited on hand and foot (pun intended), not even having to feed herself. In the villages here, none of the women can be out of commission that long and most of them simply dye their palms black or red. During wedding season you can find all the little girls sporting red palms.

Unfortunately, one of the other wedding traditions here is the firing of pistols or automatic weapons in the air. My son was horrified to hear that there were guns in the neighbourhood, but weddings are the only things that they are used for. My difficulty with them lies in the fact that my dogs all go rushing out into the garden barking like maniacs when they hear the report of a gun. I can live without that.

By 9:30 pm or so, the neighbours each had to go off to do errands or deal with things, so Tracy and I packed up the tea and cookies and headed into the house. She just arrived from California two days ago and is suffering from major jet lag. We've been joking that her body may be here but her brain has only made it as far as Labrador as yet. She's wanting dinner at breakfast time and breakfast at dinner time, and she falls asleep every couple of hours. I can really sympathise with the falling asleep part. I have no air conditioning and the fan keeps the house at perfecct nap temperature.

We realised this morning that it was the end of the month and I needed to collect some cash from the bank for my grooms' salaries and for my housekeeper, so we grabbed a bottle of cold water from the freezer and headed into Maadi to seek out friendly ATM's. On the way into town, as I was driving along the Mariouteya Road with the canal on my left, I noticed a red VW Beetle come zooming up behind us to pass us on the left. As the car was just behind me and to my left, it suddenly veered severely to the left and sailed off the road into the canal. We screeched to a halt along with all of the other traffic on the road and everyone ran back to make sure that the driver was all right. One of the other drivers had already jumped down into the canal to help the driver out of his car and was assisting him in climbing the bank. The car was rather dinged up in the front, but otherwise man and Beetle looked pretty good considering what they'd just been through. One of the nicest things about Egyptians is that they will almost always stop to help you if you have any sort of accident.

After searching out a variety of ATM's we finally found one whose system wasn't down and which also had cash so that I could pay my grooms and housekeeper. Electrically speaking, today wasn't the best day for ATM's. We then went hunting some minor items that were needed at home and for the horses. A jerry can of disinfectent for washing down floors was requested by the grooms. I needed to find some decently priced rubber thongs, and there were a couple of items from the grocery store. When we finished the errands we were so happy to be home.

Tracy (on the left with our friend Merri) came to Egypt about a year ago last February with the endurance women and, as she puts it, realised that there were things she needed to do here. She explored possibilities for a year then went back to California for her sister's wedding in June. She was amazed at what a great conversation starter "I live in Egypt" is. Everyone wanted to hear about Egypt and how she found living here. Not everyone could understand her decision to come back to work here, but I suspect that we are going to have some more American visitors next winter. That's great from my point of view, since the more people who come to Egypt to visit us, the more will go back to the US and tell others that it's really a lovely place. Especially on a Thursday in the summer.

By the way, many many thanks to Blogger for organising the ability to post a number of pictures in one post. Wow! This is fun.