Monday, 13 September 2010

Bristol Green Doors: A Greener Option

The idea was simple. For one weekend across Bristol, homeowners opened their front doors to the public, welcoming them to see how they had taken steps to a more eco-friendly and energy efficient approach to home life. 
If you were expecting cliches of 'Green Living', Bristol Green Doors quickly dispelled all notions of stereotypes at the porch.
The eco-friendly homes of the initiative emphasised the eclectic mix - the varied and diverse aspects - of ethical approaches to everyday living for real people. By 'real', I mean people that have kids, jobs and mortgages.
The hosts were warm, but quintessentially down to earth.
Sitting in the Sarah's living room (York Road, Montpelier), I was envious of her draught-proofed french doors, sky lights and huge windows that let in streams of light from the densely green garden.
It turns out that whilst the builders were fitting the under-floor insulation with Celotex (, she was heavily pregnant and accessing the adjacent kitchen via an obliging plank.
Clearly, undertaking an environmentally sound & energy efficient building project does not only require bundles of admirable vision and determined forward-thinking but nerves of steel.
I could empathise with anyone who left a selection of the homes feeling thoroughly underwhelmed. Most measures taken are largely invisible - insulation in the walls is undoubtably a wise, cost-effective and eco-friendly method of keeping your home warm, but you can't see it. Resin between the cracks in wooden floor boards to keep out up-lifting drafts - smart, certainly, but no show-stopping extravaganza.
But in Subtly's defence this is, perhaps, a positive thing. This weekend, ethical living and eco-homes have been offered forth, blending in very neatly with the original architecture and existing lifestyles of the houses and their occupants.
But everyone loves a spectacle, and Bristol Green Doors does not disappoint.
Ushered through to the dappled sunlit patio of Simon's garden (also York Road, Montpelier), his emphasis on ethical living is placed here. He does this for a living ( but, among many things, he's made a working studio on a raised platform with a rooftop garden - notably sporting pumpkins, beans and sunflowers. Naturally, it's complete with solar panels to supply the water pump.
The final property I visit is owned by Footprint Building ( (Lansdown Road, Clifton) who are currently renovating the Victorian house with modern eco-friendly building methods and materials. Judging by the kitchen and the finished en-suites, these certainly haven't had a negative impact on style.
Al, Director of Footprint, enthused me with his energy. "Weekends like these are heightens the reality that there is a rapidly growing market for sustainable construction and energy efficient living."
Shamelessly ear-wigging others' conversations, a couple walked in and seemed to confirm Al's confidence; they are renovating their own home and were "going around, asking questions and getting more ideas."
The Bristol Green Doors weekend made it abundantly clear, in these well-loved homes, that there are simple measures that can make a big difference - for everyone.
It's a wonderful penny dropping moment when you encounter a good idea in practise and think, 'Oh! I could do that!'

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Return

I am back in the UK.

I feel restless, not to mention COLD.

I have a few round up blogs I'd like to post shortly, but these may take another day or two. Now I'm back, I need to throw myself vigorously into the task of finding a job.

I am not used to the food in Britain anymore and I keep going to talk to strangers who provide services (taxi drivers, waiting staff) in Arabic.

I was taken aback when a woman spoke to me on the street asking, 'sorry Love, you got a spare fag on you?' I gaped at her for a moment. I didn't know her! And she was a local?! Why was she speaking to me? 'No, sorry,' I mumbled after a pause.

I was caught in a downpour the other day and fell into a mild meltdown - what did I used to do? Power on to get home or hide until the dark clouds and cold water went away? There's nothing more soul destroying, I have remembered, than wet feet.

Backwards culture shock. I had no idea it existed until I was in the depths of it.

'Buy One?'

I won't ever know her name, but this little girl lives in Dahab.

She spends her days marching and scrambling over the edges of the man-made bank of the Red Sea (where restaurants & cafes jostle for space along the shoreline) with a look a fierce concentration.

She stops occasionally to thrust friendship bracelets in holidaymakers' faces, demanding they 'buy one?' in a (I'd guess) 4 year old's most commanding tone. I have always refused them, with (I hope) a kind smile.

Yesterday, as the sunset approached, she jumped onto my sun-lounger where I was precariously perching, in a vain effort to catch the very last rays of the sun.

'Sahlan,' I said, smiling. After the usual, 'buy one?', 'la, shukran,' she didn't leave but stayed seated, apparently interested in Steve taking photographs (of the scenery that I would have attempted sooner if I knew, say, even how to hold the camera right).

She was full of a restless energy. She spoke simple Arabic, which made conversation much easier.

I noticed the small bag that never left her side. It was a treasure chest of plastic, colourful jewellery. For sale, of course.

She played with the pink cotton friendship bracelets she was clutching, before carefully placing them down with her bag and reaching out demanding the camera - with a huge, almost sly, smile.

'Soura?' I said. I wasn't surprised she wanted to take a photograph; the day before I'd seen her and she'd stopped at us, looking at us through a pair of binoculars - enjoying the new sights from both ends. It was charming to see, but equally desperately sad. Things like this were novel to her.

She nodded, and took the camera. Her little fingers couldn't press hard enough to take the photo but, after some gentle coaxing, was clicking away with paparazzi gusto.

Her elder cousin (Naliah) arrived some way into the impromptu photoshoot.

Naliah was more effective than our attempts to regain handling the camera. Between barking instructions at the little girl, she explained to us that she'd thrown the last camera into the sea.

It was given back immediately, with a venomous scowl at Naliah. I thanked the little girl for taking all the soura with a little baksheesh (some loose coins from my purse).

Soon we were sitting making staccato conversation in Arabic and English (their English was far better than my Arabic, naturally), pawing through Naliah’s larger, more colourful collection of friendship bracelets.

It wasn't until the little girl, quite forgetting to look thunderous anymore, had tugged the loop atop one of her bracelets onto my middle toe, fondling the trailing strands of cotton, that I asked in surprise, 'did you make these?!'

Yes, they had. Steve and I took immediate interest in them.

After some light haggling for propriety's sake, we bought two.

Naliah pulled out some cotton reels from her bag and offered to wrap one of Steve's dreadlocks - almost as proof that the they were definitely her own handiwork.

She was resourceful too. In the absence of any scissors to cut the cotton, she jumped down onto the shore & started searching for sharp rocks.

As she set to work on his hair with the roughly-cut cotton, the little girl had taken my unemployed sunglasses and placed them on her small nose.

She looked fantastic, her small face swamped by obscene 70s-dad-inspired sunglasses, framed by the curls that hadn't been swept up in her plait.

I offered them both the abandoned remnants of my pizza (a bad move - I was leaving shortly for the overnight journey to Cairo & I thought I needed some stodge. I managed two slices).

The little girl didn't seem so much interested in eating the pizza as the opportunity to use a knife and fork. I rearranged them in her hands - after she initially tried to pick up an entire slice with the knife.

She set about clawing the slices to pieces before opening her mouth as wide as she could - I leave it to you to imagine her expression - and putting in a tiny piece of the base. She ate it, open mouthed, grinning.

Naliah tied off Steve's wrap and they made to leave. The sun had now set, and the Ramadan feasts were beginning.

I dug into my bag and gave the little girl the only pen I had on me. I know that having a pen doesn't equal the privileged status of The Literate, but it does potentially allow them to participate in lessons and practise their writing at home.

I shall never meet them again, but I am glad we spent our last sunlight hours in Dahab with them. Soura, bracelets and a wrapped dread are our only tokens of their existence, but I hope whatever fate befalls them as they grow into women, they will be safe, well-fed and loved.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Same Shit, Different City

Fitness fanatics! Take heed of my words!

Do away with your stomach crunches, your sit ups, your planks!

If you really want to work your lower abdomen then I recommend sitting on an overnight bus from Dahab to Cairo with a case of the shits.

My god. You will never clench like it again.

The shifting-in-seat, the utter churning fear that you might let slip a little ‘parp’ that could splatter everywhere - including over the neighbourly young French guy you’d been pleasantly conversing with in an odd mixture of Arabic, French and English.

I’d managed not to shit myself as we pulled into Cairo - just - but I was off that bus, grabbing for my suitcase, running for the nearest door to the main building as fast as my limpy legs would carry me.

‘Feyn il-twalet?! Minfadlak?’
‘No inglizi.’ I was in too much of a desperate clench-and-trot to point out that I’d spoken in some vague (albeit poorly-pronounced) form of Arabic, not English.
‘Feyn… il- aahhhh- twalet? Please?! Toilet??’

I was directed ‘that way’.

God bless that ancient and noble art of point and nod.

I found the toilet. Correction, I found the toilets. Shit, which one was the Ladies’?! Of all the damn Arabic phrases to learn by sight that was probably one of the more vital.

There was a bloke washing his feet in a sink visible from the entrance to one of the two rooms.

His presence, of course, shouldn’t be taken with any real sense of authority on the matter, but I knew this was going to be a venture which required some privacy.

My stomach churned, and throwing caution to the wind, I dashed into the adjacent set of toilets and looked for the nearest open door.

To my utter horror, I saw no toilet. Or, no Western toilet.

Rather, a dirty pit into which I was about unload the sloppy contents of my bowels.

This, I thought, required me to leave my dignity at the door, and take the alcohol gel in hand.

I rammed my suitcase against the door in place of a lock.

Imagine if you will - but you needn’t - a 20-something girl, squatting over a large pit that was once white, but now was covered in a thick layer of…various substances. Only she’s not squatting, so much as bent down hitching her trousers away from the floor, clutching at the walls for support.

Someone walked in, shuffling around, as the most hideous noise escaped my person. I will not pretend it was oral.

Finally, it was over.

Sweating, I left the toilet. For now, it was over and I started to calculate its rough half life as I was rubbing alcohol gel into my hands looking for the taxi rank.

I got into the first taxi that had the squashiest, most comfy looking seats.

‘Al’an faan da… funduk Bella Luna?’ And to my great surprise he understood me, driving off to my hotel with the chaotic speed of any good Cairene driver.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Blood-stained Beach

‘Swimming pool or the sea?’
‘The sea. Yes.’
‘Okay, okay, I’ll take your key and see you later’.

I handed my room key to Ahmed - the hotel receptionist with whom I had a bet on that we would have matching skin tones by the time I left the Sinai.

Like every late afternoon in Dahab, it was warm and I was sticky from the layers and lashings of suncream I had applied during the course of the day.

Despite wearing SPF40, and remaining in the shade over a long lunch, I still had developed pink forearms, which I’d only noticed as the sun had fallen behind the rooftop terrace of the hotel.

I lay in the seawater, welcoming the cool waves as they washed over me. It had been a windy day, and the seabed had been thrown up into the shallow waters, making it impossible to see the floor beneath the water.

I stood up, stepped forward, trying to hold my balance and as I took another step I fell through an invisible gap in the dead coral to the sandy bed below.

I felt a sharp tear.

I leapt to shore and as I fell to the gravelly sands I saw my foot, red.

Staggering to the beachside hut, I cried out; blood was trailing behind me, great droplets congealing in the sand.

Ahmed came running over as I clutched for the trunks of palm trees that made up the bones of the hut. Within seconds, I was surrounded by hotel staff. Shouting instructions, Ahmed held up my foot, another was drenching it with bottled water, and another had run to call the doctor.

I was shaking. Ahmed lifted me gently into the seats, further away from the sand and water, where I lay back. Tears fell down my cheeks.

It hurt, but I was more upset that on my first day alone, I had seemingly proven that I couldn’t cope with ‘Travelling’. I struggled with Tourism and The Third World Way of Life. I struggled with the appropriate response to utterly dire poverty I had encountered behind the glass windows of an air-conditioned minibus in Middle Egypt. And now I was struggling to keep a steady footing in the shallows of the Red Sea.

The young doctor appeared a short while later.

I was grateful for the privacy I had been afforded whilst we awaited his arrival, but now I felt disgusted with myself. How stupid could I be?! It’s a coral reef, dead or not, I should not have been paddling about without my boots. Now a doctor was missing out on celebrating breaking the Ramadan fast with his family because I was too much of a blundering tosser.

My dressing, now soaked with a ghastly mixture of blood and betadine (antiseptic favoured in tropical climates), was removed. ‘Yes. It is deep. You will need stitches.’

Ahmed lifted me again, and I was carried to my room. I lay on the bed, shuddering, as they cleared off the day’s accumulated sunbathing accoutrements that had been carelessly dumped earlier in the afternoon.

In the calm of my room, I felt a stabbing pain in my lower abdomen, and it took me a moment to realise that it was my screaming bladder. I limped, wincing, to the bathroom.

With two men in your room, and walls that rival paper on soundproofing, it was a long, awkward, piss.

Empty-bladdered, I lay back, wrapped only in my beach towel, and the doctor opened his briefcase. I heard the clunk of the catch, feeling a sense of foreboding.

I screamed, cried and sobbed between strained gasps as he injected me with the local anaesthetic at 5 points around the gash in my heel. Ahmed grasped my shoulder, whilst I clenched his free hand.

The doctor looked up, and assured me he would not start stitching until my heel was numb.

5 minutes had passed whilst I was breathing deeply, still sobbing, unable to coherently compose a sentence, nor think with any real clarity.

Recovering myself slightly, the doctor tested the feeling in my heel. I could still feel substantial discomfort as he pressed on the tip of the tear with his latexed hand.

He began to stitch. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I screamed and shrieked at the searing pain of the needle, and the tug as it was tied off.

4 stitches, and it was over. He dressed and bandaged my heel and ankle.

(Swollen and stitched, taken 2 days later)

I couldn’t help but lie motionless, a blubbering mess of sweat, salt water and tears on my face and chest. Regaining some vague sense of composure, the doctor began to calmly explain how to care for the wound. He left, leaving my bedside table loaded with dressings, betadine, painkillers, antibiotics, and a receipt.

It’s been 3 days and I am still limping.

The stitches will come out when I briefly return to Cairo on Thursday and I must wait until then for a verdict on whether I can snorkel once more when I return to Dahab on Monday.

I have promised myself that I will follow Doctor’s Orders.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Mermaids & Coral Reefs

Bamboo chairs, I feel, should be an essential furnishing to any space in which one wishes to write or think.

I am sat in such a chair, on the Dahab shore of the Red Sea. The salty water is lapping up against the red sands as the sun retreats below the horizon, the call to worship is sounded and the Ramadan fast is broken for the day.

It is warm and a warmer breeze is lifting strands of my freshly washed hair.

Though perhaps I should call them the ‘remaining strands’.

Today, I washed my hair for the first time in 12 days.

Before you mock, it’s quite an achievement. My personal best, until 30 minutes ago, was 5 days.

I feel I should point out it was my intention to push back my hair-maintenance boundaries, rather than my usual case of incurable laziness.

I had been sadly informed that the water in Cairo didn’t make for an overly Herbal-Essence-Mermaid-esque hair-washing experience. And honestly, what is the point of a shower if you don’t come out shimmering, tossing your wet hair, surprised that seabirds aren’t singing praises of your newfound cleanliness?

I digress.

With my hair plaited into military-approved, tight and uniformed french plaits (Kim’s handiwork - not mine), I resolved almost immediately to keep them in place before arriving, 12 days later, at the Red Sea.

Aching, tired and blinking in the dazzling sunlight of the morning, we clambered out of the overnight bus into a taxi and within minutes swept up in a cloud of dust at The Coral Coast Hotel.

It was not long before I was in my bikini and marching (the whole 10 yards from hotel to beach) towards the water.

Unfortunately, there was no Baywatch-style running headfirst into the sea, but rather 5 minutes standing ankle deep in the water gingerly avoiding seaweed - a lifelong pet hate, and difficult, given I was on the edge of a coral reef - undoing the plaits that had served me so well for so long.

Having my hair up - almost along the same train of thought as dreadlocks - had made for much easier personal hygiene travelling through the deserts of Middle Egypt, but now it was time for some serious scalp rinsing.

The struggle - too long to be remotely poetic - did give me time to realise that it was the red hills of Saudi Arabia providing the backdrop to this beautiful view across the water. Then a majestic, voluminous barnet, redolent of the 90s, was released and wafted gently in the sea breeze.

Fannying about for a further few minutes, trying to locate an un-seaweeded patch of seabed on which to stand, finally, wonderfully, I bellyflopped in.

Cool water spread across my scalp and, for a while, I just lay on my back enjoying pretending to be a mermaid as my hair unfurled in the water. It was just fabulous.

But then I felt something move past my foot, and I hopped it out of the shallow waters with little grace and wobbly bits bouncing everywhere. Smooth.

On shore I regained some composure, and a towel, and returned to my hotel for a shower as a horrible thought dawned on me. If you’re meant to shed 100 hairs a day, and it’d been firmly held up for 12 days, how much hair was going to come out in the shower?

Well, I’ll show you.

Yes, I had liberated my own miniature coral reef into the shower.

Very un-Herbal-Essence-Mermaid-esque.

I will not deny that I texted my hairdresser in a minor panic asking for advice. I’m paraphrasing, but she promptly replied: ‘Rinse it, condition it, and stop being a twat.’

So. Yes. My hair is free, clean and sitting on my shoulders. However, the time I’ve spent bashing this out, it’s been getting in my face & tangling up like a bastard.

I should imagine they’ll be back in plaits by the morning, smothered in lashings of conditioner.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Sex, Sex and Sex cont.

Disclaimer: After a delightful crash course over dinner in ‘Akhenaten: a History’ at the hotel, I’ve probably not done Zuzi nor Kim a credit to my poor memory. So don’t quote me on names, dates or places…!


The hills of the ancient site of Amarna (Pharaoh Akhenaten’s hastily built city, over 3000 years old) are dotted with tombs embedded into the rock face. In the next tomb along the short row were yet more wrestling scenes.

After my little
faux pas in the tomb before, I was determined not to make any silly statements like that again.

On closer inspection, some of the reliefs and paintings were splattered with graffiti!

The graffiti had been painted on by Coptic monks; they had the privileged access but, more importantly, they were among the few in the community who were literate.

These monks used the sites long after it had been abandoned by Akhenaten's descendants, either as dwelling or worship spaces.

I continued to examine the new wrestling scenes, consoling myself that they definitely had the makings of an epic, energetic shag-a-thon.

And then, I saw it.

Before me, splendidly, was a wrestler, legs parted, and apparently stationary. There was a long red vertical line, starting at his waist. Flanking the red line at his waist were 2 red splodges.

The Coptic monks, those cheeky bastard scamps, had endowed the fellow with a magnificent member - the tip of which passed his knees.*

It is excellent and revealing moments like this that I craved throughout my academic career as a Classicist. These pious, literate monks had a very real and silly sense of humour, drawing a cock and balls over artwork that was, even at their time, a thousand years old.

As much as all the grand statues and stately decorations that have survived and are displayed for us in glass cases in museums, this is the stuff that proves to me that these people, 2200 years ago, had really lived.**

However, I think it’s more telling my Philistine ways that I met this overlay of ancient craftsmanship with a delighted, tittering giggle.

*Alas, photography within the ancient site was strictly forbidden; it is an Egypt-wide policy that you must possess a sacred ‘Buyer’s License’ to take photos. Therefore, I cannot give you a visual.

**Another example of ancient & modern life meeting is back in Greece, in the silver mines of Laurion (south of Athens). Outside the entrance to one of the mines, some ancient worker has pressed his hands into the drying cement of a horizontal slab, and you can put your hands in the moulded hand shapes.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Sex, Sex and Sex

‘It’s a brothel!’ Nearly squealing with excitement, I began to tell Zuzi (an Egyptology graduate) how, from the scene before us, I knew it was a brothel.

We were standing in a large room that had been carved into the face of one of the hills of Minya. The wall before us was covered in reliefs and paintings of two people, scantily clad, in close contact. The images definitely, definitely, belonged to a brothel.

With the rapid expansion of Rome’s provinces towards the end of the millennium, imports of foreign luxury goods and arts came flooding into The City from all four corners of the Empire.

Exotic prostitutes and artisans arrived as slaves, those seeking work or with travelling envoys. And with them came languages foreign to Rome’s Italian tongue.

To conquer the language barrier, a visitor arriving at a cosmopolitan brothel could simply point to a series of images painted on the walls.

‘It was like a visual sexual menu; you could indicate preferences of gender, number and, ahem, the type of contact.’

Then the visitor would be led to private - and some not so private - chambers for his/her enjoyment.

‘Look! The Spread Eagle! And the 69!’

Zuzi had looked at me. She had the good grace to listen to what I had said before saying quietly, ‘Han… they’re wrestling scenes.’

It was the tomb of a local elite (a nomarch), who had ruled over this area of Middle Egypt 3500 years ago. The images were of activities and pursuits he had enjoyed whilst he breathed. They were carved and painted on the walls (with some density) so he could take them with him into the afterlife and to continue enjoying them there.

Wrestling, it seems was quite a passion of his.

A donkey’s ‘Eee-HONK’ rang out in the valley 100ft below. Yeah, cheers.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Eartha Kitts visits The Fayoum

21 years, 11 months and a few days. Today, I shit myself.

Full on, stomach-lurching, sodden-french-knickers, shit myself.

We have returned from The Fayoum, and I will not romanticise the details. Unbeknownst to me, The Fayoum (and, within, Fayoum City) is not a tourist-orientated region, in nor out of season.

So you can imagine my disgust - indicated only with a particularly arched eyebrow - when I was told that we couldn’t leave our hotel without a police escort.

Our hotel, Honey Day Hotel, was dank, fly-ridden and uncomfortable, and our Rough Guide informed us it was frequented by prostitutes - I’m not sure if there’s a direct correlation, but I wouldn’t like to presume that its clientele is influenced by the hotel’s uncommon license to sell liquor.

We spent the evening hot, bored and tired (I have resolved to buy a pack of cards in Khan El Khalili today). The food need no space for description.

Naturally I was taken aback when our 5-strong police escort was ready outside Honey Day for 6am the next morning. However, despite their heavy presence, it wasn’t peak season. They were bored.

I could understand that.

We travelled south to Wadi Rayan, through the Egyptian side of the Sahara. It made for spectacular viewing. Light beige sand stretched out, the landscape punctuated by rocks and clumps of sand.

It took a while for me to realise why I was finding it difficult to make my eyes focus on any particular point. Like on the moon, it is difficult to get depth perception; the vastness all-consuming and the colours melted into one another under the blazing heat of 7.30am.

I do not know the name of the village through which we drove, but it was a humbling experience.

Like most Egyptian roadsides, it was densely littered with remains of old plastic, and the poverty was abundant.

Old Coca-Cola signs were over many street stalls, which sold refreshments. And in front of one particularly derelict building a fight was breaking out between locals; spectators didn’t seem to take much notice of us, nor our armoured police vehicle that drove ahead.

Some of the children waved and smiled. Many didn’t.

I was very quiet as we bumped and ground our through these streets, as large eyes stared at our air-conditioned minibus.

We stopped at several Ptolemaic temples and tombs throughout the trip, and it was at one of these sites where I saw guns, in real life, for the first time. The guides, or the guards, of the sites all carried them.

The man-made lakes and waterfalls Wadi Rayan were lush and surrounded by plenty of young boys and men wading around, enjoying the coolness of the water. Several cried out for me to take their photographs as they jumped off the waterfalls.

Many children wanted their photographs taken.

The women did not come into the water. They remained fully dressed, many in burkas, in the shade - well away from the water.

But finally, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant, and it was all I could to do to stagger from our table in the midday heat to the toilet.

Our bodyguard-a-day, who never left our side and carried a gun stuffed into his belt, had not tried to stifle his laugh when he realised what was going on.

In short, I have spent the last few days between toilets and air-conditioned spaces, assured that it’s merely a case of the bacteria in my stomach ‘adjusting’.

I would proffer that anything (flora or otherwise) that was once in my stomach is now in one of the toilets in the Egyptian Sahara - probably one of the three without running water, and piss all over the floor.

My father, I think, has the final word on the matter. On his return from India many years ago, he announced to my dear mother, ‘Happiness is a dry fart’.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Safe Arrival

Getting off the plane in Cairo airport was like being swept up with relief and a brown carpet. It was 1.30am and the thick heat takes you by surprise. I think, having been here nearly 24 hours now, you realise that you only know heat like it if you’re in it.

Our driver was confident that my suitcase (black, non-descript - useful at luggage reclaim) would be quite safe sitting unstrapped to the car’s roof rack.

A foreigner to this cosmopolitan city would be forgiven, I think, for being alarmed at the constant HONK blurting from cars and vans without prejudice or any apparent recipient. I can only presume that the Egyptian drivers follow a similar transport code to the Indians. There’s no right of way, no lanes and certainly the HONK is, in fact, an information system: ‘I am behind/in front/next to you.’

The smells as we tore around corners and across the intricate roadways of Cairo burned my nose; I smelt something like home-cooked pizza and then hot candle wax.

(Despite my loose allocation of the scents, I endeavour not to find the Western Equivalent of everything I encounter. This would, I feel, render me detracting so much from this adventure.)

Arriving in the flat at 3am, I take a moment to sit alone on the balcony. There’s a hue sitting over the brightly-coloured city, littered with lights and cars that stream the streets steadily but haphazardly. This roadway paradox, I have found, exists at all times of the day.

The heat has left me with little appetite for anything but cold water and freedom to walk the streets in a vest top and shorts. However, both are in short supply, so you enjoy moments walking the sheltered alleys of Khan El Khahili - the main tourist market. The air is thick with sheesha from the cafes that call out for your custom.

I have resolved to learn some basic Arabic. Things like, ‘no I don’t want it,’ and ‘no thank you’ are used with more frequency than ‘how much?’ and ‘thank you!’ ‘Left, right and straight ahead,’ are also highly useful with your taxi drivers - if you know where you’re going.

So you can imagine my gratitude when Kim took charge of directing our cab to the Ministry of Interior in Tahir (to extend our visas before Ramadan begins on Wednesday and the Administration grinds to a halt for a month) from our flat on the 16th floor in Zumalek.

The zone is, I am told, quite posh since it’s teeming with ex-pats. The flat looks directly onto the Nile from the bedrooms and the living/dining room, and I think it’ll take some time before I stop enjoying looking out onto its murky waters.

The mornings are hot and humid, as you would expect, and that hue from the night is still there, like someone’s come along and blurred out the distant edges of your viewpoint with vaseline.

I need to go. I’m tired and we’re travelling to the Fayoum tomorrow - though I think we’re all grateful that our minibus won’t pick us up until 3pm local time…!!

Monday, 28 June 2010

Why is there such a massive taboo on waxing your vag?!

I wax, down there, regularly.

I can’t be arsed with trying those creams and shaving in the shower seems a monumental waste of time. The ‘experts’ in the glossies tell me that I should be exfoliating and massaging my cellulite-addled thighs in the shower to render my legs worthy of a footwear campaign with this ‘increased bloodflow’. To date, I am yet to see these fabulous results.

I digress.

I think I can count myself, with some certainty, in the minority of women who actually enjoy waxing.

There’s something about the feeling of warm wax, a little too hot for comfort, before that familiar dull tug that I quite… like.

Just after my 15th birthday, I had my first waxing experience. Nothing too sensitive, just a leg waxing. This was, by point of reference, before my first kiss.

Immediately, I was hooked. No longer did my money get spent on magazines and cheap make-up every Saturday ‘daan shops, innit’ but was piled up and handed over, sore but pleased, once a month as I was waxed from the nose down.

Perhaps it’s from the agonisingly slow-growing hair on my head and a lifelong hatred of my bodily hair that I have this, frankly, near-masochist enjoyment of its removal.

But this doesn’t account for the taboo that other women of my acquaintance seem to have with the subject. ‘Ugh, no, why you would want someone down there, looking?!’ they cry. ‘Doesn’t it hurt?’

Recently, I concluded that at 21 years old more Beauty Therapists have seen me in the buff than men, though, understandably with quite different intentions.

Whilst we’re on the subject, I’m not quite sure how I’d react if I was ready to go and the chap called a Time Out before busting a waxing kit out of a leather travel bag - complete with electric heating pot - asking ‘and parting the legs, please’.

This is either praise worthy, or a downright shame. Again, I digress.

Considering the nature of women and pubic hair waxing, there is the undeniable fact that if you get yourself a Hollywood (the one where you crash in through the salon doors and cry ‘take it off. It ALL off - it’s a BEAST’), then you could potentially run the risk of looking like a prepubescent girl. However, I am not going to bludgeon my way to some point that doesn’t need re-establishing. It’s your choice of how much or little you wax off.

And then there’s the professional swimmers. My old waxer had plenty of swimmers coming in regularly for a Hollywood. ‘To be fair’, she said (a typical Welsh prefix to any statement), ‘it’s pretty [unsightly], especially in skin-tight bathers’. This, of course, was said whilst she was waxing my own unsightly lady garden - and I certainly wasn’t going swimming any time soon.

I am not here to tell you whether to get a Bikini, a Brazilian (also known as the ‘landing strip’ - which I can only presume is a visually-associated nickname, rather than a directional aid) or a Hollywood wax.

I am here to say, simply, it’s completely okay and perfectly normal to have your flange waxed by a professional.

Humbly I offer this advice to those protesting, uninformed women:

1. These Beauty Therapists have seen a vag. They’ve seen their own, invariably their colleagues’ - at my local salon the therapists freely told me that they ‘do each other’ - and plenty of clients’ before you. The whole thing becomes clinical. In fact, if you find a salon you like (and are able to regularly attend without taking a cross-Atlantic trip to get there again) then you should build up a comfortable relationship with your waxer.

So, in my case, after 2 year’s loyalty to one salon, you’ll be discussing the merits of being completely shit-faced when meeting The Boyfriend’s family vs. avoiding the whole shebang altogether, all whilst you’re being de-haired.

2. Take PAINKILLERS. The looks of shock I get when I offer this advice are innumerable. ‘Oh. You can do that?’

Yes. You can. Take that message, and spread it about like a thick layer of lemon curd on a crumpet. Take paracetamol before you go in, ibuprofen an hour or two to deal with any swelling afterwards (if you’re new to the whole thing), and feel completely at liberty to smother yourself with aftersun. It’s a damn sight cheaper than ‘cooling cream’, complete with extracts of cucumber and some exotic sounding plant that belongs in thai curry.

3. You can, of course, do home wax jobs. It might be slightly cheaper, but it’s a hell of a lot more painful, time consuming and certainly more effort than lying back and thinking of the Motherland.

4. Finally, a plea from the multitude of Therapists. Get involved. You will not get a satisfactory wax if you lie there, knickers on, tighter than that corset Dita Von Teese wore during the Germany entry of Eurovision 2009. Get your knickers off, ask where to stretch. Leave your inhibitions at the locked door.

I can guarantee that it will hurt less if you’re concentrating on stretching the skin, rather than the sound of ‘strriiiip’. If you’re in charge of pulling the skin taut, you’re in charge of how much it’ll sting.

Now go. Set aside your creams and razors and let your vag grow free, get active during your wax and enjoy four weeks of silky smooth skin.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Notes on a potential scandal - but probably not

This week, I’m investigating the supply chain of the maxi dress I bought from Nefertiti Fashions, a shop based in Swansea, on Thursday, in time for an evening's socialising on the Friday.

I have got my hacker hat on, so to speak.

The dress sported the label ‘Stella’. From 50 pages of hits from Google, I cannot locate the company ‘Stella’ - there were 5 ‘Stella’ clothing returning hits, but they did not match the font and style of the logo, and I couldn’t find the dress in their online catalogues.

I returned to the shop over the weekend, and spoke to the shop assistant, who replied with some hostility, ‘what do you want to know that for?!’ I replied that I felt that every consumer has the right to know where their garments are sourced, and I would like to know where they bought the ‘Stella’ line from.

I was told, with some alarm, that the owner did the buying, and I was refused contact details - ‘we don’t give them out, sorry’ and bluntly told that I wouldn’t be contacted if I should leave my details.

Luckily, my partner boyfriend spotted a certificate with the name ‘Perrix Wholesale Ltd’ mounted upon the wall behind the cashier's desk. The search results were slightly more fruitful than the last - certainly less disheartening. Perrix do not appear to have a website, but there are several Company Directories the pointed me to their Head Office in Cardiff, and a good deal of hits returned in non-English languages.

At this stage, I wonder two things: is 'Stella' a clothing line from an unnamed company, and is Perrix Wholesale Ltd owned by a parent company, accounting for the absence of a 'company website'? (Though, this isn't an exhaustive conclusion - Topshop, Miss Selfridge et. al. have their own websites, despite being owned by Arcadia Group.)

For now, I’ve got a friend who works for parliament researching consumer rights, textile trade in the EU and the freedom of information act to see whether I can establish some kind of legal counter response if/when I’m refused details.

This is could, ultimately, lead nowhere but the shop assistant’s alarm and guarded attitude to the whole situation has, naturally, raised my interest. There could be another blog to follow shortly with some answers, but equally, there could not.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Eurovision is finally coming!

The Eurovision Song Contest Finals is the only television-based event that ever works its way to pride of place on my calendar. This year is absolutely no exception.

Frankly, this year has a lot to stand up to. Last year’s truly amazing Eurovision Finals were outstandingly entertaining. A year on, and I am regularly found dancing around my room in my pants, getting ready for the most mundane of occasions, to Alex Swings Oscar Sings’ ‘Miss Kiss Kiss Bang’. I still desperately want to be one of his dancing girls. Sigh.

Before we continue, I highly recommend you head to You Tube (HD!) immediately to sample these true delights. Alex Swings wearing silver, skin-tight trousers will hopefully stay with me forever. And, as much as he annoyed me, I got goosebumps from that Alexander Rybak squeaking away on his violin blasting ‘I’m in love with a fairytale’ from his abdomen. Yes, it was as marvellously Euro-tripe as it sounds. He was also the winner of Eurovision 2009, and it’s being hosted in Oslo this year.

So you can imagine my devastation when Alex Swings, with his lovely legs, came in at 23rd place (out of 25!!) and my other favourite, Svetlana Lobada (the Ukraine’s entry) with ‘Be My Valentine’ (who reportedly remortgaged her flat to pay for the stage props) came in 12th.

Admittedly, I was completely twatted watching the whole thing… but I haven’t been continually drunk for an entire year since. I still utterly love and adore them.

This year, I am recruiting fellow Eurovision fans, to join me getting horribly drunk to the levels where you start bellowing at the telly, ‘You can’t SING!!’ (Israel - Noa & Mira Awad) and ‘WHAT are you WEARING?!’ Iceland’s Yohanna and Romania’s The Balkan Girls, I’m talking to YOU. Though, The Balkan Girls do ‘start their weekend with gin, tonic and lime’. I wonder if I lost about 12 stone, and grew my hair down to my arse they’d let me join their number? I’d probably need the gin to survive.

On a completely unrelated matter, the other amazing quality to the Romanian entry is the main ‘singer’ is actually miming (out of time) to the girl singing, short-haired, unlit and hidden at the back of the stage. The wonderful Graham Norton told us that the actual voice had be on stage. Inventive Romania.

So yes, it’s about 3 days away, I’ve avoided watching the semi-finals because I want to be a entirely entranced (by gin) watching the - hopefully - hideously glittery, firework-filled, Euro-tripe ridden occasion it always promises it will be. Come and join us for the best time of the year for television, when those that can sing (Malta - What If We) are discarded at the bottom of the voting tables, and those that put on a magical spectacle of sheer bollocks are victorious.

And for those that still protest, if the Moscow hosting’s anything to go by, it’s educational. It’s true! Each entry was pre-fixed with a montage of some…thing, and a Russian word. Did you know, for example, that ‘tantsui’ is Russian for is ‘dance’? I bet you didn’t.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Ennini upcycled fashion showcase

Waiting for the Ennini show to start, I’m knocking back the (surprisingly scrummy) complementary ‘apple fizz’. More importantly, I’ve dragged two friends to sit with me in the front row. If I’m honest, it’s to be closer to the catwalk’s fairy-lit trim to show off my sequinned jacket (it’s The Final Year, and I don’t get out much). The only other attendee with sequins is an old lady with a massive sequinned handbag. I spy Helen Ball (the local designer) and she walks around looking surprisingly calm in a purple, floral maxi dress. When I manage to grab her for a few seconds to offer some vague amateur coverage, I forget to ask whether it’s one of her own pieces.

Returning from London working with Traid, Helen hopes to set up the central Traid point in Wales with this new, thoughtful individual collection. The profits from this evening’s charity event was going directly to the Llys Nini animal rescue centre - licensed by the RSPCA.

I realise quickly that ‘ethically-sourced fashion’ is not, actually, what this is about. As Siany from The Wave gives her keynote speech, modelling one of the backless halter-neck tops, we’re about see some creative ‘upcycling’. Upcycling, we are told, is the name given to new unwanted materials that have been reused for some higher quality piece. ‘I’m in charge of rag-bag sorting and cleaning,’ Helen says, `I sort out what I can use for new pieces - and I love crochet table-cloths' (later, we find out she dyes the fabrics herself, too). It sounds very modest, but actually Helen’s done an incredible job. She takes the garments, that can’t be sold on (think unflattering £1 t-shirts from Tesco) and recreates them into affordable, individual and, importantly, sellable pieces. ‘I’ve charity-shopped since I was 16 and then customised them from there.’ You can tell. The pieces have a home-made feel, without that cringing well-meaning, but badly-hemmed look.

As the lights dim and the audience is hushed, my Blackberry’s already buzzing with activity, soundbiting like a bastard on the new Twitter app. (#swanseafashion #ennini). The beachwear collection opens the showcase, notably with polkadot, low-backed halter-neck tops. Within minutes the daywear collection is streaming alone the catwalk and I’m struggling to keep Twitter updated. Pastel-coloured floral prints are a favourite, and I’m with the rest of the audience semi-opened mouth. I can hear murmurs of ‘ooh, I like that.’ Of course, there are exceptions to this general theme; the crowd-pleasing monochrome cocktail dress and full-length jungle red gown go down with a typically-British noise of approval. The clapping accompanies the maxi dress collection - which have a Grecian feel more so than high street maxis this season - and it’s opened with a pink floral piece, which Helen confesses is her ‘favourite’.

The models themselves range widely in shape and talent. Walking for free, I wonder who are friends, who’s doing it for experience and, at times, I’m annoyed by the over-thrust hips and exaggerated hip- holding, more so than the model led by her heavy shoulders. Perhaps I am merely resentful that I spotted a fellow hopeful in a recent modelling audition (I was sent home in the first five minutes, she later appeared on telly). I am delighted, however, to report the models were all stunning, but - I feel - importantly, they were well-proportioned. The whole showcase is designed for women who have got a pair of tits, and forgive potentially slightly wobbly hips.

Helen impresses upon us all that she wants to promote affordable lines. The maxi dresses range between £20 - £30, and the collections go on sale from Saturday 2nd May, 10am at the RSPCA charity shop, Newton Rd in The Mumbles.

The detail of the fabric contrasting with the simple lines of the pieces and the accessories are creatively produced - a broken in half vinyl acts as a clutch flap. As an advocate of alternative sourcing for fashion - ethical, sustainable, recyclable and, now, upcyclable - if this future of fashion, sign me up for the next showcase.

HJ Taskis