People often ask us what we do all day living in a desert oasis in a remote part of the Sahara, as if we sit around from morning to night stretched out in the sand twiddling our thumbs in the shade of a palm tree. The reality is that life here is incredible busy, active and unbelievably sociable. There are forever jobs to be done on the farm and it always feels like there's never enough time in the day to finish everything. Living so close to nature is very high maintenance– whether its collecting fresh drinking spring water, picking and preparing foods, making fires to heat the house in winter or feeding our many animals – there's always practical jobs to be done. Here's a day in the life...
It's a beautiful cool early August morning on the farm and as we wake up, there's an ominous sound of running water coming from outside our bedroom window. Not that unusual a sound when you live in a flood irrigated garden in an oasis, but this morning its loud and sounding a little too close to our house. It seems some mysterious person decided to have a midnight bath in the spring outside our garden leaving the water running, inconveniently flowing towards our home. We run outside to discover the banks of the water channels have flooded and mud and water has pooled around our stone foundations - always a bit of a worry when you live in a house made of salt.
So we start our day filling buckets of water and carting sand around which acts as the ultimate sponge. The children see this as an opportunity to cover themselves in mud and slide around on the ground - which is a pretty excellent way to start your day if your five years old! We quickly get a hold of the situation, divert the water to another area of the garden and get on with our morning.
Access to spring water for agricultural land is commonly shared between different farms and water disputes can be very serious and feuds common place. Demand for water is increasing in the oasis as people develop the barren desert into new agricultural land. Siwa sits on one of the largest fresh water aquifers in the world, but still, it's a limited resource and drilling new wells to turn the desert green has significant impact. The oasis has serious problems with water drainage and no one is exactly sure the impact modern wells are having on the underground aquifers. In the old days, the gardens of the oasis were watered exclusively by the hundreds of hot and cold natural mineral springs which have been flowing since the time of the pharaohs. Our garden farm has access to both an ancient natural spring and also a modern well, supplying water to us at much higher pressure.
So it's almost 9am and time to feed the animals before it gets too hot. The goats, ducks, geese, chickens and rabbits are all waiting in anticipation for their breakfast of green alfalfa, dried dates and grasses. As we head over to the animal pen, we see the rabbits have burrowed a hole out of their enclosure, mysteriously through the metal mesh floor (which has presumable rotted away), and are lazily wondering around the farm in total blissful freedom. Not great when the land is regularly patrolled by foxes and wild dogs.
I call over our two farm workers and we scramble around for the best part of an hour creating all kinds of elaborate ways to catch them, including creeping up on them silently and unskillfully throwing rugs in their direction in the hope of trapping one underneath. Of course the kids and their little friends find this hysterically funny. They laugh at us from the cool shade of a nearby palm tree as we run around covered in sweat, clearly outsmarted by a group of twenty or so rabbits, seeming to be having just as much fun being chased as the kids are watching us. Luca nabs a baby rabbit and runs off excitedly with his posse of four other children to build a house for it out of mud, wood and old plastic sheeting, which I discover later still housing the poor abducted bunny.
Suddenly I get a call from a local friend of ours who has a daughter getting married in a few weeks. He asks to buy one of our goats for the wedding feast. After he arrives at our garden, we get talking about his adventures collecting rocks in the desert, exploring remote caves and nearby mountains. He believes that the history of the earth - over billions of years - is documented in the desert. Cycles of death and re-birth, ancient civilizations which have risen and fallen and other intelligent life forms which roamed the earth in the past. We speak about the whale skeletons in the desert and how oceans move over the planet exposing and swallowing land over millions of years – how so much history can be hidden in the endless sweeping sands and depths of immense ocean waters. Oh how little we really know of the history of this ancient planet, our lives less than a blink of an eye in a vast expanse of time. We sit there in the shade of an olive tree pondering our profound conversation then proceed to strike a deal on the goat and merrily go our separate ways. That's Siwa – you never know what magic your day will bring!
With all the rabbits safely back in their enclosure, the kids and I head down the farm with one of our female workers to spend an hour or two picking molikheya leaves. Molikheya is a nutritious green leafy food which is dried and made into a delicious soup popular in Egypt. I always see this work as a kind of moving meditation as it encourages one to be mindful and engaged in the moment. There are literally thousands of leaves to be plucked and the only way to get through it mentally is to surrender to the process, not allowing yourself to be pulled into the future by focusing on the end result (which usually only leads to doing yourself an injury!). Consistency and presence is the name of the game, the job is all there is and this way it becomes a peaceful and enjoyable task. As we walk up the garden, we pluck a few pomegranates from the trees and pick a bundle of spinach for lunch.
Soon the kids and I are swimming in the cool water of our natural spring and getting ready to siesta. The whole of Siwa town shuts down from 12.30 to 4pm in summertime as people return to their homes to retreat from the hot desert sun, eat and get horizontal for a few hours. I must say, I'm now a staunch fan of this routine and love that the long day is split up into two manageable halves.
Towards the end of our siesta, we're woken up by a boy at our gate delivering yellow sand stone which he has collected and carted across the oasis on his donkey cart. Someone had told him we were looking for some stone and here it is, ordered and delivered on the grape vine. Then another worker arrives to trim our ridiculously tall evergreen trees and whilst I'm pondering if there are any hydraulic ladders available in the oasis, he gets busy climbing some 15 meters high with a saw in his belt and a calm look on his face, as if its nothing. Boy am I constantly amazed at how physically strong and agile people are here. I like to see things like this - it inspires me to push my own physical boundaries and get more in touch with my natural wild instincts.
Farmer friends in the area all know how crazy we are for organic naturally grown foods and frequently stop off at our garden in the afternoon gifting us some of the excess produce from their farms. It's very generous and always puts a big smile on my face. Perks to being a novel aspect of the community. Yesterday we were given a crate full of lemons and today we've got a box of white grapes and half a bucket of guavas.
We spend the afternoon clearing up leaves and branches from the floor, feed the animals their dinner and take a tuk tuk to another spring some 20 minutes away, famous for its medicinal mineral rich water known to heal skin and eye infections. Our little girl recently developed groups of boils on her arm and was in desperate need of some treatment. We've been everyday for five days and each time we go, there's literally a cue of people waiting to take their turn bathing in the healing waters. The last time we went, there was a family from Libya who had driven all the way to Siwa to have a medicinal sand bath and swim in this very spring. Yup, it's famous treatment in these parts. Happy to say that after almost a week washing in this spring, our little girls boils have dried out and almost disappeared completely and my skin feels as smooth as butter silk. Pretty powerful stuff.
Siwa is rich with stories of buried treasure from ancient times and there are many accounts of gold hidden in the ancient springs. People commonly joke about swimming to the bottom and bringing up precious stones and golden statues. One of the most famous springs here is called "Juba" which means "The Spring of the Sun", and is believed to be the entrance to the ancient mystical center of Siwa and complex of ancient Temples, including the well known Oracle Temple famously visited by Alexander the Great.
So these are some of the things which we are busy with in this little desert bubble tucked away off the beaten track. Although our time is full and sociable, there is a spaciousness which seems to permeate everything we do. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing - cultivate some spaciousness in your life. It's vitally important for mental and physical wellbeing to park the endless distractions and just be present for a moment or two, peaceful and connected to the beauty of the ever changing infinite eternal now.