My dear friends
I am writing this to you on my last day beside the Red Sea in Egypt. I’ve been here for two weeks and it has been an edgy time, as I keep one eye on the news out of London, holding my breath every time Boris Johnson wombles up to the mike like a pink-eyed, unkempt Great-Uncle Bulgaria, hoping he’ll somehow continue to keep Egypt off the red list long enough for me to serve my quarantine here in peace.
Other than a bargain, there is nothing in life I love quite so much as a loophole, and Egypt is the last good loophole left open, after Kenya and various other ports of convenience closed at the eleventh hour. Egypt is the only place I know that is both on the UK amber list and welcomes South Africans without placing any restrictions on our movement. (I’m told there’s Ghana as well, but I haven’t looked into it because that would involve going back to Ghana.)
Consequently I have spent the last two weeks here on this terraced Xanadu facing the Straits of Tiran, periodically rolling my lazy carcass into the warm aquarium of the sea to bob about like an oil drum, or like a lilo that has been inexplicably moulded to resemble a pale and flabby man. I have taken one desert excursion to the Monastery of St Catherine to see the (currently unburning) burning bush and to climb Mount Sinai like some younger but less sprightly Moses, and I have ambled into town in the evenings to watch it slowly fill again over the course of the fortnight with the first happy travelers from a re-opening Europe, and for the rest of the time I have been idly engaging in the almost forgotten pleasures of people-watching.
As I look up now, I see a large shaggy man – Baloo the bear in a blue sea on a hot day – who has found exactly the sweet spot of his holiday. The sand shelves shallowly into the sea here, and there are coral reefs on either side but in the deepening channel to the bluer sea there is an orange life-ring – the kind you find on ships to throw to someone who may have fallen over the railing – tethered to a sea-bed rock by a length of rope. I’m not sure why it’s there – perhaps for a child to cling to if they have strayed unexpectedly from their depth – but this ursine gentleman has made it his personal throne. He has hauled himself up and onto it, and at first he sat there with his bottom in the doughnut hole, propped upright and surveying his kingdom like a furry Neptune. He waved regally to the folks on shore, then mimed someone bringing him a beer, which he mimed opening ceremoniously, then mimed drinking with sovereign dignity. No one on shore took this hint, which I imagine struck him bitterly as yet one more reason the land is more disappointing than the water.
Now he is spreadeagled on the lifebuoy, a grand hairy starfish, his belly pointing to the alabaster dome of the heavens, those marvelous bear limbs and bear paws thrown out to all the points of the compass. This is a man in the right place at the right time, a lord of his domain. Perhaps he slaves the long year as a – what? A foreman in a refinery in Baku? The government overseer of a nuclear reactor near Minsk? – but here he is truly what he was born to be: a creature of the sea and the salty elements, a furry Lord of the brine. Look at him! Abandoned to the sky and the deep! Behold this happy man! I love how happy he is, how entirely – right now – he is who he is in his dreams.
Many of the people I am currently watching are Russian or from one of the indistinguishable wretched former Soviet republics, although there is one other South African lurking around. I heard her at breakfast this morning telling a waiter that “This place is stunning! Byerrrrdiful, hey!” It made my heart fond to hear the purring tones of my homeland again, here on this distant desert shore. I considered hailing her, that we might chat and share some glad news and gossip about the old country, but then I thought a little harder about how that conversation might go, and I slunk a little lower in my seat and switched to ordering in Greek. Perhaps tomorrow.
(Here’s an innovation that resort hotels should pioneer: compulsory badges bearing your check-out date, so that others may carefully time their friendly overture, knowing that if it goes wrong they won’t have too many days of avoiding you.)
But truly, after thirteen months of only seeing people you know, or whose type you know, one of the great joys of being in the world again is the opportunity to watch strangers. Strangers are a great source of mystery and delight, as confusing and alien as the fish in the coral canyons.
In front of me is a young woman with a palm branch. She dragged it onto the beach a little while ago and sat regarding it thoughtfully. I know where she found it: it’s maintenance day for the palm trees on the resort and various branches are lying scattered beneath their parent trees, trimmed or pruned or crossed with silver or whatever it is you do to palms to keep them in shape. She sat in profound reverie over her branch. It isn’t often that the universe offers us a palm branch, she seemed to be thinking. There must be lots of ways to have fun with a palm branch: it requires of me only that I think of one of those ways. The universe has come calling in my one wild and precious life, and how shall I answer?
She has come up with an answer. She has roped her elderly father into her scheme. She now sits facing the sea and her father is with one hand holding the palm branch propped upright so that the sun throws its shadow onto her back, while with his other hand he is trying to one-handedly focus a cellphone and take a picture. It’s a tricky job because a gentle ocean breeze causes the shadow to wobble about, and while he is trying to exert control over that situation the phone keeps switching back to the screen-saver, so that he has to one-thumbedly punch in the access code again.
His daughter keeps barking instructions but otherwise she is being remarkably patient, although it must be hot out there. Oh, now mom has come to help. She’s holding the tip of the palm branch upright and more or less still, although the palm needles still quiver a little at the sides, causing an unsatisfactory blurring on the picture. The model is inspecting the pictures. She is dissatisfied. She jabs her finger accusingly at the screen. Now other citizens of the beach have wandered over to consult. Someone is trying to hold the frond in place from their side but even I can tell that she won’t some stranger’s fingers in shadow on her back-portrait. Ah! The mystery of her dissatisfaction is solved! It’s the strap of her bikini. What kind of photograph of a back has a bikini strap in it? An inferior photograph, that’s what! She has instructed her father to undo her bikini strap. This has taken a turn for the unexpected. It is amazing to think that when this man was born, Stalin was on the Russian throne. Could this man have imagined that a few short decades later, he would be on the shores of the Red Sea, undressing his daughter the better to photograph her with a piece of tree for Instagram? Oh, now she’s arching her back to add a touch of drama and tension to the picture. I wonder if her dad is as uncomfortable as I am. No – he is pulling down her bikini bottom to increase the canvas upon which they are making art. One does wonder about the Eastern Europeans, sometimes.
At breakfast on the terrace each morning we are stalked by Hitchcock-like gangs of ruffian birds. Sparrows and sweet little desert starlings, for the most part, but also the occasional blackbird and crow that loiter nearby with a casual air but glittering eyes. Leave your table unattended and they’ll make off with your slice of melon or your croissant with cheese and strawberry jam so fast you’ll question your own sanity. Two families came to breakfast at much the same time yesterday morning. One was Russian, I think, and the other Egyptian, and each had a little boy about ten years old. For every situation there is an individual reaction to it.
One of the little boys sat watching the birds with liquid eyes, sneaking crumbs and pieces of his breakfast to surreptitiously feed them under the table, like some underage St Anthony. He watched them with a sort of naked, lonely hunger. All he wanted was for the birds to alight on his shoulders and knees and be his friends.
The other boy saw the birds and took it upon himself to defend the terrace from the scourge. He marched around, waving his fists and expostulating, running hither and thither at every sign of an avian incursion. Oh, how he fulminated! How he roared! No birds on his patch would prosper! Two little boys, two such unpredictably different reactions. How do we keep thinking there’s one way to speak to everyone?
But perhaps underneath not so different after all. When the violent little boy’s family went inside to gather up their breakfast from the buffet, he volunteered to stand guard, and made himself a human scarecrow, singing a martial anti-bird song of his own devising and waving his arms around as though he were one of those bendy plastic figures advertising second-hand car dealerships on the William Nichol. But the more I watched him, acting out this fantasy of being an important anti-bird operative, the more it became clear that he wasn’t motivated by violent urges against the feathered underworld, he was just giving himself something to do. He was taking the lead role in the hidden drama of his inner life; he was, at long last in his short life, the hero. I remembered doing that myself when I was 10. I do that now. I had looked at the gentle little boy and rather wishfully thought he was me, but actually it was the other little boy who was me. Or rather, they were both me. They were both each other. I wished I could introduce them, and they would be friends and play on the beach together and hunt for hermit crabs and mooch about in the shallows and spy on girls that they liked, and realise that they are both lonely, and that’s okay, but for a while they don’t need to be. But the world doesn’t work that way, I suppose.
The breeze is picking up a little now, which it sometimes does at the end of the day, though not always. The sea is becoming opaque and the sky is going pale and blushing like the inside of an oyster shell. Soon there will be a golden glow over the mountains to the west, and the light will turn blue and then slide into night. I will walk up the slope now from the beach to the hotel along with the other contented pilgrims, our royal-blue resort towels over our shoulders like cult members, to our various rooms to drink gin and prepare for dinner. Tomorrow I fly to Cairo and then to London for the next step of the great zig-zag outwards. I have been hearing about the vaccinations back home – my parents-in-law walked in to the clinic at Lentegeur and were out again inside an hour. It makes me feel happy, and hopeful. The world is enough.
much love to you