We walked miles today, through markets and mosques, past parks and peacocks, in a city drenched by sun and covered in a thin and constant dust that miraculously never seems to dull the extraordinary colors we’re seeing everywhere. From one second to the next, the smells shift, from curry to cardamom to cinnamon, pungent and sharp, a whirlwind of mysterious (to us) new sensations.
Everywhere we go, people stare at us. Occasionally, they stroke our skin, then recoil laughing. We’re aliens to them, and it is a strange thing to wander and be perceived as so different: a great experience for the children especially, who are, as we are, overwhelmed. Sometimes other children run up to them and ask their names: yesterday, two little boys came up to Fiona and, upon learning her name, proceeded onto me.
“And you, Auntie?”
I told them, and as I did so, it occurred to me that names like Jessica and Malcolm and Fiona might not be so easy to process on the other end. I suggested to our children that they consider adopting temporary street names.
“I’m going with Mohammed,” said Malcolm.
Families live where they live, here: on the streets, above a store, on the steps of a closed mosque, like these people, whose laundry provided a colorful shelter above the cool stone steps. Nearby, another family waved to us and pointed out a monkey living on their roof. Everywhere, it seemed, groups of smiling girls followed our tall teenage son through the alleyways of the old city, some of them posing for portraits before running away in fits of giggles.
But the juxtapositions — and the ever-present disparities — are vexing: rich and poor, dirty and screamingly bright, palatial spaces next to the grimmest kind of poverty. We peeked out behind the garden wall in the elegant Meridien Hotel and saw what we thought was the dry river bed, then looked closer and saw miles of slums, literally, right up against the hotel wall.
And everywhere, signs of struggle. I was particularly taken with these elderly women, each crouched outside a mosque, protected by a kind of bed of silence by its gates — the respectful kind of space that seems to surround such places of worship — yet very much a part of the street outside. Each sat patiently, waiting for visitors, then held out their empty hands.
Today, the five-day kite festival begins, and the excitement is mounting. Children make makeshift kites that get caught on the phone wires, and professional kite flyers from all over the world are rumored to be in attendance. Kite supplies are sold on every street corner, and reflect the bright, saturated color palette of this extraordinary country. We’re off to take even more pictures.