Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 August 2008
Issue No. 909
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cool, calm and collected

Nader Habib wouldn't vacation any other way

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The Alamein memorial cemetery is an interesting stop on your way to Ghazala, where peace and fun can be found

My grandmother used to tell me how she spent every summer in east Alexandria on Abu Qir beach -- which, alas, in recent years has become a port. In the 1940s, my grandfather would rent a flat for three months and the family would move there with all their needs -- furniture, kitchen utensils and food supplies. Did they use a moving truck? I used to wonder.

My grandfather would go back to Cairo to work during the week and travel to see them every weekend. Abu Qir would be their home for the summer, and they would even have extra place for guests -- those who couldn't or didn't want to find a place of their own.

Today, it's a different story, although most families try to maintain family vacation traditions and destinations. The average middle-class family heads north to Alexandria or north east to Ras Al-Barr or to the North Coast or even to its most western tip at Marsa Matrouh, for a week in a rented apartment or chalet. Seafront, if they can afford it -- or if not, at the other end of the resort near the highway. But the truth of the matter, spiralling vacation expenses are making everyone dizzy.

My family decided to cut short vacation time from three months to three days -- that's even less than our usual one week in the past few years. I decided to join my extended family -- cousins and all -- on a trip north to stay at a seafront chalet which would only cost LE300 per night. Three nights is the best the landlord could get from us, and as there was no one who wanted it for a week, it was a done deal.

To be honest, I didn't know where we were going. But I didn't care because I was determined to enjoy myself with the family, and escape the rut of routine for a few days.

We moved out at first light. Other members of the family met us at the toll gates of the Cairo- Alexandria highway, then we drove in caravan and eventually found the Alamein highway -- which has dramatically cut short the distance to the North Coast from Cairo. Although a narrow and uninhabited road, we preferred it to the Cairo-Alexandria stretch, and closely watched the way since it was our first time on this route.

We were oblivious to the desert temperatures outside our air conditioned car, as we headed to our destination 40km from Alamein. The landlord called with wise advice: fill up the cars at Marina since there are no gas stations near our destination. At the gas station, much to our chagrin, the air condition failed. But determined to enjoy the trip, we noticed a memorial for the battle of Alamein, a tank from WWII placed under an arch. Cemeteries for Allied and Axis forces line the road, and across from there a sign warned us to avoid the landmines.

We arrived at the wrong resort, having overshot our destination by one kilometre. We had gone to Ghazala Charm Life Resort, where palm trees lined the entrance, swaying their branches to greet us. Our real destination was Ghazala Resort -- without the charm life that is. Since it is still under construction, there were no clear road names or numbers at Ghazala. We were lost for 30 minutes, but miraculously ended up right by the chalet we rented.

It is midday already, and we are eager for some sun and surf. I had brought a rubber dinghy with me, but failed to launch it because of the strong wind and high waves. So we stayed on the shore and began setting up the umbrella, but the wind was too fast and furious, unplucking the umbrella within seconds. Another nuisance was that the beach was covered in rocks and pebbles, even on the seabed. Swimming wasn't much fun, to say the least. Eventually, we decided to head back for some food and rest so we could stay up late and enjoy the night life.

When I told the landlord about our beach (mis)adventure, he explained that we went to the wrong side of the beach. We should have headed west, where a small sandy bay nestles into the shore, calm and smooth like a swimming pool. Actually, he added, the bay is so enticing that neighbours from Ghazala Charm Life Beach walk for half a mile on the rocks to swim in that bay. They have to do it on the sly, first thing in the morning, before the real Ghazala people -- us -- are up and about.

The attraction here falls very quickly with the sun going down. Since there's not much to do here at night, the only outlet was to go to the local supermarket. It's not too large, but suffices for basic needs until you ask for something they don't have. Abdu, the owner, offers to send the boys to buy our needs from outside the village. Is there a pharmacy around? Not really, he says, but the boys can go to the next village. They'll get us all the medicine we need and the groceries too -- first thing in the morning.

After buying what we could, there was no other choice but to head back to the chalet to sit around, keep each other's company and reminisce. We exchanged stories of childhood, anecdotes and even tried to remember the cost of living in years gone by. Then the segregation happens almost naturally. The older men play backgammon and chess; the women go to the kitchen; the young climb on the roof to star-gaze and avoid adult conversation about politics and economics. It's so quiet that the sounds of rolling dice and cries of victory carry off to the beach. I fell asleep on the roof under a galaxy of sparkling stars, until someone called me in for dinner.

The next day was a glorious morning, so we ambled into the sand bay at about 10am. It was serene as we've been told; no waves to mention and for some reason no people. There are, however, umbrellas and chairs all around us -- clear evidence of human presence -- but still no people. It was a little eerie; could this happen to us too?

One of the chalet owners, Sameh Tawadros, furnished an explanation. Everyone in the resort has his own private chair and umbrella. People place their gear on the beach at the beginning of summer and that's where it stays until the end of the holiday season. There is even a neighbour who sets up an open-sided tent on the beach on the first day of summer, then returns to Cairo with his family. The tent stays pitched all summer, waiting for them to come back on weekends. Can anyone use the tent in the owner's absence? I asked, naïvely. As a friend of the owner, Tawadros had tried that once, but was promptly asked to leave by a security guard who is scholarly about what belongs to whom on the beach.

Just then, Tadrus pointed a finger to show me that the tent occupants had returned, and the father was indeed setting up the beach toys for his children.

Since this vacation was clearly not going to be a smooth one, today was not going to pass without irks or irritations. Water shortages were the issue of the day, but the landlord was quick to solve the problem. He called the maintenance crew, who send a water truck to fill up the ground-tank which pumps water up into the overhead tank. And presto, we had water. The landlord revealed that water is scarce in this area, and since the water mains will be finished all at once as part of the resort's infrastructure, this is the best way to ensure that the handful of occupants have enough water supplies.

That evening, which was our last, the younger members wanted to go to the next village for some nightlife. At about 9pm we turned onto the main road, which was pitch dark except for the luminescent road signs. Plenty of speeding trucks outside the car and screaming terrified women inside the car were enough to make us change our minds. Better bored than road kill: back to family face- time.

Early the next day, I went to the beach before anyone was up. A young man was sitting alone under a red flag. He's the resort's lifeguard and a native of the area. He also gives swimming lessons to the children at the resort. Apparently, the best time to go swimming, according to him, is between 5pm and 7.30pm when the sun is gentlest on beachgoers.

But no time for that today, we leave at 5pm to complete the unlit Alamein stretch of highway before the sun goes down. Honouring years of tradition, we stopped at the Rest House and gorged up on peasant-style fetir. But maybe it wasn't just about the fetir, delicious as it was, but more of a delay tactic. After the serenity of the North Coast, we needed a moment or two to brace ourselves for what comes next -- real life in the crowded, polluted capital.

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