Sunday, August 22, 2004

Summer Fun and Broken Toilets

I went to Agami last weekend with some friends to spend the weekend reading in a garden and lying about in a small, but large enough, pool. Agami is an interesting phenomena, as is most of the north coast of Egypt. When the British were in Egypt, during the Khedival period, Alexandria was the summer retreat for Cairenes and all of the embassies transferred the major part of their staff there from June to September on a yearly basis. When we first moved to Egypt in 1988, we noticed that Alexandria was a lovely sleepy town all winter, but it turned into a circus in the summer. All of the empty apartments along the Corniche, the street that runs along the beach, were suddenly filled with families of 27 who owned about 17 boom boxes that were all turned on at once. We tried to be other places in the summer. Even Cairo was preferable.

Sometime during the late 70's the little beach village of Agami became a popular place to build summer cottages. When I first visited Egypt in about 1976, it was a charming place. Beach sand streets had scattered villas (mostly small...the 70's were still hard times here with the Yom Kippur War not a distant memory) and bedouin huts scattered among palms and Alexandria's famous fig trees. We went to the beach which was just a beach then with no public and private sections and lay about in the sand while wandering vendors sold strange crispy crackers and live sea urchins. I tried one but wasn't too impressed. There was even an itinerant palm reader who was remarkably inaccurate.

My hosts had bought a small house there in the early 80's, which my friend Jo described as being a source of contention in the family because she couldn't imagine it being any good kind of investment. After all, who was going to drive all the way down there? She's rather sheepish about that now because the answer was soon apparent...everyone! By the end of the 80's when we moved to Egypt, Agami was no longer a sleepy beach town during the summer, although it did a very good imitation in the winter. It seemed that half of Cairo had built or bought villas and apartments there and from June to October it was virtually impossible to move along the dirt roads that had replaced the beach sand. If you had the misfortune to rent or own a place near a restaurant or some other gathering place, you could be sure that you wouldn't get a single night's sleep. The noise was astonishing.

Jo's family was smart and gradually bought bits and pieces of land (land is divided into microscopic portions by the inheritance laws) until they had collected a very nice garden in a quieter part of Agami. When we went through the gate, it was as though we'd left the area until the moon and the volume of a couple of nearby stereos rose. With the Egyptian sunshine and the humidity of the Mediterranean coast, plants go wild and gardens are lusher than anything seen outside of Jurassic Park. It was a lazy weekend for a couple of mothers sharing a garden with a group of college age daughters.

Driving home to Cairo along the 250 km "Desert Road" with the mothers in one car and the daughters in the other, we were apalled at the drivers sharing the highway. Some of them would zip down the highway weaving in and out of the traffic like an experienced "Grand Theft Auto" player. We had to keep our eyes well peeled for trucks that had a habit of stopping on the way in the slow lane. Not on the shoulder, in the slow lane. Every one was relieved when we hit the outskirts of Giza. The drive down and/or back on a busy Thursday or Saturday, the days most people traveled down there, was definitely enough to make me re-think any thoughts I might have of having a summer place there. During the late 80's clever developers began construction on a number of north coast resort villages further west from Alexandria than Agami. We spent a little time there with friends but were never very comfortable.

Naturally, having taken time off to relax, I had to shift into high gear on meetings with some of the people running my late husband's companies. As much as I'd like to leave them, I'm still a bit involved with three of them. I fed the birds and dogs breakfast, made the evening canine meal, and scooted off to Heliopolis and then Maadi about 8:30 in the morning, leaving my daughter and her friends sleeping. Halfway through my first meeting I received a call from Pat, one of the visitors, that the toilet was flooding the bathroom with, thankfully, clean water. I told them not to worry and I would get some one over to see what the problem was. I put in a call to Haj Shaban, the man who had done the finishing of my house, who said that he'd have someone over there right away. Now I've waited for plumbers in a lot of places and about 4 hours was usually the best time I've ever seen. I checked on the kids' progress in their task of turning off the source of the water that was spouting out of the back of the toilet. There must be about 8 different taps that look as though they could turn off the water, but only one of them did, and none of us knew which one. Within fifteen minutes when I called back to find out if they'd drowned yet, I was told that the plumbers were at work. Not bad. And I get my bill when Haj Shaban gets around to it. He takes care of construction and maintenance for most of the houses around here and we all grab him once a month to get our bills.

So, once again, my Arabic-challenged guests have had to deal with a household repair situation without the benefit of a translator. Pat is planning to stay on here until December to learn Arabic and work with refugees, and I suspect that his success with the telephone repair and the toilet repair have given him confidence. I guess confidence is good no matter where you find it.


Firepeace said...

Ah ..... Your account of driving is not too dissimilar from what we experience here.

And I laughed at te story of the trades people and your friends lack of Arabic. Sometimes it is really hard to get a tradesperson here because they are in such demand. They can pick and choose their jobs.

Perhaps, for different reasons, living in Australia is not so different from Liviing in Egypt? :)

Thank you once more for delightful, interesting reading

Ashley said...

Every time I read your blog I have a greater desire to visit Egypt. I have a long list of places I wish to visit in my life time, but Egypt is slowly creeping up on the list. My best friend is Egyptian, so it would be nice to see where he is from as well. Keep blogging, I love reading.
PS. Glad to hear nobody drowned!!

lisa said...

I read your blog about Agamy and browsed your site. It is a great site. I may be moving to Alexandria in the next year or so, my husband is from there. And the family also has land in Agamy. We will have to explore that area more. Very enjoyable, makes me excited about the adventures to come and a way to communicate with friends and family and let them know what I am doing.