Friday, August 27, 2004

Technical difficulties are being overcome

Well, the tagboard was cute but it didn't fit the page, so until I sort this all out, I've removed it. Alex, if you check back, I am indeed Yasmine and Nadim's mom, so send me your email. It's great to be back in touch with old friends. I have added something so that you can send individual posts to friends, should you so desire. Wish I was a techno-whiz.

Late Summer Chill

PalmWadi, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
I'm back in Sharm el Sheikh with a group of my friends for a four day chill by the Red Sea before the end of summer....but then, does summer really end by other people's standards in Egypt? I guess not. Our winter is other countries' summer to judge by England, Germany or Canada. We have the same kind of slowdown during the summer months that many of you have during the winter, but in our case the heat is the cause rather than the cold.

But to get back to the wonder of South Sinai, the wadi (a valley caused by winter floods) in the photo is typical of the small oases that are encountered where ever the water table is close enough to the surface for the palms to reach it. If Moses actually spent 40 years wandering Sinai, he wasn't wandering in a very large area, but it is some of the most daunting landscape I've ever seen. You find either barren rock or the odd oasis, and not much in between. The 5 to 6 hour drive down used to be a real trek with only a couple of gas stations that might or might not have gas available. Now there are hotels springing up all along the coast of the Gulf of Suez and the gas stations also have little mini marts that sell Red Bull, Dr. Pepper, and Tostitos. The price of progress.

The price has been much higher in Sharm el Sheikh, now known in our household as Las Vegas By The Sea. Once a sleepy group of camping huts and an odd hotel by Naama Bay, it has become the new Italian hotspot filled with shops, hotels, restaurants, clubs, and tourists. I brought my camera with me and will take some photos for the unbelievers. You will have trouble thinking that this is a destination in the Middle East.

We don't actually immerse ourselves in LVBTS much when we come here because I have the luxury of a house in an Italian vacation compound north of there. In some respects the invasion of civilisation has been a blessing for us since we no longer have to drive down here loaded with groceries. Now we have the fruit sellers in the Shades (aka old Sharm where all the local workers live and shop...Shades is for Discworld devotees), the foul and tameya shops, the plastic shoe sellers, and some big supermarkets where you can even buy Pringles. For the people who live and work here, it's a benefit being able to buy luxuries, visit doctors and have schools, definitely.

But the price in the area of the corals and the access to the sea has been enormous. The construction of the hotels and resorts has generated a lot of dust and sand that kills corals. The tourist aren't always careful in avoiding contact with corals, which kills them as well. The vast numbers of dive boats isn't exactly a blessing either but with all the tourists here, they are in use constantly. Where Sharm was once barren sand and rock with riotous colour and life, now recycled water has brought the rich green of the Delta to the gardens much to the delight of migrating bird life. This also has increased the humidity in the area, not to my delight. But you can't have everything.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Resting spots

Mosques are everywhere in Egypt and most of the Middle East. With devout muslims praying at a mosque, if possible, five times a day, having one nearby is convenient. But mosques aren't places that have people administering them and supervising activities. People build them more as a place of rest and sanctuary from the racket of everyday life, and you find them all over. The mosque in the photo is unfinished but in use nevertheless and it is out in the countryside away from the village.

When I used to visit here with small children in the 80's, sometimes we would rest on the rugs in a quiet mosque so that they could take a break from the hustle of the city. This use of the building as a resting place is one of the kind aspects of the mosque. They function as community centers with classes to teach the farm children who may not be registered in school to read. This is the place to see your neighbours, visit, whatever.

The Classique trail, by the way, is one of our favourite riding trails near my house, named after an erstwhile restaurant called the Classique. The restaurant didn't do very good business, whether due to the cooking or the lack of parking on a one lane country road, I don't know. It's now basically closed having been busted by the local authorities a number of times for nefarious evening activities involving the fairer sex. And you probably thought that country dwellers were law abiding. Hah!

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.