Weekend at Agami
This is fine if it was a day or so of such weather, where you could hole up in air conditioned rooms and hide. But you can’t – as the heat goes on with minor fluctuations in its intensity for at least five months. During that time housework and office work has to be done, traffic is still appalling, shopping has to be purchased, and while it is not a time you are going to try on leather jackets, food must be purchased, and more often than usual. Salads and the few vegetables available in the heat of summer wilt as you walk home, and only survive in the shops with generous and frequent applications of water. And – you still walk as there is still nowhere to park.
It is not summer yet, but now and again a hot wind blows across the city, as if to say “testing… testing”.
I drove up to Agami. This is a milestone for me. I had so many people who told me not to buy a car, not to drive. “There is no point, you can’t park, it is dangerous, taxis are cheap, no-one drives here …” Well, all of that is probably true except the latter. Five minutes in a traffic jam and that is obviously not true! As for the rest – the point to me is the sense of freedom I get from having a car in the drive. I don’t have to go out often – but I need to know that I can if I choose to. You can’t park in many places – but having a car gives me access to places like Carrefour in Ma’adi which is a serious supermarket – they might even have cream cheese and sour cream, but I haven’t managed to get there yet.
And yes – the traffic can look dangerous, and sometimes it is – but I would rather be in the driver’s seat than trusting someone else at the most dangerous points.
There is a strange courtesy in traffic here. If you indicate, and start to move over places open up. If you realise in the third lane to the right that you actually have to turn left –believe it or not, it can be done. In fact, Egyptian drivers rarely position themselves before turns come up. This results in a strangely unchoreographed ballet of sinuous weaving of cars at each intersection. The positive is that I have never seen a driver lose his temper, never seen anyone abused – the worst I have seen is a hand turned palm up in a silent “Why??” Every driver knows that in allowing someone else to do the unthinkable now, it might be his turn tomorrow.
Even on the highways cars wind and twist as they drive. From behind it looks amazing, but in actual fact they are avoiding potholes, selecting flatter pieces of road or avoiding rocks left by trucks that have broken down, then just driven away leaving their warning stones behind. Now and again there is a slow and stolid donkey trudging under a weight of greens as high as a house, like a moving Burnham Wood. Occasionally someone drives steadily, if a little warily, down the wrong side of the road.
It is a good two hours to the turnoff from the Alexandria Road to the house at Agami. So that we could take two other families to Agami with us, we had opted for the Embassy Mercedes (which Bob pays to use while he is here) and the red Jeep Grande Cherokee that we have just bought. I was to drive that. We only had it delivered back to the house after all the mucking around organizing registration and insurance so all I have been able to do is start it and drive it up and down the side of the house, with the odd bit of reversing into the curve of the drive. It is a bit worrying that Gamal at this point always leaps to hold his roses aside. I would like to think it is so I don’t risk scratching the car – but then, he loves his roses…
I had taken a careful look at our narrow gate in our narrow curved drive and chickened out. The friend who arrived to show us how to find his house drove us out of Cairo. Then I took over. This was near perfect driving practice, as I had time to get used to being on the wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car, with the rear vision mirror on my right, and the gears on my right, and the indicator on the left – all on a straight-ish highway. As we turned off that, and turned again and again into progressively small roads, lanes, tracks – whatever – I felt able to cope. I even drove all the way home, through Zamalek in traffic, stopped at two houses, and negotiated our gates and drive! I noticed the guard moved two poles out of the way instead of the single one he usually shifts for our drivers though.
Agami was beautiful. The house there that we use is a big ‘villa’ in a row of others like it behind high walls in the centre of a small and poor village. It has a lovely lawn and pool, and enough space to sleep ten. This was one of those weekends where within minutes every man was stretched out on a padded lounge by the pool, and asleep. They work such long hours here, and the work has been so hard lately. Barbara, Maureen and I (all embassy wives) read and pottered. We had allocated meals and contributions and had the sort of feasts that come out of casual allocations – wonderful food, in about the right quantities, but with gaps like tea bags and sugar, which everyone forgot.
No one swam as it was surprisingly cold, especially when the breeze sprang up in the afternoon. Most of us spent the weekend in jumpers, or at least in long sleeves.
I feel all smoothed out now – and have even felt the benefit of two days of breathing clean air. Cairo is now rated with one of the worst pollution levels in the world, and as you approach the city from the north we could see a dome of dark grey smog sitting malevolently over it.