The Great Bitter Lake and Fayid
A few weeks ago, Adham, his good friend Amr, and I spent a few days at a villa in a town called Fayid (or Fayed) on the Great Bitter Lake. The Great Bitter Lake, besides having a fantastic name, is a little spot of tranquility just under one hour outside of Cairo. It is a saltwater lake, hence the moniker ‘Bitter’, formed by the Suez Canal and it serves as a waiting area for tankers and ships as they travel along one of the most incredible achievements of the nineteenth century. Fayed is a small town on the lake, and in the photo below it is on the southwestern side of the lake. The body of water at the top of the photo is the Mediterranean Sea, and the water at the bottom of the photo is the Gulf of Suez, which leads into the Red Sea.
(you can click on any of the photos I took to see them in higher resolution)
Fayid is close to number of military barracks, and when the town was first built the military offered veterans excellent deals on housing. Many Cairenes, if they can afford to, take a flat in Cairo and a flat somewhere near the water, mainly along the North Coast or the Gulf of Suez, which is used to escape the oppressive summer heat in the city. In the 1970s and 1980s Fayid was a very popular day excursion or weekend destination for Cairenes, but today, due to increased building and marketing in other vacation spots, Fayid is not as popular as it once was.
Amr has a friend whose family owns a villa on the lake. When this friend was young the villa was in regular use, but since then the villa has been left in the hands of caretakers. The pool was drained, and much of the furniture removed. Nevertheless, as you will see, it is still an amazing complex!
We left Cairo on a Tuesday afternoon, and as you can see from the photo below we were definitely heading in the right direction. The traffic in and around Cairo from 2pm until 6pm comes to a standstil in many places.
Once you leave Cairo and the surrounding environs, the forests of buildings quickly turn to vast expanses of desert. It is in these areas that developers are starting to build suburban-style complexes, business mega-centers, schools, and factories. The Egyptian government owns most of the land, and you will often see military facilities as well. The new campus for the American University in Cairo is located in an area like this, named New Cairo, nearly an hour outside of downtown Cairo. As these areas often have limited public transport accessibility, it can create great difficulties and exacerbate the difference between elite Egyptians who have easy access to cars and benzene, and poorer Cairenes who rely on the bus and metro.
The Mugama, one of my favorite and one of the most convoluted (architecturally and bureaucratically) buildings in downtown Cairo, will eventually move to the outskirts of Cairo as well. The Mugama houses the bulk of the Ministry of Interior’s departments, and truly deserves a full post of its own (forthcoming). Most Egyptians and foreigners I have met have had business at the Mugama, and on any given day between the hours of 8am and 2pm there is a constant stream of Egyptians, bewildered tourists extending visas, and foreign residents and refugees applying for or renewing residency visas. I cannot imagine that taking this fundamental institution out of the center of Cairo (and away from the metro that runs practically beneath it) will be anything but a major fiasco. Many people simply cannot afford the taxi fare to reach the outskirts of Cairo, especially when one typically has to return to the Mugama two or three (or ten) times to complete a single process.
Even the outskirts give way eventually to the desert, which covers 96 percent (yes 96) of Egypt. I love the desert here because it give me the same sense of peace that I feel when looking out across the Pacific Ocean. Tranquility. Quiet. Clean air. Vast expanses of monotony. The biggest sky you’ve ever seen in your live. The most fantastic sunsets and sunrises you’ve ever seen in your life. The way something that never changes can look so different from day to day.
Amr’s friend was kind enough to drive us (plus Marley, Adham’s rottweiler) out to the villa where he was going to spend the day and then return to Cairo. Marley did not enjoy the ride very much, as the car was compact and the temperature outside in the mid-30s. I think in this photo he is reproaching me for pulling him away from the air conditioner, but a big dog drooling on the driver is not exactly an ideal driving scenario.
This photo was actually taken as we were leaving the villa, but it shows the street in front. The tall building after the stone wall was our home for three relaxing days. Fayid is a small town that caters to both the surrounding military and vacationers, and as you drive down the main road there are numerous food and dry-good shops with brightly colored water toys and flip-flops (ship-ship in Arabic) strung about.
This is the entryway alongside the villa. We were all happy to get out and stretch, and when a fooball was produced, Marley happily forgot the trauma of the drive and proceeded to chase and batter the ball for the next hour or so. By the end of the trip, the poor ball was a sadly deflated, tooth-impaled version of its former, glorious self. Thow a stick and Marley will look the other way, but throw a ball and he goes hyperactive.
This is an overview of the villa, taken from the third floor balcony. To the right of the pool is an attached building inside which are a large spa, a sauna, changing rooms, showers, and steps leading into the pool. Oh, how i wished the pool had been filled with lovely clear water, but alas it has been out of use for years. Similarly, everything inside the spa building was out of order. Past the palm trees at the far end are steps leading down to a terrace along the lake with steps into the water and a little launch for boats and jetskis. Fun!
Although the villa is not in frequent use, there is a caretaker and his son in residence and they beautifully maintain the elaborately landscaped grounds.
The spa building has a wide terrace on the roof which is accessible from the second floor, and the little stone structure to the left is an outdoor barbecue grill. Someone could really throw a fantastic summer party here, especially as the house can sleep more than twenty people very comfortably, and probably close to eighty with sleeping bags or mattresses on the roof and the grounds.
The gazebo on the right is made of beautifully carved wood in (what looked to me like) a Thai style, with out-of-use, heavy wooden picnic tables and benches stacked underneath. Behind the gazebo is a two story structure. On top is a single room, used by the father as an office, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the lake, and underneath is a garage directly off the launch for storing those water toys.
The spa building is decorated with colorful windows depicting cranes and they look absolutely beautiful from inside with the light filtering through.
This is the entrance from the first floor out to the pool and patio area. When Amr’s friend and his family use the villa they stay on this floor, so it is the most elegantly furnished part of the building. The second and third floors are furnished in a more utilitarian manner, and they are rented to people who come to the lake for day use or for a few nights. The roof (which we didn’t go to) has shelters set up to protect from the sun, making the square footage for the house unbelieveable. Each floor is self-sufficient with bathrooms, a kitchen, two giant bedrooms, a huge reception, and a lovely, wide terrace.
Yep, we pretty much camped out right here for three days.
The villa’s flora was expertly planned and executed, and I spent a few hours ogling the diverse plants and flowers. The berries above are a kind I’ve never seen, but they grow in a most interesting fashion on branches that radiate outward like a sunburst. I did not taste them.
This is a tree that is quite common in Egypt. They cover Cairo and lend welcome shade during the summer, and the flowers that bloom from them in the spring and summer are brilliant reds, oranges, pinks and yellows.
Bougainvellia, one of my favorite plants, flourishes in the extended summer sunlight.
Small, delicate, and very pretty.
I have no idea what this plant is, but it has some serious character.
Playing football while the ball was still inflated. Marley’s pretty good at trying to steal the ball!
This gate leads down to the terrace and lake. Notice the promenade of ships in the background… more to come.
The lake is vast, and to the left you can see a small sandbar island. The horizon is dotted with ships far in the distance.
Marley was hesitant to get in the water by himself but, since his fur is thick and he gets hot in the summer, we tossed him in to cool down. When he is in Sinai he regularly runs into the sea to cool off, but for some reason he was not as eager to go down the stairs or the launch. Nevertheless, he stayed like this for a good five minutes before getting out. He was the only one to go in the lake.
I was surprised and happy to capture this photo of a square sail boat, because most of the boats I have seen in the Red Sea or on the Nile are feluccas which have triangular lateen sails. This square sail is an ancient design which was first used by Pharonic Egyptians, and it is rather uncommon today. The square sail was ideal for the Nile, as (before the building of the Aswan Dam) the strong current drove north and the prevailing winds blew south. Ancient Egyptians could lower the sail to head north, and raise the sail when heading south. A square sail must always have the wind behind it, unlike a triangular sail which allows the boat to move both downwind and windward. Since the dam slows the current significantly, the lateen sail has become more popular. Unfortunately, the weaker current also reduces the flow of fresh Nile water into the Mediterranean and this has allowed the sea’s saltwater to encroach into the delta, causing major problems for Egypt’s most fertile region.
The contrast between the huge, oceangoing ships and the local fishing boats is quite stark.
The parade of ships and tankers through the canal is a steady and extremely profitable one.
This cargo ship reminded me of the docks in Oakland and the giant steel dinasours used to unload the containers.
The constant presence of large ships renders the water somewhat murky and brownish when seen close-up, although people still regularly swim in the lake. Fish and shrimp from the lake are plentiful and one night we had a delicious dinner of fried shrimp sandwiches, but I prefer swimming in the aquamarine waters of the Red Sea to the industrialized Great Bitter Lake.
To our left you can see residences dotting the shoreline. There is a Coptic Christian retreat complex a couple houses over, and Copts can spend a vacation with room and board free of charge. When we were there it was bustling with families swimming and laughing, and the waiting list is apparently quite long.
To the immediate right is another out-of-use villa, and a factory in the distance. Since Fayid is not a major international tourist destination like Sharm el Sheik, Hurgada or Dahab, I don’t think there is so much pressure on the government to beautify the surroundings, and the area is a combination of vacation and function.
A nice close-up of the factory. I’ll bet those gazebos were more enjoyable before it was built.
Fayid is a one-horse town, because most of the residences along the lake are vacation homes and often unoccupied. However, it is one of the few places in Egypt I have seen tuk-tuks. It is very interesting to see the different manifestations of the tuk- tuk in Delhi, Bangkok, and now, Fayid. Wherever they are, they’re one of my favorite modes of transportation!
This was an unexpectedly lucky shot (although next time I’ll have to remember to roll the window down before taking photos.) I was going for a shot of the train tracks when this little tuk-tuk just plowed across and, if you can see, the man is looking directly at the camera. One day, I am going to try my hand at driving a tuk-tuk.
I call this one “The Rough Pyramid”, or “Excellence in Space Efficiency.”
If you can see the white lettering in the rear window of this taxi:
it spells my name, Sarah, in Arabic! I can’t express to you how fun it has been to answer the question “ismik eh?” or, “what’s your name?” because when I reply “Sarah” literally ninety percent of the time the question-asker’s eyes light up, I get a big smile, and he or she asks me if I know that Sarah is an Arabic name. Quite a contrast to the response my old roommate Meredith would receive; the “th” sound doesn’t exist in Egyptian Arabic and her name was near impossible for people to pronounce or remember. It’s funny how something as simple as a name, one that I’ve taken for granted all my life, can create instant familiarity and friendliness with complete strangers. Thanks mom and dad!
Well that wraps up this trip to Fayid. One thing that does not come across in photos is the absolute dearth of traffic noise. The single road the passed the house was rarely used, and I didn’t hear a single horn honk the entire time. Also, the area all around the lake is very lush and green. It was a lovely, quick, break from the hustle and bustle (and heat!) of Cairo.