x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Sleepy sanctuaries where sanity can be regained

Living in crowded Cairo, a small retreat is needed once in a while to keep the sanity level in check, and one of the best aspects of Egypt is the closeness of so many potential sanctuaries.

Back in dusty, polluted Cairo after two weeks working in Baghdad, I am ready to engage in some escapism. Living in crowded Cairo, a small retreat is needed once in a while to keep the sanity level in check, and one of the best aspects of Egypt is the closeness of so many potential sanctuaries. While many Egyptians choose to go to the north coast or to Sharm el Sheikh to revel in the party atmospheres, large crowds, concerts and five-star treatments, sometimes all you really need is a quiet beach on which to nap.

I arrived in Cairo on Tuesday after three hours spent in a sweltering, un-air-conditioned Baghdad airport, packed to the rafters with pilgrims to Iran and other travellers. I didn't even pretend to do the laundry, simply emptying my bag on to the bedroom floor and dividing the contents into various piles. Rescuing a few clean items and shoving them into a small bag, I fell into bed, anticipating an early start for my day at the beach.

In the morning I was still tired as I tripped over dirty clothes, and made a dash for it. My friends and I had rented a car which took us across the Suez Canal and into Sinai. My only other trip to Sinai had been to cover events in Egyptian Rafah and Gaza - not exactly the most relaxing circumstances. This time I had the chance to watch the scenery change gradually, from city buildings in Cairo, to desert road and eventually majestic rock mountains overlooking a deep blue sea. It felt arid and hot, even through the car window. The air was markedly clearer and the water on our right extremely inviting. Nothing besides abandoned holiday compounds and unfinished buildings could be seen for miles.

After a three-hour ride - much of which was quite hair-raising, given the quality of driving in this country - we were greeted by a huge, dilapidated sign that read "Moon beach" in both English and Arabic. The main building was shabby but air-conditioned, which always makes everything instantly better in the Middle East. We registered and were shown to our huts up a dusty path. Looking around, it was apparent we really were in the middle of nowhere, with our compound the only sign of life for at least an hour in either direction.

After a light lunch, we changed into our beach attire and walked down to the water. It was remarkable - different hues of blues merging into each other as far as the eyes could see. Some people were learning to windsurf, others bobbed aimlessly with their heads just above the water and a handful of children were happily building a sandcastle. It was serene and silent. After a small dip in the clear, cool and refreshing water, I summoned up the energy for a long nap, lullabied by the lapping waves. This was followed by a snack, a chat, then back to the book I am reading and more sleep. Amazingly, after a day of doing nothing we were all quite exhausted. I think we were just not used to breathing so much oxygen.

Now, Sinai isn't the only place for little sanity getaways, as I like to call them. Another great location is Fayoum - a small village about an hour and a half south-west of Cairo. I took a day trip to the village with friends, where we sat in a cosy lounge enjoying a traditional Fayoum breakfast before spending the day reading. In the afternoon, we were a little more adventurous, hiring horses and galloping along the shores of the nearby lake. The fresh air, proximity to the beautiful horses and the splashing water at their hoofs was magical, a beautiful escape from the Cairo grind.

I am back home now, batteries recharged ready for next week, and already looking forward to my next small escape. Of course, now there's an even larger mound of laundry on the bedroom floor. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo