ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT — They left the Nile Delta before dawn, piling into a van and driving across the green flatlands toward the coast, plopping on the sand and diving into the surf, watching the sun rise over the jetties and trawlers churn the horizon.
There are 11 of them -- cousins, mothers, friends and kids. They had waited for this day, waited to hear Ashraf Gouda say, let's go to the beach, let's feel rich in the umbrella shade and swim through cool currents, like we did when we were as young as our children are now. So they did, and Gouda is dripping and happy with grit in his hair, this ancient port pushing up in ragged splendor behind him.
A man ought to have this feeling more than once a year, but unless he gets lucky and can afford another day, this is all the vacation his wallet will allow. His wife, Reda, understands, and so do many around him on this crowded beach, where the dream is for the day to trick the night and last a little longer.
"Average Egyptians like us convince ourselves that one day at the beach is enough," says Gouda, a construction worker, who was collecting pay five days a week, but inflation and the building industry being what they are, is now down to one or two.
"We grew up in a country that makes you get used to scarcity," Reda says from beneath an umbrella with Ashraf Jr. dusted in sand and sleeping in her arms. She is a full-faced woman in a green abaya and a matching head scarf; her feet are damp from walking the line where the waves break.
Look right and there's Mahmoud Heneidy, another day-tripper from the delta, a textile worker whose vacation budget this year is $37. Look left, down the corniche a bit, and there's Salah Amin, a soldier with 20 members of his family spread out with blankets and cooking pots like a desert caravan at an oasis.
No one complains. The sky's too blue; the sea's too bright, green near the coves, darkening toward deeper waters; and the air is cooler than back home. Everyone's cramming into the moment, into the minutes and hours of a ticking-away day. For the older ones, there's the memory of how the city was and how it is now, with its smooth roads and new bridge and shiny marble buildings wedged between apartments of flaking stone and shutters cracked and splintered from Mediterranean winds, the same gusts that have been blowing ships this way since before Alexander the Great arrived with swords and horses more than 2,000 years ago.
History haunts here, curls along the coast and down streets and alleys. The new shadows the old, like the towering Four Seasons, which sits about 300 yards from Gouda's towel and has a cafe that sells a muffin and flavored coffee with whipped cream for more than what Gouda will earn in two days.
"You have to budget for a trip like this," says Gouda, standing in the sun after coming out of the sea, his sleeveless shirt drenched. "This day costs each of our four families 150 Egyptian pounds [$28] including splitting the van. In the past, when we came we shopped and went to restaurants and movies. The beach is all we can afford now."
He is sunburned, his muscles tight from lifting bricks and cement bags back home in Kafr el Sheik, where he works, when he works, along a conveyor on building sites. He doesn't want to think about that now; not the way work hours are shrinking and bills are rising, not the way those crazy thoughts keep him awake; no, now, he prefers to be who he was when he came here as a boy, the sea spread before him, so much bigger than the Nile, so wide and endless. The sea can do that; it can turn a troubled man into a boy skimming like a spear through the surf, for a few hours anyway.
He looks sideways, half in the umbrella shade, half in the sun, squinting. A wave breaks. The spray cools. White foam rolls toward his blankets, but recedes back to the fathers and sons in the green water, where inner tubes shimmy and spin and divers disappear for an instant and resurface.
"I'm renewed," he says. "All my stress and worry drained away by the sea."
He knows what he doesn't say. The day seldom tricks the night. The moon comes with the tides. But not yet, please.
Noha El-Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.