Saturday 15 May
‘In a world turned to desert, we thirsted for comradeship’
Antoine de St Exupery
Things are looking up – after starting the day with a bad head (a hangover is not recommended when it’s 37 degrees). I moved rooms to the first floor – after my request was finally acted upon. So now I have a bit of elevation and a view – which feels nice after living downstairs in the ‘gloom’. I live in a basement flat at home, so when you come away, you want to experience something different, don’t you? I quickly packed (in pleasant anticipation of my final departure) and with the help of a member of staff, shifted my stuff upstairs – it felt good to have a change of scene after two weeks – symbolically marking the half way point of the residency. I didn’t leave my literal baggage behind – let’s hope I’ve left the other kind though!
After settling in I worked on my book – making slow but steady progress – and caught up with my blog. However much I grumble I have to count my blessings – and remind myself that I’m enjoying an £8000 ‘holiday’ – staying in a £250-a-night room, all meals laid on… Though there’s no such thing as a free lunch, it’s hardly hard work – even putting up with people … at the end of the day, it’s all material. The writer should always consider – how can I turn this into fiction?
After mid-afternoon, it was just about bearable in the heat, so I went to the lagoon beach again and enjoyed a swim, a read and a nap before heading off for a workout and a sauna. I’ve never been so healthy.
I love the ferry taxi that takes me over to the Wellness and Health Club. Today, my ferryman, one of the Steigenberger Egyptian staff, greeted me with ‘Hey, Mr Writer!’ It seems they know of me here. ‘…from Ingerland!’ As we crossed the lagoon I joked that one side – the health club – was ‘keep fit’, the other – the Fairways restaurant, was ‘keep fat’. One side, you put on weight; the other, you try to burn it off. Fatness/Fitness. I liked the balance of this – a diurnal symmetry, as clear cut as an Egyptian night and day. The sauna and spa is shaped like a recumbent sow offering its teat-like domes to guests to suckle from. The interior – soothing music, lapping waters, essential oils – is a kind of womb; a feminine, nurturing space where boundaries are softened and we go to be ‘reborn’ every day. Oh, for one on my doorstep back in Bath (that didn’t cost the Earth). The local civic Sports Centre – reeking of chlorine – doesn’t have quite the same ambience. I left feeling relaxed – if only we had our writers’ meetings in the sauna, I think it would break down alot of barriers. Mmm, Writers-in-Sauna…?
Savouring such casual luxuries, I wished my family, my friends could be enjoying them too. My sister and nephew would love it. It would be great to hang out in the steam room with the guys – a kind of Men’s Sweat Lodge. I thought of my friend Marko, who was having one of his legendary birthday parties tonight – I haven’t missed one for thirteen years. They’re always a merry occasion – with one helluva Irish session. I imagined sinking a cold pint of Guiness with him – here’s to you: have a good craic, my man!
After a late dinner – a fabulous Indian buffet – I jumped into a tuk tuk with 3 Belgians (I sat next to the driver in the front – I tried to imagine taking 5 on my old 125… yet it still managed to hurtle along dangerously, a metal mosquito bloated on European blood) and headed down to Abu Tig Marina, to have a bevvy in the Smugglers Inn, El Gouna’s British pub. Tucked away in the backstreets, it was a tiny place – but for once felt like the real thing, with traditional dark wood interior, beer towels, horse brasses, broken clock, etc. All that was missing was any real British beer – only the usual generic lagers were on offer (licensed premises are only allowed to sell Egyptian beer, wine and spirits). But it had the atmosphere of a quiet back street boozer – with a handful of ‘local characters’ propping up the bar. Georgina, the busty blonde from Guildford, was behind the bar, doing a good Bet Lynch impression ;0) There was lean tanned Bill in the corner – just arrived but a regular visitor to El Gouna, who loves the sun and wears shorts all the year round, even in an English winter; Dave and Sue, the London couple (the wife turned out to be a pagan); the token drunk in the corner – Hector, a Scotsman who drawled and slurred like Macbeth’s porter, (insisting I go to Abu Simbel); and an Egyptian-Armenian guy, (Pierre) who didn’t say a word, but seemed to enjoy the ambience. There was no TV blaring away, or even any music. It could have been bleak if not for the general boozy bonhomie; it was an almost Becket-like scenario – the actors waited on a minimalist stage for ‘something to happen’. A wind had whipped up and before long a dust-storm was blowing outside, making the painted wooden pub sign sway like something out of Treasure Island. I half expected Long John Silver to walk in – it was a classic ‘dark and stormy night…’ Well, we certainly shared a few tales – the usual collection of pub randomness (Morris Dancing; flushing toilets on ships; buying furniture from Ikea – I was even asked about my writing). We mostly avoided politics (although at one point somebody went all ‘UKIP’). I didn’t feel like having a confrontation – we were all getting along so well – so I bit my tongue. Sometimes it is better to find common ground – and after a couple of weeks of being a stranger in paradise, it was nice to relax with some of my fellow countrymen and women. Back home, I probably wouldn’t end up chatting with them (though they’re nice enough, ‘salt of the earth’ types – no pretensions) but there’s something about being abroad that makes you draw together with your own kind, however briefly – as a temporary respite from the alienation. Of course, one can find a connection with anyone – as I’ve tried to do with the various tuk tuk and taxi drivers, hotel staff and guides that have crossed my path so far. Our common humanity – uniting us all, whatever our nationality or ethnicity, belief system, education or level of wealth.