My last week in El Gouna, (I think of weeks running Mon-Sun; here the calendars are Fri-Thurs) it has been a busy, productive and enjoyable time.
My writing has really flowed – on the ‘home straight’ of my novel’s second draft, I found a new burst of inspiration and fresh ideas emerged, directly as a result of my experience in El Gouna. The combination of the heat, the howling wind, dust-storms and a full moon all contributed to an intensely elemental and emotional week: perfect for my book!
On Monday had an excellent night at the Smugglers – bumping into Emad and his gregarious friend from Cairo, the excellent Mr Asser, who was attending a course on hotel management at Steigenberger along with a bunch of other Egyptian hoteliers. He was an old school pal of Pierre, whom I had met earlier in the Spa, having a good chat about books. Kerry, a blonde bombshell from Yorkshire was behind the bar (the Smugglers has the loveliest barmaids in El Gouna – or even the only ones, as I’ve seen no other female waitresses/bar staff). There was a guy from London there; Bill; and a knowledgable Turkish chap called Ahmed, who I got onto the subject of Tuareg when the subject of my book came up. It was good to have a ‘right old chinwag’ and ‘set the world to rights’ in such a fine establishment – my favourite haunt in Gounie-town. Although its ostensibly a British bar, it is not only frequented by Brits, ex-pat or otherwise. It was an international mix – like a microcosm of El Gouna’s egalitarian blend – and because its so small, you are kind of forced to talk and conversations are often group discussions. I wish I had a pub like the Smugglers back home – where you feel you could talk to anyone without being considered some kind of nutter. It’s like being in an episode of ‘Cheers’ – the regulars have their place at the bar, all distinctive characters whose quirks are not only tolerated but appreciated.
Tuesday night began my Dine Around tour of the week at the Sheraton. Wednesday it was the Movenpick, with its lovely courtyard area, and Thursday, Sultan Bey – which I grabbed something at before going along the beach to the Club House, where the divers meet up. As I looked at the bonfire, where folk roasted kebabs and kids burnt marshmallows, I got chatting with a German lady – there was a party there celebrating a birthday (someone’s son) and I was handed a beer and offered food (once again, I was touched by the innate friendliness of Gounies international community). I caught up with Georgina, Dave and Sue and other members of the Tropical Gangsters, over a couple of beers, before getting a tuk tuk to Moods – where I was told it was ‘the place to be’ on Thursday. In a lovely location at the end of one end of Abu Tig marina, it was a bit subdued when I arrived – the dance floor was empty – but I discovered this was still early (10.30ish) and things didn’t warm up for a while yet. I was considering leaving when Asser turned up with his hoteliers – all in swanky suits looking like the cast of Reservoir Dogs or a gangster flick. Emad appeared as well – and suddenly the party was back on. By now folk were dancing and I had a little bop before walking along the beach to greet the full moon and savour the sea at night.
Friday was the big day – the final reading at the library. We met the panel at last at a lovely brunch in a billionaire’s villa, hosted by the lovely ‘Midge’. The hospitality was splendid – I discovered it is an Egyptian tradition to offer your guests the very best; host/esses pull out the stops when they have guests round to eat. We had lots of photo opportunities by the pool.
Then we were taken via the embassy back to the hotel, where I crashed for all too brief while before having to get ready for the evening event where the 5 Writers-in-Residence gave readings from their work. There was a good audience and the event seemed to be a success, going by the responses afterwards. It was great hearing all the different kinds of work – seeing the fruits of the residency. Everybody shone. We thanked Orascom, the Panel and various members of staff with a statement of gratitude read out by Elmaz. Tears flowed, perhaps not surprisingly – the event was the culmination of alot of hard work and good will.
With relief I went back to flop – before ‘resurrecting’ myself a couple of hours later to go to Papas to rock out with the Misfitz. The letting down of hair was essential – the culmination of a month’s work. I had a great night with my new mates (all thanks to Georgina’s gaze) – moshing along with the crowd.
When I made it back it was about 2am – and I fancied a moonlight dip, so I stripped off and jumped in the lagoon, swimming in the delicious silver-lined waves. Security guards called me back, but I ignored them.
The following day I made sure I took it easy. Bunking off from a brunch invite to try out some snorkelling – I was dying to swim in the sea properly after a month in the lagoon. I made my way to Zeytouna Island, which wasn’t easy – and after negotiating my entrance, I grabbed some flippers, mask and snorkel and headed along the fabulous wooden jetty, my feet making a regular beat like a 460m glockenspeil. I togged up and went in – and experienced a taste of the Red Sea’s ‘buried treasure’ – the spectacular coral. Even along the ridge it was still vibrant in places – bright orange and pink, with swarms of psychedelic fish just below me. Wonderful. Yet it was clearly dying in places. I had heard from both the Northampton divers, who had been coming for six years, and from Pierre, who is a coral/fish enthusiast that both the species and the habitat are in decline – taking a battering from the tourism. It is such a delicate ecosystem and needs protecting – and yet the tourism is essential for the local economy. Humans and the natural world both need to survive.
And after a hard week I really savoured being out there, at the end of the jetty – sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time.
Stopped off at Samy’s beach shop for a karkade – I had talked to him on my arrival on the tiny island and he had invited me in for one on the way back – a local beverage ideal for offsetting the effects of all that seawater inhalation! I bought a packet. I might need some tomorrow as I booked a full day out on Dive Trek.
Afterwards, took a river taxi Downtown and stocked up on some goodies. I liked Joseph at Ambiente, his no hassle policy – and the way everything priced (an exception in El Gouna – even the supermarket doesn’t price anything). Made by his family. He had a neat tattoo on his wrist, showing he was a Coptic Christian (as apparently are alot of El Gouna staff – although it is a supremely tolerant place and I saw a couple of staff today clearly doing their prayers discreetly, which was good to see. Wanting some Pharaonic bling, I visited a jewellery shop – where another great salesman, ‘Michael’, gave me an ‘offer I couldn’t refuse’! He was charismatic and confident and didn’t make it seem like life or death that you had to buy something from his shop. He clearly was pleased with his final sale of the day – apparently it brings the shopkeeper luck to end with a good one. No rocket science, but charming. M explained how the ankh meant not only the ‘key of life’ but also the key of the Nile, to see it in the glittering waters was a good sign, and as I sat by the lagoon, sipping a Sakara, I think I caught a glimpse.
Feeling a bit ‘crispy duck’ after my day in the sun (without suntan lotion, which I thought I had packed…) I went to the spa afterwards for some much needed cooling off. As I walked through the Dali-esque golf course I savoured the lovely early evening light – visually, my favourite time of day in El Gouna. It really brings the colours out. I thought how beautiful it is here. Bumped into my spa buddy Pierre. Worshipped in the ‘temple of the naiads’. As I left I watched the fading light over the lagoon, a nimbus of gold over the deepening blues. What a place to live, work and rest!
Viva El Gouna!