El Gouna by the sea was created by a billionaire to make more money. His daddy became a billionaire under the regime of now-deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak and his two brothers are also billionaires, so you can understand why he’d feel under pressure to keep raking it in. This purpose-built resort is less than 25 years old and, from what I can tell, has been manufactured with low-costs and little love. The five-star hotels can only be regarded as such when compared to other parts of the resort – internationally they wouldn’t get a rating anywhere near that.
Every part of El Gouna is owned by the Orascom Group – the restaurants, the beaches, the hotels. Sure, they may have big, recognisable branding on the outside (Movenpick, Sheraton) but like the banks in Dubai, those are merely façades. No, in El Gouna everything essentially belongs to one man – it’s all microscopic parts in his catastrophic plan, designed and directed by his red right hand.
At least it doesn’t suffer the indignity of pretending to have any history. It’s a resort for people who prefer to travel without thinking too much. It’s also popular with retirees who want to live out their days in the year-round sunshine, drinking too much and crying to strangers in bars that they’d like to have had all this in their home country, but it just wasn’t possible. I imagine the wrong parts of Spain are just like El Gouna.
I hope there never comes a day when I find this kind of place an acceptable holidaying/dying location, but it seems fine for a group press trip. Without any history, culture or interesting architecture, it makes the focus of the piece fairly simple: kitesurfing.
Presumably created by a maniac who wasn’t satisfied by surfing, kiting or wakeboarding, it’s a combination of all three which, when done properly, looks pretty fucking cool. That coolness, added to its supreme difficulty, has convinced the Olympic committee to install at it as a new sport for Rio 2016, which will be like London 2012, only less jingoistic and more violent.
They say it takes 10,000 hours of practise to achieve expertise in a sport or a pastime, so unless I spend nine hours a day between now and Rio, it’s safe to say I won’t be competing. Unsurprisingly for someone with a larger-than-average head and smaller-than-average feet, I’m quite unbalanced for most of the three days I spend being pulled hither and yon by the unruly kites. Towards the end of the final session I do, technically, manage to stand up, but it’s a fleeting, graceless moment that ends with a heavy crash.
In between these humiliation sessions, our group is led from one restaurant to another, all of which seem to have more or less the same menu. Again, though, if you’re not too fussy, the food here is OK – it’s not fine dining, and it doesn’t pretend to be, nor is it total slop. It’s middle of the road, safe and salty. Our wee group gets on well, too, and no one gets sick from Egypt’s notoriously poisonous water. In other words, from our point of view, it could all be much worse – especially when compared with the nightmare start we all endured.
The night before we fly back to the UK, I realise I’ve not done any of the interviews I meant to. Unfortunately, by this stage in the game, the only chance to catch up is in a beach bar, at 10pm, half drunk, shouting over the top of the brontosaurean bass coming from the DJ booth.This is where the kite-surfing community comes to have real fun, away from the phony unreality of the rest of the resort. We’ve been invited along with a couple of people from the kite-station that hosted us. I’d like to think it’s because we made some kind of connection over the past three days, but I accept it’s most likely due to our group comprising largely of 20-something girls.
I apologise to Huey and Dewie, two local Egyptian kitesurfers, for having to pull them away from the action for the interview. “I should have done it at the beach – I’m sorry,” I say.
“No man, it’s fine, but I’m really drunk and stoned just now, so please go easy on me,” says Huey.
I say I will and together with Dewie, we slink off, as far away from the speakers as we can get.
Huey and Dewie have been in El Gouna for seven years. Huey has been kitesurfing for most of that; Dewie only for the last two. Huey actually taught Dewie. “Dewie was a good student,” says Huey. “He learned very fast.”
We shoot the shit about kitesurfing for a while. Unsurprisingly, with equipment costing as much as £5000, it’s not popular with Egyptians, though once in a while they’ll get one of their countrymen down here on holiday. For Huey and Dewie, it’s a fun way to make money – much more so than the poor bastards who live on a glorified labour camp on the edge of town. Most of those desperados have come from poor parts of Cairo to sweat it out, adding to the fakery of El Gouna. By comparison Huey and Dewie are paid to frolic in the surf and flirt with European girls.
I point out that I find El Gouna a strange place.
“Yeah, it’s like a fake life,” says Huey. “Lots of people say that.”
“Hurghada [home of the airport] and El Gouna are not in Egypt,” says Dewie, more forcibly. “During the revolution, the guys down in Hurghada were standing at the airport complaining, fighting for new flats. People were dying in Tahrir Square; those guys were fighting for new flats and shops.” He shakes his head in disgust.
For his part, Dewie was in Cairo. He was recovering from knee surgery and, as he put it, “running around Tahrir Square with my crutches in the air.”
I wrap up the interview and head to the bar, where I bump into Louie. Originally from Cairo, he’s also been down here for the best part of seven years. He learned kitesurfing the hard way: shattering ankles, breaking ribs in the deep water, nearly drowning… All that pain taught him to be better – he’s now the best in the country and will almost certainly be going to Rio. He is small, bald and powerful looking – there isn’t a bit of excess weight on him. Perhaps that’s partly down to the amount he smokes. I ask if he’ll give that up in time for the Games.
“Yeah, I think so,” he says. “Besides, I only really do it when I’m drinking.”
I ask if he’ll give up the drinking in that case. Louie looks at me and smiles.
As someone from Cairo, I assume he was back home for Mubarak’s demise. “Well, it was complicated man,” he says, and initially I think he was understandably too afraid to get involved. “We were down here and we watched and watched and first we thought ‘Oh it’s just another protest’ – there had been many before. But then it kept going and we thought, ‘OK it’s getting serious’ so we packed our bags and went to leave.”
(I imagine the kite-surfing community radicalising; putting down the board and taking up the sword…)
“But then they closed El Gouna. Turned off the internet, turned off the satellites. We didn’t know what was going on. They closed the gates [El Gouna is essentially one enormous gated community] and stopped the busses. The tourists were diverted straight to the airport in Hurghada. So we were…” Stranded? “Exactly.” Dewie was only able to get involved because he was already in the north, convalescing after his knee injury.
“You should have taken the kite and surfed up there,” I say lamely. He smiles and I smile, and I suspect we both wish it had been as simple and jolly as all that.
|From the Guardian|