Four months from now, I’m leaving America to venture on an extended, two-country trip. I’ll be going to my beloved Mediterranean for the first half of September, then on to the so-called Red Sea Riviera, where everybody who is anybody, according the Gouna Magazine, is “infamous.”
I’ve been debating whether I should bring, my Santa Cruz Model D. This particular guitar, which was hand-built by a luthier, was the 1404th of its kind sold. I bought it 16 years ago, in New York City, for around 2,000 dollars.
I had a lot more money then, and could afford to splurge on non necessities. Today I am actually poor; in fact, I have been living far below the American poverty line for about 7 years, but that shall be the subject of another post, or, as is most likely, a series.
Despite its absurd (in retrospective) cost, the guitar was not ready to take out of the store on an “as is” basis. The headstock needed some “minor” (I was told) cosmetic repair work; they shipped it some weeks later to my house down South.
When the guitar arrived, I noticed right away that it was extremely hard to get the G to tune properly, and make it stay in tune. Also, notes would sound way off once you started playing anything around the 12th fret.
I tried everything. Different gauge strings, open tuning, you name it: this guitar never quite sounded right, and I began to wonder if I had gone tone-deaf.
Over the years, I’ve thought about sending it to the manufacturer for a fix, and was even scheduled to do so last year. But I never followed through, which has been a pattern throughout my life.
So the question now is, should I bring it to Gouna with me this year?
Let me backtrack for a second.
Just before 9-11, after I lost my job, I got a major case of the effits (this, too, shall be the subject of future posts that few are likely to read).
It wasn’t anything I’d admit to myself, let alone to anyone else, at least then, but I had had enough and was, at age 49, nauseated by my circumstances and resolved to go on an open-ended Leaving-Las -Vegas-style Mediterranean/Red Sea junket (I know: it’s another one of my life’s repetitive patterns).
This ended up lasting over a decade (by which time I ran out of ze money and almost died in Times Square: yes, this, too, will probably be the subject of another series of future posts), and took me to the South of France, the deserts of Tunisia, New York City, Washington DC, upstate New York, and Egypt, where I briefly stayed in Cairo, before visiting and revisiting several times, for one or two-month stays, the Sinai hippie town of Dahab, on the Gulf of Aqaba, as in Lawrence of Arabia.
I loved Dahab, then.
For it was still not built up at all, which is no longer the case, despite the severe shortage of fresh water. I spoke broken Arabic, which was a big advantage. I was no longer handsome, but did not yet look like an old man, as I do today. Traveling alone to a place that oozed “primitive” charm (no golf courses, no squash tornaments, no tennis courts: just kick-ass diving, incredibly fresh fish at unassuming seaside restaurants, where you sat on pillows on ornate carpets and ate at low-to-the-ground tables by dim light; not to mention the many inexpensieve bars, sometimes staffed with attractive young foreign women as bartenders) was my idea of being free, even though I always ended up returning to so-called civilization.
You could stay in a luxuriously fancy hotel room for 10 or 20 dollars a night (or rent a “bedouin style” hut for a few pounds but no amenities) hang out and chill with a Turkish coffee and a plate of foul medamis by the sea for breakfast, then go off on some potentially dangerous Blue Hole adventure, return dog-tired in the afternoon, take a refreshing nap, and end up spending much of the night drinking and dancing at Rush, and from time to time, enjoying, if you’ll pardon the pun, divers “smokeabilities” with fellow travellers passing through, even though cops would come in now and then and haul away locals who crossed some invisible line that did not apply to siyah.
Rush was definitely the coolest bar in Dahab, at the time; though I never met the owner, he apparently was having some of the same problems as I, but in a different way. Last I heard he moved to Nuweiba, and put up Rush for sale.
But this was later.
During its heyday, I would often run into some random group of backpackers (usually in their 20s, traveling solo, or in pairs or small groups: I was always the older, odd man out man in Dahab, but somehow fit in naturally in a way that I no longer did in Manhattan) from whom I would borrow some knicked up, painted with love and peace signs, hippie-style guitar.
There was nothing like playing your heart out on an acoustic guitar on a windy night on the verandah of the After 8, which was a raunchy dive bar run by two Egyptians, one young, the other older, who only charged 8 LE for a cold Stella.
It was situated on the main path along the sea, steps away from the tiny police station.
I would end up there usually at 3am, when the bartenders from Rush would also come by with their admiring entourage, and get themselves good and toasted, and everyone would sit on flimsy straw mats thrown on the sand, a few feet from the darkly swirling sea, protected only by a low wall made of reef and rock and mortar, under the brilliant stars that covered the ink-black desert sky.
Most of the people there would just sit back and let the scene wash over their minds and bodies, as we smoked reefer in shisha pipes, drinking beer that the two guys from the After 8 would bring over, and smiled as bedu young men tried to hit on the foreign girls who were occasionally open-minded as to a temporary dalliance with some particularly good-looking and self-confident Arabian prince, at least until the rim of the sun slowly broke above the pink and mauve low hills of Saudi Arabia in the distance across the water facing directly east.
[This should give you an idea why I became seriously in love with the sunrise in Dahab.]
That is my Dahab, the one place I was happiest since leaving Manhattan in 2001. And I would go to it again in a flash — if I were 15 years younger, and there wasn’t so much lakhbata lurking in the mountains further North. I have grown older. I worry about things now that I never once thought twice about.
I last went in 2013, and Dahab had become a ghost town. I recognized two odd, foreign women who spoke English, whom I had befriended a decade earlier, and invited one night to have pizza with me in town.
Although they had wolfed the free pizza down rather hungrily, and had lingered with me for a long and bizarre conversation, now I saw that neither one of them recognized me. I had just had my thyroid operation, and looked different now: much fatter, with much hair loss from the thyroid drugs that had been prescribed to me. The women seemed even more wrapped up in their own worlds, and sadder, but still managing to survive in what is a former Tarabin camp, on land the Bedouin are not allowed to own.
After weathering multiple terrorist attacks and failed distant revolutions and dangerous flash floods that came and submerged the memory of the sun-dried blood in the middle of town, what shall become of you?
I don’t know if I’ll ever visit it again.
I think perhaps not, unless Gouna starts to bore me with moneyed superficiality; for I’m getting too old for the hellish 8 to 10 hour bus drive up from Cairo.
Yet I still long to take that 30-minute walk, upon arrival, from the isolated bus station, across sun-baked desert, to Mazbat, the center of town, while ignoring the inevitable bedouin boys in pick up trucks buzzing around like flies and offering to take me to my hotel for only 5 LE. And I long to once again have a cool Stella by the sea, sitting in my favorite spot, right by the fenced-off ruins of the old Nabataean port, and think about everything that might have been.
But I am getting older, and am having less patience with nostalgia, which is charming in the young, and less so in everyone else.
Last time I went to Dahab, some young man called me giddo, which means grandfather in Egyptian slang.
I glance at my guitar.
Will I bring it to Gouna?
Is having once played in a rock bank (before it became famous, I might add) in Cairo in the dreaded 60s a good enough reason?
What if it gets stolen? What about the hassle of lugging it around? What if I run out of songs to play? What about the fact that I can longer sing, due to my thyroidectomy 4 years ago? What if I cannot tune the damn thing? What if the instrumentals I play come across as old-fashioned, passé, faded, out of time.
I’ve watched on YouTube old guys like me do solo cover versions of once popular songs. They’re usually siting in some cheesy room, trying to connect at some level with people they shall never meet. Even the pros are pathetic, once they cross the threshold of creativity and devolve into nostalgia bands. Even the Stones, whom I once idolized — now a caricature of themselves in their prime. A guitar lesson with Andy Summers is not like watching The Police.
I do not wish to go to Gouna and become a retro caricature. The past is glass. I do not want to reunite what is left of my old band. I no longer wish to relive the past, although I once did.
There will be other pleasures to experience.
New things to do.
Perhaps venturing to Marsa Alam and parts even further down. Perhaps actually making an effort to know the year-round Gouna residents, and be myself, instead of withdrawing into my usual hermit shell and peering at strangers from behind a boozy facade at Smuggler’s.
But strumming my Santa Cruz along the marina shall not be one of them. To my chagrin, or perhaps relief, there’s already plenty of non-OAP guys in this sophisticated resort who can play guitar way better than I ever could. Dudes who can rip it like this:
So, yes; the guitar stays home. This way I can enjoy the comforts of remembering myself play way better than I ever did IRL, back in the day. Perhaps I can learn to listen better than I do, since I am long past the age where strumming a few tunes on some axe might cause a pretty woman to want to spend the night, or, to put it less crudely, want to get to know me better.
Besides, I’ve always felt that traveling light is usually the best way to go.
It’s the Dahab way.