Gouna: first impressions

el gouna map

Gouna map

 

I have been in Gouna five days.

 

I was last here four years ago, but my stay was too brief, then, to be of much relevance now.

 

One difference I’ve noticed, though, is that the psychedelic Magic Bus, which took you around for free around far-flung Gouna, has now gone the way of the hippies.

 

That aside, and without further ado, here are my first impressions of Gouna 2017.

 

  1. The weather

 

The first thing you have to grasp about Gouna is that it is boiling hot here this time of year.  I cannot imagine living here during the summer months.

 

The heat will probably last until mid-November, at which point it will no doubt does become pleasant to walk about or play tennis or go for a “quad” ride out to the desert.

 

But I would say that if you are of a certain age, or overweight, that you have to be careful about heat stroke and dehydration, if you plan to be outside before 6PM.

 

Wear loose clothing, and a hat.  Any notion of walking for more than 15 minutes in the midday sun should be reserved for mad dogs and Englishmen.

 

And of course the usual precautions must be taken on the beach or hotel pool; sunbathe in the shade under an umbrella, slather yourself with SPF 50 cream, and drink plenty of (non-alcoholic) fluids.

 

After being out in the sun, make sure to use to skin restoration creme when you go back inside.  The one I am using currently is Vichy after-sun milk lotion.  Failure to heed this advice will turn your skin into wrinkled parchment paper, so just do it.

 

35 degrees (celsius) has been the average daytime temp so far, it drops to around 25ish, late in the evening .

 

So mid September in Gouna is a scorcher; make no mistake about that. I am keeping the AC in my rental flat blasting at 17 degrees whenever I am inside. This is quite restorative, as few public places you go to in Gouna will have AC.  Yes, I’m watching a lot of vintage B&W Egyptian movies.

 

If you are heat intolerant, as I am, you have to immediately get inside, drink cool water, and sit or lie down at the first sign of a dizzy spell or excessive perspiration, and by this I mean water coming out of your pores in buckets.  

 

This is your body telling you it is unable to compensate for the dry desert heat.  Heed it. Plastic water bottles are your new friend. Do not go anywhere without one handy. Forget about the leaching plastic.  Without them, you will not survive here.  

 

I am drinking a minimum of four 1.5 liters bottles of Neste’s Pure Life a day.  They cost 4 LE each; or less than 25 cents a bottle, at the local Best Way supermarket.  That’s pretty cheap, which cannot be said for buying something like a small bottle of shampoo, which comes out to nearly 8 dollars American.

 

  1. The layout

 

Gouna is far-flung if you do not have a car.

 

In season, if you are in reasonable shape, you can rent a bicycle to get around; the terrain is fairly flat and monotone in color; and the mild winter sun will not fry your brains under your safety helmet or turn the skin on your face into pizza.

 

Otherwise, toc-tocs — which are affectionately called “Tuxis” here — are the cheapest, most convenient method of transportation.

 

A tuxi ride only costs 15 L.E. (which is less than a US dollar) for a single person to get around anywhere in Gouna (25 L.E. for two people).

 

For those unfamiliar with these Asian-inspired contraptions, toc-tocs are motorized bikes outfitted with a passenger riding carriage.

 

They are doorless.

 

You just hop in behind the driver — or try to squeeze in your fat, unsupple tourist frame on a narrow seat with a short space for your feet — and hang on with both hands, clutching the horizontal metal bar behind him until you get to your destination.

 

Toc-toc drivers are generally young guys, invariably polite, and not too talky,

 

They do not quiz you about where you are from, or subject you to some tedious lecture about the state of the world, as do many Cairene drivers, especially those who give rides to Thomas Friedman.

 

Nor do Gouna tuxis stop to pick up random passengers along the way, which is a particularly charming feature of Cairo’s old school taxis, but not the new white ones.

 

Speaking very generally, Gouna is divided into 4 main sections.  I’m not sure how long it is — my guess would be 10 miles; the town is fairly narrow, and hugs the Red Sea coastline above Hurghada.

 

The southern end of Gouna are the Golf and Villa areas.  This is the ritzy section of Gouna, and it’s generally quieter there.

 

The middle right area in Gouna is called Downtown.  This is where you will find many convenient shops and restaurants, including my fave, Zomba’s, where I can chow down on low-priced, authentic, delicious Egyptian food!  (Although not having eish baladi, that is to say classic whole wheat bread, for your foul medames sand-a-witch is a culinary crime; the waiter could have popped over the supermarket next door to get some.)

 

You will not be hassled when walking around Dowtown, as you might be in Sharm’s “Old Market,” or along the promenade in Dahab, or even in nearby Hurghada — although I’ve heard that the Arts and Crafts store area has been known to engage in standard Egyptian style hard-sell khartagi tactics. I will have to go by there to see if this is indeed true. Otherwise, Gouna leaves you alone — a rare treat for a tourist coming to Egypt, who would normally be subjected to much annoying harassment.

 

Continuing northward, the third main area of Gouna is where the marinas are:  Abu Tig, and the New Marina.

 

They are both quite touristy, with the New Marina being slightly more downscale.  It is there that you can enjoy karaoke singing quite late in the evening.

 

The other night for example, I think around midnight it was, I heard an obviously inebriated  English woman belting out an off-key version of Paul McCartney’s Those were the Days.

 

The sound of her awful voice drifted across the water all the way from the New Marina, where this karaoke bar is, to the flat where I’m staying at Abu Tig, and I thought, as the song goes, it would never end.

 

Except for all the Germans ensconced in the Three Corners hotel at the mouth of Abu Tig marina, where topless sunbathing is not unknown, About Tig’s plaza area has a more low-key, upscale local feel, and you see many wealthy, conservative Egyptians families sitting down to have interminable dinners (these affairs can and often do last hours), at the many restaurants there that cater to this more traditional sort of clientele.

 

Do not be surprised if you stroll there late at night, and I am talking 2am, and find lots of young Egyptian kids running around the water’s edge of the marina, as their fathers and hijab-ed mothers (not that there is anything wrong with that garment!) ignore them. Aadi, as they say in Egypt:  it’s normal.

 

Which brings us to Ali’s Gouna Rule #1.  

 

This is Egypt.

 

Do not expect social customs to be the same as where you’re from.

 

Just go with the flow, and it’ll all be cool.

 

The fourth and last main section of Gouna is the younger, wild north end.  

 

While there is plenty of planned new development going on there, it is still the place to go to experience a groovy Red Sea beach, without having to pay 100 L.E. for the privilege, as is the case in the New Marina beach.

 

It is in fact called Mangroovy beach, which make me wonder, somewhat wistfully, if there were a lot of mangroves here once. Probably not, as mangroves in Florida, for example, typically grow on the intercostal waterway, which is a mix of fresh and ocean water.

 

You can walk or take a bus or tok-tok to Mangroovy and watch kite-surfers from all around the world take the sort of risks that I, for one, am too chicken, not mention old, to attempt.

 

The feeling of floating in the sky above Gouna must indeed be exhilarating, until of course you hit an air pocket and break your neck as you plummet to the hard shoreline below, or realize for the first time, perhaps while half-way to Saudi Arabia, that you forgot to ask the instructor how to turn your kite around to get back, against the prevailing North-South winds, to your launching point.

 

  1. The people

 

There are about 20 thousand residents in Gouna.  

 

The overall vibe here is decidedly, if not determinedly upbeat and relaxed, except when the motorcycle posses pull in and park in front of Rush, which is about two minutes away from my flat.  I knew a place called Rush in Dahab; I wonder if it’s the same owner. The motor cycle dudes I saw today have pretty much the same macho Village People profile, though maybe as tad younger, that you often find in FLA.

I wonder if they even realized how ridiculous they looked. 

 

At any rate, there is usually something going on,

 

In fact, Gouna is almost relentless in promoting music and film festivals, sports events, etc., year round.

And since Gouna is quite beautiful geographically, with a shoreline that features aquarelle water and low desert mountains looming in the distance, it’s not hard to understand why people like to come here, whether as tourists, or to become full-fledged “Gounies.”

 

Speaking very generally, this is who you will see:  tourists, residents, short and long-term renters, and local workers (both Egyptian and foreign), plus a few important looking people who probably run the place. (I will leave the discussion as to who actually owns Gouna to another time.)

 

Tourists seem to be mostly German, Russian, some Italians, Egyptians, and a few Brits.  I’ve yet to come across a single American during my stay.

 

The conversation by the Brits will typically revolve on how they are getting ripped off constantly by all these shady Egyptians.

 

They will bitterly complain, say, about having to pay 1,000 LE to see Hatchepsut’s temple while in Luxor; how their hotel ran out of beer, even though they had bought an all-expenses-paid trip; or how they could only get a room with two single beds, even though their hotel had been advised they were on honeymoon.

 

Whether Inglizis or not, tourists are the financial lifeblood of Gouna, while simultaneously being the most socially inconsequential of the types of people you will find here.

 

Let’s call this Ali’s Gouna Rule #2.

 

Here today; gone tomorrow.

 

There are, of course, wrinkles to this rule.

 

For example, a non-Egyptian resident who owns a villa and an apartment and rents out his villa for extended stays mentioned to me the other night, as I was taking in the night scene at the New Marina, that noise can be a real problem in Gouna, particularly if the people you’ve rented to happen to be from Cairo, and so were able to transport their own mega sound system with them, and play Amr Diab songs till all hours of the night.

 

In fact, this man continued, the most common type of police calls are from neighbors complaining about such rude buddha behavior.

 

Except in West Golf, of course — land of the elegant standalone villas surrounded by gardens and with views of the artificial, shallow canals leading to the sea — which is why Gouna is sometimes called Egypt’s Venice.

 

So are problems in Gouna always so milquetoastish?

 

Is this really Paradise?

 

Or do the children of, say, the rich and influential, sometimes get away with incredibly shocking things?

 

Allahu a’lam; God only knows.

 

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