17 days left before I leave El Gouna, Egypt.
Today there was no wind in Gouna in the morning, but it picked up quite a bit, later in the day, creating a sandstorm and turbulent seas, and the wooden front door rattled all night.
The villa I’m renting till April 14th is on a “lagoon” (this is the name they have given to the many artificial coves and shallow canals that have been dug, unlike the nearby Suez Canal, by heavy machinery into the shoreline) that is the first one adjacent to Abu Tig marina, heading south.
The houses opposite me block the dreaded nightclub noise from Abu Tig, so the nights have been relatively quiet. But I went there yesterday to buy some provisions, and the place seemed to be undergoing massive demolition/renovation work.
There is daily construction noise here, as was the case when I spent three months in the West Golf section of El Gouna.
What you should realize before deciding to live here for any length of time is that El Gouna is one big construction/renovation site. Now you know, so don’t whine about it after arriving to do the expat thing; after all, Egypt has recently been named one of the most affordable places to retire.
One of my next door neighbors owns one of the hotels here.
She also owns the dock and boat that at first I thought belonged to the owner of this villa. Yesterday a large contingent of guests (they appeared to be family members judging from all the hugs) arrived, and they went on a boat ride. Today at 7am they went swimming in her pool, and then the inevitable gardeners showed up here.
I had planned to swim in the “lagoon” sometime during the day; it was smooth as glass at dawn, and the water warm. But it would have been with the knowledge that others would be watching. More on that in a moment.
The guy who takes care of the speed boat for the “Madame” next door — his words, not mine — spent much of the morning fiddling with the boat, which is docked right in front of the villa I am renting, then at noon all of Madame’s guest showed up again and went on the boat for a joy ride; and then in the early evening, there was much loud frolicking by the pool.
So much for my plans to swim in the lagoon.
Let’s take a step back.
There is little privacy in Gouna, essentially; if you come to stay here in a rented villa, prepare yourself for the intrusiveness of the many workers who will constantly be in and around and your rented property — including the gardener, the pool guy, the garbage guy, the guy who sweeps outside, and the crew that comes to trim the plants and hedges.
Moreover, be prepared that everything you do will be observed by someone: your neighbors, the security guards, the bus drivers, the tuc-tuc desperadoes (who drive around constantly looking for prey), and of course all the waiters and shop keepers.
Also be prepared to deal with the fact that most of the locals (as well as most Egyptians whom you may end up sitting next to at places like 7th Star) will have a cell phone stuck to their ears at all times. And more often than not, they will be smoking a cheap brand of cigarettes, such as Target.
This may not seem like a big deal, until you are trapped in a tuc-tuc with a twenty year old guy (there are no women commercial tuc tuc drivers in El Gouna) careening dangerously down the road, while talking on his phone and sucking on a fag that he positions someplace by the steering wheel in lieu of an ashtray.
You should also know that there are CCTV cameras in many of the fancier and not-so-fancy bars, restaurants and hotels. Then again, this will not be anything unusual for someone from London or NYC.
The sense of being watched by people talking in Arabic on their cell phones while looking to make a quick buck off you can be disconcerting, but at least it will not be as annoying as in the rest of Egypt, where both adults and children will often openly gape at you then blurt out the grating and ubiquitous HAL-LO thing they love to say in Egypt to foreigners; in Gouna, tourists are rarely hassled this way, and tuc tuc drivers can and do have their work permits revoked by security if you complain of harassment.
You should also be aware that the Internet here is not quite a free and open information highway, so keep that in mind when you use WIFI someplace to text anyone on your smartphone: the lovely things you just did and when you’re coming home and the state of your sunburn should be the extent of it, and avoid commenting on anything more sensitive than that.
Gouna is in effect a large gated community, with heavy security at the entrances; but much of this security is for show, if you appear to be a foreigner or have a foreign passport.
They are looking to screen the young guy from Cairo or Upper Egypt who seems like trouble. Unless they are coming on a car or bus from Cairo (which will have to pass multiple checkpoint on the highway leading to Gouna) and can convince the authorities that they own or are renting a villa or flat here, most Egyptians, especially young Egyptian men, cannot enter the place without a work or residence permit.
In other words, not just anyone can walk into town.
If the sense of surveillance bothers you, that is the price you will pay for coming to a very safe vacation place in winter at rates that blow away the competition. It is exceedingly cheap to come here for a long weekend or week from the UK or Germany; not so, alas, from the US, where there are no charter packages to El Gouna, mainly because Americans have stopped coming to Egypt.
It is pleasant to sit inside a villa with large glass living room doors leading out to the back porch (even if the carpentry is shit, and you have to go out the front door to get to the back “terrace”) and dining room windows like this one (the constant pestering flies make it unbearable to chill outside for any length of time, unless the wind is blowing strong), gaze at a Gouna “lagoon,” maybe read a book, and watch International CNN for a bit or a La Liga game — just make sure the villa already has a working WIFI wireless router (which they call here “access point”), and a fiber connected TV feed from Orange to an HD television, as standard Gouna TV on a non HD TV is unwatchable in terms of picture quality, as well as limited in the number of premium channels available.
You will not get the sense of natural beauty that the Mediterranean offers in say, the few less overbuilt areas that remain in the South of France, or Italy, or Spain, or, for that matter, cosmopolitan Alexandria before it was destroyed, but what you will get is what I would call a discount Riviera or Costa del Sol or Algarve experience.
In short, El Gouna is the go-to place for nabbing an affordable place by the sea and gazing at scorpion-infested mountains in the distance, and the crowds are nothing like Nice, Barcelona, or Albufeira in summer.
But who actually owns these places that you will be renting?
There are many Egyptians who have property in Gouna, of course, but also a lot of foreign villa “owners” (that is the term they use here, instead of homeowners). The latter tends to be a mix of foreigners who speculate in real estate, either as flippers, or those seeking long term rental income from properties they rent out much of the year.
There’s a contingent of owners who bought ten years ago (or more) big villas for, say, 70 thousand sterling that are (for now, as there is much volatility in this sector) worth anywhere from 200 to half a million quid. Gouna has been around for a few decades now, and it is expanding — a lot.
As is true the world over, rental prices get jacked up during high season.
This is coming up, as April is the month with the pleasantest weather in Gouna, and there are many activities that take place around this time, such as the perhaps overly sweaty International Squash Open and other organized events.
In the winter months, which can be exceedingly chilly at night, Gouna attracts package tour types (except for the short stay weekenders who will come for Christmas and New Year’s), who tend to be older Europeans — the locals refer to Gouna during this period as Dar El Mosenin, or the house of the aged.
But now that the weather is warming up, the crowds are getting noticeably younger, with large Egyptian families with gaggles of children who often run around unattended in the marina and downtown areas.
During this period lots of people from Cairo come to Gouna for Easter (celebrated by Copts) and Sham el Nesseem (which is celebrated by everyone).
Unsurprisingly, many villa owners will try to rook with exorbitant rates the unsuspecting tourist couple looking to escape, say, the lingering Manchester winters for a long weekend or an extended stay.
There are unadvertised networks for renting out villas at more reasonable prices. You just have to find them, which is tough to do unless you are already in Gouna itself, or have contacts that can hook you up.
This is why savvier travelers usually opt for the all-inclusive hotel-transport-meals charters from Europe, although some complain of problems with some of the hotels when they arrive. TripAdvisor is your friend, so do your research.
Apart from that, just don’t expect miles of sugar white, powdery sand: that is simply is not available here (but can be found further south, in places like Marsa Alam). The sand in Gouna tends to be coarse, reddish in parts, beige in others, a somewhat unattractive mixture of clay and detrital material supplied by the mountain wadis and the nearly constant trade winds that blow in from the North and the Eastern Desert.
As a tourist, you will most likely be unaware of many things taking place locally and nationally that may not be your cup of tea, but why should you care?
You are here for a few days or weeks of fun in the sun, and you might golf, or maybe catch some scuba or snorkeling action, maybe gawk at all the millionaire’s yachts in the marina complex, maybe enjoy some ersatz tea-with-the-Bedouins experience in the mountains, do some kite surfing, go horseback riding, and perhaps even take a guided ATV ride in the nearby desert.
And at night, if that’s your thing, you can go to a dance club or dine at an Italian restaurant that serves unrecognizable (and largely inedible) dishes or even semi drunkenly warble your heart out to some 70s or 80s hit in Abu Tig marina at 1AM on a Sunday, before you return, bleary-eyed, to what constitutes your reality the next day back home.
What’s not to love?