El Gouna, Egypt
I had heard of this place before. A distant cousin to the chaos that was Cairo, related but nothing alike. The photos I had seen were of clear, blue waters and golden light stretched out over wild, open spaces. It was only a five hour drive from our apartment in Maadi, and this time we wouldn’t need a driver. We had our own Jeep.
Four of us piled into the ’93 Cherokee and made our way through the constant hum that is Cairo. I watched as the outskirts of Maadi disappeared in the rear view mirror, until our only view was of open road and an endless, empty desert. Behind us, a population of 20 million. 20 million stories unfolding all at once.
Windows down, hair wild. I felt as though we had escaped our figurative urban cage and were speeding toward liberation. I could feel my happiness meter rise with every mile. Gone was the ever-present sound of honking horns and daily prayer. We were going to the sea. To the mountains.
To the desert. To the vast, wild emptiness. Golden light. Stars at night.
There is always a feeling of otherworldliness.
The lack of resources, the blinding heat… as if to say, yes, this place is beautiful, but you cannot stay. For five hours we drove along the lonely highway, at times hugging the turquoise shores of the Red Sea. We passed through road-side checkpoints and stopped at gas stations. We paid to use hidden bathrooms and cycled between tank tops and shawl-covered shoulders. Gouna appeared on the horizon just as the sun was beginning to set. It was a shining oasis nestled by the sea, a gated world hidden within the folds of miles and miles of nothingness.
There must have been 12 armed guards standing watch at the gate to El Gouna. We exchanged a few words in Arabic and they waived us through. Our weekend oasis looked even better in person. We stood in the foyer with our backpacks, scanning the high ceilings, white stone walls and floor to ceiling windows. The pool outside was all our own. Suddenly, we were torn between chasing adventure and lounging in our villa. That’s another thing about Egypt – prices are cheap. One US Dollar will buy you 18 Egyptian pounds. A 45 minute Uber will typically set you back $2. Worlds within worlds.
We spent the next morning lounging by the pool before piling into the jeep and exploring the coast. We noticed a crowd and somehow wandered into the front row of the kiteboarding world cup. No one told us to leave so we ordered Sakara Golds and shawarmas and cheered on finalists from the beach. That night, we decided to hire a private boat that would take us out to the Red Sea.
The day was just beginning as we made our way down to the dock. We were expecting a 5-person yacht or something smallish in size. Lines of people were queued, filing into various three-story ships. Save for one, which remained mysteriously empty. A boat built for 40+ people, which turned out to be ours. We had a cook staff, fisherman, a captain, a guide. There were only 4 of us, and 12 of them. We looked at each other a little confused, then decided what the hell and climbed aboard. When in Egypt.
For eight hours, we sailed the Red Sea. We dove off the terrace, snorkeled the reefs and swam with dolphins. We danced on the top deck, passing around whisky and freshly sliced orange wedges. I couldn’t help but smile at how so many random things had fallen into place in the best kind way. The kind that made me want to stay.
But we only had four days. Eventually, the time came to pack up the jeep and head back out into the dusty abyss. Back to the daily grind and urban haze. My eyes wandered out to a sliver of blue sea as we drove parallel to the coast, until finally there was nothing but sand and dotted lines on an endless, empty road.