Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 January 2008
Issue No. 878
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'Hal-lo' he said.'I'm Lo'

Youssef Rakha meets a high tech-savvy incarnation of Vasco da Gama, among other avatars

Click to view caption
The Mistral from the inside

It is a three-hour drive from Hurghada Airport to that point on the highway where you turn into the fenced-in, five-star complex of Port Ghalib. There is a tendency to refer to this part of the Red Sea coast as Marsa Alam -- operating expensive flights only twice a week, for now, the nearest airport is indeed the Marsa Alam International Airport -- but the tiny port town of Marsa Alam is actually another 60km ahead on the way to the Sudanese frontier. And like much else in the area, the airport -- "gateway to Marsa Alam and the Coral Reef", as official promotions call it -- is built specifically for the benefit of Port Ghalib, nothing else. At the Coral Beach Diving Hotel, the truly tasteful establishment where my group of travellers was housed, the sense of isolation from anything vaguely grassroots -- neither local (Ababda and Bishariya) tribesmen, nor any sign of municipal life -- confirms the hypothesis that the whole Port Ghalib thing is a world apart manufactured for the benefit of relatively well-to-do holidaymakers. "There is nothing there," I was told repeatedly on asking whether one could go to the real Marsa Alam, as opposed to this make-believe one, and how. (There are virtually no options for transportation in the area: no taxis, no buses...) In fact, the company representative charged with the task of guiding journalists on the two-day sojourn ahead of us, Ayman Wafaai, had never once been to Marsa Alam himself. This seemed odd rather than reassuring, and one had to remind oneself of one's brief: to celebrate the next stop on the second Vasco da Gama Yacht Rally, a phenomenal trip from Turkey to Cochin (Kochi), India ( ) -- the first, rather more modest Vasco da Gama Rally took place in 2005 -- which stop would be the Port Ghalib Marina, the passage through which the marina director -- unlike the Suez Canal Authority, apparently -- did everything he could to facilitate.

At Wafaai's disposal for the journey was only a tiny micro-bus: notwithstanding limitations on legroom, something about this mode of transportation proves profoundly unfriendly to the backside, especially on long-distance journeys. Next to me was a lightly bearded man getting on in years. He could've been anything from Egyptian to Indian -- Turkish, Spanish, even Maghrebi -- but turned out to be American, after all; huffing and puffing by turns, we silently commiserated with each other. Next to him was his wife, an English photographer -- you could mistake neither her looks nor her accent; at the back sat representatives of Al-Ahram and Akhbar Al-Yom together with the event's "independent photographer", as he was to introduce himself. I suppose there must have been others, because there was barely enough room for everyone on the vehicle: if there were, I forget; Wafaai had the good fortune of being next to the driver. After Qusseir, the last major stop before Marsa Alam -- and probably the last fully-fledged town on the way south, with a fort built by Mohamed Ali and extensive if now defunct phosphate mining works -- coastal buildings begin to thin out. The shore is seldom visible, so for an hour or more all you can see, while nursing your bottom as best you can -- and bracing yourself for the creature comforts buried somewhere invisible in the midst of the desert -- are various grades of sand, with the occasional sand- coloured rock in the distance. Finally -- when your backside hurts so much you never want to sit down ever again -- you realise you have arrived.

Had the impression not persisted, I would've dismissed it as a mixture of exhaustion and emotional relief: across from the sandy elevation, beyond the asphalt, the water looked navy blue. I couldn't recall seeing water this colour anywhere in the world, and following the sort of mini buffet breakfast served especially for our late-arriving group and a nap that ended up being much longer than could be accounted for without embarrassment, I began to understand what people meant when they spoke about this being one of the least spoiled stretches of shoreline anywhere in the Middle East. Inevitably, and aside from our generous hosts' best intentions and frequent disclaimers about environmental awareness and the beauty of a nature-inspired approach, there is a touch of sadness that attends every encounter with a recently "developed" piece of the earth. For regardless of the unavoidable pollution and exploitation, what it means is that a sacred gem will be profaned forevermore, first by respectful (if occasionally not so respectful) Westerners, then by the middle-class hordes. Looking over at the sea one last time after breakfast, I couldn't help feeling that the place was doomed; and I went back up to my room in an inappropriately sombre mood. Overlooking the swimming pool, my room -- and this, even despite the fact that I seem to recall the Coral Beach not being strictly speaking five-star -- was a miracle of simplicity and beauty, yes: every detail had been thoughtfully executed, from the way the ceiling was decorated to the shape of the shutters; even the television set, (empty) minibar and air conditioner managed to be unobtrusive. Recalling earlier examples of Red Sea architecture, the style was Nubian in the German-tourist sense, ie earthy, minimalist and somehow Hassan Fathiesque.

Happily, as it turned out, I didn't miss much while I napped -- apart from a brief group interview with the aforementioned marina director, that is; day one was mostly off. On finally waking, indeed, the buffet dinner was all I could ever have hoped for; I napped and read; room service even managed a Turkish coffee at five in the morning. Early breakfast (a true buffet, this time, not yesterday's "samplings", as it were), more reading, loafing, observing of British early birds and a stroll alongside the artificial lagoon just outside; then day two commenced. The selfsame micro-bus conveyed us to the Corniche, the "throbbing heart of Port Ghalib", as it was described to me, while I listened, once again, to Wafaai's explanation of how the name of the resort came about: Ghalib is a legendary character, a "settler", ironically, from Kuwait -- whence hail the owners of the company behind the whole situation, the M A Kharafi Group. (Built by Kharafi, the hotels and apartments, many of which are in the process of coming into being, are all managed by Sun). "According to the legend," so reads the brochure, "when the [12th-century] merchant Ghalib landed at the small fishing village and moored his boat in the natural bay he looked at the desert and then at the sea and asked his crew, 'what do you see?' They looked about and replied, 'the desert and the sea, master'..." Instructing them to look harder, that strange visionary goes on to describe "a fortified castle... a market... many people from all over the world [and] many fortunes." It is "written in the sand and on the waves," he prophecies, that you -- "you" being, presumably, everyone involved in the port he is to establish -- "will be writing [the] future."

Just off the Corniche, in what is probably the only branch of Costa Coffee south of Hurghada, it was up to the local operations general manager, Mustafa Nadim Kadri, to imbue the story with a sense of (capitalist) credibility -- or tell a more realistic version of it -- while sitting upright in the most central position possible, sipping a "mochaccino, no flavour", as he requested of the waiter, and valiantly fielding the questions, gadgets and looks of four journalists and two photographers. Kadri introduced himself humbly as an Egyptian American who decided to "come home" following the death of his brother and business partner, taking the kind of post-retirement job that wouldn't exhaust him too much; odd, this, considering how hard he seemed to be working and how on top of things he was. His three decades' experience of bringing tourists to Egypt lent credibility to his statements about young talent, the importance of marketing -- the introduction of an airport, road maintenance, environmental and luxury standards -- as well as long- term plans for international and local holidaymakers, and how he imagines Port Ghalib turning into the next Sharm El-Sheikh. "I don't understand why it is that when you say 'resort'," he said, "people assume there will be no luxury!" Kadri also promoted notions of mutual benefit among the various parties engaged in the process of developing and then maintaining the area, and the phenomenal social-economic turnover of tourism. "Tourism," he reiterated a recent Ministry of Tourism television advertisement, with astounding conviction, "is [the prosperity of] our country and its people." In terms of employment and economic growth alike, the field, Kadri insisted, is the future. Service-industry lesson number one, he added: "Give without limit," that you might receive likewise.

It was with some impatience, and much heat-induced tiredness, that we finally found our way to the yachts, which were only just arriving by mid-afternoon, having come through Hurghada and Safaga. Their appearance at the marina had been hyped up so much it ended up being rather anticlimactic, not least because they docked into the lagoon at different times, the captains feeling their way leisurely along the surface of the water, which close up -- at least where the lagoon was concerned -- was a deep green flashing uneven white as it lapped up the sun, in stark contrast to the open sea, which remained navy blue in the distance. Two little terriers -- I could not identify the breed more precisely -- were causing a sensation all along the dust path; their owner -- a tan old man in shorts and Vasco da Gama T-shirt, with the instantly recognisable, rugged look of someone who has for many years been devoted to the great outdoors -- was balancing expertly on the edge of the vessel out of which a Netherlands flag was raised, gesturing for the journalists to join him on board. "Come into my home," he cried. He was friendly and forthcoming -- humorous, too, as we would soon discover -- and had about him the ponderous air of someone used to doing things by himself. "Hallo," he went on with a heavy Flemish accent. "I'm Lo..." The pun didn't seem to amuse him -- doubtless he had uttered it too many times -- but he was eager for us to register it, still. We sat around, enclosed by gently bobbing wood.

Lodewijk Brust, chairman and organiser of the Vasco da Gama Yacht Rally, has been sailing for 40 years now; he has lived permanently on this very boat, the Mistral, for the last 16. And with his experience largely restricted to the Mediterranean, he is contagiously keen on the Red Sea. "Mediterranean is crowded, expensive... The Red Sea here is a good alternative for many sailors in the Mediterranean," he seemed to find his voice, while the dogs yelped. "The only problem is that there's still several regulations here in Egypt that make it especially complicated for the boats coming from the north... Every year there are 100, 150 yachts coming from Thailand, Malaysia. I've been there also several times, and I hear all these stupid stories about Egypt and the Red Sea. I try always to explain to everybody it's not correct. Coming from the south is now much easier... but coming from the north, you have to do the clearance in Port Said and then to check in at every port, it's complicated. Many people in the harbours, they have no idea about rules; I see bills from cashiers and for every boat it's different and every harbour is different..." Yacht sailors have a reputation for being rich and spoilt: an exclusive bunch of eccentrics who live above rather than apart from the rest of us, and can only function in the presence of a myriad servants. Listening to Lo talk, now, observing the conditions in which he has chosen to live -- the intricate machinery with which he has equipped his yacht, for one thing, and which he single- handedly operates -- it is clear nothing could be further from the truth.

Even more remarkable, indeed, is the way he has managed to gather around, within the limited space of the boat, every implement of the modern household-office, as it were, down to the latest iPod model and a laser printer -- which in a moment produced copies of Lo's letter of complaint to Minister of Tourism Zoheir Garana. His presence on the Internet bears further testimony to this modern-day Robinson Crusoe being perfectly at home in the electronic age. His card lists a satellite as well as a mobile phone number and his website is active all year round. Nor was he put off by the bureaucratic troubles he had suffered since Port Said. Addressed to the chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, the letter reads, "As you may well know it is our aim... to promote through all the possible channels... about cruising possibilities and travel opportunities of the countries we visit on the way to India including Egypt. It is therefore we believe we have to let you know that our experience passing the Suez Canal was not favourable due to unprofessional behaviour of some of the pilots, and denying access to Ismailia minutes before arrival... The future of... yacht rallies may be in jeopardy and may have to look for other cruising grounds than those of Egypt for passages and stays. This together with the negative press that would come along, is no good for all who work hard to make Egypt what it is and especially those who have invested large sums in Marinas along the coast such as Abu Tig, Hurghada, Port Ghalib and many other developments." A very down-to-earth, sensible tone, in other words.

And something to ponder over for the few hours before the welcome reception is due to start. It was the latter event, however, held in one of the Coral Beach bars, that afforded the warmest encounter with the strange breed of Poseidon-worshipping globe-trotters to which Brust belongs. Yachters, as they are sometimes known, turn out to be a very far cry from their image. Well off they may be -- most are actually comfortably retired, rather -- but their practical sense, physical courage and closeness to nature is such they tend to have an instantaneously disarming effect. I recall one conversation about dolphins, another about the friendliness of Egyptians. A heroic episode involved saving a boat that had capsized into the reef -- with minimal harm. One Santa Claus-like figure with a big white beard sounded vaguely Australian as he kept saying, "because if you didn't love wildlife, you wouldn't do what we do." But yachting is equally about perseverance, cosmopolitanism and cooperation. From the point of view of tourism -- and in the context of endorsing a project like Port Ghalib, especially -- and evening with participants in the Vasco da Gama Rally was a lesson learned indeed: a lesson on how moving across the earth can be a way of learning about other people and learning to respect nature, and learning that something seemingly as irrelevant as a marina can bring in not only hard currency but genuine fellow feeling, and good cheer. After dinner, only a few hours remained before we were due at reception for the journey back to Hurghada Airport. Fearfully massaging my backside, I went upstairs for a shower and a final nap. This time I was sure I would not oversleep.

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