I like to imagine that, when I’m in a tight spot that requires quick thinking and levelheadedness, I’d approach the situation with a kind of James Bond nonchalance. The train I’m surfing on is about to go through a low tunnel? Not to worry. I’ll simply flatten myself and hope for the best. The chairlift has stopped midway up the mountain because the ski resort has suddenly closed? Let me make a rope out of my snowboarding attire and shimmy on down safely. Of course, I’d do all of these things with grace and composure.
On our first full day in Gouna, I looked out on the deceptively placid lagoon and decided to rent a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) for an hour. The rental guys at Zeytana Beach were super friendly and set me up with a board immediately. “This lagoon is huge,” said one of the guys, wonderfully called Freedom. “You can go anywhere. Behind the Sheraton is private villas.”
I immediately got a flashback to last summer’s SUP misadventure with Kacey and decided there and then that, if I couldn’t successfully navigate my own hometown river, it would be best not to try to wind my way through the labyrinthine lagoons of Gouna. “Do not go on the bay today,” Freedom warned me, gesturing to the beach where the sky was cut in a million little places by the half-moon sails of kite surfers. Kite surfing is why people come to Gouna.
The Zeytana Beach guys urged me to take a lesson the next day, but the thought of being sucked up into the sky by a rogue gust of wind like Dorothy was not appealing. (And I’m sure this stuff happens all the time but doesn’t make it into the papers.) Excited, I pushed the board into the lagoon and scrambled on. Down-dog, shuffle feet to center, stand up. It didn’t take long to get the hang of it. I adjusted my paddle length and guided myself out into the lagoon feeling statuesque and godlike. (Jamie’s photos depict something different, a pear-shaped, squat figure looking paralyzed. Must be the lens.)
Feeling enthralled, I boldly headed southwest, nearly falling off the board as I passed over a buoy rope that snagged my fin as I headed out of the lagoon and into open water. Why I thought this was a good idea is beyond me. All I can say is that the lagoon suddenly felt too small and claustrophobic for me and my board. We needed space and diversity! I wanted to see things, not paddle in circles in a glorified bath tub. Almost immediately, I felt the wind shift and the current change. Two small boats passed me by and I rocked in their wake. Undaunted – even my balance felt surer than last time I did SUP – I continued to paddle out.
It wasn’t long before I realized that I’d been caught by the current and swept down toward a curve in the lagoon, or whatever body of water I was floating on. The cloistered lagoon where Jamie sat reading a novel was suddenly drifting farther away. I had no idea where this waterway might convey me. Calmly, I turned the board back to face the lagoon and dipped my paddle into the water. Nothing happened. A gust of wind whistled through the handle of the paddle and zipped my board around full circle, pointing me away from the lagoon. Another gust shoved me along in the wrong direction. I suddenly wished I’d chosen wind surfing.
I struggled to turn the board in the right direction and heaved all of my weight into the paddle only to be pushed backwards again and again. Nearing panic – where did these waterways go?? – I decided to shore up in the backyard of the closest ritzy villa and hope these rich folks weren’t gun-toting beach goers with questionable moral codes. Once my feet were on land, I regained control for a minute before realizing I had to get back in the water at some point.
I looked up to see a small Egyptian man regarding me warily from a distance. I waved at him and called out. “Can I walk on here?” He stared. I tried again, digging through my limited Arabic vocabulary. Of that sentence, I knew only the word for “I.” Useless. Instead, I held up two fingers and wiggled them back and forth like torso-less person walking. Nothing. Finally, I pointed at myself and dragged the board two steps forward and looked back at him. “Aiwa? Meshi?” Yes? Okay if I walk here? He shrugged and watched as I dragged the board along his employer’s backyard.
I don’t know what I was thinking. When I told this story later on, my friend Rachel stared at me with extreme confusion before asking, “Why didn’t you just put it in the water and swim it back?” I don’t know, Rachel. That would be too sensible a solution. I opted for the more challenging solution, because somehow I’d forgotten how damn heavy those boards are.
As I dragged it by the handle – I could only carry it a few feet before my arm gave out or a gust of wind would slap it and turn it horizontal, nearly knocking me down – I decided that this board was certainly heavier than most boards. I remembered last summer when Kacey and I carried the boards from the parking lot down to the river, and I don’t recall struggling half as much. Didn’t Kacey carry it on her head? I looked down at the mastodon of a SUP and decided no, if I tried to lift it over my head, I might die there in someone’s backyard, never to be seen again. “How did she die?” someone might ask. “You wouldn’t believe it. She was crushed by a SUP.”
By this point, I was sweaty and dirty. This was also about the time I realized that I’d been dragging the board deeper into this person’s backyard and away from the water. Twice, boats passed. As the first one sped by, I realized that perhaps they might be able to tow me to the point where I’d left the lagoon – not into the lagoon itself, as it was very important to preserve what dignity I had left, and allowing Jamie to watch a boat full of Egyptian men tow me into the lagoon would open the next few months up to relentless piss-taking.
When the second boat passed, I flailed to them from the banks. They cut the engine and idled in the water, waiting for me to say something. “English?” I called out. They shook their heads. “Maya hena, mish kwayess,” I explained in Arabic that loosely translates to, “Water here, no good.” I pointed furiously at the water below me where their boat bobbed. “Ana aiza maya…over there,” I continued pointing down in the opposite direction. “I need water over there.”
They stared at me blankly before laughing at me and heading back. It was then that I realized I had walked myself and the board up a hill and was now faced with the challenge of getting the board back into the water, because this was my only option. I could throw it down and hope it didn’t crash on any rocks, but there was always the chance of the current taking it away. I would have to shimmy down on my own, dragging the board along with me. I located a steep rock staircase that descended into the water and sat down, hoping the company wouldn’t question the weird scratches along the underside as I half-pushed, half-dragged the board down the steps and back into the water.
Then I did what I should’ve done from the beginning: I swam alongside the board until the current relaxed, climbed back on, and paddled it back on my knees. The sight of the lagoon was an immense relief. I paddled straight toward the beach to where I expected Freedom to be standing and waiting, tapping his watch. I wondered how far past an hour I’d gone and how much they would charge me.
As the board scraped the sand, I looked up and saw him come running. “What are you doing?” he asked me. “You still have 15 minutes left!” Well, this was embarrassing. I shook my head and forced him to take the board. “Nah, it’s all good,” I said, attempting that nonchalant, James Bond kind of cool before staggering off toward the beach chair. In an attempt to redeem myself, I did take the board out the next day. It wasn’t an exciting journey, but paddling around in circles for 30 minutes was a bit less strenuous. Call me a coward all you want; I found out the next day that those lagoons apparently take you all the way back to the airport. I’ll take the glorified bathtub over being stranded near a runway any day.