Sunday, 2 January 2011

Life's a beach

Life moves slowly at Basata. A group of Egyptian students play cards and drink tea. A Brazilian woman practises yoga on a mat on the sand. A local builder steps away from the bamboo hut he’s been meticulously crafting and lights another cigarette.

I’ve been somewhat less productive. I spent my first hour at Basata, a short drive from Sharm El-Sheikh, cross-legged on a rug, looking beyond a radiant blue sea to Saudi Arabia. The distance seems almost swimmable. Since then I’ve read two-and-a-half books, taken one medium-sized walk, eaten two huge meals and two mini-pizzas, and slept far more than is necessary. I’ve had no access to TV, the internet, newspapers or a mobile phone. The experience was at first daunting, but soon liberating.

I only stopped staring at Saudi when the sun fell behind the mountains and it become too dark to see my own fingers. With the screen on my MP3 player acting as a makeshift torch, I tiptoed across the sand to the communal area where dinner was being served. I shared a table with a Swiss mother of two, a regular visitor since the camp opened 24 years ago. Basata, she warned me, can become an addiction – she hasn’t holidayed anywhere else in years. After a fantastic meal of fried fish, spicy rice, bean stew and homemade potato chips, Basata’s founder, Sherif El-Ghamrawy, wandered over to chat.

Basata means “simplicity”. And in the 1980s, Sherif and his Swiss friend inform me, simplicity was even simpler. There were no showers, just buckets of water, and the villas at the back of the beach hadn’t been built yet. Despite such improvements, I’m assured Basata’s character hasn’t changed at all. It’s still an antidote to the mega-resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh. It’s still a place that does minimal damage to the environment. And as I was about to discover, it’s still a place where people from around the world stay up late talking to people they’ve only just met.

The following evening, our dinner party swelled to double figures. After a fantastic vegetarian meal we talked until we got tired. At one point, a child tapped me on the shoulder, handed me a piece of cake, and told me it was his parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. I followed him inside and found Sherif and his wife quietly toasting their marriage. A small gathering of friends, family and guests stood around half a cake and a few cups of tea. It’s a party, Basata-style.

When I first arrived, the softly spoken owner was there to greet me and lead me through the guests’ kitchen, past baskets of vegetables, a handmade fridge stocked with juice and water, and a bakery where cheese pastries and mini-pizzas appeared each morning. I should help myself to whatever I wanted, Sherif said, and keep a tab on a piece of paper. While he trusts his guests, Sherif does have a few rules. It’s an Egyptian camp, he explained, so guests are requested to respect the local culture and dress and behave accordingly. Drugs and alcohol are strictly prohibited on the site.

While I adored it, Basata is not for everybody. The days can be hot and the nights cold, the squat toilets are primitive, and you can almost hear the flies laughing when you sit down to eat breakfast. But it works like a dream. The five-star hotels in Sinai are splashing out on plasma TVs, iPod docking stations and heated swimming pools in their efforts to lure in “the right kind of tourist”. The irony isn’t lost on Sherif, who regularly attracts CEOs and politicians by offering them as little as possible. When he openedBasata in 1986, the term eco-tourism didn’t exist. He’s a pioneer, but it’s the simplest of ideas – an eco-friendly camp inspired by the Bedouin lifestyle. My accommodation is a bamboo hut on the beach with a mattress and a few rugs.

I’ve spent much of my time lazing, daydreaming and sleeping on these rugs. The constant hissing and crashing of the waves has a meditative quality. Counting stars through cracks in a bamboo ceiling is like counting sheep, only it works. On my second day at Basata, I hardly did a thing. On my third day, I did even less. I curled up on a pillow and spent the hours before my taxi arrived fully engaged in an activity I don’t do nearly enough of in my everyday life – nothing.

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