POV

Sharm-Elysees with Sahika Ercumen

So it comes to pass I find out I’m headed for Sharm el-Sheikh to shoot a world record holding free-diver, Sahika Ercumen…

Sharm-Elysees with Sahika Ercumen
Story by Teo. J Babini – teo@citizenbrooklyn Photos by Tahsin Ceylan & Icarus Blake

When you’re a kid, Egypt is basically the height of exoticism. You imagine head dressed folks doing silly dances around The Sphinx, hieroglyphics and pyramids, snake charmers riding camels with cobras in the desert. Then you get a bit older and school teaches you that Egyptians invented everything (namely beer), Cleopatra was actually Greek (And sorta brought down the Roman Empire with her seductive ways), and that the Nile is the longest river in the world.
Until recently, my most direct contact was my half-Egyptian friend, Pancit, and her father, “The Bagel Man”. Pancit, now a lawyer, is one of my good booze buddies from college who always spoke about her father like he was some kind of godfather. The first time a went to visit in New Jersey, I coincidentally, stopped by one of his shops, the attractive North African staff could tell by our unfortunate attire that we were there for “the bagel man” and offered us free coffee (PS the taylor ham, egg and cheese bagel was bangin’).

Photo © Tahsin Ceylan

Photo © Tahsin Ceylan

He was very hospitable, offering everyone food upon arrival to the house. I remember although he was very serious looking he had a great sense of humor, and the whole family sat around him in a circle in some kind of great reverence. In the end he offered everyone tea before we departed.
So it comes to pass I find out I’m headed for Sharm el-Sheikh to shoot a world record holding free-diver, Sahika Ercumen, who’s a spokesmen for the water conservation efforts of my client Orta Blu. I was headed for hot weather, and all I could think of while packing was “The Bagel Man”, who wore nothing but white shirts, pants, and shoes with dark, black sunglasses… And I packed just that.
We initially flew into Cairo, where I got my first taste of the very half-hazard Egyptian security, a complete disaster. Unfortunately we were stopped often due to the amount of underwater camera equipment we had in tow. We were further amused by the low-budget safety pamphlet in the smaller plane to Sharm.

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Icarus Blake

We finally arrived in what really actually felt like a country that had just experienced a revolution, which it had. It’s a kind of looseness in the way things are done and run, but there is also an air of optimism and open political dialogues, critical or otherwise. Our escort to the airport shares his Egyptian cigarettes with us while we chat about the state of things and become friends. He likes Italians, or at least he much prefers them to the Russians, who arrive in droves, and he loves New York, but worries that it might be dangerous. You’ll find when travelling that folks talk about New York like it’s Atlantis, mysterious and wonderful.

Photo © Tahsin Ceylan

Photo © Tahsin Ceylan

We arrived at “Fort” Sheraton, with at least three checkpoints full of armed guards, who search for bombs under cars with mirrors on sticks. Then you go through a metal detector while your bags are X-rayed. The hotel was a real interesting place with a jungle in the middle (they did little shows on the stage in there) and a mini club in the lobby. It was one of those all-inclusive joints poring over with Russians, so you saw a lot of wasted food, beautiful half-dress model looking women, and questionable men’s fashion, my personal favorite being a polyester, orang polo with a yellow mesh back. Gold chains galore.

On our first night, we went to the gym and shared the space with a bunch of body building Egyptian commandoes who were so brawlick, you just sorta lost your motivation to keep working out next to them. Dinner was when I first met Sahika, a wonderful young lady who carries herself with an infectious charisma. A lot of my favorite expressions in Turkish came from watching her chat. Then we kinda bopped around the hotel lookin’ for a nice way to end the evening, which ended with us being strangely led to the pool by a silent giant and his little talkative friend… Needless to say, we’d had enough and were ready for bed.

The next morning we went to our diving boat, full of Muhammads. Because of this coincidence, they took on nicknames, the leader calling himself Gandhi because of his slightly Indian appearance. The unfortunate thing about mass tourism is that it takes hours to find a diving spot that isn’t packed with boats, packed with sunburnt, tacky touristas. We eventually found a secret local spot that we technically shouldn’t have been in due to some sort of political situation, but Gandhi assured us we’d be fine. I was unbothered by the lag and happy to be in the much-needed warmth of the sun.

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Icarus Blake

Then came the diving, which, from the service is uneventful. You basically just see Sahika pop her little head up once in a while and throw a snorkel back and fourth with another diver. Although I hear, considering she is the star of the show, that she is quite respectful toward all the people filming, shooting and helping her while she dives. The underwater cameramen looked like aliens with their spider-like cameras. Not being a fan of putting on equipment I was content diving off the second story of the boat, soaking up the salt thick waters of the red sea. Although, I found myself winded rather quickly, which is crazy because Sahika was in the water for hours on end, like she had an endless supply of energy and oxygen. Occasionally she would swim by the boat with her mono-fin near the surface, looking more like a dolphin or a mermaid than a human. One kick of her legs propelled her almost a boat’s length forward, gliding along with grace. She was happy to do it, as well. Even after a day of diving with weights wrap around her wetsuit, she was the first one dive in the water from the beach upon our return.

That night we took a wild cab ride to the infamous Sharm-Elysees, a strip of shops and outdoor psychedelic hookah bars where one is basically accosted from end to end by promoters trying to get you into various clubs, including the Hard Rock Café and Pacha, with offerings of a free hookah or free entry for ladies. It’s rather dizzying with synchronized dancers bathed in neon light. I almost had a physical confrontation with a promoter who put hands on my chest, attempting to block my path because I ignored his offer. For the ladies it was even worth, constantly bombarded with sexual aggression to a level that would cause uproar back in New York. They bring cat calling to a whole new level. The whole thing was like a hallucination on the level of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”.

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Icarus Blake

In the end, we settled in for drinks at the Camel Bar, the real diver dive. It was beautiful on the roof, breathing in the desert air, a safe haven from the chaos below. It was here that I acquired my Turkish nickname, given to me by Sahika and Cey-Cey, Kucuk Teo (Little Teo). It all started when I mimicked this gesture they made, placing your pointer finger in-between your eyebrows while making a sad face, which is the trademark of a famous actor and singer nicknamed Kucuk Emrah. It was told to me that this name would be unwanted by any Turkish men due to its sexual implications, but I found it catchy and ironic because of my towering height (6’4”), and so kept it all the same. After our drinks, we haggled with cab hustlers until we were given a good price, and said our fond goodbyes as I would be leaving in the morning.
A great and generous friend, my adventures with Sahika would continue when she came to visit in New York, where I would show her around the city, and she would teach me how to swim with a mono-fin and help me practice breathing and meditation techniques. Who knows where we will meet next, but one thing is for sure, she’ll probably have broken some world records and I’ll still be good ol’ Kucuk Teo, not having broken any.

 

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