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Trip Report Trip report: Nov 2012 in Egypt

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We just got home from 3 weeks in Egypt. Had a fabulous time, learned a lot, felt safe throughout – thanks largely to our tour operator. So posting this for others looking for a reliable agency. Our tour of Cairo, the Nile Valley & Abu Simbel was organised by Samir Abbass of Real Egypt Tours; he was also our guide. Here's what we most appreciated about Samir's services.

* Really “Real Egypt” and really customized – RE’s website has a questionnaire about clients’ interests and Samir genuinely tries to cater to those interests. His email responses were prompt and made good suggestions to meet our preferences. RE’s itinerary also looked likely to show us something of “real” Egypt on top of tourist’s Egypt. While a visitor can sample only a superficial reality, our tour did give us glimpses of the Egypt experienced by Egyptians by bringing us into their homes and to lesser-known sights such as Cairo’s amazing “garbage city”. We had dinner in the mud-brick house of a large farming family in Luxor; tea with Nile fishermen while buying fresh tilapia; an impromptu meal in a hospitable Nubian home; a chat with Samir’s Coptic church friend about Coptic beliefs and post-revolution status. None of these eye-opening experiences we could have organised ourselves.

* Honesty/transparency – Samir proved totally trustworthy, upfront about costs and candid about money matters. He’s quick to clear up any confusion about bookings, inclusions, tipping, etc. He admits RE’s prices are higher than competitors but we can attest that the added value of his bespoke services is well worth the premium. He did not take us to shops unless requested. He tells you when he thinks a store or an item is a reasonably priced but there’s no pressure to purchase. When we asked to buy coffee, spices and perfume he helped us secure bargains at the souk. He takes no commission from shops. His advice was always sound and we only got gipped once (when he wasn’t with us!)

* Concern for clients’ well-being – I managed to twist my ankle on my first night in Cairo. Samir showed up next day with bandage, anti-inflammation gel and hot-water bottle. He lent us for the duration of the trip a cellphone and USB for internet access which were invaluable for keeping in touch with family back home. He was always reachable by phone. He or his team called us daily when we were on our own. He cautioned us about food to avoid and told some eateries to use bottled water for juice. He politely fended off aggressive vendors. After our RE tour ended, he continued to help us on the phone, and even arranged to meet us to show us the way to the Al-Tannoura show (a must-see) with his other clients.

* Deep knowledge and the patience to impart it – As an Egyptologist, Samir provided not just information but intellectual stimulation. At each ancient site, he explained the historical context, mainstream interpretation, debates within Egyptology, his own revisionist theories, pointed out the physical evidence and read out some of the hieroglyphics. He gave us print-outs of chronologies, pyramid diagrams & temple layouts to aid understanding. Most important, he was tireless in answering our many questions, often several times, because Egypt’s history is sooo long, its deities so numerous, its monuments so mind-boggling, that even a tenuous grasp takes effort. As a practising Muslim, Samir also took pains to help us understand contemporary Islam and himself exemplifies the moderate Muslim trying to reconcile his religion with modernity. It was gratifying to observe how he put Islamic principles into practice building an ethical, eco-friendly business. It was also fascinating to see his photos of the mass protests that toppled Mubarak and hear his stories of Egypt’s revolution and his activist role in it, of which he’s justifiably proud.

* Flexibility – As far as possible given prepaid bookings, RE tries to accommodate changes on the go. E.g. when a room at our 1st-choice hotel came available 3 days into the trip Samir suggested we switch the booking, incurring a small cancellation charge that was covered by the difference in hotel tariffs; his associate in Aswan, Mohamed, got permission from officials and police for us to remain at Philae temple from daylight hours until the sound & light show at night. (In security-conscious Egypt, what seems simple and logical ain’t necessarily so.) Samir tries to anticipate your needs and adjusts the schedule accordingly, e.g. early lunch for my ever-hungry husband! A few items on the itinerary were kept optional so we could decide on site. We were also free to make our own bookings at hotels not handled by RE.

* Professionalism/personality of guides – Apart from Samir, his colleagues - Walid at the airport, Mahmoud in Luxor, Mohamed in Aswan, Assim and Ayman in Abu Simbel - were all cheerful, obliging, on the ball. Of the 6 or so guides we've had on tours of developing countries, Samir was the best overall - the most caring, the most amiable, and the most passionate about his country, its history and its future. And he has a wonderful sense of humour. We got not only an excellent guide but the company of a thoughtful, kind and funny Egyptian who represents all that’s progressive, adaptable and entrepreneurial about the country.

Some tips from our trip:

Go with a guided tour. We prefer independent travel but in Egypt we’re glad we didn’t try (apart from 4 free days). Our tour with Real Egypt saved us a lot of stress, protected us to some extent from pesky hawkers and scammers, and gave us a more varied experience. We loved the warmth, dignity and humour of Egyptians, but many also seem intent on gouging tourists, from taxi-drivers (demanding EGP30 for a EGP10 ride) to soda sellers (charging EGP20 for a EGP2 Coke) so that buying anything is a hassle. You’re constantly accosted by touts, hustlers, in-your-face souvenir vendors. A good guide can mitigate some of this racket, insha'Allah, negotiate for you, advise on prices.

Ask for a tips-inclusive package. Having to ensure we always had small notes handy and figuring out who/how much/when to tip, from toilet attendants to boat boys to tomb caretakers, soon got tiresome. Unless you enjoy spreading largesse in small bills, try to get most of the tips included in the price of the tour, which adds 5-7% to the total, according to Samir.

Choose a dahabiya for the Nile cruise. This is a traditional wooden sailing vessel with only a few rooms, much more intimate and enjoyable than the huge tourist steamers. Our 4 nights on the Miran 1 was a highlight of our trip. As it’s much smaller it can dock at sites that the big ships can’t, so you’ll see more on the cruise. Our room was lovely with a balcony, plenty of hot water in the shower; the meals were delicious, the crew great fun, even throwing an all-singing, all-dancing birthday party for my husband!

Go while tourists are sparse but avoid street demos. Because tourists are shunning Egypt the major attractions were not crowded, queues were short and we even got the 5-room dahabiya all to ourselves. The street protests in Cairo were localized and completely avoidable. Life went on as normal elsewhere. In fact you can skip Cairo and go from the airport straight to Giza or fly to Luxor.

Beware of helpful “social workers”. Egyptians are incredibly friendly. During a wander on our own, we were invited into a village home for tea and to smoke shisha in a very local teashop. But you need to distinguish sincere invites from scammers: In Cairo, a kindly gent “Yacoub” helped us out in a pastry shop and invited us to herbal tea. Claiming to run a foster home, he then asked us to buy EGP30 worth of cheese for the orphans, which we did. Samir thought we were conned and Yacoub would’ve asked for US$$$ had my husband been less sceptical. So be wary of strangers with sob stories.

Watch where you’re going. Many of the pavements are uneven, broken up, potholed and garbage-strewn. If you want to gawk or take photos, stop, stand still and do it; don’t walk as you gawk as you’re liable to step into a hole or slip on a candy wrapper, as I did.

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