There is a welcome chaos in the city of Cairo: from unrelenting traffic on the streets to the constant chatter of sidewalk vendors and shopkeepers, the cacophony becomes its own symphony within this metropolis of nine million.
As my group gathers in the shaded courtyard garden of the Cairo Marriott, the heady scents of brewed coffee and fresh-baked bread are our first signs of Egyptian hospitality. Within minutes of expressing curiosity at the source of said scent, our server happily brings us a steaming plate of bread, handmade by a group of bakers at the outdoor oven. It is the first of many friendly gestures in a country who has welcomed visitors for centuries.
Being a part of the first tour group lead by Insight Vacations in Egypt in three years, our group was unanimous in a long-time dream to visit this ancient land, despite the recent years of political unrest. Our Insight guide Mohamed Raghab, with Masters degrees in Egyptology and Tourism, is like a traveling concierge eager to show us his country’s past and present, promising daily lessons in deciphering hieroglyphics, with our group’s assurance to be good students.
The next day brings us to the city of Luxor, the former capital of Thebes, and the starting point of our lessons. We’re soon walking in the footsteps of the ancients, entering the Karnak Temple, the second largest ancient temple site in the world after Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and seeing the rebuilding of the Avenue of the Sphinxes. We’re led by Mohamed to the immense entrance of Luxor Temple, built in 1400 BCE and flanked by sandstone sculptures of Ramses II. It seems fitting to end our day of exploration in the shadows of the ruins, hearing the distinctive call to evening prayers and surrounded by small groups of friendly locals, acting as tourists in their country. We realize how lucky we are to be in Egypt without crowds surrounding us.
Welcomed into our new home, Uniworld’s River Tosca ship, the effusive staff greet us with cool scented towels to wipe away the dust, ask about our day in Luxor and offer iced glasses of fresh squeezed juice. Lively discussions of the day dominate dinner, and I have to pinch myself that I stood in the Luxor Temple, in the same spot where its builder Amenhotep III also stood over 3000 years ago. Soon we’re headed to bed, early, excited for tomorrow’s explorations.
Mohamed leads us into the famed Valley of the Kings, explaining its complex history as we explore the tombs of pharaohs Ramses, Seti, Tuthmosis and the famous boy king, Tutankhamen. After walking the immense mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, Mohamed suggests a stop in a local village for tea. As we walk, I see a group of kids playing. They immediately crowd around to high-5 me when I put out my hand in welcome. They ask in Arabic if I’m from Cairo, because I’m wearing sunglasses (beneath which lie my biofinity toric lenses), like big city ladies, making Mohamed laugh as he explains I am. The women of the household stop their chores to smile and wave as I say my goodbyes to my tribe of new friends. At tea at a local cafe, a villager comes to tempt the group with colourful scarves and, as we buy, our gift with purchase is, yet again, warm bread.
Back on the ship, the crew welcomes us with icy bottles of water, and we’re soon sailing south, waving at the locals on the riverbanks. We become adventurers with A-list amenities: one moment we’re in the shade of Edfu and Kom Ombo’s sites, learning about Egyptian deities and expanding our knowledge of hieroglyphics, the next we’re pampered with cocktails and canapés on Tosca’s upper deck, gazing at the Nile’s surrounding farmlands by day and endless stars in the evening sky at night. As I look over my photographs before bedtime, I feel like I’ve found treasure like Indiana Jones, but one that will never be taken from me.
As the Tosca glides south in the late morning sun, a member of the crew leads us in a relaxing yoga class. But then the tables are turned, with one of our group teaching tai chi basics, and our teacher now student, laughing at his lack of grace as we enjoy the camaraderie of ship life. We learn about modern day life of Egyptians from the crew, how tourism has been affected by the country’s political instability and their wish for tourists from around the globe to come once again to their country.
The post-dinner entertainment starts with a whirling belly dancer and then its time for the crew to take centre stage, joyously singing Arabic folk and pop songs and encouraging the group to dance. As we shimmy in the makeshift disco, we’re soon breathless with laughter at ourselves and grateful to the crew for another dose of Egyptian hospitality.
Arriving in Aswan, a quick visit to the famous dam and tea at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel is followed by a flight to Abu Simbel, the only Egyptian temples built to worship a king. There are fewer than 20 people on the grounds, and as our group explores the buildings, the local guards ask for pictures with us and inquire if we’re hungry, as always, wanting to welcome us. Two flights and we’re back in the noisy confines of Cairo, back to the scent of the bread at the Cairo Marriott. A scent that none of us will forget. The scent of an Egyptian welcome.
WHEN YOU GO
Insight Vacations offers six guided itineraries to Egypt, including the 10-day “Wonders of Egypt” and 21-day “Land of the Prophets” journeys, travel in business class coaches, and the services of a personal Egyptologist. Signature Experiences include a four-day cruise along the Nile River. For more, visit www.insightvacations.com or call 1-866-747-8120.