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The voice of Sherif Aboelwafa, a guide and master Egyptologist for Contiki, boomed over the speaker of our tour bus at 4 a.m. We were heading to one of his favorite sites, the magnificent temples of Abu Simbel.
Aboelwafa’s passion for sharing Egypt with the world is undeniable, even if touring begins before the sun goes up — which was often the case for Contiki’s jam-packed weeklong Egypt & The Nile tour.
“My favorite part about my job is meeting new people and hearing their stories from around the world,” he told me. “I get excited for every group.”
It’s no wonder why Aboelwafa still looks forward to leading this tour after 16 years.
“I want travelers to experience Egypt through the Egyptian people — not through the media or rumors of bad experiences,” he said.
Despite a surge in visiting tour groups, concerns over safety still prevent many from traveling to the country. But I never once felt unsafe, and the local people could not have been more welcoming.
Distinctive and culturally rich, Egypt has thousands of years of history. The best way to visit is with a local guide, such as Aboelwafa. He graduated from Cairo University in Giza, Egypt, and lives and breathes his country. The tour would not have been the same without his extensive knowledge of the stories and history of each stop, from Cairo and Aswan to Luxor and Hurghada.
Of course, Egyptian sites such as the Pyramids, the Great Sphinx of Giza and Karnak Temple were mind-blowing, but one of the unexpected highlights of the trip was the hospitality and warmth of the Egyptian people.
During our stop in Luxor, we took a trip to a small Egyptian village before riding camels and donkeys on dirt roads, caravan-style with locals at the helm. My donkey’s name was Rambo, and together we were led through the village by a lovely gentleman named Asim. He did not speak much English, but he pointed out the mango trees growing along the sides of the road, and grinned widely as he told me about his infant son Bilal.
As we rode along, dozens of children ran from their homes to greet us. Aboelwafa told us they look forward to the tourists visiting each week.
“Hello! Hello!” they shouted from the ground, from balconies and from the arms of their parents. Each time one of us said “hello” or waved back, they cheered with joy.
At the conclusion of the donkey ride, our Contiki group visited the home of the village’s mayor and resident attorney, Nasser. His family served us bread and mint tea, and I learned about the Egyptian people’s affinity for sweet things (as they added five spoonfuls of sugar to my glass).
We toured the house and its rooms, and Aboelwafa explained how a clay oven is used to cook meals. In comparison to our fast-paced American lives, their lifestyle seems much more simple — and I couldn’t help but notice their joy. Despite not having any expectations for this afternoon excursion, it turned out to be one of main reasons I fell in love with Egypt.
As we exited, Aboelwafa pointed to a mural of an airplane and explained that when a Muslim takes his or her pilgrimage to Mecca and completes the five pillars of Islam, it’s customary for the family to paint a mural on their home depicting their method of transportation — hence the depiction of an EgyptAir plane next to the front door.
Aboelwafa, a practicing Muslim, has not taken the pilgrimage: Once he does, he will become a religious leader and will no longer be able to be a tour guide. However, he’s not ready to stop sharing Egypt with the world.
And there is so much to share. Whether I was catching my breath after viewing King Tutankhamun’s actual mummified body, taking selfies while sitting on a pyramid, soaking up the sun on the rooftop deck of our Nile river cruise or chasing after eels in the Red Sea, Egypt never stopped delivering.