Warnings and wonders on a tour of Egypt

By Bill Reed
This article appears on page 18 of the December 2015 issue.
The pyramid of Khafre at Giza.

We hopped on the donkey cart at a dusty corner in the Bahariya Oasis, about half a block from our hotel. The driver of the cart spoke no English and we spoke no Arabic. The lead donkey walked with a slight limp as we started down the main road. 

The instructions given to our guide, at my request and over my wife, Betty’s, objections, were to arrange for the two of us to have a ride into town (about a half mile), circle the center of town and come back to the hotel. None of that happened. 

After going about 100 feet, the driver turned down a dusty road enclosed by mud-brick walls. I was given the reins and did my best at guiding an animal that instinctively knew there was a novice at the controls. A spare donkey trailed us.

After several twists and turns, none of which were anywhere near the center of town, we stopped. The driver handed Betty a big bag, and we headed off into an empty field full of dried palm fronds, burnt logs and not much else.

The driver arranged some palm fronds for us to sit on and motioned for us to sit. He opened the bag and dumped the contents out onto the dirt. The bag held a number of bottles containing water in varying degrees of opacity, a hot pepper, something white that reminded me of cream cheese, two pieces of the very good (and ubiquitous) Egyptian bread and some bread that was hard enough to break a tooth. (He gave us a piece, and it was good but hard as a rock!)

A shallow bowl showed up, and in went the cement-like bread and some of the water. Betty noted the floating particles, but I said they were pretty small and not to worry about them. 

As this happened at the end of our trip, and we were to get on a plane the next day for the long trip back to the US, Betty was holding back tears. (It must be pointed out that we had no ill effects from this, so all’s well that ends well.)

All this was topped off with tea boiled in the blackest pot I have ever seen. Into the cup of water in the pot went about a half cup of sugar. Egyptians like their tea sweet!

By now it was time to return to the hotel. I am sure the driver understood the name of our hotel, but we headed into a more residential area. He stopped in the middle of an almost deserted street and motioned for us to get off. We did and he took off.

We got a ride back to the hotel with some locals for an exorbitant price, but it was nice to get back.

In hindsight, I think the man tried very hard to please us. He had no idea what we wanted, and we could not communicate with him. Finally, frustration on both sides ended the arrangement.

I am sure he, like all the Egyptians we met, is very kind. We have never met a group of people as nice as the Egyptians we encountered on this trip. We lost count of the number of times someone said, “Thank you for coming to Egypt. Tell your friends it is safe and get them to come.” Even if we just bought a bottle of water (about 50¢), we would get this response.

Considering a visit?

Egypt is between a rock and a very hard place. With a rapidly growing population and shrinking agricultural lands, the country cannot feed its 85 million people and does not produce many exports. 

One of the main sources of revenue for Egypt, tourism fell to less than half of what it was at its peak in 2010. Riots, civil unrest and threats from ISIL (aka Daesh) and other militant groups have reduced the number of visitors to a trickle. 

A woman baking bread, which is eaten with every meal.

During our visit, it was not unusual to be the only people in a tomb where, in better times, you would have had to wait 15 to 30 minutes just to get in.

Whether or not to travel to Egypt is something you will have to decide for yourself. Armed escorts, at times two vehicles with about eight guys with AK47s, sandwiched our vehicle on some of the trip. Every trip off the road and into the desert was accompanied by armed guards. We were told it was to make us feel safe. I am not sure it had the desired effect.

As I write this, I am torn between saying what we experienced and negatively affecting future tourism in Egypt. For the most part, we felt safe traveling there. We went out into some of the backstreets and along the riverfront at night and never felt the slightest twinge of concern. 

Every smile was met with a smile. Every wave was returned with a wave. I walked over to see how some people were making bread, and soon I was making it. I stopped to look at two pots on a cart, and soon I was given breakfast from them. 

At the Sphinx, I walked by a family and ended up dancing with them.

Many people do blame the West for a lot of their problems, but they don’t seem to blame Westerners. 

They did not blame us. They welcomed us. 

They welcomed us with open arms, with never a hint of anything but sincere friendship. People seemed to understand the difference between a government’s position and that of its people.

If you visit Egypt now, while the tourist numbers are down, you will get to see things up close and unrushed. There is a huge difference between standing, all alone, in front of King Tut’s mummy and being there with a crowd. I am glad we went when we did because we got a, more or less, private tour of Egypt.

Relief of Sobek, the crocodile god.

Our tour included an excursion through the Western Desert. We experienced three long days of driving through this absolutely lifeless expanse of desert, three days of seeing sights you just can’t see anywhere else. 

The desert had a beauty all its own. In some places, we passed huge dunes that had started to migrate over the road. In others, the sand had been completely blown away and, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but a rock-strewn surface. I almost believed I could see the curvature of the Earth, it was so flat.

The vast expanses, the crystal-clear air and the different shades of color all combined to make it a stunning place to see. 

However, it would be hard for me to recommend going to the Western Desert now because of the terrorist activities in the area. 


The effects of the dramatic drop in tourism could be seen throughout the city of Cairo. It was most pronounced at Giza, the site of the famous pyramids. 

In addition, the Egyptian tax system, we were told, has led to Cairo’s becoming a city of half-completed apartment buildings. Mile upon mile of apartment buildings appear unfinished, with missing bricks and no paint and fronted by dirt streets. We were told, over and over, that they were occupied but that property taxes go way up when apartments are completed, so many simply aren’t finished. The result is block after block of what appear to be abandoned buildings.

Trash pickup was almost nonexistent, and, consequently, the canal that diverts Nile water for farming is completely covered, in places, with floating bottles, bags and other discarded material. Holes in the streets were often marked by tires, though they remained unfilled. If you drove into one, you would not be able to drive out.

I don’t say this to discourage you from visiting Egypt. After all, if you just want to see what you are used to at home, then why travel? It is these very things that make Egypt interesting to me. 

Past and present

A fisherman on the Nile. (Note the homemade oars.)

Egypt’s pyramids were built around 2500 BC. That makes them about 4,500 years old. Think about that. Four-and-a-half thousand years ago, Egypt was organized enough and technologically advanced enough to construct pyramids that will still be there thousands of years from now. 

At many of the sites we visited, the paintings and carvings looked as if the workmen had just left the day before. The bone-dry air is a good preservative.

Egypt is a very large country, but its habitable areas are restricted to a few oases and the Nile Valley. Nearly all of its 85 million people are confined, for all practical purposes, to this strip of land that stretches for about 525 miles from Alexandria, on the Mediterranean, to Aswan.

As a result, when we were on the 4-night Nile cruise we had booked, we passed constant reminders of civilization: mud-brick houses; cattle tied up in small pens; small rowboats with nets tied to the rocks that lined the river to stop erosion; laundry hanging out to dry, and kids playing, as kids all over the world do. 

I thought about how different their lives were. The average yearly income is around $5,600, a teacher’s about $130 per month. Donkey carts, the ubiquitous motorcycles and one’s own feet seemed to be the main modes of transportation.

Egypt is a part of the world that is politically unstable, but, from what I could see, its citizens were able to segregate daily life from political life. I felt safe everywhere we went. I felt welcome everywhere we went. 

We used Kensington Tours (Wilmington, DE; 888/903-2001, www.kensingtontours.com) for our visit, and I would recommend them without reservation. They provided exactly what they said they would. The hotels were nicer than the ones we normally stay in. The guides were excellent, and they became our friends. They did a very good job in providing an excellent tour that had been modified for our specific desires.

Bill Reed dancing with a family who had called him over to have a picture taken with them.

Our February 2015 tour cost $4,430 per person, excluding international airfare, tips and one or two meals.

Egypt gave us an opportunity to see a part of the world where travel for Westerners can be difficult. We saw streets where cars went to die and were disassembled into thousands of pieces, all for sale. We saw vast stretches of desert absolutely devoid of life. We saw simple donkey carts as well as tuk-tuks tricked out with every conceivable ornament known to man. 

Go to Egypt. If you’re lucky, you can dance with a family by the Sphinx and laugh and smile until your guide retrieves you for the next adventure.