Sameh Nazeeh is no ordinary guide. From the moment we meet him, we know we are in the hands of a man passionate about his country.
I had sought an Egyptian holiday for my family that combined two seemingly irreconcilable aims: I wanted us to visit all the mainstream sites, but to do it in a way that differed from that of the travelling hordes.
These were the instructions for our tailor-made trip: get to as many places as possible, provide us with a guide seriously versed in ancient history, find a Nile experience that avoids the usual nightmares and throw in some diving at the end. Most important of all, show us parts of “real Egypt” that others don’t bother to see.
Bright and early on our first morning, our minibus disgorged us in an unprepossessing Cairo backstreet. There we found the Productive Families’ Centre, a small co-operative that teaches young women to sew, giving them a basic, independent income. Some of the pupils are deaf.
For our daughters, Alex, 16, and Constance, 12, the discomfort of voyeurism was outweighed by the warmth of the girls they met. Chatting away in pidgin English, they showed them their creations — brightly coloured pyjamas and nightdresses decorated with ribbons, and a fetching dressing gown that I was persuaded to buy.
The Egypt of the tourist brochure is a mixture of modern luxury and past glories. We embraced the latter at every step of the way, but throughout our trip we wanted to talk about the present. While driving through the Sinai desert, we were shown spent shells from the two wars with Israel; we talked terrorism when we encountered the ubiquitous Tourist Police checkpoints.
We talked marriage, too, or at least Alex did, as we visited the Giza pyramids and the less-visited but more evocative pyramids at Saqqara. She asked Sam (as we called him) the rights and wrongs of Ramses II’s acquisition of wives. Just how many wives is enough, she wanted to know.They debated numbers.
The only time our daughters bowed out of our marathon sessions was after an overnight train to Aswan. My wife, Lucy, Sam and I went straightaway to take a small wooden boat to the Philae temple, where Sam gave us a lesson in hieroglyphs and recounted the stories of Isis and Osiris.
From evocative beauty to utilitarian ugliness: we headed for the High Dam, the great symbol of post-colonial Egyptian nationalism, and visited the memorial to friendship with the USSR, its gargantuan concrete slabs pointing to the sky.
The biggest surprise still awaited us. We boarded our own boat, a dahabeah, blinking at the opulence. Downstairs was an air-conditioned sitting area, a series of cabins and suites. The girls had already made themselves at home, particularly on the state-of-the-art massage chair.
Upstairs, we had the run of the deck, from where we were served sumptuous meals. As we tucked into lunch, a sudden gust of desert wind sent plates and glasses crashing. More to the point, we looked over the side to find a capsized felucca.
We dragged in a young Italian couple, in shock, providing them with spare clothes, and within minutes the Egyptian police had scrambled divers to the bottom of the river to recover their valuables. The police chief celebrated by trying out the massage chair. “No photos,” he entreated me.
We drifted along down the Nile, sometimes by sail, sometimes dragged by a tug. Sam taught me the Egyptian variant of backgammon, and our games became increasingly competitive.
One night, as we prepared to go to bed, we were summoned onto the deck, from where the crew, led by their charismatic boss, Mohammed, took us onto land by tug. We all danced around a campfire to the sound of Nubian drums; it was well past 2am, but the girls were too busy doing jigs and laughing to notice.
The next morning, I had agreed with Sam to help “clean” the Nile. We went back on shore to a spot where other tourists had been living it up the night before and filled several bin liners with empty bottles of beer and vodka, ketchup sachets and soiled nappies. Depressing, but it allowed me to sit smugly at the breakfast table, as the rest of the family was only just getting up.
Back on land, we encountered the first stirrings of rebellion when Sam decreed with a smile that we must wake at 5am. By lunch, he reminded us, the temperature would reach 50C. So, in just one morning, we took in the temples at Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and the remarkable temple of Hatshepsut. Thus we were more than ready for some downtime by the Red Sea.
A short flight away, Dahab, with its strip of easy-come, easy-go restaurants and shops selling knick-knacks, is infinitely preferable to gaudy Sharm el Sheikh.
Our five days of diving and sun were punctuated by an all-night walk to the spot where Moses was said to have received the Ten Commandments. Up above, on a moonless night, we could see Mars from one angle, Venus at another. We trudged up the steep mountain, spirits flagging only towards the end when confronted by 700 man-made steps.
Rarely did we come across other groups. We arrived at 4am and slept for an hour and a half before the sun rose. As we woke, we were confronted with a different scene. Hundreds of tourists had somehow made it up after us, including rowdy French teenagers and loud Russians in high heels.
For once, and only once throughout our spectacular fortnight, we endured the Egypt package experience. With careful planning it had been possible to achieve the right mix: our children got to see the same sites that others do, but they discovered a smattering of the real Egypt, too.
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