Just Back from Egypt

Fodor's Editor Douglas Stallings recently spent two weeks on a guided tour of Egypt. Among other things, he saw age-old monuments, shopped in bazaars, and sailed a felucca.

Why Egypt? This is a trip I'd dreamed about taking since I was very young, so it was really a matter of when rather than why. When the Greek historian Herodotus went to Egypt as a tourist in 400-something B.C., the Great Pyramids were already more than 2,000 years old, built by a culture that had neither metal tools nor the wheel. That sort of tells you the "why" in a nutshell. And the pyramids weren't even the most beautiful things we saw. The people we met along the way were also great. Aside from pushy trinket-sellers in the bazaars, almost everyone was gracious and nice.

What was your favorite part of the trip? I was impressed with Abu Simbel's 65-foot tall statues of Ramses II. I also enjoyed something that I thought I'd dread -- a desert camel ride. I wrapped my head in a white scarf and trotted off across the sands. It was all very Lawrence of Arabia. The mummies of Ramses II and his father Seti I at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo were also fascinating -- to think that these men probably shook the hand of Moses is also pretty impressive.

What surprised you? I thought we'd be inconvenienced by Ramadan. Instead, it was one of the best things about the trip. Being there for the beginning of the month of fasting gave us the opportunity to see the place all lit up. Although I was dead tired, some of my friends even went out on the first night of Ramadan and stayed up drinking tea and smoking sheesha with the locals in Essna.

What was essential during your trip? If you go to Egypt, you have to protect yourself from the sun and drink plenty of water. Of course all the water means you have to visit the bathroom frequently, which means you'll need to carry plenty of Egyptian 1-pound notes to tip the guys who stand around and hand you bits of toilet tissue with which to dry your hands. Although it can grate on your nerves after a while, tipping everyone is both essential and unavoidable in Egypt, and you can hardly begrudge hard-working people such small amounts.

What advice do you have for someone going to Egypt? Let someone else make the plans. This was my first guided tour, and I didn't really know if I'd like it because I usually prefer to do everything myself. But taking a tour ended up making the trip more fun and relaxing. Our guide, Rita, went above and beyond the call of duty to insulate us from the little hassles of making all the arrangements, and I appreciated that. Plus, I went with a small group of 14. I'm not so sure I'd have been as happy had I been traveling on a huge, double-decker bus with 50 or 60 other people. Happily, Egypt is affordable enough that almost anyone can hire a private guide for their own small group and travel independently if they don't want to join a big tour group.

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