Rainer Jenss and his family are currently on an around-the-world journey, and they’re blogging about their experiences for us at Intelligent Travel. Keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts, and follow the boys’ Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.
One of the benefits of having traveled throughout Africa for the last two months is that it has kept us in an information void for some extended stretches at time (Carol fondly refers to this as being in our little bubble). We did manage to watch Barack Obama being sworn in just a couple hours after we toured a township in South Africa, and I was able to retrieve sporadic e-mails in the bush from friends and family raving about how lucky we were to be on this trip while filling us in on the happenings from back home. And it seems like every correspondence we’ve received has made some sort of reference to the lousy economy and how ominous the mood is in the U.S. I’m quick to reply that the places we’ve been to are feeling it too, proving that there’s truth to the saying that when America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.
From what we’ve experienced, I can attest that one sector deeply affected by the global financial crisis has been the travel industry. This was evident from all the empty hotel rooms and sparse crowds we’d seen in recent weeks. Although it’s true that countries like South Africa, Kenya, and especially Zimbabwe have been impacted by social unrest and political instability, the economic slowdown has clearly compounded the fact that traffic is down as much as 60% in some places.
One country that didn’t seem as affected was Egypt. If they’ve lost business as a result of people cutting back on vacation spending, it was hard to notice. The same seems true for Jordan, which found us in full planes and sold-out hotels for our excursion to Petra. Maybe not as many Americans are there as formerly, but the usual mix of German, French and Japanese tourists appeared well represented. We also heard plenty of Indian, Russian and Chinese accents, and from what we can gather, travelers from these emerging countries might be compensating for any drop off from our part of the world.
Now I can’t tell you if Egypt and/or Jordan are bucking a travel trend, but it’s easy to see why they would continue to attract such strong visitation from people the world over. There’s just nowhere else on the planet that has such exquisite and well-preserved antiquities. What’s more, you don’t have to be physically fit or have a specific interest in archaeology or history to enjoy what’s offered here. Everyone and anyone, no matter how old or young, can appreciate ancient Egyptian art and be intrigued by the stories that comprise its history – especially pre-teen boys. They have tales of mummies, kings and queens, buried treasures, murder mysteries, and hieroglyphs to decode. So there’s little wonder why my oldest son Tyler was looking forward to visiting Egypt more than anyplace else on this trip.
We were also privileged to have one of the best guides in the business to help feed the boys inquisitiveness. By choosing a National Geographic Expeditions tour to explore Egypt, we assured ourselves exclusive access to things like a 5,000-year-old mummy still resting inside its original burial chamber, a lecture from the world’s preeminent Egyptologist, Dr. Zahi Hawass, and a look inside a newly excavated workman’s tomb that’s all but perfectly preserved and not yet open to the general public. But none of this could top the engaging storytelling and personal perspective that Akram ‘Aki’ Allam brought to the whole experience. It takes a serious talent to keep two kids interested in a hot and crowded Cairo Museum tour for four hours, never mind fourteen less fidgety adults. If what they say is true that a tour is only as good as the guide leading it, than we were quite fortunate. I wonder who else could have arranged a dinner in the home of an Egyptian family living in the heart of Cairo? We certainly preferred sharing a home-cooked meal with locals over eating at a five-star hotel dining room, and by the time the evening ended, so did everyone else.
Another big benefit to going on tour with such an experienced group leader was that he knew exactly when and when not to visit the more important attractions. I don’t think it was a case of happenstance that we pulled out of the parking lot of places like the Karnak Temple or the Pyramids of Giza just as busloads of other tourists came pouring in. Instead of visiting the Valley of the Kings first thing in the morning as most others do, we went there when it’s much quieter – right after lunch. Other groups don’t typically want to deal with the midday heat, but since it was still spring and only reached a high of about 75 degrees, this was no sweat (literally). Furthermore, we had no problem getting access to go inside King Tutankhamen’s tomb, a highlight for many of us, including the boys.
Perhaps the most impressive demonstration of Aki’s influence came when we flew from Cairo to Abu Simbel for a 90-minute side trip to visit one of the greatest ancient relics in all of Egypt. We arrived at an overflowing security line in Cairo airport just 40 minutes before our scheduled 6:30 a.m. departure (apparently, Egypt Air thinks it’s a good idea to have all internal “tourist” flights leave at pretty much the same time). Calm as could be, Aki called one of his connections at the airport and we were whisked right through the two security checkpoints, much to the surprise and noticeable displeasure of the other waiting passengers.
During the two weeks we spent in the Middle East, we found ourselves out of our little bubble, but instead of going back to the “real world,” we transported ourselves back thousands of years to a time when the Nile was ruled by pharaohs and life was just a preparation for the eternal afterlife one hoped for upon death. National Geographic Expeditions made it easy for us to do so, taking the logistical challenges out of our hands. For Jordan, we’d be back on our own, prepared to handle anything that came our way.
Photos: Rainer Jenss