‘This is not my work. Travel is my love; it’s my life.’
When you first meet Hany Mostafa, his passion for Egypt is palpable. He’s been leading small group adventures in his home country for Intrepid Travel since 2005, and he’s just as enthusiastic about showing visitors Egypt’s many sites, smells and flavours now as he was when he first started.
While most travellers want to see the Pyramids of Giza or float down the Nile aboard a felucca, one of Hany’s favourite things to share with his groups is Egypt’s national dish (and perhaps the original comfort food): koshari.
‘It’s a very traditional meal, made up of rice, macaroni, lentils, fried onion, and topped with garlic sauce. You look at it and think “Ahh, what’s going on here?”. But then you taste it… My groups always ask me “Hany, is there another opportunity to have koshari?” after they try their first one. It’s very delicious and everyone must eat it.’
Another unexpected drawcard to travel in Egypt? Engaging with the locals and hearing their stories. ‘Everyone expects the highlights of their travels here will be seeing the pyramids. But the real highlight can be found anywhere; in local coffee shops, on the roadside, at the homestay we visit on the Nile. It’s hearing the stories of the locals.’
Travellers are also surprised by how warm and welcoming people in Egypt are. Hany tells me ‘You can wander through the markets and people will say “Welcome, can I help you?”. My groups often tell me “Hany, we feel so welcome here!”. In some places we visit, like the Nubian village on Elephantine Island in Aswan, the locals can only speak a little bit of English, but they know how to say “Welcome to Egypt, we’re so happy to have you here.”’
In 2011, Hany faced one of the biggest challenges of his life. He was leading a 12-day trip with a group of 12 Intrepid travellers from Australia, Canada and the USA. They were cruising from Aswan to Luxor, and stopped to see the Kom Ombo temple. ‘When we arrived, the army was there and they told us not to stop, and to keep sailing. We continued on to Luxor and had no idea what was going on.’
It wasn’t until they arrived in Luxor that Hany discovered Egypt was in the grips of a revolution. On January 25th, various groups across the country coordinated demonstrations, calling out police brutality, lack of freedom of speech, and corruption under Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. Their demands? The end of the Murabak regime. The police retaliated with tear gas and water cannons, and violence broke out across Egypt. Cairo was described as a war zone.
‘When we arrived in Luxor, there were people everywhere. Thousands of people were in the main squares, asking for democracy, social justice, better healthcare… The government said they’d make improvements, but things just got worse. It was a very dangerous time to be in Egypt.
‘I got word from Intrepid HQ that we needed to get my group to the airport and out of the country; someone from the embassy would meet us and help everyone get home to their countries. My job went from showing my travellers the sights of Egypt to getting them out of the country safely.’
There was no internet and hard to get phone reception, so Hany needed help from the locals to get his group to the airport. He met with a taxi driver to talk about the safest route, away from the main squares and troubled areas; they drove to the airport together – just Hany and the driver – to ensure it would be safe. When they arrived, Hany bought plane tickets for everyone, then returned to the boat and called a group meeting.
‘I needed to let everyone know what was going on, and that I was going to help get them back to Cairo, so they can all get home safely. We got into several taxis and I asked them all to keep their heads down. The drivers all followed the same route we’d mapped out earlier in the day.’
Hany’s group flew to Cairo that afternoon, and arrived at about 7pm in the evening. However, when they arrived, there was a curfew in place, and no one could leave the airport. That night, they slept on the ground while Hany worked with Intrepid’s operations team to get flights out of the country for everyone. It took a few days, but everyone got out of Egypt safely. Hany stayed with them until his last passenger left.
‘It was very important to me; I needed to be with them until the last one had boarded the plane.’
Hany has stayed in touch with everyone in the group. ‘I get messages from them on Facebook all the time, from Australia, Canada, the US. They all ask how I am and when I’m going to come and visit them.’
Seven years ago, country-wide curfews kept locals indoors after dark, but now Egypt’s cities come alive at night. Travellers are returning to the region, and tourism is on the rise. According to Hany, things feel safer now. The streets are bustling; the souks even more so. They’re lit up with lanterns, and the coffee houses within buzz with activity – musicians playing their instruments, men smoking shishas, and the hum of conversation between locals. It’s cooler too, and a great time for everyone to come out, to socialise, to catch up. This is also the best time to have those conversations Hany mentioned earlier. So order yourself a coffee, pull up a chair, and share some stories with new friends.
Experience the best of Egypt with a local leader like Hany. Explore our range of small group adventures now.
Feature image by Pat O’Neill.