Egypt for all
Are you disabled and looking to travel? It shouldn't be a problem. Gihan Shahine guides you through a selection of programmes designed to offer disabled travellers the full-fair of Egyptian fun
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For Hans Becker, a disabled German traveller, visiting Egypt was a dream he thought would never come true. Venturing into a pyramid or tomb, diving into the Red Sea, going on a camel-trek, or cruising along the exotic palm tree-lined Nile banks, were long considered "risky" adventures for wheelchair-confined tourists. And for those who were blind or deaf-mute, exploring the archeological treasures of Egypt and the intriguing world of the Pharaohs, were equally challenging excursions.
For Becker, however, things changed when he stumbled across a travel programme aimed to help people with special needs experience the same adventures as able-bodied tourists.
"Egypt For All" is the name, and literally aim, of the travel programme that changed Becker's life. Launched in 1999 and operated by Sobek travel, the programme offers tours around Egypt -- including Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, and Hurghada -- and an array of activities that help break the confines of disability.
What started as a solitary project, however, has now become one of a handful. Other such programmes include The British non-profit Scuba Trust, which organises diving trips and training courses in Sharm El-Sheikh and Taba in south Sinai, and Hurghada on the Red Sea, for those in wheelchairs. For those preferring to stay above ground-level, a Swiss programme provides specialised camel tours for the physically-challenged in Sinai, and the German non-profit Biblische Reisen and its Cairo- based agent Wings Tours provide interesting packages for Egypt-bound blind and deaf-mute tourists.
Albeit few and small-scaled, these specialised travel packages have proved successful -- although not yet adequate to cater to the estimated market of 19 million disabled European tourists alone. For those who have experimented with Egypt's youthful special services, the success thus far has been great.
Going wild on wheelchairs
"I had a lifetime experience that I always thought was impossible," recounted Becker, describing his recent visit to Egypt with the Egypt for All team. "The whole trip was a dream that came true."
Others were more detailed in their expression of awe.
"We took a private yacht, went out into the open in the Red Sea, and stopped at some beautiful coral reefs, where it was a good opportunity for those who wanted to snorkel," San Claus, another wheelchair-bound German tourist recalled. "Although yachting and snorkelling may sound far- fetched for wheelchair-users," Claus says, "the Egypt for All team made everything possible."
While Claus' experience may sound "on the edge" for someone confined to a chair, more intriguing, perhaps, was the exalting experience of yet another German wheelchair- user who boarded an ultra-light (a delta glider with a motor which has the capacity of having a pilot and a passenger) over the picturesque lake-patched and flower-bedded landscape of Al-Gouna.
"The flight made me forget about my disability and my wheelchair," Gregor Reichart said, the excitement oozing from his eyes and smile. "It was like a dream to me. I never felt myself that free before."
That freedom is the essence of Egypt for All.
"Our philosophy is that your disability is never a constraint as long as your mind tunes in with our adventure and exploration spirit," enthused Martin Gaballah of Egypt for All. "For us, nothing is impossible, you come up with an idea and we just make it work for you."
Egypt for All is the joint effort of Sherif Hendi, a tour guide, and Gaballah, a mechanical engineer. The programme targets whoever needs special care -- paraplegics, blind people and the elderly.
"We started in 1998 when Egypt was still largely inaccessible to disabled tourists," Hendi told Al-Ahram Weekly. "But that inadequacy in facilities did not stop us. After all, Egyptian people are very friendly and that makes up for the lack of services available for those who need special care."
But friendliness does not quite go all the way -- the programme continues to be challenging, and at times, taxing.
"I studied first-hand the tiniest details about the lives of the disabled -- how they live, and what services they need," Hindi told the Weekly. "Then, every time we receive a group of tourists we get all the needed information about the kind of disability they have beforehand and the kind of activities they want, and we adapt our programme accordingly."
The real challenge resides in the fact that the programme usually includes activities stereotypically considered off- limits for paraplegics. As a mechanical engineer, Gaballah has the know-how of pushing and pulling wheelchairs with minimum effort expenditure, but in Egypt, the law of gravity sometimes seemingly defies itself.
"The main problem we face in Egypt is that wherever you go there is always the chance of finding a patch of stairs or sand that is difficult for the disabled to negotiate," Gaballah explained.
Somehow, so far, the team has managed to get by. Egypt for All tourists have been seen navigating gently and safely through bazaars and the bustling streets of Cairo, going down into tombs, touching the 5000-year-old stones of the Pyramids, and taking a hot-air balloons up into Cairene skies.
"I just can't remember how many times I took Martin for crazy," joked Claudia Ehler, a 30-year old German editor with a walking impairment. "But he just made my trip to Egypt so rich, adventurous and, more importantly, so problem-free."
Ehler too was initially told she was "crazy" by her friends, venturing into Egypt with her 100-kilogramme- heavy electronic wheelchair. "But I set my mind to it anyway," Ehler said. "Now that I'm back to Germany, I am glad Martin took so many photos, for otherwise, no one would have believed I had so many wild adventures in Egypt," she told the Weekly via e-mail. "I love Egypt and I plan to come back in April."
For some physically challenged individuals, a distant introduction to the wonders of the Pyramids and the Sphinx through a bus tour around the Giza plateau may be satisfactory.
"But for Martin that was not enough," Ehler recounted. "He had a spare wheelchair folded in his car which was much lighter than mine and with that pushing and pulling exercise, I was rolled down closer to the Pyramids."
It went on.
"Martin then suggested I should try to ride on a camel," Ehler continued. "I surrendered. Actually I found no reason why I should get anymore surprised by Martin's crazy suggestions." Ehler laughed. "Five people carried me on the camel and Martin sat behind," she proceeded. "I found myself shouting with excitement: 'hey! Hold me tight'. It was a great experience -- but it also made me appreciate the comfort of my wheelchair."
In Luxor and Aswan, paraplegics are offered similar opportunities.
"Just like regular tourists, we provide the physically- challenged with the same unforgettable experiences of visiting the Abu Simbel temple, the High Dam, the Elephantine Island, the Nubian Museum, and the great obelisks of Karnak Temples," Hendi said. Disabled tourist also indulge in other activities with less momentum, such as watching breathtaking sunsets in Aswan's old Cataract, relaxing on felucca rides, relishing folkloric music and food, and having barbecues under the moon light of a desert safari.
For Ehler, the Fayoum safari was the most idyllic.
"It was already afternoon," Ehler reminisced. "Mats were spread on the sand, a wind protection was fixed on the jeep, a Barbecue set was unloaded. We barbecued and watched a breathtaking sunset. It was indescribable. The atmosphere was surreal -- just like that found in novels."
Desert Safari's are not the only trips offering a taste of surrealism. One particular Sinai-based programme offers camel trek tours for wheelchair users and blind people. The programme was launched in 2001 by Silvia Muggli, owner and manager of the Nakhla Tours in Switzerland, in cooperation with Lont Group in Cairo.
"We already had camel-ride tours for the able-bodied," Muggli told the Weekly. "So we thought, why not make this special adventure available to everybody."
Not quite as simple as it sounds.
"It is quite hilly in the Sinai desert, so we have to choose the roots that are wheelchair accessible," Muggli said. Paraplegics are also provided with a "click and go" -- special wheels designed to help the manoeuverability of wheelchairs in the sand -- and a special camping toilet for the disabled. Sleeping places, Muggli explained, should also be accessible to the cars that bring in the luggage every evening, and Bedouins help ensure the safety of the disabled on their camels.
Despite the organisational difficulties, Muggli finds camel adventures personally rewarding.
"I always enjoy seeing the bright, shining eyes of the disabled while sitting around the fire in the desert, watching the stars, and hearing them say they cannot believe this dream came true," Muggli said.
While the desert certainly offers a sense of liberation, diving is said to be the best retreat for those in wheelchairs, giving them a sense of freedom and manoeuverability under the water. For those looking for that lack of physical restraint and the experience of snorkelling and diving in the Red Sea -- the world's richest in coral reefs and marine life -- the Scuba Trust (ST), a non-profit organisation in the United Kingdom, helps people with disabilities learn to dive, organising regular trips to Taba, Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh. [The Camel Drive Resort in Sharm El-Sheikh and the Reef 2000 diving centre in Dahab also provide professional diving and snorkelling lessons for the disabled.]
"Diving has opened up a whole new world for me," said ST trustee Gill Cullwick, who is also a wheelchair user. "It is both therapeutic and enjoyable. The freedom I have underwater is wonderful. I just feel like anybody else, there are no wheelchairs or crutches to make one look any different from other divers."
The disabled usually require special fins and masks -- discreet, though, in that they make them indistinguishable from able-bodied divers. They are also assisted in the water by a "buddy" -- specially licensed to assist the disabled.
Catering to wheel-chair bound tourists is a challenge, serving blind visitors to the country gives "challenging" a meaning of its own.
Sights that cannot be seen
Blind people and sightseeing are a complex combination; one tackled by Egypt For All, the Swiss Nakhla-tours and the German non-profit Biblische Reisen and its Cairo-based agent Wings Tours.
Ziyad Anwar, a tour guide with Wings Tours, spoke to the Weekly about some of the packages available.
"In Cairo, we visit the Egyptian museum, the Pyramids and the Sphinx, Saqqara and Memphis as well as monasteries in Wadi Natrun," Anwar said. "We also have a nice walk in the bazaars of Khan Al-Khalili and pay a visit to a specialised school for blind people where tourists enjoy exchanging experiences with blind students."
Blind people see through their "wise fingers", he said, and their sharp mental and hearing abilities. Guides simultaneously act as companions, providing the descriptive details during sightseeing escapades.
"In the case of the Egyptian Museum, blind visitors are only allowed to touch granite and alabaster antiquities," Anwar said. In case of large monuments, as is the case with the Pyramids and Sphinx, they are handed small reproduction statues to explore the shape of the monuments in question.
"In Luxor and Aswan, we usually stay in a Nile cruise where limited area and big staff make it easier for the blind to move around safely," Anwar said, adding that it is also carried out in remote and serene archeological sites where blind tourists can enjoy touching and listening away from the distracting commotion of large crowds. One of those areas of serenity is the desert.
"I just take care that they get all the information they need such as where to find a place for toilet or how to find the group again," Muggli explained. "We also guide them while walking, explaining what we see and let them touch the stones and sand themselves."
Catering to the blind is on the increase -- more and more agencies addressing the need. For those whose world is one of silence, however, the options are more limited.
Sightseeing in silence
The German Biblische Reisen and its Cairo based agent Wings Tours are the only tour operators providing publicised annual packages tailored to deaf-mute visitors to Egypt.
"We do the same activities we do with regular tourists, but we just provide sign language translation and guidebooks with all the historical background of every site we visit," Anwar said. "Sometimes I feel that the deaf-mute and the blind enjoy sightseeing more than any other regular tourist. They have strong will and great ability to explore."
Perhaps because the seeming givens of sight, sound and movement, are not givens.
Egypt for All
Web site: http://www.egyptforall.com
Sobek fax: (+202 302 4546)
Camel Tours for the disabled
Tel: (+2010 655 4943).
Gill Cullwick on 01797 361975
Tel: (+202 407 0511) or (+202 407 0512)