Samer Salib, or 'Sem Sem' he says with a smile from ear to ear, has met a lot of Kiwis. "Thousands," he says.
Kiwis off on their OE from one of the youngest countries, touring around one of the oldest. Sem Sem is a world renowned tour guide in his beloved country of Egypt, home to the most ancient of civilisations.
This extremely modest man has an infectious passion for his country that can't help but rub off on anyone who tours with him. He's had such an impact on so many people that just recently, he won the Wanderlust Tour Guide of the year, Gold Award.
With judges like the famed travel writer Bill Bryson, this is no mean feat. The awards started out with more than 2500 international nominees so to take out the top prize and have Bryson call you things like "inspirational" and "life changing" somehow make this humble man, even more so.
I was lucky enough, fortunate even, to travel around Egypt with Sem Sem in 2013 in a time of political revolution. But this seems to have only spurred him on to spread the wonder his country has to offer.
I sat down with him to find out what makes a good guide.
How does it feel to inspire so many people, and enrich everyone's experience?
Yalla! Super happy, joy. It's a big thing. You know how big Bill [Bryson] is in the industry, but forget how he gave me the award. The fact that he said Sem Sem changes people's lives, that's too big, you know. Can you imagine that you're the reason for changing someone's life? Itself, it's better than the award. Helping people when they come here, say someone comes after a break up or they are sad and they see things of my country and they go home super happy. You've done something big.
You've met thousands of Kiwis, are we as good at travelling as we think we are?
Yes definitely. You have the culture of travel. You guys are very flexible. Travel doesn't always go as planned and you're very prepared for that. It doesn't always go right, so the adventure itself is in making the wrong, right and that's what you excel at.
Why are guides important?
It's embarrassing to talk about yourself, so I'll talk about the good tour guides, not me. But good tour guides change the experience to be from a good experience to an amazing experience. Bad ones take a good experience and make it horrible. What makes a good tour guide is to be able to think on his feet and take strong decisions, but not impulsive.
Is it hard being a guide in a country affected by so much upheaval and uncertainty?
If your job is in tourism, you are so lucky to be born in a place like Egypt. Nowadays it's hard, but, from 2005 to 2011 I was praying for days off. So if things go to a bad point, that doesn't mean I was unlucky to be born here, it helps make me a better person. And nothing stays bad.
Is tourism recovering in Egypt since the revolution?
Everything is fine. It's getting back to normal and will be even better. We're just missing economic stability. Actually, it's already started. I look at the companies I work with and it's growing. This year is better than last year and next year will be even better.
From the Great Pyramids to ancient temples and invaluable artefacts, you're spoilt for choice on where to take travellers. What's your favourite?
For me, everything in Egypt is glorious but if you want to experience the glory of the ancient Egyptians, look at the Valley of the Kings. How they changed that valley to be the most amazing tombs and the best art a person could do. Can you imagine your notebook when you were in grade three? It's faded now, right? You've been to the Valley of the Kings with me, how beautiful were the colours? This is untouched, it's outstanding. The way they designed the tombs and worked to keep the things in them so the tomb raiders couldn't get to them. It always fascinates me.
They did well to keep the tomb raiders out, but you've just been in London to accept the award and you saw the Rosetta Stone, probably one of the most precious artefacts, in the British Museum. Would you like it back?
The whole science of Egyptology came from the Rosetta stone. That's when we started to decode the reveals of the stone. And I was seeing it in another museum, how sad is this?
An amazing part of your tour is when you decipher some of the hieroglyphs. Which is your favourite symbol?
Easy, it's the Ankh. [ ☥ ] It symbolises life and it shows Egypt itself. Egypt is the life of Egyptians.
We're spoilt for choice on how to tour the world these days, why take a tour guide instead of just using guide books and the internet?
Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet, Top 5 Rough Guides, they all offer great information, but it's from the writer's point of view, who could be completely different from you. The difference is a tour guide has dealt with so many people so I understand the different kinds of interests. The guide books just add to the experience. They'll never say go and eat in a local house - but we do this as it helps enrich the experience. And if you are travelling to a place like Egypt where so much changes, forget the annual guide, you'd have to find a monthly new edition.
-- Sent from my monopoly-free Linux system.