It used to be that dangerous places were remote too—Bangui, anyone?—or obvious kamikaze destinations like Damascus, Baghdad or Mogadishu. But by now the list of high-risk locations has expanded to include legendarily civilized places like Paris, where one-hundred and and thirty folks got blown up in various terrorist attacks late last year, or Brussels, that drowsiest of European capitals, which morphed into a terrorist hotspot earlier this year after thirty-two people were killed at the airport and a metro station downtown.
The list goes on and it gets scarier the closer you get to home. Should we visit bars in Orlando, Florida? Historic black churches in Charleston, South Carolina? Or Chicago, home of the Cubs and also one of the highest homicide rates in the U.S.?
Even closer to us is Mexico, the world capital of criminal impunity, where you can mow down a dozen people and unless you're a singularly hapless gunman, never worry about spending a night in jail or even going before a judge. Get even closer: Did you hear about two bombs that blew up recently in downtown San Miguel de Allende, of all places?
So last month, amid flak from everyone we knew—aren't you scared?—Stew and I took off for Egypt for two weeks and we found it far more peaceful than Mexico or even many places in the U.S., thanks to an authoritarian regime not afraid to lock up anyone for just looking at a cop cross-eyed, and also a population desperate to revive the vital but comatose tourist industry and coddle the few tourists that dare visit.
Admittedly the omens were strongly against visiting Egypt. On October last year a Russian plane was blown up by a terrorist bomb shortly after takeoff from an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea, killing all 224 people on board. Hmm. Then in May of this year an EgyptAir plane spiraled to a crash in the Mediterranean, killing 66 people on board, cause yet unknown except it was caused by a fire on board supposedly unrelated to terrorism. Oh boy.
Yet after some serious head-scratching Stew and I decided to go. The cost of the tour was very attractive ($3,650 each) considering it included round trip airfares from New York and within Egypt, all meals and tours, lodgings at first-class hotels and a four-day cruise down the Nile, plus a camel ride that we skipped. Business class upgrades were about $4500.
The tour operator was Road Scholars, an educational travel outfit that we had used to visit Israel and Jordan two years ago (weren't you afraid?) and Morocco (isn't that place full of Arabs?) seven years before that. We figured, or assumed, that Road Scholars had scouts on the ground in Egypt that would pull the plug on the tour at any sign of immediate danger.
|Our ever-present pal, Ahmed Oddjob.|
In addition, we were accompanied during our bus travels by a beefy, unsmiling gentleman whose gun sometimes poked from under his suit, and who bore an uncanny resemblance to Goldfinger's sidekick Oddjob sans the steel-brimmed bowler hat. To be completely sure, our bus was escorted by a police car with four guys carrying long arms.
If such security measures evoke images of a dour police state, a la North Korea, you'd be way off the mark. I made it a habit of greeting everyone—vendors, hotel workers, passersby, policemen, young and old, men and women—with a hearty "Hello!" and my gesture was invariably returned with a smile, except for women bunkered behind black veils who acknowledged me with a modest nod. Some younger guys added an enthusiastic "Welcome!" and oddly, "Obama! Obama!" after discovering we were Americans. (Quite different from what you get from some Mexicans here who spit out "Troomp" with a tone that makes it sound like a social disease.)
Two weeks under the wing of a guided tour is not conclusive evidence of the popular climate in a foreign country. But none of the thirteen travelers on our group detected even a whiff of danger or hostility by anyone we encountered. It could be either the tight security or the Egyptians' desperation with their economic travails, aggravated by the collapse of tourism, one of the top sources of foreign earnings. Or both.
Prices were very reasonable too. The best advice I can give to potential visitors, aside from "Go!" is to carry a wad of single dollar bills. Whether to buy a trinket or tip someone for having their picture taken, "one dollar! one dollar!" seemed to be the most common way to seal a deal.
For my slideshow of Egypt, click:
(click on each image to get captions and other information)
For a New York Times slide show of Egyptian exiles, click here: