Saturday, May 10, 2008

Dollar Still Counts On The Streets Of Luxor

Written After Visit To Luxor, Egypt--

Five hundred Prinsendam passengers went in a police-protected convoy on a 300-mile roundtrip to see the ancient temples and tombs of Luxor, on the Nile River, Saturday, and it was a great trip by several counts.

But on a voyage when we have often been reminded how far the dollar has sunk compared to the Euro (although it has rebounded a little in recent weeks), we found a deal while stalled in traffic in downtown Luxor that outmatched anything on the trip. In the hotel where we had lunch, they were asking $25 each for colorful papyrus prints. A peddler on the street, however, was selling the same prints, which look like paintings, for a dollar each. And one woman on our tour bus finally bought everything another peddler had for 50 cents apiece.

We had many impressions on the 13-hour trip in ten buses. Of course, the antiquities were wonderful, and it was great to see the Nile River, almost a mile wide and 100 feet deep at Luxor, with some of the 350 luxury craft which cruise up and down the river, at anchor on the river bank adjacent to downtown Luxor (an impressive city of 1.4 million people).

A few years ago, in a tragic day, Islamic terrorists slaughtered scores of tourists visiting the antiquities in Luxor, including 60 Swiss tourists. After that horrific episode, Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, vowed never to let it happen again, and he has subsequently assigned strong police and military guards to tourists traveling to Luxor and elsewhere in Egypt. Tourism is probably the biggest revenue-producer Egypt has, so this makes eminent good sense.

We saw the security guard in operation today, and it was well done. When we left the port of Safaga on the Red Sea first thing in the morning, the convoy of buses was headed by a police truck carrying several machine gun-wielding officers. Police cars followed the procession, and at each intersection, all other traffic was blocked, including that coming from the opposite direction, and police and soldiers carrying rifles or machine guns stood guard on the streets. It all came off without a hitch. Whoever said, Egypt was poorly organized?

The first 110 miles of the trip was through a barren desert, with hardly a bush or a tree, and no irrigated farmland. But 40 miles from the Nile, we began running aside an irrigation canal, and from then on, it was lush farm land, every square inch beyond houses and huts it seemed covered with a variety of crops, and even on the banks of the canal, sugar cane was growing. It was a repeat of something we've seen elsewhere in Africa on this tour: The inhabitants are often poverty-stricking, but they make use of everything they have to eke out a living.

Still, life is not easy. For every tractor or truck we saw hauling produce to market, we saw at least 10 simple wagons, pulled by a donkey. And many people carried their own produce to market.

In every village we went through, the most impressive buildings were the minarets of mosques, towering over everything, a striking display of the preeminent role of Islam in Egypt.

But also impressive to me was that nearly every woman we saw, and there were far fewer women on the streets than men, was not only veiled but covered from head to toe in usually totally black garments.

I could not help but think what a boon it would be to all these countries in the Middle East to liberate the women, to allow them to take their place in the modern world, rather than to be so subservient (and, in the customary heat here, uncomfortable).

Nonetheless, Luxor itself often conveyed an impression of prosperity. There are many fine hotels and gift shops of all kinds. This is in a way, a tourists' paradise. Many of the cruise ships that sail from Luxor up the river to Aswan looked very appealing.

We are leaving Safaga late tonight, and will be passing up the Gulf of Suez tomorrow and then through the Suez Canal on Monday.

--

I'm glad to see Sen. Hillary Clinton has said she regrets her statement to USA Today about the support she's been getting from the "hard working Americans, white Americans." Bob Herbert has an excellent column in today's New York Times about that statement, with its racist tinge. Hillary should abandon all her snide attacks on Sen. Barack Obama, and start going with the flow. He deserves her full support, for his campaign has been a dignified and worthy one, not to say inspirational, and there is every prospect he will be the next President. Hillary should be worried about her next Senate campaign in New York, not to mention her standing in the U.S. Senate if she begins to sound like Bilbo and Talmadge.

A woman on the trip complained to me today, "It seems like everyone in Africa is for Obama." I replied, "Nearly everyone in the world is for him. Let's just hope the American people have the good sense to go along with that opinion."

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