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On a Bumpy Road to Ancient Ruins

Tourists have been scared away from the Nile, but there's still much to see-and learn.

April 01, 2001|HOWARD SCHNEIDER | WASHINGTON POST / Howard Schneider is Cairo bureau chief for the Post

CAIRO — Our taxi driver pressed hard on the accelerator, trying to outrace the police van speeding ahead of us. That's why we had hired him.

On the road between Luxor and Aswan, tourists must have a police escort ever since the threat of terrorism became a concern in this part of Egypt. My family and a visiting friend had missed the start of the day's convoy. But with a driver up to the challenge, we tried to overtake the escort. Bad idea. Pedestrians and donkeys flew by at disturbing speed as the placid Egyptian landscape turned into a nerve-racking thrill ride.

Tourism in the Middle East has plunged, and most visitors who do see this part view it from a Nile cruise ship. But I think Egypt remains a safe place to travel. As the Washington Post's Cairo bureau chief since 1998, I've found there are better ways to see the country-if you are ready for some challenges.

Like the police guard we chased down outside Luxor. As we approached the rear vehicle, a hand emerged, signaling us to back off. We pulled around to pass. The driver tried to run us off the road.

We waved and gestured frantically, wearing our best stupid-Americans-on-a-road-trip smiles. The guards grudgingly waved us on and let us join the convoy.

The countryside looked peaceful again-lunar cliffs, lush green fields, iridescent Nile.

My friend Mark was visiting from the United States for 10 days. To anyone who does not want to join a neatly scripted walk around the pyramids, let Mark's journey serve as both cautionary tale and enticement. Just remember: This place is infuriating. And this place is fun.

Lesson 1: Don't Be Spooked

At the first loud pop, Mark looked for reassurance. Particularly after the killing of 58 tourists at a temple in Luxor in 1997, visitors tend to be skittish. When Mark saw children with a book of matches tittering over their firecrackers, the tension eased.

This was Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, which in some countries means four weeks of fasting and concentration on the Koran. In Cairo, it means four weeks of fasting, concentration on the Koran-and firecrackers. Walking through the Tentmakers' Bazaar on Mark's first night, we were startled by bangs and cracks.

Cairo is not a pedestrian-friendly place-too many vehicles on too-narrow streets, little observance of traffic laws, sidewalks crowded with vendors. The essence of the city, however, is missed from a bus or taxi. Strolling the animal crush of the camel market, the commercial rush of the Bulaq fabric souk or Cairo's other, lesser known markets is the best way to experience the city's age, culture and sense of humor.

We started at the Tentmakers' Bazaar, in one of the city's oldest quarters, and walked a few hundred yards to the Khan al Khalili. Plunging into crowds, dodging cars that wend down the narrow alleys, ducking loads of lumber hauled by craftsmen-it's key to seeing how Cairo lives.

We shopped briefly in the Khan, then enjoyed a late dinner at one of my favorite local greasy spoons, Mohammed Refai, with the best grilled meat we had found so far.

Lesson 2: Trust but Verify

My wife, Eleanor, tried to nail down plans for a camping trip as a highlight of Mark's visit. A friend had told us about new El Bishmo Lodge in Bahariya Oasis, about 200 miles southwest of Cairo. Weeks before Mark arrived, Eleanor began talking with a Cairo representative of the lodge and made arrangements for our group, which grew to include several neighborhood families. The Cairo contact assured her that we were all set to spend one night at the lodge and another night camping.

Eleanor followed up with phone calls to El Bishmo, but the line would never work. She hunted down a fax number, but that never went through. The lodge's agent in Cairo kept promising everything was arranged.

People often face this dilemma in Egypt: Do you let the endemic disorganization defeat you, or do you go ahead with your plans? No matter what happens, someone will help. This country is so good at creating problems that people get a lot of practice fixing them.

So we proceeded as planned and drove to El Bishmo. The lodge had no idea we were coming.

"Welcome, welcome," said the owner, Saleh Abdullah, who put a brave face on his quandary-customers but no food, no sleeping bags, no tents and no guide.

Rooms, however, were available. The staff pulled together a nice dinner and directed us to a mineral pool for a late-night dip. We talked to the owner and his chief desert guide about our camping trip the next day, and they set an agenda: Leave at 10 a.m. with tents and food, drive two to three hours, explore the desert in the afternoon and watch the stars at night.

By noon the next day, we were still waiting for equipment to arrive. The guide was nowhere to be seen. For a one-day trip, the delay was infuriating. By the time we reached the campsite and had the tents pitched, the sun was setting.

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