Sunday, February 22, 2009

Outside the Security Zone

Most Nile cruises stay between Aswan and Luxor, a stretch of river that is heavily protected by Egyptian security forces. Egypt took a big economic hit in 1997 when the Luxor attack scared off tourists, and the government is determined that this won't happen again.

But some outstanding historical sites are north of Luxor. The Temple of Hathor at Dendara, for example, has fascinating carvings, a nifty crypt, a zodiac, beautiful views, mellow vendors, and, some would argue, images of the world's first light bulb.

If your boat heads up there, the river is much less crowded, and the residents are extremely friendly (photo above). But security does become more of an issue.

In our case, there were three new layers of security. First, courtesy of the government, several heavily-armed members of the security forces came on board. Second, also courtesy of the government, we picked up an armed escort in a small boat (photo). Third, ground travel occurred in convoys of buses led by a military escort.

All this trouble is worth it, because the sites north of Luxor are amazing (even for a group suffering "temple fatique"). But the security situation can provide some unexpected moments.

In our case, the most tension occured on the return bus ride from Dendara. We were the last bus in the convoy. About halfway back to the dock, the vehicles all had to slow down to cross some railroad tracks. The military vehicle made it across, as did the first four mini-buses in our convoy. But just before we could cross, the crossing master pushed down a barrier, preventing us from crossing the tracks. Other vehicles pulled up behind us, of course, so we were completely blocked from moving. And then we sat there. No one did anything threatening, but our tensions rose as no train appeared. We looked across the tracks and could see that the rest of the convoy, including the military vehicle, hadn't stopped, leading to much discussion of whether that was appropriate convoy protocol. We are all in this together, until we're not?

Happily, it didn't really matter. We weren't going to be the victims of some imagined ambush. Instead, we were merely the victims of an overly-conservative crossing master. After six or seven minutes, a train did emerge -- at great speed, we should note -- and once it passed, we were on our way.

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