"Are you out of your mind?" That was the general reaction of most of my friends when I told them I was going to Egypt on vacation. Wasn't I scared I'd end up like one of those tourists massacred near Luxor last November? And what about the threat of another war with Iraq?
But my trip to Egypt had been in the works for months, long before Islamic militants gunned down 62 people at the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, or Saddam Hussein risked another clash with the U.S. government over the inspection of suspected nuclear weapons sites. Thus, my determined group of 11 friends and relatives brazenly forged ahead with our prepaid package tour - though we did have the good sense to make sure we could get our money back if we canceled at the last minute.Concerns about a showdown with Iraq had pretty much faded by the time we left for Egypt in mid-March. Still, the news of plummeting tourism did give us pause, even as we heard enticing reports of travel bargains and no lines at the Pyramids.
I'm now back from Egypt - a two-week adventure that took us as far north as Alexandria and as far south as Abu Simbel - and am happy to report that we all had a super, and safe, stay. Ironically, while in Egypt, we turned on CNN and learned of the violence happening at home - on a schoolyard in Arkansas. My travel companions and I concluded that we were in more danger from sandstorms and Cairo traffic than from terrorists.
"Luxor is now guarded like a castle," our tour coordinator, Wael A. Aly, assured us after we arrived in Cairo. And so is just about everything else in this Land of the Pharaohs.
The Nov. 17 temple attack by six gunmen killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians, including a guide, and exposed lax security measures at this and other tourist sights. Yet it also galvanized Egypt's secular military-backed government, which since 1992 has been the target of a largely underground revolt by Islamic fundamentalists that has killed more than 1,200 people on both sides.
The attack at the massive, three-level mortuary Temple of Queen Hat-shep-sut, an imposing limestone edifice that dates to 1500 B.C. and honors Egypt's only female Pharaoh, was the worst slaughter in the country's modern history. It shocked the nation and temporarily scuttled tourism - a mainstay of the Egyptian economy.
But since that lethal assault, where tourists from Switzerland, Britain, Japan and Germany were slain, the Egyptian government has taken extraordinary precautions to protect its visitors.
Whereas only two police guards were on duty at the temple the day of the "accident" - that's what most Egyptians call the massacre - it and other famed temple and burial sites as well as the country's capital and busiest museums are now crawling with security.
"What happened was a horrible, horrible tragedy, but there was also a silver lining," said Abdelaleem El-Abyad, director of the Egyptian Embassy's press office here. "It made the tourist authorities very much aware of what needs to be done - and (Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak) was the first to blame them. The whole concept of security has changed."
From the day my group landed in Cairo, about 310 miles north of Luxor, an armed guard was on our tour bus at all times. Not a piece of luggage was loaded onto it until the bag had been identified by its owner. There was only one way in to our hotels: through the metal detectors at the main entrance. No suitcase was delivered to any room until it was identified again by the guest.
At the sphinx and pyramids at Giza, there were more guards than vendors. There were soldiers or tourist police at entrance gates, in trucks, on cliffs or other high vantage points, even on camels.
When we went to and from airports, we were accompanied by local tourist police or government soldiers. The temples, tombs and other tourist attractions were patroled by rifle-toting guards.
At the sound and light show at Luxor's Temple of Karnak, the harsh noise of walkie-talkies could be heard as security officers scrutinized the audience under the night sky. And the day we went farther into the Egyptian countryside to see the great temple at Dendera our group was accompanied by armed escorts in bulletproof vests.
"Perhaps there is too much visible security," said El-Abyad. "It can be a little bit scary."
At Abu Simbel, the ancient, gigantic temples that were sawed into 1,000-plus pieces and moved section by section to higher ground when the Aswan Dam was built, the guards, rifles at the ready, stood lookout atop the rock-hewn temples of Ramses II and Queen Nefertari.
By the time we toured the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, both located on the west bank of the Nile, we were used to the heavy security at these aptly named "houses of millions of years."
At the Temple of Hatshepsut, however, where the rising plain of the Nile Valley hits the base of the barren mountains, the tourist police were less visible. The access roads are better guarded now. But the temple, including the Middle Court's Birth Colonnade and Punt Colonnade, where most of the tourists were killed, didn't have obvious security, perhaps because the Egyptian government is trying so hard to make illion to $8 billion in indirect income.
"They knew what they were doing," Aly added bitterly, describing the anti-government Islamic Group, which took responsibility for the massacre. "It affected everything," he said, from the hotels and souvenir vendors to city taxis, the men who polish shoes from their street stands and the farmers who sell their produce to Nile River tour boats.
Given all that was at stake, the Egyptian government moved swiftly. Mubarak and other officials visited the massacre site and immediately ordered new and increased security measures. Electronic security was improved and more tourist police were recruited. They are now better trained, better equipped and better paid, according to El-Abyad.
Egypt's minister of tourism was dispatched to conventions in Berlin and Milan, Italy, to reassure travel agents about the precautions being taken.
The U.S. State Department lifted its travel advisory in early March, and a team of internationally known diplomats and security experts toured Egypt and praised its "extensive and heightened security operations" in and around Luxor, the pyramids and the Cairo Museum. The tourists started trickling back, first the Americans and, more recently, the French, Germans and Italians. The latter three groups normally account for the biggest share of foreign visitors to Egypt.
The Egyptian tourist industry has done its part, too, slashing air fare and hotel prices and getting the government to waive visa fees. Hotel occupancy is now about 40 percent, according to El-Abyad, who expects business to be back to normal by Christmas. Still, when my group (on St. Patrick's Day) boarded a boat in Aswan for a four-day cruise down the Nile, it was one of only 25 in use. Normally, about 250 touring boats cruise the river.
We had only been in Cairo a day and a half when a huge sandstorm hit, closing the pyramids, shutting down the airport and, we learned later, killing four people. The storm arrived suddenly and enveloped everything in a hazy fog. Except the fog stung our eyes. One minute we were having lunch near the Mena House, our hotel in Giza, gazing at the pyramids and anticipating an afternoon tour of these magnificent burial tombs that date to 2650 B.C. By the time we finished our meal, we couldn't see them, let alone visit them.
The Egyptians we met were friendly and seemed genuinely glad to see us. Haggling over purchases is a rite of passage for foreign visitors - and an art form among Egyptian merchants and street vendors. No matter how heated the haggling became, once a price was agreed upon, the vendor who had feigned annoyance at your offer a moment earlier would pose happily with you for a photograph.
They like Americans. And, although they may be aggressive mer-chants, their essential honesty has not been altered by this year's lean winter and spring.
I learned this firsthand in the market, or souk, at Luxor, though I'm embarrassed to tell the story. I went shopping with my mother and aunt to buy some cotton bags to pack some of our accumulated extras. My aunt, a hopeless negotiator, agreed to pay the first quoted price, 35 pounds.
"How much for two bags?" I asked, offering 50 pounds.
"You think you're smarter than me?" he challenged huffily. My mother immediately caved and paid the man 30 pounds for her bag. I held out until he agreed to sell me a nearly identical bag for 25 pounds. In a hurry to get to the Luxor Museum, I paid for my purchase and left the store, chiding my relatives for undercutting my bargaining efforts.
Two hours later, walking through the market again, I felt someone trotting beside me, trying to get my attention. It was the bag vendor. In my triumphant departure from his store, it seems, I had given him 30 pounds - and forgotten to wait for my change. He was now standing before me, holding out a 5-pound note. Astonished, and feeling more than a little foolish, I thanked him profusely.
Later, I sheepishly told the rest of the group about this man's stunning, honorable gesture. My friends were delighted, yet also surprised. But not Mohamed Ab-del Aal, our guide.
Any vendor would do the same thing, he said. "A deal is a deal."