The Time To Rethink Travel Insurance Is Now

There was a particularly strong (and frustratingly early) snow storm on the day we were supposed to leave for Egypt, one that made us almost regret our decision not to get travel insurance. And now, after watching more than ten days of protests in Egypt, I think we've definitely changed our minds about the usefulness of travel insurance.

This appears to be a pivotal point in Egypt's history, and while it's fascinating to see what's going on in a place that you just got back from, it's also natural to view events through the lens of your own worldview. Which is to say, while we've been anxiously watching what might unfold in the country, I also felt bad for all the tourists who never got to see the pyramids!

I first saw someone say this on the ABC Evening News several days ago when he was interviewed at the airport — an elderly (or almost elderly — don't want to offend him!) man said something along the lines of that he was in Egypt two weeks and "never got to see the pyramids." Here's another example — no clue if it's the same guy or not:

"We spent two weeks in Egypt and didn't get to see the pyramids," [a New Iberia, LA man] said. "But we saw everything else. It was scary, but it was exciting. We'll never forget this trip."

The snow storm meant that we missed one day of travel — the day we were scheduled to visit the pyramids. Michael joked that it would be crazy to have gone all the way to Egypt and not have seen the pyramids. At the time he said this — just before boarding an overnight train from Luxor that may or may not arrive several hours late in Cairo and thus disrupt our arrangements for a make-up visit to the pyramids on our free day — I didn't think it was something to joke about. But as it turned out, the train was on time, the tour operator's re-arrangements went according to plan, and we got to see one of the highlights — if not the highlight — of the entire trip.

Not to rub it in to the guy from Louisiana, but the pyramids were pretty cool. I like to say about a lot of the cool places that we've been lucky enough to visit — say, the Taj Mahal — that they were "as advertised" — which is to say, they were as awe-inspiring as everyone said they were going to be. The pyramids were "as advertised."

The first thing you notice about the pyramids is that you see them from all over the city:

Giza Pyramids From Cairo, Egypt

Giza Pyramids From Saft Al-Laban Corridor, Cairo, Egypt

When you get to the site, there they are — the pyramids!

Great Pyramid of Giza From Ticket Office Area, Giza Pyramid Complex, Cairo, Egypt

Our guide was telling us that there is a big project to build a tram or rail system of some sort through the complex that will also have the effect of preventing visitors from getting too close to the pyramids, so we were excited to get as close as we did to the Great Pyramid of Giza — as of now, you can still touch the blocks and even climb up a little bit:

Great Pyramid of Giza, Giza Pyramid Complex, Cairo, Egypt

Great Pyramid of Giza, Giza Pyramid Complex, Cairo, Egypt

Each block weighs several tons, which drives home the point of how monumental the pyramids really are:

Great Pyramid of Giza, Giza Pyramid Complex, Cairo, Egypt

When you're there, you might experience that sense of self-satisfaction that accompanies the knowledge that you just ticked another Wonder of the World off your list:

Pyramid of Khafre, Giza Pyramid Complex, Cairo, Egypt

We spent a long day traversing Greater Cairo, visiting Saqqara and eventually making it to the pyramids. While at the pyramids, our guide tried to keep us on schedule, but we dallied, so we only barely made it to the Sphinx:

Great Sphinx of Giza and Pyramid of Khafre, Giza Pyramid Complex, Cairo, Egypt

They start setting up for the nightly sound-and-light show early, which means that they close the entrance to get into the Sphinx area. Some Europeans bribed the guard to let them in but we saw a different opening around the back side where the camels rest. Damned if I wasn't going to snap a picture of the Sphinx — in good light, that is — so I ignored the camel men and scurried over to the fence. It sounds more dire than it was, but after a week in Egypt I was starting to feel a little disobedient. Mission accomplished:

Great Sphinx of Giza and Great Pyramid of Giza, Giza Pyramid Complex, Cairo, Egypt

So this is what it looked like when I turned around — which is also to say, these people taking pictures have a picture of me taking a picture of them taking a picture of the Sphinx:

Behind Great Sphinx of Giza, Giza Pyramid Complex, Cairo, Egypt

We walked away happy:

Great Sphinx of Giza and Pyramid of Khafre, Giza Pyramid Complex, Cairo, Egypt

After seeing the pyramids, it was time to revisit a debate — or perhaps just a "conversation" — that I had with, er, someone I know about Machu Picchu. The general jumping off point for the debate/conversation is that while Machu Picchu may be a lot of things — mysterious, picturesque, remarkable — it's also relatively recent in the timeline of human civilization. That's "recent" as in Michelangelo-and-the-builders-of-Machu-Picchu-were-contemporaries "recent."

So you argue to your friend something along the lines of "just look at the intricate mortarless Incan brickwork on the Temple of the Sun — or even just the depiction of similar brickwork on bottles of Cusqueña Beer — it's ahead of its time!":

Temple of the Sun, Machu Picchu, Peru

Cusqueña Regular Beer, Apu Salkantay Restaurant Pizzeria, Avenida Imperio de Los Incas, 139, Aguas Calientes/Machupicchu Pueblo, Cusco Region, Peru

And that person might respond with something along the lines of "and then there's the Sistine Chapel." Or the pyramids.

To be fair, the argument is not so much that Machu Picchu isn't that great but rather that it might not be the amazing triumph of human civilization that you think it's going to be. Mysterious, picturesque, remarkable — yes. But the pyramids were built over 4000 years ago. Machu Picchu was built just over 500 years ago.

One of the benefits of seeing the pyramids later in the trip was that we got to work our way up to them, as opposed to seeing them first thing. This gave us more than enough time to indulge the Beatles vs. Rolling Stones Wonders of the World debate — Machu Picchu vs. the Pyramids.

I'd like to think that they're both really amazing — and "amazing" in the truest sense of the word — with all the awe/admiration/wonder that befits the term. And really, in the end it's apples and oranges. No Wonder is better than another Wonder. Except when people think they are.

Jen got Robert Morkot's Egypt: Land of the Pharaohs before we left and his introduction helps explain the world's fascination with Egypt. People have been traveling there as tourists since at least the Greeks, and Ancient Egypt held a special significance in the West from the 18th century onward as the European Grand Tour evolved into the Egyptian Grand Tour. Mozart's The Magic Flute was emblematic of the Egypt craze in Europe. Archaeological expeditions followed. Museums amassed collections of antiquities. The Egypt craze coincided with the rise in Freemasonry, and is why we have that weird pyramid-eye thing on the dollar bill. Later Cecil B. DeMille made movies about Ancient Egypt. Then came Indiana Jones and Ralph Fiennes.

In short, people have always loved Egypt. For example, I don't know the last time our landlord ventured the one stop on the subway into Manhattan, but she told me before we left that she's been wanting to go to Egypt for a long time now. Which is perhaps why my heart broke just a little bit for the guy on World News Tonight who said that he was in Egypt two weeks and never got to see the pyramids.

I think this also in part informs why the news from Egypt has been so front and center lately. Yes, it's the most populous Arab country and it's incredibly important strategically, but Egypt — not even the idea of Egypt but Egypt itself — is close to us. From grade school on we've learned all about Ancient Egypt. Steve Martin. The Bangles. All of that. It still excites our imagination.

A little travel can make you think you know more about the world than you actually do. That false sense of worldliness definitely comes into relief after you travel in Egypt. The sphere that tourists travel in is as far away from the sphere that Egyptians live in as one can imagine. All that is a preface to say that while it's problematic to comment too much on the situation in Egypt today, one thing has been bothering me.

Mubarak's initial response to the protests seemed — to an extreme outsider hanging out in the viewing gallery of the court of world opinion at least — fairly reasonable. His promise to leave in September and thus allow time to undo the constitutional excesses of the last 30 years didn't seem like such a bad idea. Tarek Masoud on PBS seemed to suggest that this was wise, if only to ensure that no one else could come in to take advantage of the constitution currently in place that is heavily weighted toward the office of the president. Further, getting Mubarak out of the way now might mean that the world would lose interest in Egypt and create an environment in which its next leader(s) would not be held to account. He has an op-ed in the Times this morning that expands on this idea:

Egypt's next scheduled presidential election is only months away. If the Constitution isn't amended before it is held, the notorious Article 76, which makes it difficult for independents like Mr. ElBaradei to get on the ballot, will still be in place. More important, the new president would have the same imperial powers Mr. Mubarak has had — the very powers that the Egyptian public wants taken away.

As we now know, the protesters were not happy with Mubarak's plan. I don't think anyone could blame them — the guy has held on to power for 30 years, so why should they trust anything he says? But what has been confusing to me is this — if the violence of the last couple of days actually has been instigated by forces close to Mubarak (as all accounts indicate), then Mubarak immediately loses this moral high ground. And in fact today American leaders seem to be coalescing around a unified position that Mubarak should step down sooner rather than later (i.e., September). Where before you had world leaders hemming and hawing about how "delicate" a situation it is in Egypt, now it suddenly seems a lot clearer who and what is making matters worse. In short, Mubarak has made a complicated situation very simple. I guess beating up on Anderson Cooper will do that.

I believe the reports and the speculation that the regime's strategy is to sow chaos in order to show that Egypt can't live without a strong, calming influence like Mubarak. It's so clumsy a move that I almost think it's on purpose — a convenient way for Mubarak to make a complicated situation very simple. We'll see what happens next.

See also the Big Map: Egypt/Jordan, December 27, 2010-January 11, 2011.

Posted: February 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: National Geographical | Tags: , , , , , ,