Last week, I posted a story on my website, indagare.com, encouraging people to travel to Egypt. Two days ago a French tourist was killed and many wounded when a bomb exploded near Khan el-Khalil bazaar in Cairo. This summer I walked in the square where the explosion killed a seventeen-year-old girl from a suburb of Paris; she was on a class trip. I can imagine the crowded cafes at dusk that night; the shop owners standing in doorways, calling to the tourists; the lingering smell of tobacco from the shisha pipes and the minarets piercing the darkening sky. How quickly a magical Middle Eastern night must have turned into a nightmare. In an instant the terrorists grabbed control from the tourists. But does that mean that now I don't think people should go to Egypt?
As a travel journalist, I am frequently asked if I think certain places are safe or unsafe. Unfortunately, I don't think any place is totally safe. Think of the number of people who fall in their own bathrooms each year or who are in car accidents within a few miles of their homes. I live in New York, which we know is top of Al Qaeda's wish list of targets and where a terrorist task force delivers regular updates to Mayor Bloomberg. Yesterday, six people were shot in the middle of the afternoon at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. And in recent weeks, hundreds have been poisoned by peanuts. How many Americans travel to the Caribbean or Mexico without Hepatitis A vaccinations or refuse to inoculate their kids at all? Is any place really safe?
Before I traveled to Brazil two years ago with my family, a number of people questioned my judgment. "Your kids could be kidnapped," they said. I knew about the crime rates, but we decided that if we took precautions, we should be safe. We traveled with locals who knew how to get around. One night when we left a Rio restaurant in a high-rent neighborhood and suggested that we walk the few blocks to the hotel, our guide insisted that we take a car. "This is the time of night and area, where you will get rolled," he said. I didn't feel unsafe, but we listened.
So yes, I still think people should travel to India and Egpyt. In fact, one of our members just returned and sent this: "Egypt and Jordan seemed utterly safe, and we sensed no anti-American or anti-Western sentiment at all, though it is possible that we were just shielded from it by having such tight "parental" control on us in the form of our guides. The local people we met when we did get out on our own all wanted to talk about Obama, Obama, Obama. This was true in all corners of Egypt and Jordan, particularly since we were there during the inauguration and the lead-up to it. I even got an unsolicited bear hug from a man in the Aswan souk when I acknowledged we had supported his campaign. They have placed such high hopes for peace in the region on him, hopes we all wish will be fulfilled."
Comfort zones are personal, but I want my kids to see many countries and explore many cultures, so I make decisions that balance risk and reward--for our family. And knowing what I know now, that terror could have caught me in the square near the al-Husseini Mosque, would I have gone anyway? Yes, because my ten-day trip left my head spinning with new insights into ancient history and current events and a sense of renewed wonder at what makes a civilization great and how it disappears. But then Mark Twain expressed more beautifully than I can, the sense of awe that Egypt inspires. He wrote of being in the presence of the Sphinx: "It was gazing out over the ocean of Time -- over lines of century-waves which, further and further receding, closed nearer and nearer together, and blended at last into one unbroken tide, away toward the horizon of remote antiquity. It was thinking of the wars of departed ages; of the empires it had seen created and destroyed; of the nations whose birth it had witnessed, whose progress it had watched, whose annihilation it had noted; of the joy and sorrow, the life and death, the grandeur and decay, of five thousand slow revolving years." To see that is a trip worth making.