Monday, November 27, 2006


Murder on the Nile! Hercule Poirot, mahogany paneling and elegant staterooms, ladies with parasols and men in spats. Palm trees decorating the banks of a wide river while a boat horn plays a lively tune. It’s clear in my mind’s eye. I know exactly how this trip will be. Waiters in white jackets and pants will carry silver trays through narrow halls while crocodiles lift their snouts in menace, glimpsed through beds of reed. The captain will preside over canapés and cocktails dressed in marine splendor. There will be “murder most foul” and a dapper Belgian detective to catch the killer.

We do have white-jacketed waiters, palm trees, silver trays, cocktails. We also have a cast of characters that includes a professor of English history from Witwatersrand in South Africa. With him is his wife who bleeds. Not just a little bit, but a lot. That’s when I knew.

As Shakespeare said and as Sherlock Holmes plagiarized: “the game’s afoot!” We had a victim. That thought gained credence as we gathered on the second morning to set off for the great temple at Esna.

First, a bandage on the professor’s wife’s ankle turned red. Then, blood seeped through and into her socks. It ran into her shoe, overflowed and pooled on the carpet.

Where is Hercule Poirot when you need him? The rest of the cast had assembled. We had the professor and his wife. We had their companions. We had haughty Spaniards and wealthy French honeymooners plus an even wealthier older French couple. The latter had suites with their own deck on the forward bow (we could lean over the top deck railing and look down on them). They also had potted palms.

There we were that Tuesday morning, standing in the main lounge, wondering if we shouldn’t say something about the blood. What is proper etiquette with a murder in progress and the victim seemingly unaware of her fate? “Rae,” the companion finally spoke, “You might want to sit down.”

I gaped, then. A double gape. One part was for the understatement. Sit down? Rae would soon be lying down—permanently! Anyone could see that. The second part was for the amount of blood. It was as dramatic as anything Agatha Christie ever put in a book.

“We must call a doctor,” our Egyptianologist said. He seemed unperturbed, his swarthy skin smooth and unwrinkled. Nothing impressed him ... that what his expression said. I did notice a small indentation where his eyebrows lifted into his forehead, though. But was it disapproval or sympathy? Impossible to tell.

Nevermind. We would have the indispensable doctor added to our cast. He would wear a white jacket and a vest decorated by watch fob and chain. He would doff his panama hat as he came aboard, inquiring in impeccable English for his patient. Yes! But would he be in time?

In the event, reluctantly, we left the hemorrhaging Rae and her husband behind, and we went ashore to take copious numbers of pictures and to express pious hopes at regular intervals. These ran along the lines of, “I hope Rae is doing all right.” “Such a pity she is missing this.” “Yes, it’s a shame, but she must look after her health.”

“Is she a hemophiliac?” I asked finally, thinking her husband was feeding her rat poison, but not wanting to voice that conclusion too soon. (Well, with no HP around, someone had to play detective, and I can do Miss Marple’s accent.) Rat poison would account for the bleeding and would be something a professor from Witwatersrand might think he could get away with in Egypt.

“It’s the medicine she takes for her asthma,” the companion said. “If she scratches her skin, she bleeds.”

“The poor thing,” I say, hiding my true reaction. LIKELY STORY!!

That night we dressed for dinner served by white-jacketed waiters and presided over by a haughty chef in a black jacket (he directed, the sous-chefs in tall white hats who did the actual cooking). Should we dine with the South Africans? Witnesses would be needed, or maybe our presence would discourage any further sprinkling of rat poison on poor Rae’s food. I was torn between humanitarian instincts and a desire for a good drama.

Outside beds of reeds hid lurking crocodiles. Lights came on in huts and mud brick villages. Boys with sticks trail cattle returned from the fields. The occasional camel stood impervious to river traffic and donkeys protesting their lines. Galabayas flapped around the legs of men and great jars stood on women’s heads. The sky deepened to a dark blue, providing a dramatic backdrop to sand-strewn hills. In short, the Nile banks parodied illustrations from my childhood picture bible.

The companion appeared. “Rae is eating in her cabin, but the doctor has seen her,” she said.

So, we sat at a table next to two Spaniards and their daughter and debated what the Bush administration should do about Iraq, decided that Wyoming won’t elect a Democrat to national office in our lifetime, and considered the important issue of what to wear for tomorrow night’s costume evening.

Later, water swished almost silently past the sides of the boat. Inside chandeliers dripping with cut glass sent prisms of color across deep pile carpeting. Music played softly. Men in black tie cut their meat and one man probably thought profound thoughts: how easy would it be to slip a woman’s body into the Nile?

I went to sleep, eventually, to awake to a new day and the sight of Rae, bandaged and ready for to go sightseeing. “It’s the medicine,” she said. “And we just have to control the bleeding.”

Yeah … likely story. He was killing her. No doubt. If my “little gray matter” was not quite so little, I’d present her with the evidence and save her life. As it was, I shrugged and went sightseeing, too. What I want to know: where’s Hercule Poirot when he’s needed?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Intended Consequences, Aswan

The high dam at Aswan may be the most visible of the Cold War monuments. It certainly had as direct and violent an impact on as many lives as any other aspect of the Soviet-American competition.

There it is, stretching in front of us in a great curve, 3,600 meters long, arcing into the distance, gathering the Nile behind its walls into a huge reservoir that stretches south through the desert to cross into what was once part of Sudan. Aswan is a colossus, bigger even than any imagination can stretch. By comparison the spillway seems miniscule, water sliding over its face in millions of gallons reduced to the apparent size of a trickle by the awe-inspiring immensity of the dam, itself.

“Everyone who lives in Aswan,” our guide says, “is proud of the dam. Everyone here has a relative who worked on it. This is our dam.”

I don’t like the dam, but I understand. Anyone who grows up in the shadow of one of these mighty constructions would. A dam is an easy thing to admire, to take pride in.

“Aswan controls the floods and provides electricity for all of Egypt,” Osama says. “It stores so much water that we could withstand long times without rain.” Later, he admits, “Of course, there are some problems.”

Like it dispossessed some hundred thousand people of their lands, homes, and towns, directly killing 451.
Like it flooded dozens of priceless historical landmarks.
Like it cost the international community millions to move the most valuable of the temples.
Like it flooded the rest.
Like it opened up new farmland but stopped the annual flows of silt onto the Nile delta, leaving once excessively fertile land fertilizer dependent. Visibly, across the country salts are rising, requiring new and expensive land treatments—that’s for the ground not being taken over by apartment blocks.
Like the reservoir is silting up and continuing to spread.
Like the ever full canals propagate bilharzias, causing a public health crisis.

Most of these consequences were anticipated. In the early 1950’s the United States refused funding for the project because of them, suggesting a series of smaller dams. I’m old enough to remember this and Egypt’s reaction, which was to nationalize the Suez Canal, thereby sparking a brief war during which we sided with Egypt and against England and France (we still did things like that, then).

When the dust settled, and Washington stood firm against the monstrous dam (still the world’s largest as of this writing), the Soviets grinned and opened their money chests.

We walk out along the dam’s top, going as far as a military barrier that blocks the roadway, the wind ruffling our hair, seagulls flying. Water bracketed by sand reaches to the horizon.

“It’s a sensitive military zone,” our guide says, and I have no doubt but that he’s right. If the dam hadn’t still been under construction during the Six Day War, one could assume it would no longer still stand.

We don’t stop at a tall monument, “Built to celebrate Soviet-Egypt friendship,” our guide says. “Now … ?” He gives a small laugh, it’s a rueful sound containing a world of questions and change. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The cold war is over. The great Egyptian ally is again America.

Another complexity edges into his voice. The Egyptians don’t like America much. Our guide doesn’t, either. “We know that our President is forced to do things. We understand,” he says on another occasion, meaning that Mubarek’s policies are jammed down his throat by Washington. “Now …?” with a laugh. Much meaning is wrapped up in that one small sound; that one small word.

Here are some unintended consequences to mix with the intended ones.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Unintended Consequences, Harmones

“Cute,” I say, observing a fair sampling of Egypt’s youth. Harmones, it seems, level the human behavior field.

We’re driving by lines of buses—block after block of them disgorging hordes of kids on the main street of Giza, a city of millions that has grown up between the great pyramids and Cairo. It’s Saturday, the equivalent of our Saturday, and it looks like every person in Egypt of school age has come to visit their cultural heritage.

My “cute” response is to the dress and behavior and is said with my tongue firmly lodged in my cheek. This is a Muslim country, one growing more radical by the year, and, just as one would expect, many of the girls are in the hedjab, the Muslim head covering.

Somehow, though, this tribute to modesty in the hands of an inventive teen becomes a theatrical prop, one we can see in many permutations as the girls glide around as provocatively as Nerfertiti to gather in giggling groups under the eyes of any nearby boys and wait for their school chaperones.

Inventiveness is everywhere. The basic hedjab is just a scarf worn to cover the hair. A popular form comes pre-sewn with an opening for the face and a long end that can be brought around the shoulders, draped across the chest, and drawn up and pinned above the ear on the opposite side of the body. As worn by our guide, it is a modest piece of clothing, hiding the neck and disguising breasts. The teenaged girls, though?

Ah, they are a different matter. Take the very same basic white hedjab, adjust the drape to accentuate the breasts, raise the forehead line above huge black eyes, add a jeweled pin … then put the whole lot over a tight pair of jeans, boots or cute little shoes, and a lace-edged top. The combination is guaranteed to stop any male in his tracks. But this is just the beginning. We pass dozens of variations with hedjabs of several pieces and colors and combinations of skirts, jackets, and pants.

“Cute.” And, they are.

Unintended consequences. Tell a woman she must wear a scarf, and there’s no telling what she’ll produce. No wonder the mullahs and imans keep women out of the mosques. No male over the age of puberty could focus on Allah while such temptation is within eyesight. “Someone must stay home and tend the children so the men can pray,” our guide says. “That is a woman’s duty. That is why she is excused from the mosque.”

“Absolutely,” I say. “No doubt about it.”

Something in my tone must make her wonder about my sincerity, because she gives me an appraising look. I smile.

The boys, themselves, make their own entrances, using bus hand holds as gymnastic bars, swinging athletically to the ground and swaggering around in tight jeans, boots, and tee-shirts. Jackets are also in evidence, the temperature being (for Egypt) a cool 75+ degrees fahrenheit.

To my real surprise, some of the boys pair off with girls, draping arms over shoulders, lowering their heads for more intimacy. But, mostly, the girls bunch together, laughing and talking in ways designed to attract attention. The boys do the same … without the giggles. Then, there are those few in truly modest attire, who walk with lowered heads and serious demeanors. I know those kids, too. They are the class nerds, the youth headed for religious careers, the moral-guardians-in-training for their communities.

After a mile or so of buses, we get our first good sight of the pyramids, of the creations of people who lived four thousand years ago. And, I’ll bet their teens weren’t much different than those of today’s Egypt or today’s America. Harmones will out.


My line is never the right line. Everywhere, people in turbans and fezs, wearing hedjabs, burkas and galabayas move briskly along while we wait, passports and entry cards in hand. A pair of eyeglasses perched across a slit in a mound of black cloth … I take it as an article of faith that there is a woman under there … seems to stare at me. I stare back. Her line shuffles forward. Mine doesn’t. Beyond the row of booths with their uniformed attendants, luggage carousels go around and around. Beyond that, beyond corners and doors, families, tourist agents, and taxi drivers wait—my daughter waits.

Cairo is our meeting point. After twenty-three hours of travel, there is this last line, the longest and slowest one of all. There’s no point in changing, though. As soon as I do, my new selection will stall. It’s a rule.

Robyn is there, outside the customs hall. Her hair is cut in a slightly bouffant page-boy style above tailored slacks and a back-belted jacket. “Beirut wasn’t all bad,” I say, after hugs and greetings, noting the fashionable clothes and hairdo.

“Great shopping,” she says with a grin for the incongruity. She’s been getting danger pay and getting it in one of the world’s most sophisticated cities. I laugh but not because there’s anything funny. It’s a sound of relief. She’s come out of a war zone alive one more time. She’s there in front of me, tangible, talking, with all ten fingers and ten toes.

Now, we’re launched on another excursion—for her a break before work in South Asia, for me relief from a Wyoming winter. Out we go, exiting the airport into the as-advertised pollution created by twenty-plus million people.

Cairo surprises by being relatively clean and attractive, trees with skinny trunks twisting toward whatever sky is visible on narrow streets, their canopies expanding to fill the sky above the many broad boulevards. Lines of cell-like shops, open shutters serving as display racks, spill into the streets, their neighborhoods jostling against bougainvillea-draped walls and wrought-iron balconies of French-style quartiers. Signs lead to English hotels. Minarets and domes dominate big hunks of skyline, proclaiming the power of Islam. Another god … Mammon … shines from bank fronts in polished copper or brushed aluminum, eyeing pockets not yet picked. His power is also evident along the river where high-rise, luxury hotels compete with extravagantly built office structures. There is wealth here. Great wealth alongside hurrying men in galabayas and slippers.

There is a lot of everything. We come to a round-about and enter the fray becoming another bit of flotsam, the melee of jostling cars, busses, and trucks, all vying for street space. At the center, a functioning fountain sprays water through sunflower spokes of aluminum. Around we go to be slung out the far side, passing a robed man with a broom sweeping the gutter, pushing desert sand and bits of paper toward a grate.

The Nile here lacks an expected width, is not the broad highway I imagined. It has been tamed and constrained since the Soviets built the high dam at Aswan, islands pushing up where the river once covered the land. For over four thousand years the river fed one empire after another. Now, it has been reduced to service as a recreational waterway, the lands it once fertilized built over by apartment buildings and streets, its inlets vivid with the triangular wings of feluccas, its banks are marked by the hulls of floating restaurants waiting for their dinner and lunch-time patrons.

Food is more palatable when eaten with a rocking motion?

From the wide double balcony of our Four Seasons’ suite, we watch the red of sunset as it fades, the accents of fushias and golds dimming until the sky is a graying, darkening salmon. Amber pinpoints, streetlights, flash into existence, speckling the Nile’s far bank. Below, candles appear on white linen tablecloths under awnings. Engines rumble to life, and the floating restaurants launch outwards on their evening cruises, making great splashes of light on the river. A low rumble of sound punctuated by frequent blares, hoots, and beeps of honking horns through the night tells of population density, of continuing life and commerce. Cairo does not sleep, barely pauses to take breath before the sun god is reborn, emerging from the vagina of the mother goddess to light a new day … that’s one of the stories, anyway.

Tomorrow … early … we’re off to Luxor. But tonight we nibble from small plates, enjoying the variety that mezza provides. We drink our wine, and catch up on Wyoming’s elections and Beirut’s reconstruction.

Tomorrow we’ll endure more lines. Tonight we enjoy Cairo.

Friday, November 17, 2006


Flying from Frankfurt to Cairo takes longer than expected, even with the airline itinerary and the times spelled out.

In other centuries our rapid global transits would have been unthinkable. “Keep a sense of perspective,” I mutter. “It’s plain ungrateful to complain, even if it’s just to myself, about a few hours.” Once, getting there was both the challenge and the reward. “Once” there was no choice in modes of travel. “Once” is the governing word.

What if … what if I had to make the trip on transport available in the fourteenth century, the tenth, or even the nineteenth? Just imagine setting out to see the world on horseback or in a wagon without springs or bailing a leaky boat.

For a moment the pleasures of two or three hours on a well-trained horse and a comfortable saddle come to mind. Horseback travel provides plenty of time to look around, to enjoy the scenery and see the detail. There’s the smell of sun-warmed grass, of hoof-bruised herbs, of dried pine needles … none of this recycled plane air. It could be heaven. Until the rain pours down or the snow flies, until the horse bucks or a wheel comes off the wagon. Thinking of the negatives brings on avoidance syndrome and an instinct to stay home. No wonder in previous centuries the average person never moved more than five miles from home.

So, I’m out to see the world, squeezed into a seat measuring one foot by one foot. Visualizing the six hundred miles between Billings and Denver as equivalent to the Frankfurt-Cairo leg of my travel and wishing it would go as fast. To each generation, each culture its own rewards and complaints.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Quotes from Beirut

Nearby, on a windy Wyoming day, a rifle cracks, but a pheasant strutting across the lawn doesn't flinch. It's deer season.

In Beirut, my daughter reports via email about hearing one Lebanese friend says to another:

"You've changed since the war; you're much more picky." The response: "I have? Since which war?"

Later, when asked why the central district of Beirut had filled with soldiers, an embassy bodyguard shrugs, says:

"What can I tell you! This country is really fucked up."
"So's this one," I think. Just beyond my Wyoming window, sparrows forage among dead leaves while down the road a ways, the shooter stands by his open truck door door, aiming across a barley field. He fires again.

Ready to go

GETTING GONE, AGAIN ... or Practical Civics 101

"Oh, Madame … that is not being my responsibility," a cultured voice in the Embassy of India Public Relations section said. And, "You must be talking directly to the person responsible," and "There is an order, here, Madame. Please to be calling the correct number."

"Order?" The Indian bureaucracy has swallowed my passport whole, and this woman is talking about order? "Calling the correct number?" This from the country that has given us the call center?

Getting a status report on my travel documents had seemed a simple, practical process and a good antidote to the mind-numbing task of researching candidates and issues on the November ’06 ballot. So far, though, calls to the four numbers assigned to the Indian Consulate had gone unanswered and produced no voice mail alternatives. There were other official Indian numbers, though, and they did answer. Not that it did me any good.

...providing a lesson in the evils of entrenched bureaucracy...

Hours passed, providing a lesson in the evils of entrenched bureaucracy, and an ode to the joys of being able to "vote the bastards" out once every two to six years. Our county bureaucracy began to look pretty good.

Along the way, Alex Thomas came into my life. "The Indians never answer their phones," this employee of American enterprise, specifically a travel documents expediter, said.

"And, it’s not likely that we can find it. Our people are only allowed to ask at the walk-in counter. Your passport was mailed in. Consular officers in the mail-in section never respond to the walk-ins, and, they definitely don’t answer the telephone."

Peter the Great would've been proud ...

"Would you like to repeat that?" My ear felt like a snail had crawled inside, sowing swirling confusion. Indian bureaucracy being the ultimate in a concept driven to the extreme, though, the message was clear. Peter the Great of Russia, the father of the modern bureaucracy, would have been proud of his southern brothers.

Six weeks had passed since the Embassy of India received my visa request. The calendar now read late October. Snow fell on Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains. The sun shone in Washington, D.C. A travel itinerary said: departure 11 November to Cairo … then, Dubai, New Delhi, Darjeeling, Bhutan, Sikkim, Bali, New Delhi, Jaipur, New Delhi, Cody. Easy for it to say. But no normal person with a tourist passport (presuming they do have one) goes anywhere without visas.

"Consider your passport lost," Alex Thomas said, "Just start over. Eventually, this year … next year, it’ll arrive in the mail, but it’s not likely to happen before you’re due to leave."

... thanks to a depleted checkbook ...

Three days later, thanks to a vastly depleted checkbook and hours spent filling out documents, news came that the U.S. Passport Office had issued me a new passport and the Embassy of Egypt had given it a visa. Okay. We’re back where we started. But the dreaded lair of the entrenched bureaucrat--the Indian consulate--still waited, the dragons of procedure and regulation and limitation lurking, waiting to feast on another delicious meal of fresh passport.

Will the skies of United carry this passenger east? Who knows, but if Northwest College ever needs a lecturer for Practical Civics 101, they should call me. Those who take the class will be told: read the above and answer one question: Compare and contrast the virtues of: a. entrenched bureaucracy; b. elected bureaucracy; c. private enterprise.