I read Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities in college and was forever imprinted with the fear of making a wrong turn. In the novel a Wall Street broker, a veritable “master of the universe,” loses everything–wealth, power, family and freedom–as a result of an accident that occurs after he gets off the wrong exit of the thruway. Tom made just such a mistake when we were making a weekend trip to Manhattan from our home in Connecticut. I freaked and after we were safely back on the Cross Bronx Expressway, I threatened him with great physical pain if he ever got us in such a situation again. Though he took me seriously, he has veered off course more than once in our ensuing travels. The most frightening time occurred in Israel. We had just picked up our rental motored appliance (it wouldn’t do it justice to call it a car–see picture below) and were trying to navigate our way out of Jerusalem toward the Galilee. Within minutes we were driving up a hill through unfamiliar territory. We began to suspect we were going the wrong way when we realized we were the only car around without the distinctive light blue UN plates. Now this was in 1999, during a hiatus in the current Intifada, and there had been no suicide bombings for months. Even so, a foray into the West Bank was not in our itinerary and I knew that our rental contract specifically forbade us from traveling into Palestinian territory. It seems our little Renault was not equipped with battle armor and therefore susceptible to damage from hurtling stones and shrapnel. I’ll be darned if I was going to let Tom break the rules, so I pleaded and threatened, and once again he found his way out of the danger zone. I’m not sure how he functions when I’m in panic mode. He still prefers taking my bullets to riding shotgun and bearing navigating responsibilities. Maybe he’s just resigned himself to the fact that he can’t win no matter where he sits and might as well enjoy the additional legroom the driver’s seat affords.
It was during this same trip to the Middle East that we had our most interesting transport-related experience. I had insisted that we take a high-speed ferry from Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula to the town of El Gouna on the Egyptian Red Sea coast. There was nothing there except a brand new Sheraton designed by Michael Graves. I had seen it in an Architectural Digest and knew I must experience its postmodern Arabic/Nubian splendor. Though it was certainly beautiful, for us the resort was a flop. There was nothing to do outside its walls, everything within was really expensive, and there were very few places to eat (Tom must have good food to be truly happy). We had planned to travel overland to Luxor and arranged for a van to drive us the 173 miles. We were informed that we had to wait until an appointed hour when a convoy would be leaving the city. A convoy??? It turns out that central Egypt is a hotbed of violent Islamic fundamentalism and the government was not too keen on letting anybody, tourists or otherwise, make the journey unprotected. We didn’t understand exactly what the protection level was until the entire line of cars, buses, vans and trucks made a refreshment stop at a roadside stand. As we sipped on Cokes and had our pictures taken with a local boy and his camel, men with machine guns patrolled the berms on either side of the road and kept close watch on us. We knew that 67 European tourists had been gunned down at the Valley of the Kings two years before but did not realize that we could be targets while in transit.
In the coming year, we hope that all our wrong turns (oh, we know there will be many) will be uneventful. In fact, since most places are safe and most people friendly, we hope that they will lead to pleasant surprises and colorful diversions, and perhaps become a welcome part of our itinerary.