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New Year’s Eve in Luxor

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The price tag was kind of hefty. I mean, $110 a person, for one night, one meal? This is Luxor, Egypt, not Luxor, Las Vegas. We had checked into the hotel that morning, and we weren’t really sure what to expect. Boy, were we in for a surprise. It was, after all, the Sonesta St. George, one of the premiere hotels in Luxor, which carries a 5-star rating with rooms and service to match. (http://www.sonesta.com/Luxor/)

The evening didn’t even kick off until 8 p.m., giving us a chance to lie down after a long day visiting the temples at Karnak and Luxor, an easy 5 to 10 minute ride from the hotel. Dress was semi-formal to formal and our group of forty wore either suits and cocktail dresses or galabeyas they had purchased in Luxor or Cairo. Everyone looked very festive. Though it is a Muslim country, a nod to the needs of the hotel guests gave us a champagne cocktail hour (well, half hour, really) by the pool. After that, drinks were available for purchase—I think the cheapest bottle of champagne went for something like $200, though beer and wine were somewhat more reasonable.

The guests drifted into a huge tent set up along the back of the pool, with the total number of people somewhere around 500 at any given time. Normally, the space is an oversized deck overlooking the Nile, but tonight we couldn’t see the river once inside the tent. Small price to pay once we got to the buffet, though. The sheer poetry of the food sculptures was impressive enough. Have you ever seen a giant standing fish made entirely of cream cheese, garnished with veggies for fins and face? And a mermaid, and a pelican? I thought not! Looking at the vast array of food, from the variety of layered pates and savory pastries to the selection of fish, meat, and side dishes, and the desserts (more on them later!) I was struck by the trouble everyone had gone to, by the beauty of the preparations and execution—there were at least fifty kitchen staff on hand, and I suspect many more in the kitchen making sure there was enough of everything for everybody.  

I filled my little plate with giant shrimp, stuffed squid, veal in a savory sauce, and went back at least a couple times to try the variety of pâté en croûte. The dessert table, which was about 12 feet long, didn’t disappoint, either, with a huge range of everything from petits fours to baklava, chocolate mousse, cheesecake, and that new staple of Egyptian sweets, Spanish flan. In keeping with the sculpture theme, one dessert featured a piano made entirely from milk chocolate, and the pièce de résistance was the 4-foot long replica of the Luxor Temple, fashioned from gingerbread.

Once the buffet line died down, and everyone got into the important business of eating, the music went live. This was around the time we noticed the stack of giant speakers, far too close to our table. Sadly, the first set was an incredible disappointment—two gorgeous girls in skimpy short dresses, wailing away into the microphone on such chestnuts as Volare and La Bamba. Worst of all, and I really wanted to like them, the lead couldn’t sing and her friend could only do harmonies badly off-key. We wondered whose girlfriends, or sisters, had been hired. Who could have owed them a favor this big? Collectively, we wanted to run screaming from the tent, but luckily we “know people.” Within 10 minutes, the whole stack of speakers near us had been first turned to the wall, and then when that didn’t do the trick, mysteriously disconnected. Our pals from Quest Travel winked at us and thanked the banquet manager, who shook his head at the unfortunate problem and informed us that there was no engineer who could be spared to “fix the electrics” that night. Luckily, the girls’ set only lasted another half an hour, and the sound was now far enough from us to be manageable.

The Shrieking Siren Sisters were followed by Egyptian dancers, who wore traditional costumes that looked vaguely Greek or Turkish to me, and then a voluptuous belly dancer. A young man in our group, only about twenty-two, looked at her and exclaimed, “Boy, she’s fat!” I pulled him aside and gently explained that in many other countries, women are allowed to eat and still considered beautiful. To be fair, the dancer was curvy, but like most women in Egypt, her rounded belly was considered a great asset. Judging from the response to her act, many of the men in the room were very happy with her “fat”! Her performance grew into several others belly dancing, the group eventually flowing from the stage down into the audience where they morphed into a fairly large Conga line that many in our group happily joined.

By this time, we had discovered the party favors, all in gold bags left by our chairs. In addition to butterfly masks in silver or red, we had various noisemakers and streamers. But by far the most popular favor was a small baggie of colored papers formed into tight balls. We couldn’t figure out what they were for at first, but it quickly became clear: why, to throw at your neighbors, of course! And to be made sport of in return. We got to know the people at the next table all too well as we lobbed the premade colorful spitballs back and forth at one another, and the men—I mean grown men in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s—quickly reverted to six-year-olds.

At 11:30 p.m., I noticed that the dance floor was empty, so I decided Julie the Cruise Director should make arrangements for the most festive of midnights. I amassed our troops, which despite some atrophy as the magic hour drew closer, still stood at twenty-five or more. A few were reluctant, my darling Greg the most vocal among them, but peer pressure is a powerful thing. At 11:45 p.m., we all hit the dance floor at once, even Greg, dragged out there by several of the men in our group for solidarity. Glad for the company, others began to flood onto the floor, and by 11:55 p.m., the joint was jumping, with an intrepid young man in our group on the stage performing (I swear) several back flips, much to the excitement of the several of the young ladies.

So it was that at 12 p.m. midnight, still vaguely jet-lagged, the love of my life reached across a crowded dance floor to plant the first kiss of the new year on me. Since he doesn’t dance and he hates crowds, I took it at a sign that this would be a year of change. For sure, Luxor lived up to its promise of a great New Year’s Eve party. By 1 a.m., now thoroughly exhausted, we dragged ourselves upstairs to sleep. Yeah, the price tag was well worth it.

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