Checking into Cairo's Fairmont Nile City hotel requires passing through a metal detector but is otherwise a glamorous affair. The floors are shined to a gleam, the upholstery plumped and the staff clad in thoughtfully tailored sport coats. On the roof there is a pool and a sweeping view of the city so that, come morning, submerged guests can watch as the shadow of the hotel makes its magisterial way across the slum at its feet.
This view -- the panorama of want from the position of plenty -- is replicated across the world. As income disparity rises both in the US and worldwide and populations huddle together in big cities, economic ignorance is one luxury no longer on offer at many of the world's tonier hotels.
Which is not to say that staying at the Fairmont is anything but an entirely pleasurable experience. A deep and abiding belief in the importance of human dignity can be easily, if temporarily, sublimated by anyone standing beneath a truly great shower head. There is, after all, not a finite amount of happiness in the world. One man's pleasure doesn't necessitate another's suffering. One man's suffering can, however -- and this is surely to humanity's credit -- ruin another man's pleasure.
This is why views of slums are so fascinating: They separate luxury from romance and, in so doing, expose the hedonism of the whole venture.
Hedonism can be great -- it has kept the Vegas economy limping along for decades -- but it is also self-conscious by definition and thereby demands an active decision. The perpetual invitation proffered by luxury hotels to "indulge" is not, viewed in this light, an offer. It is choice. In Nairobi, Mumbai and Manila, it has become impossible for travelers to indulge without context or -- depending on the traveler's degree of entitlement -- gratuitous guilt.
Because the hospitality industry generates many jobs and brings in foreign currency that can grow a middle class in even fallow soil, luxe accommodations built above squalor can't be immediately dismissed as temples to capitalistic nihilism. To the contrary, bay windows facing the favelas force wealthy travelers staying near the lean-toed hill of Dois Irmãos to consider more than the beauty of Rio's Atlantic coast.
The view through a polished window darkly is both emblematic of the world travelers visit and the world in which they now live. A recent investigative series published by GlobalPost compared the lives of locals in international hubs and the lives of those in U.S. communities with similar income inequality. Fairfield County, Connecticut and Bangkok, Selma, Alabama and Rio de Janeiro, Washington DC and Moscow: these cities have disparities in common.
The major difference is that income inequality is harder to see in the suburbs, exurbs and country -- sometimes in U.S. cities too.
Skipping the spa in favor of self-flagellation seems as foolish as moving to South Central to prove a point, but each traveler has to determine what level of indulgence makes them feel comfortable. This is luxury wrapped around personal responsibility and that is a rather beautiful thing, panorama aside.
Whether wrapped in Egyptian cottons or not, everyone casts a shadow. Being reminded of that fact ought not to ruin anyone's vacation.