Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Egypt: Land of the Pharaohs, Introduction

Chapter One - Introduction

Rather than visiting the very touristy places in Egypt, my friend and I mainly confined ourselves to the less frequented Alexandria, Nile Delta, Suez Canal, Sinai, and Red Sea coast (except Hurghada). I'd like to give you some info on and thoughts about some of the places we visited. Don't kill me if some of the history and similar are a little bit wrong. As I don't speak any Arabic, much of it was recounted to me in broken English and gestures, so I may have misinterpreted something. Nevertheless, I think almost everything should be correct.

I'd heard horrible stories about the tipping in Egypt, the baksheesh, but I can only say that I didn't come across many baksheesh beggars and we dealt with and talked to hundreds of people. The ones who did ask were mainly children and I doubt if they were really that bad after piastres and pounds. They were rather calling out for "Money, money" (they almost never used "baksheesh") as a demonstration of their limited English, which further comprised "Hello", "Welcome (to Egypt)", "Thank you" and "Bye-bye". In fact, this was the complete vocabulary of most Egyptians. But even so, I found 95% of them very friendly and helpful people. Maybe this was because we weren't in Upper-Egypt, but I suppose much depends on the attitude you yourself adopt.
Many Western people I met were clearly worried, because they had heard stories from other Westerners, who had in fact done not much more than visit the country very briefly on over-organised Nile cruises. It's not surprising that when they get off their boats, jump into a bus filled with other tourists and drive to an archaeological site, they are greeted by a bored Egyptian wanting not much more than their money. He sees thousands of Western tourists. A tourist means money. It's his way of making a living. If he is the only type of person one meets, one is bound to get a false impression of Egyptians as a whole.
So tip when you have to tip, and make sure that it's enough. If you don't see a need to tip, you shouldn't. The people know that they're asking for something they don't necessarily deserve. Some examples:

- At the Pyramid of Meidum:
I purchase my E£8 entrance ticket and an "indoor photography" permit for E£5. I walk into the site and am approached by two locals who want to show me through the pyramid and nearby mastaba. They ask if I have a torch. I do, but it's broken. They try very hard to find me some light. They do, by persuading two other foreigners to lend us theirs. One of them carries my big photography bag through the narrow mastaba corridor - hard work! They help me through, and show me everything, not rushing. On the way out, one of them quietly asks for a tip, using the well-known fingers movement. They have really done me a favour and I give him a good tip. He's happy and they show me to the pyramid. Same story here and on exiting his friend asks for his reward. I give him exactly the same as his friend. He's happy too. The visit is finished. Except, when I say good-bye, the one says I also owe E£20 for the photography I have done inside ("you took at least 20 photos"). I smile and show him my photography permit. He smiles back, but in a way which indicates "nice piece of paper, but it's of no use to me". They didn't show me anything special, and have already been paid, so I don't reckon they deserve more and that's what I try to tell him. He smiles and offers to "let me go" for E£15. Then E£10, ... E£5. I keep smiling and refusing, saying "No, nothing!". They start smiling normally, say "OK, sir!", wish me all the best for the rest of my journey and "Thank you for visiting Egypt", and walk off, waving good-bye.

- The porter of the Palace Hotel in Medinet al-Faiyum:
He carries our backpacks to our car, parked quite legally across the street. It had been there since the day before.
Me: "Thank you very much, sir. Here's a tip."
Porter: "Thank you. And five more for the car, please."
Me: "The car?"
Porter: "Yes. It has been standing here all night. Five pounds, please."
Me: "No, I'm sorry. I'm not paying for that."
Porter (half-threateningly): "No?"
Me (firmly): "No!"
Porter (smiling): "OK. Thank you, sir. Good-bye!"

- Taxi to the Youth Hostel in Ismailia:
Me: "How much is it to the youth hostel, sir?"
Driver (after I explained what the youth hostel is): "Three pounds."
Me: "OK."
After a while we arrive at our destination.
Me: "Here you go. Three pounds."
Driver: "Thank you. Another two, please."
Me: "Two pounds more?? - Why"
Driver: "Well, errrm, ....errrmm, ....OK! Bye-bye!"
Drives off without his extra money, smiling nevertheless.

The opposite happened to us in Alexandria. We stop a taxi to drive to our hotel.
Me: "How much is it to Talaat Harb?"
Driver: "Don't worry about the money."
Me: "No, I'm sorry. I have to know."
Driver: "Get in."
Me: "No. How much, sir?"
Driver: "Well, OK. Two pounds."
After a while we arrive.
Driver: "Here it is, sir. You can get out here."
Me: "Thank you."
We get out. The taxi starts to drive off. The driver waves us good-bye. We sign him to stop. We still have to pay.
Me: "Here's your two pounds."
Driver: "No, sir. Not necessary. Keep it."
Me: "No. Honest is honest. Here you go."
Only after a second time the driver takes his money and leaves. He's smiling and waving until he disappears in the distance. Maybe this sounds unbelievable, but it really happened.

I found Egypt a really safe place to travel around in. Of course, I haven't been everywhere in the country, but where I did go, I felt perfectly safe. Many Egyptians are very concerned about the fact that more and more tourists stay away from their country because they are worried about Fundamentalist terrorism (I overheard some tourists on my return flight saying that the cruise ships they had been on, were only half or 3/4 full). Most Egyptians I talked don't think of it as a real problem. They say it's a tiny minority that causes all the trouble, and they're probably right. The friendliness that we experienced was so overwhelming that it's more than worth the risk! Of course, this is the Middle East and safety is never 100% assured, but if more people would try to set aside their fears, they would find one of the most hospitable countries in the world! Only in the Nile Delta did some locals warn us not to take any strangers with us along the way. Nevertheless, we did and had no trouble.
In Rashid (Rosetta) we asked for directions to Qait Bay. This caused a hefty discussion, in Arabic. At the end of it, somebody got in our car to accompany us for "security reasons". I never saw why, but he looked really worried!
One night, at about 11pm, we arrived in the village of San al-Hagar, near Tanis. I was planning on staying the night there (I had heard there was a E£5 hotel). We drove behind a truck. A couple of bald kids were hanging from its back. They looked at us and suddenly made the "slit throat" sign, without moving a face muscle. I thought they were kidding and laughed at them. One of them jumped off the truck (which was driving about 5 mph), walked to my window and showed me his move a little more up-close. I laughed again, after which he shouted at some adults. They came over, and simply stared at us expressionlessly. The truck turned left and we picked up speed. After a few hundred metres, we stopped to ask for directions. The people ignored us, and walked on. This happened a couple of times. We were clearly not welcome, so decided to move on. This was the only time that we got the feeling something odd was happening. We had asked for directions to Tanis, even took some people with us as far as Al-Husainiya, but no-one advised against going there. And after we had continued on away from San al-Hagar, nobody gave any further signs of hostility.

The food and drinks were generally good. I noticed that the Baraka mineral water that is widely available, is marketed with the support or under supervision of the well-known French Vittel brand. There are some other brands which I consider alright to drink.
On the other hand, we bought a pack of six 1.5l bottles of the only available Nile Mineral Water in a Bedouin "supermarket" in Nakhl (Sinai), before heading off into the desert. We checked the caps of the bottles. They still had the sealing rings on and were firmly closed. The bottles were in a cardboard crate, with a plastic covering factory-melted over them. When we opened them - a long way off-road in the desert - a strong chlorine smell emerged. We immediately suspected a refill. But everything looked so neat, so I thought maybe it had been added in the factory. There was an analysis on the wrapper. It didn't state any chlorine. There was so much of it that all bacteria could only have been dead, so we drank it anyway. It caused me two days suffering with an upset stomach. But I suppose not drinking at all would have caused at least the same.

Having your own car in Egypt is a good way to meet some locals (you'd probably think the opposite). Many people get around by hitch-hiking and will be more than happy to get a lift. We took policemen, soldiers, merchants, all sorts. It was great to talk to them (as long as there was no language barrier). The reactions at the end of the ride can differ a lot. They ranged from a tourist policeman offering us some pounds, to an army man who demanded cigarettes and/or money on top.

There are many cars everywhere. Someone told me that there's been a car boom in the past couple of years. Previously, people couldn't get loans for cars. Now they can and everybody wants one.

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