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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Egypt: The Good, Bad and I Got Ugly

I have never had a need to add a disclaimer, but I think this blog warrants a bit of a note. It isn't because of foul language or graphic content, but rather due to a poor attitude. I actually wrote the majority of this post while sitting in a hostel in Cairo, and the frustrated attitude that I had carried out of Tanzania was only compounded upon in Egypt. I was planning to sit on this and perhaps let my temper cool off - but I don't really enjoy writing retroactively or censoring my opinions, and to change the content now would require both. So the vast majority of this post stands as it was originally written, and the rest is filled in today. Enjoy.

(Identify this bird for me?)

I don't feel like writing a linear account of what my time in Egypt has consisted of so far. Instead, and in a rather cynical tone, I will voice some thoughts and insights into the people and sights of Egypt as I've come to understand them. I say cynical because that is my current mood, however, don't let it detract from your opinion of Egypt on my account - I'm just going to present my opinions! This is my blog, I can do that.

The thought that a whole country could be founded on one river seems slightly absurd. Yet, here in the north easterly part of Africa exists Egypt as a strip of green on blue in the middle of a vast expanse of yellow. Egypt without the Nile is a wasteland; its history and architecture an ancient king's wildest fancy, and nothing more. The vast flowing Nile is the lifeblood of the Egyptian economy and identity. Just as it was the spine and support of the BC era empire, it still stands as the foundation for all the major cities not located on the sea.

Egypt is a country facing many problems, and as a result many changes. In the wake of the January 25th revolution, and the consequential lull in tourism, the attitude of the people has changed; a nationality of pushy people trying to sell their wares to tourists has since become a very desperate pushy people trying to hawk their goods to a dwindling clientele. Add on top of this the fact that Egypt is the second most populated country in Africa, growing at over a million people a year, and without the means to expand their agricultural area which is tethered to a river beside the omnipresent desert - the need for foreign aid and the input of tourist dollars into this economy has never been higher at any other time. It is in this climate that I entered Egypt.

Egypt to me is a love-hate story, and I feel that I really need to present it that way in order for my thoughts to make sense. So like I said before, I don't want to lay out this particular post as a linear recollection of events, but instead categorize it into what I what I will simply refer to as the Good and Bad of Egypt. Since complaining always give rise to a much more interesting story, I will start with the Evil:

The Bad:

It is with sadness that I simply say that desperation doesn't sell. As much as telling me "it's low season, so you buy" didn't sell me bracelets in Tanzania, the endless mobbing of my time and space has failed to make me be any more accommodating. If you give them an inch, they will take a mile. Every small act of kindness in Egypt inherently requires you to tip. Travelers are a pit of wealth to be drained. The result is that everyone feels the need to interrupt and pry into every aspect of your existence.

If you try to take a photo, Mohammad Somebody recommends that two steps to your left would be a much more suitable location. This would be advice costs two pounds. If you ask where the exit is in a museum, the helpful informant will walk you the ten steps around the corner and then bluntly ask "tip for me". If you use an adviser to book a day trip to the pyramids, he will ask you how many days you have in Egypt and take the liberties of trying to book the remainder of your days too, and at a very disingenuous price. Prices for simple amenities are always stated with about a 300% markup until they realize that you're not about to be fleeced and this isn't your first rodeo.

Sadly, this achieves the opposite to their ambitions. I don't enjoy being swindled and conned. If you start at a price that is outrageous I'm more likely to walk away and avoid all future negotiations then to come back when you tell me "OK, we talk, cheap price". No one likes to be insulted, and it is exactly that: insulting. These people gate crash the admissions to the real wonders of Egypt, and so while you're trying to wrap your head around the true splendor of something as mind blowing as the pyramids, six people are a foot behind trying to get you on a camel, and the other four have cheap souvenir pyramids and sphinxes and try to put them in your hand.

If you go to the Great Pyramids, wear a hat. Wear anything at all on your head. The main ploy at Giza goes like this: So and so will walk up to you with dime a dozen postcards in his hands and a cheap version of a traditional Arab head wrap too boot. His first attempt at conversation will be straight forward, he will simply try and sell you both items at a ridiculously overpriced fair to which you will instantly say no. This will go on fruitlessly for about a half minute until they will attempt a change in stratagem.

The man with junk will approach you a second time. This time they will be prepared with the head scarf out of the package and will approach you saying things like "No Money", "Free", and "Gift". Nothing is free in Egypt. They will then try and accost you with the head scarf and unless you are quite slippery, manage in shoving it over your head. While you're busy with that, his other arm will be slipping postcards into the crook of your arms, lodging them securely. The hawkers hands then become permanently glued to his side, and due to some acute onset medical abnormality he will seem to be unable to lift them to receive the postcards that you adamantly want to return. The condition lifts only briefly to occasionally befuddle your attempts to remove the damn scarf that has been crammed on your head. He will continually say it is a gift and free through the whole process, but as soon as you try and walk off with his supposed gift, the mantra instead changes to "tip for the gifts?"

Now he has you in a pickle. You can't physically return it to him because he appears to have lost the basic motor control needed to grasp objects. Yet, you can't simply walk off with them without the man hunting you relentlessly around the lot, either with claims that you didn't pay or that you should tip for his hospitality. The solution, fortunately, was not too hard in the end. I told the man I was going to set his things on the ground, in the sand and camel shit littering the area. By some miracle he made a full recovery and was able to hold things again, but for some unknown reason his face contorted into a not to flattering, unexplainable snarl.

It's not that I don't want to help you. It's that you're selling crap, and the same crap that I can buy in a million stores in Cairo, and you're doing it for a ludicrous markup. One man even had the audacity to request a trade of his three novelty pyramids and a headscarf for my deceased grandfather's ring. I told him no as swiftly as the the other and then I had to laugh as he clarified and repeated: "No, no, no, trade, we trade!" as if that made the deal a little less sour.

Despite all this bitching, I think I should make it clear that I only lost my cool once (other than the time I had to tell the annoying man trying to domineer our picture taking to sod off). It was our first full day in Luxor, and we had spent our morning out at the Valley of the Kings on the west bank, and proceeded to take time in the afternoon to explore the city and watch a football match between Man U and Chelsea.

Every night in Luxor, at the temple of Karnak, there is a light show that takes place in several languages throught the evening. Conincidently as we were leaving the bar after the game, we had just enough time to make the English showing, but not if we walked. We had been harrased by carriages all day while walking around, and finally decided to indulge the cheapest one that was willing to take us out to the temple.

Reaching the temple was the exact moment we made our first mistake of the night. The carriage drivers declined our offerings of money, and told us to hold on to it and pay them after, as they said we could go back into town for the same price after the show. They had only charged us a total of ten pounds for all five of us to go the twenty minutes to Karnak, so we were willing to give them repeat buisness. The downside is that we were now morally obligated to pay them, and our night was inevitably tied to their services.

Things started to take a turn for the frustrating. The light and sound show turned out to be a little pricey for our blood, and as a result we didn't end up seeing it. To compound on that, we now had almost an hour to kill as our would be ride had returned into the city to try and find some fare while we were indisposed. We made a vain effort to try and hear the sound of the show from outside the temple, and failed to get more than some cheesey voice acting, so reluctantly we went back to the entrance to wait impatiently for our ride.

As with all the other attractions in Egypt, it was not long out the gate that the vultures began to descend on us, and this time in the form of two new carriage drivers that pulled up in anticipation of the post show crowd. At first we reacted the same as we had been with all other taxi or carriage drivers we had encountered, and told them simply no thank you. The problem, though, was that we couldn't really leave, and after a short reprieve we were once again set upon as we sat on a curb. Reluctantly we informed them that we were waiting for a carriage that would most likely be coming at nine. We were still adamant that we would not in fact be riding with them, and that they should leave us alone.

This man took it in a different direction, and decided that every minute we waited was another minute that his relentless nagging would wear us into getting onto his carriage. With striking audacity he would grab my hand and look at my watch every minute and say the words "ok, at nine, they not here, we go" over and over again. His offer to take us into town was at double price in two carriages. Finally at nine, noting that our transport had yet to arrive, he said with finality that it was time to go, and that we were to now get into his ride.

I don't get mad a lot. Even when I am mad, it is very rarely that I will give you the full depth of what I am thinking. This man however, he got the whole extent of my anger. I went on a thirty second diatribe about his buisness ethics and techniques. I stripped him down about how annoying he was, and how never in a life time would we get into his ride, regardless of how low the price is. For twenty minutes of annoyance he recieved a half minute of fury, and the finality of me saying very loudly "No." Even then, however, he tried to laugh it off and turn to the others in our group for support. They weren't making eye contact, and I met his attempted joke of "what is no?" with an even more forceful no. It finally sinking in, he slunk back across the parking lot and glowered at us for the remaining two minutes until our carriage showed.

Enough of the bad, let me get to the good about Egypt.

The Good:

People are generally friendly. Those that really have nothing to sell you will often be the first to say something as simple as "Welcome to Egypt", or be genuinely curious about where you are from. These are the good faces of Egypt, and if you manage to discern them from the rest, are actually worth talking to.

There were times walking in Cairo that I would have people fall in stride with me and they would, like everyone, ask me where I am from. Instead of saying something stupid like "Canada dry, never die" in respone, they would often follow up with something about themselves; I'm going to school, I'm fron Cairo, how do you like Egypt? Although I'd be wary, these were often the same people that were simply hospitable and on the way to somewhere much like me and would soon depart. Good conversations are possible in Egypt, they are just a lot more rare.

A good example of this was a man named Jimmy from Luxor. Jimmy was the proprietor of the Princess hotel, and also in charge of setting up our tour through the Valley of the Kings on our first day in the city. He told us upfront that he would be making money, but then outlined costs of admittance, fuel, and driver and presented in a way that made us aware of what was a fair price. This was a refreshing change, considering the agent at the New Palace hotel in Cairo intially tried to hook us up with a ten day tour for over $300 that didn't include admission prices, and was solely for transportation and sleeping arrangments. When we found out you could have a nice bed for roughly $4 a night and that the trains were only $20 to cross the country, we were hard pressed to figure out his price logistics. Lucky we dodged that bullet.

Another solid point about Egypt is the ease in which we were able to place our hands on the quite valuable ISIC cards. For those of you out of the loop, or before their time, ISIC stands for International Student Identity Cards. These little plastic dynamos come with a bunch of perks, including and not limited to discounts off attractions all over the world if you're student traveler. I know that the distance they go varies by country, but in Egypt the cards basically get you half off at every attraction, with the only exception we found being the Karnak light show in Luxor. Now the catch of these cards is that you need to be a fulltime student and have proof of enrollment. Anywhere else this may have been a snag, but in Egypt we pleaded unpreparedness and after a little convincing the lady at ISIC Cairo was more then happy to equip us with our cards. The cards cost us about 120 Egyptian Pounds (roughly $20), but I would wager they saved us more than triple that, none of us students.

Something really good about Egypt is the train system. Egypt was the fifth country in Africa that I had visited, and the fourth one I had seen with train tracks laid down. However, aside from Tanzania, it was only the second I saw with actually servicable machines moving on the rails. The trains in Egypt stretch the whole country, and are the main mode of travel, since the roads have not always been the safest. For the price of approximately $25 you can take a 13 hour train from Cairo all the way to Aswan. I dare you to try and get a similar fair on via rail. There are obviously some minor annoyances associated with the Egyptian rail, such as an irritating conductor that does ticket checks every three minutes, and saucy ticket booth operators who will tell you clearly vacant trains are sold out - but considering some of the more constent hassles of Egypt, this is minor news.

I suppose the thing I should be spending the most time on is what will get the least: the attractions themselves. The treasures of Egypt are simply amazing, but the sheer amount of them can be a little overwhelming. We spent almost two full weeks in Egypt moving non-stop around the country and saw only a part of the cultural wealth Egypt has to offer.

This is a double edged sword though, as with every consecutive thing we saw, my taste for being a camera toting tourist was a little more sated, until finally I stopped getting worked up for temples. The attractions themselves remained incredible, but my enthusiasm to tour them dwindled.

I will say that the big name things are worth seeing: the pyramids, abu simbal, the valley of the kings and so on are all worth it. If you go to Egypt you do need to see them. The sheer size of the pyramids blew my mind. It is hard to stand at the base of something so large and wonder how it was made by human hands only. No machines, nothing of the modern technology. It doesn't matter how many heiroglyphics, statues and obelisks you see, they never get less incredible.

I won't give you the run down on everything we saw, as this blog is already long enough. I'm just going to give you some of my top pictures and tell you where they are from. If you want to look up the details on everything I went to, I have included this picture of all my tickets, which have the name of the site printed on them. Feel free to wikipedia the history! I love how ticket scamming is big enough in Egypt that they need to include the very official looking hologram onto all their official things. Even the visa to enter the country has this hologram!

- The Egyptian Museum (very underwhelming, basically an unmarked storage room)

- Giza Pyramids & Sphinx
> The Great Pyramid (This is the big one that you can go inside. Not terribly worth it thought, as it is really a long climb to an empty, cramped, and hot room. They could at least paint a mural.)

- Abu Simbil Tow Temples
> Kings Tomb

> Queens Tomb

- Valley of the Kings (You can see three tombs with regular admission, the following two cost extra)
> Tomb of Tut Ankh Amun
> Ramesses VI

- Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple (A large embalming temple that had original paint intact!)

- Karnak (The valley of the Queens Ticket was for Karnak, we never saw the VoQ.)

- R'Mose Temple

- Luxor Temple
Thanks for reading,

Much Love,

1 comment:

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