I remember while researching for my trip to Egypt, I found a lot of articles about the menace of the touts and the middlemen. One blogger wrote that she was on the verge of tears, sitting in front of the Pyramids, when salesmen of all kind surrounded her and would not let her spend one minute in peace.
Now, I always wanted to go to Egypt but the thought that my dream trip to the Pyramids can be spoilt like that was a major concern. I didn’t care about the political situations or the travel warnings, touts were my main concern. And I would be lying if I said that I dealt with them well, even after extensive research.
On my second day, I visited the Pyramids and I knew exactly why the blogger wrote what she wrote. Even though I am super afraid of heights, I decided to ride a camel, because I wanted my visit to be like a dream sequence. Endless desert, hot sun, me on a camel, and the Pyramids.
Man, did I get hustled that day. Starting from my taxi driver, to the camel owner to the little kid who accompanied me to the Pyramids. They all kicked my ass… big time.
The first few days in Cairo were tough. I would go out every day, with high spirits to explore and then come back in the afternoon, feeling defeated. It seemed every time I talked to someone, I would somehow end up in a Perfume or Papyrus shop, saying “La, Shukran” repeatedly.
Ofcourse, I would feel bad about rejecting them altogether, and give them false hope about buying something from them later on.
“I really have to go my hotel right now. I’ll come back in the evening. I promise.”
“My friend is waiting for me at the bus station. I’ll come back in like an hour.”
Next time I went out, I would try to avoid all those areas, but after a few days, I had Omar waiting for me at the market, Mohammad waiting at a shop across the street, and Ahmed at a travel desk two blocks away.
Not just the touts. The people, especially the younger ones, bugged me a lot too. They drove rashly and obnoxiously. They spoke loudly and ran around idiotically for absolutely no reason.
And one of them rammed his elbow in my ribs at an ice cream parlour!
(He didn’t do it on purpose, ofcourse. The shop was crowded and he really wanted an ice cream. I remember getting out of the shop, telling myself “No ice cream is worth this pain.”)
Also, the price discrimination bothered me a lot. It seemed every time a foreigner tried to buy something, bottle of water, bag of chips or whatever, he would be charged twice the actual price. And I hated that!!
(I am okay with being charged less… But being charged more is like someone questioning my manhood!)
And don’t even get me started on the Egyptian driving. Till now, I thought the traffic of Hanoi was crazy. But that was before I visited Cairo. People of both these cities drive fast and adherence to rules seem… optional.
The only difference between these two cities is, in Hanoi they never get into an accident. They somehow seem to dodge each other quite efficiently.
In Cairo however, I have seen five accidents. Two big ones. In one, a car rolled over, right in the middle of a busy road. In the other, two bikers bumped into each other, lost control and painted the road blood red.
I have lost count of the number of times, a vehicle would whoosh past me in full speed, missing me by a millimetre.
And while I am cribbing about stuff, let me get this out of my system. Why do they smoke so much! Or why can’t they serve beer in a coffee shop? It would have been so much easier.
I remember one afternoon, I came back to my hotel room, sad and frustrated, and decided to watch one of my favourite movies (on my laptop) to lift up my spirits.
There was this scene where Leonardo meets Jennifer Connelly in a bar. He says: “T.I.A., right M’Ed?” to the bartender.
“What’s T.I.A.?” Connelly asks in her sexy voice.
Ofcourse! There was my answer, right there. I was being an Asian in Africa. This was no Thailand!
I had to toughen up….
From that point on, the trip just switched onto the “Awesome” mode. Every time someone tried to sell me something that I didn’t want, I said a strong “No!”, moved on and ignored him completely. Every time someone spoke loudly, I replied back, louder. Someone pushed me, I returned favour.
Ofcourse, the more days I spent in Egypt, the more I understood that like in any other city, there were good people and there were bad people. Not all salesmen were dishonest. Not all drivers drove rashly. Not all youngsters were jerks.
Also, just because someone is trying to sell you something at a steep price, doesn’t make him dishonest. Everyone is out to make a buck. The trick is to know what you want, and more importantly, know what you don’t want, and learning to say “No!”
(And if you want to buy something, bargain… shamelessly!!!)
I have had some wonderful experiences with the locals over the last few weeks. I remember the day in the small town of Abu Talat, when I was treated like royalty (Or a circus clown? Can’t really tell!) and showered with kindness. I remember the nice camel owner, Ramadan who browsed through my Egypt guidebook and asked me so many questions. And his camel,Abu, was awesome too.
There was Eslaam, a shop owner at Khan El Khalili market who insisted on having a cup of tea with me, with no ulterior motive, and posed for a picture. Adil, my driver in Alexandria did not want to take any money for the taxi ride because he liked Indians.
Infact, they all seemed to like Indians. Every time you tell the Egyptians that you were from India, one of three things would happen.
- They would say a high pitched “Namaste!”
- Shout out “Amitabh Bachchan!”
- Do a little Bollywood dance.
Egyptians are really helpful, friendly people and would go out of their way to help you out. And they love to talk… You just have to sit with them at a coffee shop, with time in your hands.
People who complain about Egypt have either not spent enough time in the country or not made efforts to meet the locals.
To really understand Egypt and its people, you have to look beyond the dishonest tour agents, salesmen and middlemen, and once you crack that hard shell and get to the inner fold, you would find this beautiful country full of history, mystery and warm, kind, God fearing people.
Shukran, Egypt! It was fun..