So after accidently getting off the plane in Mali on my way from Senegal to Egypt (I woke up from a nap, disoriented, and disembarked thinking we were in Addis Adiba for the transit), I finally arrived in Cairo in the early morning hours of December 15th.
My first impression of Egypt, which lasted for a full ten days or so, was very negative. There were no issues with professional pickpockets that I found so unsettling in Dakar, but there is definitely a class of unscrupulous Egyptians that shamelessly prey on tourists. Towards the end of my trip (as I will document shortly) Egypt really came to grow on me, but my initial activities checking off boxes in the tourist highlight reel left me with the foulest of thoughts about the country’s people.
My very first financial transaction in Egypt (after my cab ride from the airport) was to buy two metro tickets so I could get from Maadi to Tahrir Square. Maadi is a wealthy enclave in southern Cairo where my host for the trip, a State Department employee, was staying. I paid 10 Egyptian pounds (henceforth, simply “pounds”) got two tickets, and received 6 pounds in change. ‘Wow!’ I marveled to myself ‘each metro ride is only 30 cents!’ [One pound is approximately 15 cents]
Upon returning back to Maadi after seeing Egypt’s National Museum, I wondered aloud to my host, Preston, about how cheap the metro was. “Just two pounds!” I exclaimed. Preston just shook his head and laughed, explaining that it was actually just one pound for each ride, and that the ticketing employee recognized that I was a tourist and had taken the opportunity to pocket two pounds in the transaction.
As Preston explained to me, post-revolutionary Egypt was experiencing a period of “hyper-freedom”, where there is simply no legal recourse for bad behavior. This applies to regular Egyptians interacting with each other, and it especially applies to tourists. Let me go through a list of shenanigans I dealt with in Cairo, and then I’ll give a description of my trip down south (brief, I hope).
The minaret hustle:
If you walk around Islamic Cairo, you’re naturally going to want to step inside some of the city’s incredible masajid (mosques, as they are known in the West). The masjid doorman will probably offer you the opportunity to climb up to the building’s minaret, a tower that historically is for the muezzin, or ‘prayer caller’, to announce the five daily prayers for the Muslim faithful. Tragically, in my view, most of the Muslim world has chosen to replace the live recitation of the muezzin from the heights of the minaret with a crackly speaker system.
In any event, the minarets still stand, and in Egypt at least they afford the masjid caretaker the opportunity to make a couple of extra dollars a day from tourists. What they’ll do is suggest a donation for the masjid’s charity fund, to be placed in a locked box (which the caretaker probably has the key for). After you finish your ascent, they will request some bagsheesh, or tip. They will always shoot big, asking for around 60 pounds (10 dollars) for the collection, and 60 pounds for bagsheesh. They will gladly accept a mere dollar or two in both regards, if you make clear that you’re fully prepared to simply walk away.
It must be noted that outside of the citadel, there are hustlers who have walking routes around the city walls, looking for unsuspecting tourists trying to find the elusive entrance. They’ll give some kind of lie about the citadel being closed at that particular time for some special occasion, and offer to take you to a special masjid in their neighborhood with a great minaret. You’ll pay to see the minaret, they’ll ask for bagsheesh (after swearing up and down on the walk there that they’re not interested in your money), and then afterwards they’ll get a cut from the caretaker. I know because this happened to me, and when I went to the citadel at a later date, I saw the same scam artist there looking for marks.
The Citadel shenanigans:
I went to the Citadel twice while I was in Cairo, and twice experienced the same attempted hustle. One area of the citadel is a historic prison where the likes of Muhammad Ali (the 19th century Ottoman Pasha, not the boxer) and Anwar Sadat were once imprisoned. The police have blocked this area off, and have basically starting using it as a rent-providing space. They’ll see Western tourists (preferring Americans over Europeans) and tell you that they’ll give you a special tour. They’ll let you into the barricaded area, give you a tour, and then ask for bagsheesh. By the time this happened to me, I had already had my wallet lightened by two masjid caretakers and the metro employee, and I had had enough. I looked the man in the eye – a uniformed police officer – and told him firmly, “No.” From that point on the only people getting bagsheesh were those who provided legitimate services.
I got a lot of great photos at the pyramids, at the cost of an inordinate amount of frustration. The aggravation started right at the entrance of Giza where a non-uniformed employee asked me for my ticket and told me to hand over my camera for the x-ray machine. Now I had been specifically warned about hustlers trying to get people to hand over their tickets (which would be re-sold) before getting to the official entrance, so I initially balked and demanded to see identification. This escalated into a shouting match, and I finally took the man’s clear indignation as sufficient credentials. I maintain that employees at Egypt’s most famous tourist destination should be in uniform with visible ID badges, but I know that is crazy talk in the context of the clusterfuck that is Egypt.
Once inside I had a second yelling match with a man obnoxiously blowing a whistle at me and trying to direct me somewhere. I started angrily asking him in Arabic if he was an employee, and if so where his ID was. He indignantly started yelling back, and shoved an ID, in Arabic, in my face. I don’t know why he thought that somehow I could speak Arabic and not read it, and after looking at the ID for about half a second I read that in the “Type” section it was written “talib” or “student”. I pointed this out, at which point the young man gave up his indignant façade and ruefully smiled. I strode off in a huff, hearing the man behind me calling out to his friends something along the lines of ‘You’re not going to believe this foreigner over here . . .’ I like to think that I was probably the only Westerner he came across that day that he had a smidgen of respect for.
At Giza’s small pyramids there is a rent system like at the Citadel where ununiformed men (not police officers, this time) sit at the pyramid entrance to demand bagsheesh to enter the underground tomb itself. Like at the Citadel, I don’t consider this rent legitimate so I checked out the underground tomb, came back up, put my hand in a fist, and made the motion of giving the man at the entrance a handful of imaginary money. Then I walked away, leaving him dumbfounded and cursing me under his breath. Some may say that this puts me in the category of the stereotypical ‘ugly American’ world traveller – I couldn’t disagree more. When Americans allow themselves to be scammed by unscrupulous fellows like these, it is contributing to a tourist environment that is uncomfortable and even hostile, and thus bad for all Egyptians that take financial benefit from the tourism industry.
The Egyptian National Museum:
This enormous museum centrally located by Tahrir Square in Downtown Cairo is, simply put, a disaster. The descriptions for each artifact (where there were descriptions provided) were mostly yellowed and decades old, having been clearly printed on typewriters. Some of the items in the museum are simply incredible, but they happen to be placed side-by-side with what I’ll term here as archaeological ‘junk’. The result is that after an hour or so of wandering around this massive building you’re ready to shoot yourself if you see another pharaonic figurine holding their sacred accouterments. A couple of additional things really bothered me about the museum.
First, you’re not allowed to take cameras inside, and you have to check them in a security station outside. I’m sure I’m not the first tourist that felt incredibly uncomfortable handing over my professional DSLR to a shifty Egyptian who could probably make a year’s salary selling it. On the same camera note, this rule doesn’t even make sense anymore, because everyone is running around with smartphones and taking pictures anyway. What they need to do is have a ‘no flash’ requirement (their concern is the damage that flash photography has on artifacts) and let people take pictures. Seeing King Tut’s royal burial mask was amazing, but all I have now is a fuzzy memory. If they let individuals take pictures that would undoubtedly be shown to friends, I guarantee tourism would increase.
Some advice for the Egyptian National Museum; recruit a team of high school students to re-write all of the artifact descriptions and print them out professionally, clear out all of the artifacts that aren’t absolutely stunning, and actually organize the museum so people can learn about the history of ancient Egypt as opposed to using the building as an artifact dump.
My trip to southern (upper) Egypt:
After a couple of days in Cairo checking off the tourist boxes, I took the sleeper train to Aswan. I was lucky enough to get a room on the train by myself on the way down (on the way back up I had to share a room with a Norwegian who looked like Skelator from He-man), and found the experience to be ‘neat’. During the 9-hour train ride the food was crap and I felt like the train might legitimately topple over at any moment, but it was my first time in a sleeper car and the close quarters put me at ease much like my childhood pillow forts.
I was warned that southern Egypt was one giant tourist trap, and as it turned out all the horror stories were true. You couldn’t walk the streets of Aswan or Luxor for a minute without someone trying to sell you a falluca boat ride trip along the Nile, or having a cheap souvenir or set of postcards shoved in your face at the pharaonic sites. These people prey on the fact that Westerners feel uncomfortable saying “no” under intensive pressure, whether it’s someone demanding bagsheesh for a minimal (or nonexistent) service, or a persistent falluca boat captain. Obviously I love saying no, but that doesn’t make the experience any less aggravating. The only time I felt like I got a fair price for something was when I bought Big Macs at McDonalds in Aswan and Luxor.
While in southern Egypt I visited Abu Simbal, The Valley of the Kings, Philae, Luxor Temple, Karak Temple, and Elephantine Island. Except for Elephantine Island in Aswan, I hated every second of it and made it through only by telling myself that it was one giant photography exercise. After three days and two nights in southern Egypt, I paid 40 pounds to push my return train ticket back to Cairo to a day earlier, and left without any regrets.
Falling in love with Cairo:
It was only when I returned to Cairo that I finally started falling in love with the city. You see, I had already checked off all the tourist boxes, so from that point forward I was among the “real” Egyptians, not the ones that merely saw me as a walking dollar sign. I spent most of my time in Islamic Cairo, as this is the type of Middle Eastern environment that most appeals to me – ancient, vibrant, and full of soul. I would walk around, take photos (often of unmarked and unrestored historic sites) and take frequent stops for bowl after bowl of delicious quoshary (noodles, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions, and tomato sauce). All the while I’d be basking in true Arab hospitality, paying local prices (a mere 5 pounds, or 85 cents, for a cup of tea and shisha at street side cafes), and watching people’s faces light up when I addressed them in my very functional Arabic.
It was also during this time that I confirmed that Cairo is decidedly for lovers. I had noticed many intimate-looking conversations between Egyptian couples at some of the main tourist sites like Giza and the Citadel (probably to avoid gossiping friends and family), but I continued to spy romance everywhere at places like the Cairo Zoo, al-Azhar park, and underneath the road underpass in Maadi. This was a far cry from Jordan, where the young men seem to confuse “love” with physical attraction, and the idea of wooing a woman by getting to know her on an emotional and intellectual level is not common in my view. The conservative tribal nature of Jordanian society – where marriages are often arranged between cousins in the same families – probably has something to do with it. In Egypt, love is . . . love. It brought many a smile to my face seeing married couples with children walking side-by-side at the zoo or at the park, clearly as much in love as the day they were married.
So that was my adventure in Egypt. I will definitely return to explore the Sinai, another day. Now nnjoy some photos from Cairo!