Walk Like an Egyptian

September 23, 2016 in Africa, Egypt, Travelogue


“You like Egyptian!!”

Is yelled at me at least five times a day, by jolly shop keepers and tea shop owners as I wander by. They point at my head wrap and give me the thumbs up. Mohammed commented on it my second evening in Cairo as we weaved through the bazaar.

“You are Muslim, Madam?” He asked, over his shoulder.

“No, I am not,” I replied.

“Then why you wear the scarf?” He used his hands to motion winding around his head like a turban.

“Because when I lived in Tunisia I learned that it’s just good manners,” I answered. I left off the bit about how it also reduces harassment significantly.

He laughed with happy eyes, “Yes Madam. It is. Very good manners Madam.”

There is, however, no mistaking me for Egyptian and in this era of severely reduced tourism, a western woman, traveling alone, sticks out like a sore thumb, even more so in the south than I did in Cairo. And the only way to avoid (okay, maybe not avoid, but reduce, at least) the constant pecking of touts and helpful “friends” is to hire a guide or a driver, which I’ve done rather more of on this trip than I generally enjoy. It’s a matter of compromises I suppose, and an agreement with my men that I would take fewer risks in this part of the world than I am sometimes prone to.

Still, adventure has a way of finding me.

It’s a long dusty ride across the Western Desert Road from Luxor to Abidous. Don’t ask me where it is. The only landmarks are sand stone mountains and a miles long row of desert pine trees planted in a perfectly straight windbreak, interspersed with pops of colour in the form of bouganvilla vines. The planting of which could not have been otherwise than an arduous task over many months. I wished my thanks in the direction of the men who’d sweated it out to lay that ribbon of green into the otherwise stark landscape and looked out the window:

  • Goat and sheep herds with leathery looking herders pushing them forward with sticks
  • Boys tapping wet mud bricks out of wooden frames
  • Other boys stacking dry bricks into oven shapes for firing
  • Big brown sacks with white piles of Egyptian cotton overflowing their tops
    A camel
  • Tea shops in dusty towns populated by men sucking on shisha pipes
  • Women with bundles balanced on their heads, black capes flapping around nebulous bodies
    Boys poking through trash piles with sticks

The temple at Abidous is worth the drive…

One of the oldest in Egypt, it’s beautifully preserved, the colours are still intact in many places and the ceiling is still supported by the massive columns. Hasim stood with me in the stuffy interior and told me the stories again: The coronation of the king, offerings to the gods, wars and battles won and lost, the expansion of one of the greatest kingdoms on the planet, the unification of north and south and the ebb and flow of empires.

He always gives me a half an hour when he’s finished teaching, to explore, take pictures and paint pictures in my mind of the many lives that have passed between the earth and sky in these places before me. I take my time and I speak with the ghosts.

When I emerged into the sunshine, squinting, I found my gangly guide pacing the parking lot, chain smoking. The van was nowhere to be seen. It occurred to me that I’d left my phone in the car by accident.

“Would you like some tea?” he asked me…

“No thank you, I have my own,” holding up my tea bottle. Undeterred he shepherded me towards the tea shop.

“We have a problem,” he confessed, “A big problem…”

I waited.

“We don’t has the right paperwork for the car. Because we come by the desert road. And this is the illegal way. And now the police mans say that we have a problem. They take the driver and the car somewhere. If we go, we must go by the agricultural route home. This route takes, maybe, five hours. Not two. If we go.”

Leaning closer I whispered to him, “Why don’t we just buy the paperwork and go home the way we want?”

He looked at me with one eye, tapped his cigarette and shook his head. “No. This police mans. This one, he is a two star. We must go the long way.”

“Five hours instead of two? No way,”
I asserted. “Let’s just hop in the car, thank them and drive around the block a bit and get back on our road.”

Again he shook his head. “No. They say we can’t go without a police escort. Because we came the illegal way, we go back their way, they send police trucks with us.”

For five hours? That did not sound likely, or fun.

“You know,” I casually mentioned, after placing my order for tea and casting a glance around beneath the dusty shade cloth to note that I was, once again, the only woman and the only westerner, “In ‘other places’ I’ve lived, it’s customary to thank the police officers for their good work with a little baksheesh and then sometimes the problems go away.”

I was thinking about my cell phone, with my photos of my ID, being missing along with the car and the fact that my passport was locked in my apartment in Luxor.

The usual wretched tea arrived, over sweetened to compensate for being overly bitter, and I sipped, smiling at the owner of the tea shop; I ordered bread. A boy disappeared into the street to retrieve it.

Hasim fidgeted…

Lighting another cigarette, he made a cell phone call and shouted in nervous sounding Arabic, but then, it’s hard to gauge emotion in a language as foreign to my ears as Arabic is. It occurred to me that he’s the youngest guide I’ve had, and not, particularly, a problem solver.

The men in the tea shop kept one eye on their business and one eye on me. Four of them were armed. No one in uniform.

Hasim hopped up, announcing, “I to go find the driver.”

I nodded, tore some bread and watched as he walked (what he thought was) just out of my line of sight and then proceeded to pace back and forth in the parking lot, waving his cigarette hand in the air while he chattered into his cell phone.

“How do you feel about driving if we can get the car but not the driver?” He asked.

“I’ll drive. No problem. I’ve driven worse places,” I assured him. “I drove all over Tunisia…” He raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“Alone? No driver?”

“No, not alone… with my family, but alone with my family, yes. I was the only driver.”

He looked at me hard again and dove back into his phone. I tore another piece of bread.

When the car finally appeared the driver looked a bit worse for the wear.

“We go now.” Hasim sounded relieved. “We makes a deal. We pay some moneys. Moneys talk, you know (he says this like it was his idea to bribe the police, I let it slide) The two star, he not like it very much, but he makes deal to still save his face. We go with police escorts through some check points, then, we turn back on our own road and we go the desert way back. Only add maybe one hour.”

I winked at him, “But isn’t that road dangerous?”

He threw up his hands, “No, it’s fine. They say dangerous because there is not many checkpoints.”

“Well it’s the police at the check points that worry me more than bandits, Hasim,” I smile at him and he nods in agreement.

“Me too!” He spreads his arms as if to lay “exhibit A” in front of me.

The first truck full of teenagers with AK 47s roared ahead of us to the edge of town where we exchanged it for a new truck full of fewer armed kids. By the third check point we’ve got an empty truck except for the driver and by the fourth we’re down to a bunch of yahoos that look like they found their grandfather’s old uniforms in the attic and are playing soldiers.

In which Hasim proves to be a slow learner…

Given our morning’s adventure together I would have thought Hasim had learned enough about me to know that trying to shake me down over the black market exchange rate of the Egyptian pound was a futile effort. I underestimated his tenacity.

“You pay now, Madam, for the three days guiding?” He asked, as we rolled back into Luxor.

I was ready for this question and had the correct change, plus tip already in my wallet.

“You pay in US dollars Madam?”

I laughed. Of course not. I’m Canadian, why would I be traveling with US dollars (no need for him to know that I always travel with US dollars) I would pay in Egyptian pounds.

“Ooooh…. this is a big problem Madam. You see the bank rate, it is 8.7… but the black market rate… it is 12.9….”

Yes. I saw very clearly. A creative scheme for making a third more on one’s business costs. Except, of course, he hadn’t disclosed that up front. And I wasn’t about to pay a third more than I’d agreed to. And so, the negotiations began. I’ll spare you the blow by blow and cut to the chase: I came up 1%. He came down almost three and a half. I tipped well and we parted ways.

Experiencing Egypt

If you want to have a hassle free time in Egypt, talk to no one.

And also, trust no one.

Especially not the fellows on the street who open with, “Welcome to Egypt! Where are you from?” I assure you that it is always, and I do mean always, leading to some creative scheme for separating you from your money. (Saffron does not cost 180 Egyptian pounds for two small ziplock bags full, no matter what they tell you, with hand over heart and earnest eyes.)

However, if you want to have an adventure, see corners of the town you’re in that you wouldn’t otherwise, learn about the local “wildlife” and come away with a great story, talk to everyone.

Of course you’re going to pay for it. Baksheesh makes the world go round on this part of the planet, but you might consider it money well spent into the most local layer of the economy. So you over pay for saffron, big deal. You also had the best kofta in town (as confirmed by two guides who recommended it and the “friend” who whisked you off to it) saw pictures of someone’s kids, found where to buy a bottle of wine, wandered the bazaar, and photographed Karnak in the dark. How is that not a win?

Don’t come to Egypt if you can’t bear the heat, the chaos, the continuous hassle, the lack of any ecological sensibilities whatsoever. It’s not an easy country. It’s up there with Jakarta in hassle factor, and Hanoi for traffic craziness. If the call to prayer starting well before dawn harshes on your mellow, may I suggest Cancun instead?

But if you’ve got a sense of humor about the continuous run around,
if no adventure is complete without a bribe on the table and a power outage of epic proportions in 40C/100F heat, and if you live for having tea with a family of strangers, with a complete inability to communicate with words, then you’re going to love it here. If you’re seduced by the Nile, if you dream of ibis and crocodile headed gods and vultures whirling overhead feel like protection to you, if you’re looking for spices piled high and beautiful glass decanters filled with scented oils, or alabaster so thin that candle light shines through it like moonlight, you’ll find your waking dreams in this country.