Monthly Archives: June 2010

Egypt, Part II

And, back on the internet train (whoo hoooooo), I’m picking right up where we left it:

Tip for buying:
• Here’s their gig – The vendor will start with a price so high that you feel insecure about your grasp on what it’s really worth, even if locals have kindly, pointedly told you what it’s worth in advance. Clever, right? A taxi ride that you know to be worth 5-10LE…they’ll start at 50. So instead of starting at 2 or even 5, you start at 20, already twice what you “know” it be worth because you think, He wanted 50. What am I going to offer, 2? That’s 40 cents! I can’t offer 40 cents down from $10…(Fact: yes you can.)  Scarves worth 15LE? They’ll start at 90. Know the trick from the start and don’t be intimidated. Er, like I was…

• Just like you’ll wish you bought from certain people instead of others…the same with tipping. Sis, BIL and I paid 25LE for a cab worth 10. On the return trip we did slightly better at 20LE. (Remember, I said they’re realllly good at it!) Knowing they still charged us too much we refused to tip the driver. Once he drove off and the stress of the moment was gone, we realized that it was his “handler” who negotiated with us, so likely that this guy got none of the over-payment. We paid too much but he’s still poor. And he’d been very nice. We still wish we’d tipped him. The same goes for felucca (Nile sailboat) trips. If you negotiate yourself (which we didn’t) I’ve heard that the guy who owns it isn’t the one who operates it, and he former gets the overcharge. So drive a hard bargain for the trip, then tip the worker high on the sly.

• If you pick a vendor and give him your attention, the others will back off, at least for the time during which the selected guy has “dibs”. (Thank you, observant, BIL.)

Egypt, in general:
• If I had to sum up Egyptians in one go, it’d be this: They are very honest people. They’d never steal your money without your permission. You can leave your wallet on the street and it’ll be there when you come back. But they will tell you anything to get you fork it over.

• In return, they trust you to be honest in many ways. When my dad became very very ill, sis and I went to the pharmacy in a bit of a state. The guy advised us kindly, then offered up a handful of products telling us to take it all and “Whatever he doesn’t use, just bring back tomorrow. What he does use, you can pay for then. No problem.” He didn’t know our names or room numbers. They can be extremely awesome in this way.

Safety:
• It’s hard to get a grasp on how safe or unsafe one actually is. In the grand scheme of things I think that is definitely unfounded. I think Egypt is a solid choice for travel. A little discussion about that: Egypt can sound a little scary (bordering Gaza, for one, some terrorist activity in the past, for another), but tourists are like gold. Egypt will do everything in its power to protect you. So, I felt safe, completely safe, the entire time. But not all of us felt quite so carefree and none of us came to a firm conclusion on who was “right”.

There are those past “incidents”…but they are few and far between. (America, the UK and Paris have those too.) There are also more kinds of police than you can keep track of. But is that a good sign or a bad one? You’ll see regular police, tourist police, antiquities police, military police, and who knows what other kind of police. But are they needed, or does it just keep men employed? This was an ongoing debate. After all, four men to control the door at your hotel seems excessive, no?

A perfect example is the fact that one can not cruise between Cairo and Luxor. This stopped maybe 20-ish years ago. Word is that the government would like to restart it, but as of yet, nothing. Why? Well, even Egyptians can’t give you a sure answer. One guide said it was never dangerous, it’s that tourism dried up with the Gulf War, so it shut down that stretch and now the infrastructure is in disrepair. It costs too much to get that up and running again. Another tour guide said it’s because there were safety concerns/problems along that stretch having to do with local unrest. And now, maybe infrastructure somewhat, but mostly they are just afraid – “because just one problem for tourists is too many.” Similarly, on the road up that stretch there are check points every 100 meters (so it seems). The first guide said it’s road safety – to stop the drivers from blasting along at break neck speeds (which seems a valid concern); the other said it was indeed terrorist safety. Again, because one is too many and you just never know. No one feels concerned. The police are all sitting around filing their nails and falling asleep with their faces dangling over the barrel of their shotgun (sis literally saw that). But there are blast shields. So who knows? But I for one felt safe.

Dealing with tour companies:
• Lastly, if you have any problems with your tour company (don’t ask), or even feel unsure before going (about the paying $1000s in cash, etc.) – let me reassure you. You see, Egypt reminded me of a Caribbean island in the sense that tourism seems to be almost all they’ve got. Tourism is bottomlessly important to the government and their economy. (Remember all those types of police? They’re for you; to keep you happy, secure and safe.) Tourism is heavily regulated. Legitimate tour companies will be registered with the government, and if they do anything unscrupulous and you complain, they face strict penalties and may even lose their tourism license. And then they can’t do business. So just remember that. And, they’ll be desperate to make you happy. No one wants to risk losing a potential customer due to a bad review on TripAdvisor.

If you have any trouble, “we’re not happy” is a pretty persuasive phrase. When that didn’t work, there are certain moments in which I ultimately backed down because I did not remember all that (about their deathly fear of being reported to the gov’t). I don’t suggest going around threatening to complain to the government by any means, but if worst comes to worst it is always an option and just remember that if you feel you’re being wronged, you do ultimately have the upper hand. (We at least knew that the company would eventually bend over backwards to make it right, even if they took a while to see their error. It’s not as good as the first option, but it sufficed.) Chanced of getting properly ripped off are – I would estimate – very low.

All in all, go to Egypt. Expect some hassle but it’ll be worth it and ultimately the entire country will bend over backwards to give you the best trip of your life. Each individual site that you see is worth the trip in itself. So get ready to be impressed.

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Absentia Note

I’m being thwarted at every turn from continuing my Egypt report in good time.

You see, I’m “visiting” my husband at our new apartment in London. (Side note: I cannot believe I am/sorta/about to be living in London now! How did that happen?!) Our new place is fantastic – except our phone service is sketchy and our internet service hasn’t been set up yet. We have a weak, grasping sort of access for the time being, but the wi-fi claws at the cliff of the internet and constantly falls off. It’s extremely annoying, so we have stopped even bothering.

So today I came to Starbucks, where I can get access, but I brought Del’s iPad since it’s so light and fun to use. Amazing in every other way, the iPad doesn’t seem to like WordPress’ interface. I can write you a post with a title, but (seemingly) no body.

So for the moment, just an assurance that the rest of the Egypt tale is coming, just not yet…

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Post-Egypt

A month later, hello.

I took some video of my self and my niece to post, and I ran so ragged that whole weekend it just didn’t get put up. Not having my own computer to hand always puts a kink in the works. It was tough, but we had a great time. She’s an absolute doll. Four days, only one bedtime meltdown: score 8.8. Then right on the heels came Egypt.

Egypt was incredible, but also the most challenging trip we’ve ever done. Obviously I cannot tell here about 15 days. Well, you wouldn’t want me to. So I’m going to leave you a list of my tips for anyone who might consider traveling to Egypt, and I think the story will come out from there.

• A tour is a great choice, even if you’re usually the independent type. You might be able to manage the same price for the trip on your own, but you won’t get it cheaper, and it will cost you in fatigue, headaches, exasperation and many moments of panicked uncertainty, time wasted as you try to navigate the country.

• Be prepared to tip. I had been told of this, but no one really gave me an idea of the enormity of this truth. I would recommend reserving 20% of your budget for tipping. Seriously.

• Research proper pricing for tipping (and anything else) prior to arrival, and prepared for a world of uncertainty and confusion. The travel world is full of admonitions about not overtipping and thus contributing to inflation and skewing the local economy, but none of us want to be cheap and fail to show our appreciation. And once there, it’s impossible to get a grasp on what’s appropriate. Because:

• As a tourist you live on a different economy. You just do. I finally forgave myself for overpaying at every turn against my better judgement when I noticed that – for example – museums will openly charge something like 7LE (Egyptian pounds, or $1.40) for Egyptians and 70LE ($14) for tourists. So fight the best you can, but accept that you’re at a disadvantage and can only do so much towards “not being ripped off”. Paying “too much” is a slippery concept.
• For tour guide tipping, we ultimately fell back on my brother-in-law’s excellent POV. “If there’s anyone I don’t mind possibly over-tipping, it’s the guys who have invested in their education to make a better life and who have made the hugest difference in making my trip enjoyable, educational and easy.

• Be prepared to be intimidated into tipping. People will glom onto you, offering you a service you don’t want or claiming to just be friendly. They may even be someone you “know” (like in one case, a guy who worked on our cruise ship), openly claiming not to be expecting any baksheesh (tip), thus convincing you it would be rude to refuse their “friendliness”. Then they will turn around and demand a tip. Don’t be afraid to be firm and say no, on oh-so-many levels. Nothing is for free; this is especially true in Egypt and it’s easiest if you know this ahead of time.

Buying:
• Egyptians will say with great surprise, “You mean everything in America is made in China too? No way!” I expected locally made goods because it is plenty cheap to produce there. But apparently they have very little industry infrastructure – which is why they thought America would make all of its own junk.

Speaking of Chinese junk, there are 3 tourist places to buy things:
(1) From hasselers on the “street”- Everywhere and assertive and off-putting. Some places you will be positively surrounded. And suspicion abounds about what they’re actually selling.
(2) No hassle shops – i.e. better papyrus and rugs stores, hotel souvenir shops. You pay a premium for the privilege of no haggling, but often it really feels worth it.
(3) Souks – Not quite as much hassle as street vendors, less suspicion of rip-off (though in fact at least as likely). I’m pretty sure I got hosed for fake spices, of all things. Note: We avoided the Cairo souk because we figured it’d be the worst. In the end it was the least ridiculous starting price/hard selling place we came across.

If you’re like me, you will mostly buy at #2, but at the end of your trip start to regret not buying from #1 (at least certain ones that stick in your mind). The hagglers are a pain in the butt, but you know what? Crushing poverty will make you assertive. Who knew? In hindsight, those people probably need it the most and I will wish I had bought from the sweet guys at Abydos, even if it’s stuff I didn’t need or even particularly want.
Call me abrupt, but this is long, so I’m going to declare “to be continued” (hopfully tomorrow).

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