In this newest instalment in our series of Egypt posts, we will attempt to give you our real experiences - the unromanticized, gritty, dirty reality that came our way. This post is going to focus on the lows - mostly because we want to get it all out there in one therapeutic, cleansing shot, saving you (and us) post after post of whining about the crappy parts of the experiences we had. For the highs, check out Mike's Alexandria post and stay tuned for our upcoming Egypt posts. Before we arrived, I really, REALLY wanted to like Egypt. Partly for all the bleary-eyed romantic reasons listed above, and partly because I had heard so much bad about it and wanted to prove the haters wrong. When we travel, we always aim to go slow and truly experience the country and its culture (rather than just check off a list of sights to see and move on). We had heard a lot of bad about Turkey too (usually from people who stick tightly to the tourist trail and thus the carpet/tea/spice vendors) and it turned out to be one of our favourite countries! I was sure that Egypt was just a little misunderstood. The truth is this... I DID NOT like Egypt. In fact, I COULD NOT like Egypt. I couldn't wait for my flight out and it took a few weeks on the beaches of Thailand before I was clear-headed and mellow enough to even attempt this post. Here's why:
The ToutsThe Egyptian touts are the most annoying and relentless I've ever encountered, bar none. This, I believe from talking with other travllers, is especially true post-revolution. There are currently 10-20 time LESS tourists than there were before Muburak was ousted. But there are the same number of touts. The result is an endless barrage of salesmen desperately pitching their wares (horses, carriages, feluccas, head scarves, postcards, and everything else you can think of). Does a sunset Nile walk sound nice? Think again. We tried this a few times in Luxor and Aswan. As soon as we got anywhere near the river, there was a carriage driver or a felucca captain launching into their pitch. A polite "No, thank you" would do nothing to assuage their verbal assault. A "la shokran" (that's Arabic for "no thank you") was similarly ignored. Many a tout followed us up to three blocks down the street, despite our repeated and futile attempts at clearly and politely turning them away. When they finally left (usually with an attempt to get us to promise we'd come back to them later), there was another waiting in the wings. Sometimes there was one on each side of us, wearing down any remnants of kindness or patience we had left. Romantic, right? This happens EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME, EVERY DAY.
The HustlersIn Cairo, there were no carriage drivers or felucca captains to worry about. Touts were easily avoided by avoiding the tourist souks. There were, however, hustlers. We had been warned by our hotel management to avoid anyone that came up and asked where we were from. Invariably, they would have an uncle/aunt/cousin/pet hamster that lives there too. Then they would introduce themselves as a teacher or professor (someone to be universally trusted, you know). After establishing that they were familiar with your homeland and were upstanding citizens, the hustlers would try a gimmick to get you to follow them to a shop that sells perfume, papyrus, or some other item of useless tourist crap. Despite the warnings, we were hustled again and again. We were led into the shops of the guy at the breakfast bean cart that just wanted to give us directions to the museum, the guy in the market who needed someone to write a postcard in English to his sister in Canada who just had a baby (why doesn't his sister know Arab?), the guy smoking sheesha at a coffee shop that just wanted to show foreigners the kinder side of Egyptians (and get a token from Canada - "Can I have your watch?"), and the guy who "knew" where the bus station was and would be happy to guide us there (it looked an awful lot like a taxi stand, if you ask me). Time and time again, I would turn to Mike and say "We're getting hustled" and time and time again he would say "I know..." but was too polite to stop the guy before we were at the shop and had been forced to look at oodles of the crap they had for sale.
The ScammersLet's assume, for a moment, that I actually had a desire to go on a one-hour horse and carriage ride around Aswan or Luxor. The price is right (it started at 200 pounds, but always came down to 15-20) so I hop in the carriage. By all accounts, the driver will then take me more or less directly to a special "only open on Tuesdays/Wednesdays/(insert the current day here)" market where their friend has a shop and together they will attempt to pressure me into a sale. Nice tour. When it came time for our flights out of Cairo, we were more than happy to escape it all. But even at the airport we had to watch out for scammers. As we attempted to enter the international terminal (which requires going through security/x-ray screening) a man tried to scam us into paying him to let us in. He wanted us to hand over our passports and boarding passes and pay him a fee. He had no uniform or name tag. We flatly refused, walked to the next entrance and found a security guard (who, to make life more interesting, also had no uniform or name tag) to let us in. After checking in, we went to find our gate to wait for the flight. Security is set up for each individual gate and it wouldn't open until 45 minutes before the flight. Again, a man swooped right in to try to get us to bribe him to let us into the gate early.
The Relentlessness of It All - There's (Almost) NO Escape!As I already mentioned, the touts, hustlers, and scammers are lined up a dozen deep at all given times when you're in the tourist areas. So the solution should be simple, right? Get out of the tourist areas. Easier said than done... In Luxor, fed up with the felucca captains and carriage drivers, we decided to turn right out of our hotel instead of left. This would take us into the residential areas instead of the temple or Nile areas. We had gone no more than a block before a group of kids wielding machetes blocked the street and told us that the road was closed to us and we couldn't pass. Their mothers sat looking on. So much for escaping the tourist parts. Even simple daily actions, like buying a bottle of water or a sandwich from a shop wears you out. We were in Egypt long enough to know the prices. In fact, grocery shop prices are set by the government to help combat inflation. A 1.5 L bottle of water should cost 3 pounds or $0.50. But often we would bring one up to the till and get charged more than that. A little negotiation, and we could almost always get it down to the actual price. But it's exhausting to do this with every drink, sandwich, bag of dates, etc. There are but a few means of escape... go camp out in the middle of the desert, sail down the Nile, or get lucky and find the untouristy streets of a city (we did successfully manage this when we walked to Old Cairo).
The MisinformationAll we wanted to do was get from our hotel (near Tahrir Square) to the Pyramids. That's it. EVERYONE who visits Cairo visits the pyramids, so it should be easy to figure out how, right? Everyone we asked told us something different. First, we were told to take the tourist bus that leaves from across the museum every 15 minutes. When we couldn't find it, we asked around. Several different people told us to take several different buses from a bus station that was apparently several different directions from where we were standing. We couldn't get a straight answer to save our lives. OK, we could... but it took about an hour. And we got off the bus, a guy managed to hustle us to the camel vendors instead of the pyramid entrance.
You Won't Ever Get What You Pay For (or Any Proof That You Paid For It)We booked exactly four tours in Egypt (a lot for us) and we never once got what was promised.
The White Desert TourThe first tour, to the White Desert, was the most expensive. We handed over our hard-earned cash to our hotel manager and got an "OK" in return - no receipt, no tickets... just a promise that we would get what we were, well, promised. This is more than a little unnerving, let me tell you. Especially when you get up the next morning and are handed a bus ticket to the oasis with no proof of which tour you've paid upfront for. Things mostly worked out in this regard, though there were additional desert entrance fees that we charged on top of the all-inclusive price and we had to fork over extra for water that was promised to be included. Not a big deal. We had booked a 4-day, 3-night desert tour complete with camels. We were supposed to be with the camels the first afternoon, and both full days after that. When we arrived at the Bedouin camel camp with our guide, we were told that our camel guide was not there. And he wouldn't be arriving until late that night or early the next morning. So no camels that night (our consolation prize was some over-sugared Bedouin tea). As for the 4 days, 3 nights promise? The first day is spent largely getting from Cairo to the oasis, then driving by jeep to the camel camp. The final day involved hopping in the jeep at 8 am in order to get back to the oasis to catch your bus back to Cairo (with a couple quick stops at the promised springs). So that's more like 2 days, 3 nights. With three hour lunch breaks. The final day of the tour was supposed to include hot and cold springs. I pictured pretty springs in an oasis where we could soak away the camel pains from our desert trek. Boy, was I wrong. Instead, we got this...
The Full-Day Abu Simbel TourOur next foray into booking a tour came in Aswan. Abu Simbel was a must-see and really the only way to get there is through a tour (the buses and vans form a convey in the wee hours of the morning and travel down the highway together. There is no public transportation). We booked a full-day tour that was to include all transportation, 2 hours at Abu Simbel, 1 hour at the High Dam, 1 hour at Philae Temple, and 1 hour at the unfinished obelisk. Entrance fees were extra and we were given a ballpark idea of what they might be (which was about half of what they actually were... why lie about things that aren't included anyways?). The day started fine... Abu Simbel was incredible and we were given the promised two hours (which was actually just about right for once). Then things went downhill. When we arrived at the High Dam, we were told it would take about 10 minutes to see it. We weren't willing to pay 30 pounds ($5 CAD) each for 10 minutes at a dam, so we sat at the ticket booth while the rest of the van saw it. They all came back disappointed - they literally just drove to viewpoint overlooking the dam. Later, we drove over the same dam. For free. Next was Philae Temple. The temple is on an island and when you go to buy a ticket, there are signs clearly stating that the cost of the boat is not included in the ticket price. We were debating whether the temple would be worth its fee, so we asked the ticket vendor how much a boat would cost. He told us he had no idea. Yeah right. We decided to try our luck, bought our tickets, and went through the gate to try to haggle a fair price for the boat. The captains were charging ridiculous prices (surprise, surprise)... but we finally got one down to 10 pounds/person for our group of 8 people. The haggling and boat ride had already knocked 30 minutes off the hour our driver gave us, so we made a group decision that we would stay on the island for an hour before returning to our driver.
The Aswan to Luxor (If I Can Even Call It That) Felucca CruiseNext up in the list of fabulous tours was our felucca cruise down the Nile. We purposely timed it so we would spend New Year's Eve on the boat and were looking forward to socializing with some new friends during the voyage. Our camel trip had been a private tour, so we were happy to do a group one here. We were promised a 3 day, 2 night cruise from Aswan to Luxor. We wouldn't actually make it all the way to Luxor in that time, so the third day involved a bus that would pick us up, take us to Kom Ombo and Edfu temples while our stuff was locked up safely on the aforementioned bus, and then we would be dropped of at our hotel in Luxor. To begin with, they were an hour late picking us up at our hotel. They walked us to the felucca, sat us down and told us to wait for the others. After almost an hour of waiting, our captain showed up (smoking what I can only describe as the biggest joint I have ever seen) and told us all the "others" had cancelled so it would just be me and Mike. OK, we'll roll with it. After all the delays, the first day of sailing was really only a few hours. That night, our captain Ahmed and his first mate Kushka (who spoke maybe 20 words of English between them and made no attempt to interact with us) had their own private New Year's Eve's Eve (as in the night before New Year's Eve) party in their bunk as we fell asleep under the stars on the deck. It must have been quite the bash (did I mention they got totally baked?), because they slept in until 11:30 the next morning. Finally, they came to and attended to our breakfast (we had been up since sunrise and I was ready to gnaw my arm off at this point). They were even quieter today as they tried to recover from last night's bender.
Valley of the Kings TourOur final tour was to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. We weren't actually going to book this one (we were going to rent bicycles and do it ourselves), but our Luxor hotel manager managed to help us sort out the Felucca problems with a well-placed threat about going to the tourist police - and then he negotiated a deal where our Aswan hotel would pay our Luxor hotel for a Valley of the Kings tour for us (just the tour fees, not the entrance fees... and of course the Luxor manager was getting something out of the deal). I have to say, the tour delivered exactly what was promised (plus a little mandatory shopping stop at an alabaster store) - though it started a little rough. We were supposed to go on the tour on Wednesday, but the hotel in Aswan hadn't sent the money to the Luxor hotel by Tuesday night - so, we were told they would postpone it a day. This was no problem for us, as we had budgeted plenty of time in Luxor. We stayed up late Tuesday night and were blissfully sleeping in on Wednesday, when there was a knock at our door at 7 am. Somewhere in my sleepy state, the man at the door managed to make me understand that things had changed again and the tour would be that day. We quickly threw on some clothes, grabbed our breakfast to go, and climbed into the tour van with the rest of the people (who were none too happy at our unintended tardiness).
Lack of Official InfrastructureWith all the misinformation, it was hard to know who to trust and what was legit. The lack of infrastructure didn't help things here. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Pyramids of Giza themselves. When we finally arrived at the pyramids, we were told to buy a ticket at the ticket counter. The "ticket counter" was a grey concrete building. There were no signs. Nothing to say it was associated with the pyramids. Nothing to say they were selling tickets. No indication of how much the tickets cost. No one wearing a uniform or name tag in sight. We approached it with doubt, but the lady behind the counter had what looked like official tickets with a price printed on them, so we paid it and left. The second we walked through the gate with our tickets, we were approached by an "official watchman" of the pyramids. He flashed a plastic card with his picture printed over an image of the pyramids and some Arabic on it. Then he asked us for our tickets (we wouldn't hand them over). Unphased, he started leading us around. We clearly stated that we didn't want a guide and if he wanted to show us around that was fine, but we wouldn't be paying him anything for his services. He said that was fine, he was just happy to give us the tour. He led us around for a while, forcing us (ok, he didn't have a gun to our heads, but he was rather insistent) on taking a dozen cheesy tourist shots of us holding up the sphinx's head with our fist and kissing it and so on...
cheesy shots like this in Paris with the Eiffel Tower, for some reason (hmmm... wonder what that could be?), I just wasn't feeling it this day... He continued to rush ahead to the next thing and the next thing, and we had had enough. We thanked him for his time, but told him honestly that we would prefer to see things at our own pace with no one rushing us forward. He then asked for a tip. When we told him no and reminded him that we had already told him we didn't want his services, he tried laying a huge guilt trip on us ("but if you don't give me anything you'll ruin my luck and my family's luck for the rest of the year!"). We eventually escaped him. Note: This happens all the time at the temples. Supposed "officials" will offer their services (and by "offer," I mean start providing them without even asking) and then expect a tip. Whether it's a tour guide leading you around a site, someone inside ready to explain the carvings to you, or someone with the keys to all the off-limit - closed-for-renovation areas - there's always someone there that wants your money. This is why the very first words we learned in Arabic were "la baksheesh" or "no tips". Next, we thought we would go inside a pyramid. We went up to the "entrance" of the tunnel (again, no sign to indicate that is what is was). There were several men (mostly touts) sitting around. No uniforms of course. One of the touts that had just tried to sell us a camel ride tried to sell us tickets to enter the interior of the pyramid. He had to ask around to the others to produce these tickets. This seemed sketchy, so we politely declined. Another man explained to us that there were no cameras allowed inside, so we would have to leave them outside with him. "Don't worry," he said, "It's safe." Ha! Yeah right! This sealed the deal for us and we skipped the inside tunnels. The infrastructure, or lack thereof, at the pyramids was the story again and again throughout Egypt. "Official" anything was hard to find - policemen and security guards didn't wear uniforms or name tags. There were many security control stations, but everyone was just waved past the x-ray machines or, if we did put our things through them, no one looked to see. "Metal detectors" at entrances seemed to be no more than glorified traffic counters with the words "metal detector" printed on them to aid in the deceit. Receipts for tours were non-existent.