Tuesday, April 06, 2010

An Interesting Taxi Ride in Cairo

My family went to the sound & light show at the Giza pyramids, which was a rather cheesy but somewhat interesting tourist trap – but that’s not the subject of this post. After the show, we exited through the gate and were immediately approached by a man who asked “Taxi?” We had indeed planned on taking a taxi back to the hotel, and we knew how much the taxi ride should cost, so Amy replied by telling him where we wanted to go and that we would pay 40 Egyptian pounds (about $8). He agreed to the price, which Amy confirmed the price once again, adding “No baksheesh!” (baksheesh is the tips and small “bribes” that are all too common.) “Ok, no baksheesh.”

He now led us past the parking lot packed with huge tour buses to a dark side street where we found an ancient Fiat waiting for us. It looked almost as old as the pyramids, and in much worse condition. He opened the back door first, then reached forward to open the front passenger door from the inside – presumably the outside handle was broken. Turning the key in the ignition resulted only in silence. “No problem!” he exclaimed, and then he push started the car. He pulsed his headlights on but then turned them off again. Inexplicably, many people here drive at night without headlights.

A few minutes later, we found ourselves wandering down narrow, dark, dirt alleyways, barely wide enough for the ancient fiat and a passing horse cart. At this point I noticed that the odor of exhaust, one that I thought might pass shortly after the car started, still persists. To my relief we reached the main road, and shortly afterward, the elevated expressway. Cars and buses were flying by us as the little car struggled to accelerate – still with no headlights on. We reached the Fiat’s terminal velocity – approximately 60 km/hr (38 MPH) – 5 minutes later, about the same time we reach our exit. After several more miles on city streets, we safely reached our hotel. Miraculous! I felt like I had done my good deed for the day; this guy needed the $8 much more than I did.

Egyptian hustlers and touts

As a tourist in Egypt, be prepared: anytime you leave the pampered confines of your five-star hotel, five-star cruise ship, or air-conditioned tour bus, you will be hassled and hustled by anyone and everyone who has any kind of product or service to sell. My friend David Schutt warned me that any time any Egyptian talks to you for any reason, they're trying to get your money. I thought he was exaggerating but now I realize my naive optimism. On our first full day in Cairo, while walking with the family toward the Egyptian museum, we were approached by a seemingly friendly and harmless looking local. I don't know his name, but I'll call him "Ahmed". The conversation went something like this.

Ahmed: "Where are you from?"

Me: "America."

Ahmed: "Ahh, I was just in Hawaii. My son lives there."

Could be true, I think to myself. He speaks English well.

Ahmed: "Are you going to the museum? Well, it's not open til noon, but let me show you how to get there. Here, come with me. Don't worry, I'm not trying to sell you anything, I'm a doctor."

Now my BS detector is flashing red. "It's ok, we know how to get there, but thanks anyway."

Ahmed: "Since the museum is closed, I know a place where you can see how papyrus is made."

After I said no about eight times and three different ways, he finally gave up.

Here's an example that shows just how hard the touts will work. My family was sitting in a taxi driving down a busy street toward Giza and the Sphinx, when a man runs up to the moving taxi and starts a conversation with the driver in Arabic - all while the taxi is still moving. He then runs ahead and around the corner, while the taxi follows and eventually slows. "Excuse me madam," the running man says to Amy who is in the front passenger seat.
"No!" is Amy's immediate response. At this point, we're battle scarred from more than a week of fighting off husslers.
"But," he starts again.
"No!" Amy insists yet again.
"Please, just let me say a few words. Then you can tell me yes or no."
This time Amy graciously lets him speak. "Would you like to ride horses or camels past the pyramids at sunset? I can give you a very good price."
Amy replies, "No, no thank you."
With a dejected look, the man responds, "Ok, thank you madam," and our driver resumed the ride toward the fabled Sphinx.

Another friend of mine, Ian Jones, who is a seasoned world traveler, told us that while in India and Morocco, he dealt with the touts by yelling angrily at them before they even had a chance to speak. You may find this tactic bit extreme, but after you’ve been here for a few weeks, I bet you’d change your opinion.
With 80 million people, most of them poor, and a terrible economy with high inflation, I sympathize with Egyptian and respect how hard they have to work to make a living. Terrorist attacks in years past have been devastating to the economy and even more so to the millions here who directly depend on tourism for income. The constant hassling can be a huge frustration and emotional drain. To keep your sanity, you have to prepare yourself mentally before each excursion from the hotel – and plan a sufficient number of respites from the hassle back in your overpriced tourist accommodations.