In my recent post about Exploring the Pyramids in Egypt, Anil commented how lots of people have terrible experiences with the touts. I didn’t really say much in the post about the negative side of Cairo as I had put it out of my mind. But now it floods back like a nightmare, thanks Anil!
Seriously though, Egypt is amazing for it’s history. But Cairo is not a relaxing city in any way. There’s nowhere to go and get away from the crowds. There’s no parks. No open areas. No malls to blend in. It’s just wall to wall city, and while usually that’s great in cities like Paris, London or Amsterdam, it’s tougher in Cairo. The reason for this is that everywhere you turn, someone’s looking to get something out of you. Here’s some of the top scams and problems we found in our 6 days.
We were standing outside the Egyptian Museum trying to get back to our hostel. Unfortunately there was 8 lanes of traffic with 14 lanes of cars in front of us. All of them going fast, you have to frogger your way across. Luckily a man walked up beside us, sizes us up and down, and says “follow me”. Safely he escorts us across and starts asking where we’re from. Says he has a cousin near us and invites us into his Egyptian Antiques shop for a tea. Most people see this as a nice gesture, but as soon as you step inside it’s obviously a sell job as he starts his pitches.
Or we were walking down the street when a guy stops us, and standing in our way asks where we’re from. I tell him Vancouver and he starts talking about the bazaar, and how the local bazaar is cheaper. Luckily there’s a government bazaar around the corner he can guide us to which will save us money. A couple of “no thanks” and he’s still not taking the message, following us while we walk away.
One other time we were simply walking when a guy starts following us. I noticed and through hand communication worthy of Seal Team 6, Dee and I started walking faster. Seeing this didn’t work, I invoked my digg sponsored anti-tracking techniques, all to no avail. About 4 blocks later he just appears again, and starts up a conversation. He says that he’s from Palestine (looked that way) and that his house and family was blown up by Isreal (sounds likely). He starts talking about how great Cairo is and how we’re lucky we have freedoms. How he’s blessed he’s alive and can start working. We actually have a decent conversation while walking, but then comes to the point of asking for money for a hostel. I ended up giving him a couple pounds for the interesting conversation, but obviously he was working us. And he followed us almost a mile to give us this pitch.
And that’s the thing about the streets of Cairo. Everyone’s looking to make a buck, and won’t accept no. And those 3 instances above were all within 20 minutes of walking home from the Egyptian Museum. It never stops, in fact as soon as you stop walking it starts.
Outside of the Step Pyramid – hawkers taking tickets
When you first get out of your car at the Step Pyramid, there’s a guard booth and ticket agent right there. There’s then a 150 meter walk up to the outer wall of the ruins where there’s a bunch of men standing. They’re just outside the small entrance through the wall, with no way to avoid them if you want to go inside. Upon walking through the passageway they’ll ask for your ticket, look at it and then start a tour with you while holding your ticket. They have your ticket and look official, and most people start walking with them. At the end the man will ask for some excessive personal tour amount, and most people will settle for $20 US or so.
We had heard about this form our guide, and even knowing this they’re quite convincing. The guy demanded to see my ticket, and I made sure it never left my hand. Even when we were saying we didn’t want a tour and were walking on, they still hassled us. I can easily see how many people get taken here. And there’s no recourse, because if you don’t negotiate the price beforehand you don’t have any power to negotiate. And with 15 men looking menacing all around you, would you really want to start a fight over a couple dollars?
Check the cost of the taxi before you get in
Even if you hop in a taxi that has a meter, it often won’t be turned on. Before even getting into the car, negotiate the price through the window. Often the real amount is about 1/3 of what they first tell you, just keep that in mind. If you don’t they’ll say some high amount when you get to your destination, and you can’t really negotiate it down.
Beware of extra fee’s while on tours.
I booked our tour through Haitham at the Alexander Hostel. When we were doing this he was pretty clear that once we stepped out of the hostel, everything was paid for 100%. So when the tour manager of our White Desert trip said we had to pay for all of our drinking water for the night, we told him Haitham said it was included and to call him. After the tour the manager said we missed our buses for the day and in order to get back to Cairo we had to take a taxi and had to “tip” the driver a couple hundred pounds each. We didn’t believe this and considered it a lie even as he swore on his families life. There was lots of arguing, and again calls to Haitham. Eventually they dropped us off at the bus station and we took the non-exhistant bus back. One lady that was with us had similar cost problems, but she had booked through the internet and couldn’t get ahold of her contact at the travel agency. She ended up having to pay extra for the bus and other small things.
Which is something that I recommend. It pays to book a tour through the place your staying. They have an interest in keeping you happy as you’re already a customer. Haitham also recommended that we take a private tour in the desert as we’d have more food and warmer stays. This turned out true as we talked to some other people the next day and they were cold and hungry. Plus if something goes wrong you know who you can go back to. With more people booking online through sites like hostelbookers.com which asks you to rate your stay, customer service matters.
Papyrus Scroll museums
So these museums are hidden everywhere, and your driver is almost guaranteed to stop at one if you go see the Pyramids in Giza. Inside they’ll have replicas of old papyrus scrolls and show you how they make the current ones while giving you a 7-Up or tea to drink. They really begin to make you think that it’s unique and highly valuable, but then they quote you a price which is ridiculous like $200US. The scrolls are beautiful and you start to think you have a decent deal when you negotiate him down to $150.
The thing is you’ve given the salesman about 15-20 minutes of your time building up great rapport and increasing the value of his products. But the real price is closer to 10% of their original asking price. We saw similar scrolls on the street for 5% of what they started asking (tho weren’t quite as nice). We ended up getting 2 scrolls for a 1/3 of the original asking price for 1. So bargin hard with these guys, they’re professionals. Or just skip the shop and buy at the bazaar or museums for less.
Touts and Baksheesh at the Pyramids
The second you step foot inside the pyramid grounds, you’re being harassed by touts. They’ll put things in your hands and you’ll actually have to put it on the ground to give it back. They’ll come back again when you leave, trying to sell the same crap as before. Or offer camel rides. Or photos. Or postcards which are crap. Just keep walking away from these guys, as difficult as it is. All of their stuff is fifth rate and twice as expensive as it should be.
Then there is baksheesh, which is a custom taken too far. It’s a tip to someone who does you a service, and it goes too far. For sweeping the steps, “baksheesh sir”. When leaving your camera with the guard as you can’t take it inside “baksheesh” is printed on a basket. Someone showed us a shaft down to the “queens” chamber (which isn’t, as the queen’s tomb was always outside of the pyramid), and asked with his hand out for a baksheesh. For directions, baksheesh. It’s gone too far, and the guidebooks support it as it’s an income stream for people.
I say enough is enough! If I gave 1pound each time asked, I’d easily have spent more than our food and accommodation budget. If someone actually does a service for you, sure. But for doing SFA, don’t be guilted into it.
So that’s my short list of constant barrages we encountered in Cairo. Have you been to Egypt and experienced anything I missed? What are your thoughts on the baksheesh culture?