By Robby Gray (JN)
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Egypt; land of pyramids, pharaohs believed to be gods, mummies, tombs, immense temples, colossi, massive solid obelisks, and… baksheesh (literally means gift but really means a forced bribe). On the surface Egypt seems to be a pretty cool place but after having been there for about two months, we were able to see through the fake smiles to the real Egypt. An Egypt that is completely corrupt, totally devoid of ethics, and superficial in every way. Actually seeing what a country is really like, for good or bad, is one of the great benefits of being a cruiser. There are an endless amount of levels to the Egyptian corruption but one of the most obvious to the cruiser, next to customs and immigration which story is equally if not more ridiculous, is found in the local taxis. Here is the story of a typical Egyptian taxi ride.
All we wanted to do was go to Khan el Khalili, the local Egyptian bazaar. We were fed up with the hustle of trying to get a taxi off the street so we opted to spend the big bucks and hire a Hilton “limousine” and driver (the “limousine” was actually just a middle-of-the-road Avis rent-a-car). We later learned that the doorman of the Hilton was telling the local taxis to charge the Hilton guests three times as much money. We base this assumption on the fact that we caught the doorman holding up three fingers to the taxis pulling in to the Hilton and that it was always three times as much money to leave the Hilton as it was to come back. Another possibility is that he was charging the taxis three dollars of baksheesh to have the privilege of picking up the tourists from the front door of the Hilton. Whatever the case, the doorman was robbing the taxis, the Hilton and, most importantly, the Hilton’s customers. This is not only a problem at the Hilton as we have seen first hand, at other taxi stands when hopping into a cab, local Egyptians who come up and attempt to charge the cab driver a fee for using “their” piece of public property. If the driver does not pay a fight erupts and the driver seems to be somewhat excommunicated.
We got everything arranged and drove out of the Hilton in air-conditioned comfort. We were only a half mile or so away when our driver started to tell us that Khan el Khalili was not safe for American tourists. Using his probable lifetime of experience, our driver eventually convinced us to go to a “safer place”. The “safer place” turned out to be a papyrus factory 45 minutes away! At the time we had no idea how far these places were from the Hilton but we were later to find out that Khan el Khalili was only fifteen minutes away from the Hilton. Keep in mind that we were paying by the hour. There is also no doubt that the papyrus factory paid the drivers a commission for bringing tourists. We did realize we were being taken advantage of when we saw the tops of the pyramids sticking out from behind the buildings. But we gave our driver the benefit of the doubt—after all he was very nice. Eventually we were able to leave, without spending a penny, and drive almost the whole 45 minutes again to Khan el Khalili.
When we were dropped off in the main square of Khan el Khalili we understood our driver completely when he told us that we would meet him in three hours at an obvious café that bordered the square. Finally, we were wandering the narrow streets. On all sides we were barraged by shop owners trying to get us to come into their shops. In broken English the shop owners will tell you, in many creative ways, that they only want you to look at what they have to offer and that there is no obligation to buy. If you take the bait and walk in to a shop it is extremely hard to get out without buying anything. The crowds surged around us as we walked by countless jewelry shops, stores selling the typical cheaply made Egyptian souvenirs, dark shops filled with incredible antiques collecting dust, alabaster shops, and, out in the street, tables piled with exotic spices. The sweet slightly bitter smell of the latter hit our noses and soon we found ourselves with a kilo of hibiscus tea and a boy trying to get us to buy more. We wandered the hours away trying not to have our pockets cleaned out by the venders that are so persistent you can’t even look at what they have to offer. We eventually found ourselves in a small, brightly lit store selling alabaster. I picked up a bowl made of the slightly transparent stone. The surface was rough and granite-like and everything about the bowl, save for its light monotone slightly translucent cream color, seemed to say it would be heavy, but it was actually as light as if it had been made out of plastic. The stone was made to feel even more plastic-like by not being cold to the touch. After looking at just about the whole store’s inventory, we decided on a medium-sized bowl that would probably be perfect for serving salad when, if ever, we go home. The shop owner put a light in the bowl causing it to glow beautifully. After going through the normal ordeal of bargaining, we all shook the store owner’s hand and stepped back onto the street. Before leaving, though, the store owner gave each of us a little scarab beetle pendant. I am sure that we paid, inevitably, three times as much for the bowl as, confirmed by local Egyptians, there is a tourist price for everything, normally about three times as much, and an Egyptian price. Also the first thing a store owner will ask you before you are even in his shop is where are you from. Their eyes always light up and they become more aggressive if you say you are from America.
My dad glanced at his watch and found that it was 15 minutes past the time we had agreed to meet our driver so we wound our way back to the café we had agreed earlier to meet him at. At the café we were unable to find our driver so we took a short walk around the square to make sure that he wasn’t just around the corner. We only found our driver’s car and he was nowhere to be seen around it so we took a seat at a café, that was right next to the one he was supposed to meet us at, and waited. Being in a wide open square, I thought we could have finally relaxed from all the hustle but this was not to be the case. As we drank our sodas, we were constantly having wares thrown in front of our face by watch venders, with their fingers draped, as they will tell you, with real imitation watches, people selling cheap jewelry, and many small children covered in rags and dirt, one having no shoes, selling little packs of tissues. On coming up to the table these kids would put on a practiced begging face and would put out a small hand with a packet of tissues mumbling “one pound, one pound.” After buying some tissues, we noticed that the poor kids were reporting to some kind of pack leader who collected all the money. Crossing in front of the café there was a constant stream of oddly laden people carrying, in strange ways, everything from tea in large glass containers strapped to their backs to pita bread arranged on wicker platforms also carried on the back. The only thing somewhat controlling the venders from pushing their wares on us harder was the tourist police, armed with AK-47s and other types of automatic weapons, stationed every 30 feet or so around the square.
The wailing of the mosque about an hour and a half later and the empty bottoms of our drinks compelled us to have another look for our driver. We were unsuccessful so my dad called the Hilton, who connected him with the driver, and in only a little more than a minute we saw our driver come running over. Our driver then proceeded to tell us that he had been waiting for us and we must have misunderstood where we were to meet him. At this point I think we all felt pretty crummy. This guy, who looked so nice, had lied to us then had had the nerve to tell us we were mistaken and that he had been waiting for us. There is no way we had misunderstood him. Where he had been allegedly waiting for us was at a local bar about a block away from Khan el Khalili. We had passed the spot on our way in, after that 45 minute drive, but we were all sure he had said nothing about us meeting him there. Only about 15 minutes later we were back in front of the Hilton. I went strait up to the room to avoid the scene but when the rest of the family came up I heard the rest of the story. We had been taken advantage of again! The original agreed on price added up to 90 Egyptian pounds but our driver told us he would drop the two extra hours and charge us only 120 Egyptian pounds. What the nerve. The worst thing about the whole thing is the driver knew he had nothing to lose. There was absolutely no one in the whole of Egypt we could turn to and we ended up paying the original 90 pounds. What a waste of time and money.
We definitely plan to write Hilton a letter. Of all the places for this to happen it should not have been in a Hilton “limousine.” This is the inevitable end for any country that abandons all morals and natural law. A business as prestigious as the Hilton can’t even keep their employees under control in this environment. Neither can Egypt, a police state, with a machine gun every 30 feet.