Egyptian Holiday

I have just returned from a fortnight in Egypt (more specifically, in Cairo, with a a day-trip to Alexandria). I'll probably do a write-up of what I saw and did later, but in the mean-time I thought I'd share some random odds-and-ends.

The whole thing was a big lump of culture shock for me. I'd never been outside of the "Western" world before (just Europe and a brief conference in Hawaii). As such, everything was a bit stressful. Enjoyable, fun and highly worthwhile but also very tiring.

People are friendly! But aggressively so! It's a friendliness that is quite unnerving, especially when combined with the concept of 'baksheesh', or 'getting a tip for doing very little, and certainly nothing you want'. Stand still too long in a railway station, people will help you out without asking, and then want money for it. Take a photo near the pyramids? People will want money if their camel appears, or if you took it from 'their' spot. The amount people want is generally small, and this is their livelihood - the gap between rich and poor seems huge. But... it's just very stressful if you're not used to it.

Of course, why settle for a fixed amount if you can get a percentage? In the souk, if you express interest in something they don't have, will they point you to who has it? No, they'll lead you there. How kind. The fact that they'll hang around while you buy stuff, and the prices mysteriously inflate is besides the point. Alternatively, you will stay at the original shop, and they'll fetch stuff for you. Again, most kind, apart from in the financial aspects.

The souk is probably the most scarily-friendly-because-we-want-your-money place. You very quickly harden up to all the invitations, compliments and so on, if you wish to survive. Dark glasses are a good idea, as simply looking at a shop can cause the owner to pounce on you (this even happens to a lesser extent at some of the high-street stores). The quality of spoken English is really very good - apparently there is a good free education system, so the tourist-pestering scum you encounter may well be highly educated. And when Japanese, Spanish and so on appear... they get their native language used too. Highly impressive.

The above may make the country sound like a nation of money-grabbing insincere sales-weasels, but it's not like that. Those who aren't selling things are just as friendly as those who are. Indeed, it's quite difficult to not be insulting having got used to the souk, ignoring people who really are just wishing you well, rather than trying to rip you off.

The universal catch-phrase is 'Welcome to Egypt!'. I suspect they must be trained at school, so that a foreigner pops up, and all the children have to shout 'Welcome to Egypt!'. The fastest gets a lollipop, and the slowest beaten, or something. Adults often want to shake your hand (and I'm talking about strangers on the street, here), while children will also try out 'What's your name?' and 'Where are you from?'. Big smiles all round.

The traffic is lethal. It appears road-markings are an approximate guide, and cars will fit into any space they can (more or less). There's hardly a car that's undented, and horns are in permanent use. Indicators mean nothing, but that's okay, 'cos I've no idea how to indicate for pulling across 3 rows of traffic (fitted onto 2 lanes), and performing a random u-turn. Most roads are one-way, presumably because otherwise all the cars would just mingle together in opposite directions.

Taxis are extremely popular. They were painted black with white panels, and were generally the most beaten-up vehicles. Ancient Ladas and all sorts are in use. Many have fur-covered dashboards and danglies from the mirror. A tissue box on the dashboard is universal, and seat-belts... uncommon. Various taxis are kitted out with dodgy 'sports' extras, blue neon lights, etc. However, they seem to have totally ignored tuning the engines, which spew out plenty of pollution. Cairo has limited visibility in the daytime, good sunsets, and washing your hair will result in much grey water.

Back to taxis: Egyptian prices are unavailable to tourists, who instead resort to haggling. Haggling causes me pain, since I always end up feeling I must have got a rubbish deal. Sometimes later, I find that I have. There's always an extra 100% profit margin more than you think. Fortunately, I went with an arabic-speaker, which made life much simpler.

Of course, there's money to be made in Westerners, so you get nicely obnoxious taxi-drivers hanging around outside tourist traps, offering you taxis, at impressively extortionate (for Cairo - very cheap for anywhere else) rates. If you don't ignore them, they'll follow you, and make sure any other taxis you try to pick up know that you deserve a 'very special price'. Perhaps they'll want a commission on whatever you finally get. If you do ignore them, they'll still follow you, but not quite so far.

If you stand by the side of the road, the taxis will also be keen to get you. This complicates the other interaction with Cairo traffic: crossing the road. The basic technique involves estimating a gap in the traffic, and boldly strolling across the road. Drivers expect this, and will drive around you, as long as you keep moving. Hesitation will confuse them and could be messy. Guess what my UK-trained instincts tell me to do, in the face of speeding rust-buckets? Of course, timing the gap is difficult if half the traffic is taxis trying to pick you up. At peak time, you may have to cross the road a lane at a time, with the traffic flowing around you. Again, this is complicated by the way that flows of traffic and marked lanes have nothing like a one-to-one correspondence.

Having said all that, we didn't experience a single crash while we were there. I suppose it just goes to show that with infrequent events, perceived risk can get really screwed up. I'm sure the accident rate is many times that of the UK, but people are prepared to accept it in that situation. Moreover, people are used to that style of driving, and so expect things that would be unimaginable on English roads. One result is that cars just seem to be expected to get bashed. When parking, the 'keep going until contact' mechanism appears universally used. Kerbs are high, so that it is quite easy to scrape the underside of bumpers and so on, but people just seem to accept it.

I may sound very negative of Cairo, but these are just the aspects I found most alien, and since they're so strongly ingrained in me, I suspect I'll view anything different as somehow wrong. Having said that, I greatly enjoyed my holiday, and indeed much of what I have been ranting about. The differences were most interesting, and made the holiday worthwhile, but also oh so tiring.

Posted 2004-04-07.