Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Downside

Current Location: Hurghada Marina, Egypt
Next Destination: Towards the Med

No place is perfect. There is always a downside. In most cases, for us anyway, the experience we have so completely overrides any downsides that within days (sometimes merely minutes) our memories have released any tainted thoughts. This very thing is what allows me to continue sailing ... if we didn't have a tremendous time overall then I would never forget about how much I hated getting somewhere, and I'd never set out to sea again.

Egypt, unfortunately, has a huge downside. I'd love to forget it and just focus on Egypt's outstanding sites and its intriguing history, but I find that every time I'm telling someone about something we did in Egypt, I can't escape the "but". I hate this, I don't want there to be a "but". I'm currently in the process of going through the 800 or so photos we took during our two week inland travels and I am continuously amazed by Egypt's history and their archeological paradise ... BUT I also keep thinking about the people - no, not all the people, just those trying to make a buck off you, a.k.a the endless number of TOUTS. I should warn you, I'm about to go off on a rant, for this I apologize, but I figure if I get it all out, here and now, then perhaps in the future (such as when I'm writing up our Billabong Journal for Egypt) I'll be able to leave all this behind and focus only on the amazing things that Egypt has to offer.

In case you don't know, one definition of a tout is "someone who buys something and resells it at a price far above the initial cost". Okay, that half describes the vendors in Egypt. Egyptian touts go beyond just trying to make a good percentage; they are aggressive, vulturous, persistent, relentless, in-your-face, rude, and inexorable (and yes, I had to use a dictionary). Maybe I'm being harsh, but I've got stories to back it up. Lonely Planet says to try and remember that these vendors are poor and only trying to earn a living. I tried that theory for a few days, but it doesn't fly with me, mainly because they don't treat each other in the same manner. Walk through any area where there are tourist and locals both shopping - you won't see the touts hammering away at the locals, only the whity. I don't mind a shop marking up their products, and I don't even mind when they yell out to you to come into their shop. BUT when they begin following us around, touching us, standing in front of us so that we can't pass, and yelling at us when we don't acknowledge them, well, that goes beyond "just trying to make a buck".

Luxor had these magnificent narrow alleyways, full of little touristy shops where you could get just about anything your heart desired, from useless nick-nacks to beautiful scarves. When I first saw them I thought, ahhh I could spend hours wandering around through here. In addition these alleyways were mostly shaded, so they provided the perfect midday entertainment (when the sun was full-on and you sought out the relief of shade). BUT about ten minutes later, after barely being able to make my way to the hotel due to all the touts rushing out in front us, shoving t-shirts and necklaces in my face, I was seriously rethinking shopping as a midday option. And to make matters worse they absolutely do not accept a polite no-thank you. Saying "no thank you" only leads to them asking you "why not" "do you know the price?" "but it's really cheap" and on and on. If we did see something we kind of liked we'd try to talk under our breathes about it without looking directly at it, and only if we then thought we might really want it would we approach the stall to take a closer look. The minute you looked directly at a stall, or were obviously talking about a specific item (god forbid you should pick something up), the vultures attacked. A guy would instantly come over and start talking non-stop and start showing you other items as well. It made it nearly impossible to actually look at anything, or for Chris and I to talk about if we really liked it. And unless we were rude it would take a good 5-10 minutes to get away from the vendor if we decided against buying anything.

I'll admit that we were probably easier targets then some. We didn't want to be rude. In the beginning we'd politely smile and say no thank you (sometimes even in Arabic thinking that would help). If they asked us questions (their way of stalling you and trying to befriend you so that you’d come into their shop), such as what’s your name and where are you from, we'd answer politely while still trying to slowly continue on our way. It didn't take us long to figure out that it wasn't working and with every day that passed we became shorter and shorter, offered less smiles, and made less attempts at politeness. This bothered us though, especially after all the great people experiences we'd had through our travels -- we just couldn't believe that rudeness was the only answer. We also couldn't believe that ALL the vendors were so brash and deceptive ... which of course led us to getting screwed more than once.

Our worst tout experience was a spice guy. It started with us stupidly, once again, attempting to walk through the alleyways, a post-dinner kind of thing. We walked far enough that we actually got into a more local market area (still some tourists but mostly locals). During our walk we'd managed to pick up a "tour guide". Of course we didn't want or need one, but a guy attached himself to us and kept trying to "show" us things. No matter what we said or did we couldn’t get him to leave; ignoring him, walking fast, walking slow, saying goodbye … nothing worked. We came upon an interesting looking spice shop whose vendor was especially friendly and invited inside. We opted to go inside mainly because we thought we might finally be able to ditch our "guide" (who, by the way, was ever so useful as to point out to us that what we were looking at were spices ... DUH!). The spice vendor inevitably started on one great pitch about his various spices; pulling sample out of jars to show us, letting us taste and smell them, and so on. He also brought us the "no obligation" welcome drink (tea). We had sat there long enough and were rather enjoying our time, so Chris whispered over to me that we should buy a little something just as a "thank you". I agreed, I mean we're talking about spices - something we needed anyway, and how expensive, even marked up, could they be … you can’t get too screwed buying spices right??? Chris asked how much the saffron costs and our host went into this HUGE spiel about how we were in the "Egyptian market" and not the "Tourist market" and therefore things here were fair, none of this upping the cost and bargaining, no hassles, and so on. It was extremely convincing; he even went as far as to make fun of the other touts, mimicking their obnoxious calls. And of course, both Chris and I still believed that we were destined to find an honest Egyptian storeowner. About 20 minutes later we had a small set of spices ready to buy. Our vendor-friend went through the prices by gram and they sounded about right, then weighed everything and magically did the math in his head. What I think happened (after many hours mulling over it later on) is that he basically picked a number out of thin air. I'm too embarrassed to actually write what he charged us. Of course we are to blame as well, when he announced his ridiculous price (probably about 10x normal cost) we should've just walked out. But, between trying to do the conversion from pounds to dollars in our heads, trying to remain polite and respectful, and not wanting to offend him, or embarrass ourselves, we paid it. Stupid really. Once we got back to our hotel room and talked it over we realized just how screwed we were and both of us felt like complete fools. So much for our vendor guy's big 'ol spiel on the great Egyptian market. AND to top it all of, when we left the shop (like 45 minutes later) our "guide" was still hanging around. Arrgh! At this point though we were both feeling jaded and not so polite with our tag-along. Chris had to finally tell him to just leave us alone. The guy then asked Chris how much money we spent in the shop, to which Chris replied it was none of his business. The guy proceeded to ask Chris for a percentage of the sale price since he was the one who brought us there!!!! YEAH RIGHT! Chris had to outright, forcefully tell the guy no-way and practically yell at him to go away.

What really steams me though isn't the trinket and tourist shops. I accept that shops in tourist areas will charge more - it's just how it works no matter where you are in the world. But it really chaps me when we go into a local store, in an out of the way area, and still get the white-price. There is hardly a shop in Egypt that has prices displayed, so you ALWAYS have to ask and the minute you do, you get the once over where they realize ahhhh white-man and then times ten to the normal price. Imagine going in a grocery store in the States and having them enter your race at the checkout to determine what price you get! We walked in more than one bakery where they tried to charge us 5x what bread should cost, all because we were white - a local who walked in the EXACT same store would've be charged less. Our real bummer was in Aswan, where we discovered this out of the way lunch spot. It was full to the brim with locals and not a lick of English. Our type of spot. The 'waiter' was extremely nice and helped us order by giving us a few samples of the various dishes. Then we went to pay. We figure we were overcharged by about 3x. Chris tried to call the guy on it but he just denied it. We know that (a) no local would pay that much for lunch and (b) a soda at a TOURIST cafe on the Nile is about two pounds, we were charged SEVEN! Unfortunately there isn't much we could do given we'd already eaten! The real bummer is that the food was FANTASTIC! When we started eating, I said to Chris, "we've found our restaurant for Aswan". We seriously would have eaten there every day, maybe even twice a day! BUT not after being so blatantly ripped off.

And then there are the touts full of tricks and cons. In my opinion these men are plain thieves. They are the ones who will offer to take your photo for you, but then not return the camera until you give them money. They’ll tell you a certain display/site is closed, but offer to let you in for a little bakeesh (aka tip or payoff) … when all along the site was really open. In the Valley of the Kings Chris and I decided to walk up to the top of the cliff for the view overlooking the valley. The minute we started up the track a tout came after us offering to show us the way. We kept saying we were fine and we wanted to be alone, but the guy wouldn’t leave until Chris outright told him that we were not going to pay him anything so he should go bother someone else. We thought the top would be more peaceful (ie no touts), but it is apparently how all the touts hike in to get into the valley without paying the entrance fee, so we were never left alone. Coming down one tout approached us as Chris was reading an excerpt from our Valley of the Kings tour book. He tried to sell us his tour book, to which we said no-thank you; we (obviously) already have one. They guy then said “but your book isn’t in English”. Chris gave him the do you think I’m stupid look before telling him that it was indeed in English. The tout then held out his hand while saying, “let me see, it’s not English”. He kept pestering us and asking to see the book, telling Chris (who was reading to me from it IN ENGLISH) that it wasn’t English but that his book was. Finally Chris had to practically yell at the guy to go away. We figure the scam was that he would take the book then not give it back until we either gave him bakeesh or bought one of his books.

It happened so often and was so frustrating that we got to the point where we walked everywhere (refusing to try and negotiate buses, taxis, or horse buggies), and never just strolled about - we only went out when we had somewhere to go, never just to browse around. The sad, sad thing about it all is that the non-vendor locals are extremely friendly and some go out of their way to be nice. The problem is you don't know who wants a buck off you and who is being sincerely friendly. Unfortunately we ended up being abrupt with some locals who were truly just trying to be helpful. We would later apologize and try to explain, but I don't think they realize just how bad their touts are behaving and how is it destroying the image of Egypt. In Cairo we went in the tourism office at the train station to try and get directions to the bus station. After leaving, walking around lost for about 45 minutes, and failing to find it, we returned and asked her if she could explain it again. A policeman who was in the office suggested we just take a taxi - it would only cost 3-5 pounds. We laughed and said that there was no way we could get a taxi for that price. Both the lady and policeman asked us why. We tried to explain how the price goes up once they see we are white; to which they replied "you just have to negotiate beforehand" (which we always do). Inspired by them, we set out to see about a taxi. Our fist inquiry came back with 30 pounds! We just walked away … couldn't even bring ourselves to bother haggling. About five taxis later we finally were able to negotiate to 10 pounds ... it was the best we could do.

If it isn’t obvious by now I could probably go on forever about this. Enough ranting. It’s out of my system; I’m done with it. I will end by saying that Egypt is magnificent, truly mind-boggling when you think about the history. I also want to stress, one more time, that I do not believe every Egyptian is out to get me, and those locals that we’ve met outside of “shopping” or extreme tourist areas have been very friendly and have a great sense of humor. I only wish the shops owners would realize that in the end they would probably make more money if they just threw on a price tag (even a marked up one) and left you in peace.

Continue reading "The Downside"...