Another perspective on traveling in Egypt: Part 2

The author at an empty temple with a hopeful guide following him, hoping for baksheesh.

Part two of three parts of the Egyptian travel adventures of Eric Soll and his wife Kathy. You can read part one here.

Some thoughts about hotel tours, taxi drivers, camel and carriage drivers, tour guides, gift shop employees and other individuals in countries such as Egypt.

They do not engage in what many westerners consider extreme harassing behavior as entertainment or sport to specifically annoy tourists.Egypt is a relatively poor country. Even with recent economic improvements to many developing countries, currently half of the Egyptian workforce earns less than $300 a month. One quarter of the Egyptian workforce earns less than $167 a month. Most westerners and Americans who visit Egypt consider themselves normal middle-class individuals facing economic pressures addressing their own ongoing expenses. But to most Egyptians, even the typical lower middle class U.S. citizen on a tour of a lifetime is fabulously wealthy and can afford anything – including their taxi, carriage or camel ride, another wonderful local craft or a “tour” inside a temple. Many “tours” often last one minute, subterfuge to obtain baksheesh. When store proprietors rush out to the street, put a tiny little scarab in one’s hand as a gift and physically steer you into their store — as experienced by us in Cairo — they are just trying to get by in life as we all do in a country in which earning any living at all can be a major challenge. But this can be disconcerting to a U.S. tourist whose only experience with sales pitches is helping themselves to a free food sample from the friendly and polite food demonstrators at Costco who stay behind their counter while expounding on the benefits of their products.

While traversing the beautiful Nile River walkway, which also passed right in front of the amazing Luxor Temple complex, we could always identify the western tourists walking towards us from afar. They were the ones traveling with grim determination, eyes firmly planted in front of them looking downward attempting to not make eye contact with anyone. Which is really a shame, because so many Egyptians are really approachable and friendly.

For example, while exploring the city of Luxor, we stumbled upon the local tourism board office. We entered to see what was happening. We ended up spending a delightful hour or so being treated to tea and visiting the staff person with other independent travelers. He was so friendly, and so enthusiastic about his country and informing all of us about the treasures of the Luxor area, that we wrote a letter to the main tourism board explaining how good a job he was doing. We hope we didn’t get him fired. We also met and conversed with both staff and guests at the hotels we stayed at, as well as just wandering about and had some interesting conversations, especially with Egyptians that wanted to practice their English skills with us.  In a different city we met an Egyptian who wanted to write a letter to a U.S. tourist he had met, and we took dictation for him, and he was able to send the letter to his friend in the States.

Another troubling aspect for some tourists other than interacting with the aggressive tourist industry is observing the treatment that various domesticated animals have to endure. While driving and walking about, it was not uncommon to see donkeys laden with loads so heavy that it must have outweighed the poor animal struggling to transport it. One could barely observe the animal under the massive load. Again, Egypt is a poor country, and this is the way it is, generally at the expense of the animals. Many Egyptians don’t have the resources to obtain veterinary care for their animals, and they desperately need to get the work at hand accomplished with limited resources.

We were walking about Luxor, and we happened upon a building that appeared to house numerous donkeys inside. Curious, we decided to enter the premises to determine why all these donkeys were located in a building in the middle of Luxor during the middle of a workday. We discovered the facility was a donkey shelter. We asked if we could have a look around. The staff was incredibly gracious and gave us a tour of the premises. This shelter was an organization that purchased donkeys in distress from the impoverished farmers in the area. The staff nursed the donkeys back to health and cared for them at the facility for the remainder of their lives, so the donkeys could reside in peace and comfort without working. I never observed so many contented looking animals in one place. I could swear one or two of the donkeys were actually smiling. We, of course, made a donation in honor of a relative who is a real animal lover and who doesn’t engage in eating tasty animals as I do.

There is good and bad news about these organizations established to care for animals. The good news is that there is currently an increased number of facilities in Luxor that cater to various domesticated animals owned by local individuals that require care for their animals but simply can’t afford to pay it. The bad news is that the area surrounding Luxor is still desperately poor, and there is still a great need for animal care and the donations that support these facilities. Currently some of these organizations have organized tours for tourists, and one can provide a donation there or through the Internet if so desired.

While walking about, we observed a gift shop with a huge advertisement on their storefront in English stating that in their shop, the prices were established, clearly listed, and there was no bargaining. We noticed that the tourists were allowed to view the product without anyone hovering about them trying to sell them items. Unlike many other stores, this one was jam-packed with tourists, and the establishment was doing a very brisk business. I also noticed that the prices were quite inflated as compared to the price of similar items tourists could have purchased elsewhere if they had bargained with the proprietor.

Toward the end of our month adventure, we were ready to purchase some local crafts in another city. After bargaining with the proprietor of a gift shop for a number of alabaster vases, we engaged him in a very interesting discussion. I informed him of the store with the no-bargaining policy we had observed in Luxor. I suggested that I didn’t understand why more shops didn’t adopt this practice. Double or triple the price that is desired, don’t engage in bargaining, leave the tourists alone and let the tourists talk themselves into buying the product. I suggested that many western tourists probably bought less items that they wanted to acquire because of their distaste of both the bargaining process and the aggressive nature of the sales experience.

The proprietor of the shop agreed that perhaps the no-bargaining method would increase sales, and then shrugged his shoulders and stated that it was the Middle Eastern mentality that prevented any change of the current sales strategy. Then the conversation took a very interesting turn. Unsolicited by us, the proprietor informed us of his great disdain for the Mubarak administration, that they were all criminals and corruption throughout the government on all levels was rampant. I was very surprised that someone would be so open with us addressing this subject in a country that was essentially a dictatorship and a police state. But he was undeterred. That was the only political commentary we heard from anyone during our month in Egypt.

My wife and I both observed that Egyptian citizens were nervous when police or government officials were present. One taxi driver in another city that we visited absolutely refused to take us all the way to our stated destination. Why? Because a police station was located across the street. He let us off a block away from our destination and promptly made a U turn and drove away after wishing us a good day. While spending the day with our Cairo taxi driver at the Giza complex, the three of us were engaged in a lively conversation, and an official actually came over unsolicited to determine if there was anything wrong between the tourists and the taxi driver. Our taxi driver appeared very concerned when the official came over. We assured the official in no uncertain terms that nothing was amiss, and we were having a wonderful day in part because of our great driver. After the official left, our taxi driver was visibly relieved.

After a number of days exploring the Luxor side, we decided to explore the Thebes side. We engaged one of the many taxi drivers who congregated near the Luxor temple to visit the Thebes side for two days. Many taxi drivers left their taxis on the Thebes side, traveled by a passenger-only ferry to the Luxor side, and solicited business in the tourist areas. No point in spending considerable money transporting a vehicle back and forth, when the tourist can just easily travel back and forth to Thebes. After we made the deal, we agreed on a time to meet early the next morning. We traveled on the passenger ferry with locals and a few tourists who were also meeting their taxi drivers. There he was as agreed, and off we went. We spent a great two full days touring most of the sights in Thebes with yet another personable and informative taxi driver.

Another nearly deserted temple.

Unlike the Luxor side where the temples had a number of visitors, the temples on the Thebes side were almost deserted. Sometimes it felt as if we were the only people exploring these amazing structures. The Valley of the Kings was more crowded, the tombs of the Queens, Nobles and Workers were essentially deserted. Unlike the tombs at the Valley of the Kings, where many of the tombs were illuminated by electricity, the Nobles tombs had no artificial lighting system and were dark within a few feet of the opening. Our driver ensured that we were able to view them although they were dark. Not with a flashlight as that would be expensive and way too modern. Our driver had a large mirror located in the trunk of his taxi. He obtained it and used it to expertly focus the sun’s rays into the darkness, which lit up the tombs so we could admire them.

During the second day of our tour, our driver asked us if we would like to visit his “relative’s” alabaster workshop, where only the finest alabaster jars were sold for the best prices. Sure, why not? We understood what we were getting into, but our taxi driver was doing a great job, and we were enjoying our time with him. After tea and conversation and a tour of the workshop, we bought a hand-carved alabaster jar, and we also obtained a few pieces of alabaster from the supply that the craftsman fashioned his crafts with. We, of course, paid too much for the jar, and it presently occupies a prominent place in our living room with our other crafts that we have acquired from our travel adventures. But the memory of meeting a craftsperson and viewing his enterprise certainly compensated for the few extra dollars we spent.

Some thoughts about negotiating and paying for crafts as well as other services in Egypt. Egyptians produce numerous attractive crafts for the tourist trade. Many westerners have concerns about engaging in the process of bargaining. They are generally concerned about paying too much and being taken advantage of when bargaining. In some cases, there is unease on the part of tourists that the crafts can be obtained for a price that appears to be significantly lower than can be purchased in the U.S.

No tourist ever gets ripped off when bargaining. The price that one ultimately pays for a crafts product, a taxi ride, hotel or anything else that is bargained for is what the tourist ultimately decides the goods or services are valued to him or her. The fact that the tourist probably paid more than the going rate is not the fault of the one selling the product or providing the goods or services. Rather it is the inability of the tourist to either bargain effectively, not having full knowledge of what the going rate for the item or service is, or a combination of both. That latter situation happened to us in the Sinai Peninsula.

Other tourists are concerned that they are not paying enough and are taking advantage of the less-affluent craftsperson or producer in an impoverished country. One cannot compare the prices one pays for even the same crafts from Egypt, or other crafts exported to the U.S. from other countries, that they may pay when touring the country of origin. The crafts exported from Egypt or other countries may change hands numerous times from the local artisan to the end seller in the U.S. The dramatic increase in price in U.S. reflects, in part, the various middlemen involved in the process and the associated expense to export the item and the sale to the eventual end seller. When a tourist purchases an artifact from Egypt or another country for what seems to be a ridiculously low price, it is often for a greater price than what that artisan is obtaining from a local exporter for the same product that will be sold abroad. Furthermore, with the advent of the internet, most artisans are knowledgeable of what similar products are selling for in other countries and try to adjust their prices accordingly For example, on a prior adventure to Turkey, we discovered that carpets were not priced much lower than what they can be obtained for in the U.S.

And one shouldn’t be concerned about outmaneuvering or taking advantage of the artisan or salesperson when bargaining. They are master bargainers and negotiators and will only sell their wares or services at a price they have determined meets their business requirements. To not buy goods when in Egypt or in other impoverished countries because one believes it takes advantage of impoverished individuals only results in more poverty. One can always purchase the item for the inflated price that the vendor has initially proposed and make their day.

On the other hand, one may hear some pretty tall tales when bargaining. For example, one seller informed us that a carpet we were interested in purchasing could not be obtained at a certain price as that was the price when he had purchased it from his father-in-law. That wall hanging is now hanging in our hall, and the final price was lower than what the vendor paid his father-in-law. Most assuredly the vendor made a decent profit.

Before we embark on any destination, I research the crafts that the country produces so we have an idea of what appeals to us, what those items sell for in the U.S., and bargain accordingly if bargaining is the accepted norm of doing business.

As we toured Luxor, we noticed a travel agency that was advertising an upcoming three-day, two-night cruise on the Nile from Luxor to Aswan. Our next destination was also to Aswan. Each day as we walked by the travel agency, we noticed that the price kept falling. When the price was listed at $70 U.S. per person and that price included all our meals, a view cabin and a number of tours and entrance fees and gratuities, it was an offer even budget travelers such as us couldn’t refuse. We made the decision that day to go on a Nile River cruise, as we understood it was a Marlon Brando/Godfather kind of day.

Egypt is a rather intense country even for experienced independent travelers such as us. As Rick Steves, Edmonds’ own world-famous travel expert and educator has stated, sometimes one just needs a vacation from their vacation. We decided it was time to take that vacation from our vacation.

(To be continued)

— By Eric Soll

Eric Soll lives in Edmonds.


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