Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My Egyptian Brother

Egypt is a strange country. There might have been an adjustment period after we spent almost three months in the "civilized" first world, but I don't think we noticed that. We were returning to something familiar, like Madagascar, Indonesia, India or Nepal. Yet it is different and somewhat weird. I am trying to grasp it and I cannot. The weirdest part is the interaction with people. And even more weird is that I found a little brother in Aswan that I didn't know I had and we all came to accept him after a while.

I met him in the street in front of the hotel that he manages. His English was good, he was pleasant, helpful and knowledgeable. He wanted to arrange our visitation schedule in Aswan. He recommended a restaurant for the first night, I shook my head, $10 per dish was too much for us. He walked with us to a little local restaurant where he made sure we got the locals price and we all ate for $12. Next morning he brought us falafel from home. It was great.

We talked about our schedule. What I wanted was not possible, too expensive, he wouldn't let me spend that kind of money. He got me the trip to Abu Simbel, at quarter of the price that others pay. He payed for a felucca ride on the Nile. He didn't let us go to the fallen obelisk, they charge too much for nothing. He got me a car for one day trip for $15. When I gave the driver a small tip he was very pleasantly surprised. He didn't let me buy Nestlé bottled water, is not good, is tainted, we needed to get the best water. And so on. His hotel had advertised internet, but of course there was nothing. He brought his hot spot from home, because my son had a game on his iTouch where he needed online access. He wanted to get me out of Aswan in two days, and without pushing offered us a cruise on the Nile for a "good price." And the price was really good, $100 per person for two nights, threedays, all meals and discount for my son. We took the next boat several days later. Meanwhile we had countless discussions about politics, religion, tourism, health issues, raising children in this world. He had four, he knew what I must be going through to raise my three. He was an "Islamist" by his description, deeply disappointed in the turn of the Egyptian revolution, the lack of economical and religious freedoms, the abuses of the Islamists that won the elections and the draft for the upcoming constitution.
Mr. Ghalal is sending us on a feluca ride

Botanical Gardens in Aswan

Felucas at Aswan

He put us on the cruise boat and he called a few times later to check if everything is OK. Once, my daughter answered and she handed me the phone: "It's your brother!"

I want to thank Mr. Ghalal, he was the most pleasant encounter and the most interesting puzzle that I had to figure out in Egypt. The few others were just annoying or entertaining short contacts. Here's a little.

We arrived in Aswan airport after sundown. Most of the 60 people on the plane had hotel contacts waiting for them. I never got a reply from our hotel, so we had to take one of the few taxis waiting outside. Not knowing where our hotel is and how far is the city, we didn't have much room for negotiating. It was a long ride, but the driver was nice and he pointed to us various landmarks of the city. We arrived at the worst hotel we've had so far. The title was held until now by a dump in New Jersey that we used on the first night. But this was worse. It could have been easily upgraded to a three star hotel, but the indifference in making it decent was obvious everywhere. When we entered, two guys were praying in the hallway, we waited respectfully for them to finish, still they got an annoyed attitude that stayed with them for another four days. They did not understand one English word, the manager was away, they would call him. We received a little apartment with two rooms, a rusted smelly fridge, a broken TV and leaky miserable bathroom. I am trying to forget how horrible it was, but my family didn't care that much and since it was already payed for we decided to stay. We even stayed one extra night, I refused to pay for it and it made sense to them, they wouldn't have taken my money anyway.

Breakfast at our hotel

Included breakfast

Thanksgiving meal, pita and yogurt

It was peaceful and quiet during the day and extremely loud almost all night long. After spending all the day hidden somewhere in some coffee shop, people would come out, drink tea and smoke sheeshas and sit in the garden of our hotel. They sat there almost all night, the music was loud, but not as bad as one Friday night when there was a wedding a couple of streets away. We stayed on the fourth floor but it seems that the concrete buildings surrounding us amplified the sounds even worse. There was some political turmoil in Egypt at the time, but even so I couldn't imagine what people had to talk about all the time. The alternative might have been to shut up and maybe, God forbid, work at something, but I am pretty sure that would be unconceivable to most Egyptians...
Yes, is not nice for me to say such thing, but the reality is that for thirty years there has been an official push to get as many Egyptians to have University studies. There was a law that guaranteed every graduate a government job, so there was a study that showed that a government worker in Egypt works for only six hours per week. That was before the revolution, when something was still getting done in this country.
Working in Egypt? The exception, he probably had to be physically present, most people are in the tea shops

People are nice here, they seem genuinely content to have visitors. Anywhere we walked past some person he would say: "Welcome to Dahab/Aswan/Luxor". Educated locals taught us not to pay any attention to vendors or touts, that being the efficient safe way of dealing with them. Most of the vendors we had to deal with were nice and they didn't rip us off. An exception was the postcard vendor. He had a price, too low to bargain about, but he also had stamps. He wanted to negotiate the price of those. We were buying in bulk. Most of the postcard stamps we sent to you from all over the world were $1. Here the vendor wanted 60 cents. I was content, how can you bargain on stamps, they have an official price on them. So we payed what he asked for, realizing only a few days later that the price printed on stamps was 40 cents. It blew my mind, but I learned that in Egypt all is negotiable. Even when buying a bottle of water in a store (!) or bread at the bakery, I bargained, made some money back and made them happy in the process. I negotiated hard a price for water in a store and decided to stick with that price and that guy for the next several days. We didn't even discuss money later, but when he didn't have change, the second time he saw me, he told me to come back and pay later and it was normal to leave without paying.

One day I passed by a barber. He invited me in the store, I asked how much, he smiled and invited me to sit down. I asked again, same response. Three times, four times. I smiled back and left the store. Another day, we took a cab and the driver didn't want to negotiate a price. He didn't even accept money at the end of the ride. He gave me his cell phone number and asked me to call him back so he could take me to my hotel. We left without paying, but I felt obliged to call him later and he got another trip. Egyptians.

Everybody knows a little English and tries to use it with us. In most touristic places they know a few other languages and I was surprised to see calèsh drivers conversant in Russian and German. By the way, they are famous for their scams, even though nobody can explain how they work. They yell out to you asking for 5 egyptian pounds for an hour ride, about 0.80 dollars. But reportedly they will ask for much more before you can get down. When we had to use one I offered a decent price and verified it five or ten times. They would agree and in the end ask for more. They wanted backsheesh. When I pointed that we already agreed on a price the first driver we used asked, logically, for backsheesh for the horse! To the second driver I knew the lesson and I offered the backsheesh for the horse at the end of the ride. He thanked me and asked nicely for some for himself as well, he, logically, cannot deserve less than the horse.

The cruise ship from Aswan to Luxor. It is the favorite mode of travel since the British started mass tourism in Egypt in the 1860s. Almost all the boats are rated five stars. On many of them the majority is made of "package tourists", Britons who payed it all from home and probably get a very good deal. They might not be, but they act like idiots, sometimes so convincingly that they are annoying. It seems like they land on the boat, without any knowledge or skills to deal with the locals. I heard one lady complaining that she got charged $100 for mineral water during a four day trip. She could have got the water from the vendors at various stops for one tenth of the price. They also drank beer and I saw an older lady giving in and giving away her open bottle to a 15 year old boy who was begging from the side. He ran away, hid in a ditch and gulped it all, looking all over to make sure that the policemen and the other boys were not seeing him. Compared to this the stupidity of the tourists buying souvenirs from the little boat that accosted us was almost entertaining.
The little boat gets a hold of the big boat

Merchandise is thrown to tourists who throw the money back...

On our five star cruise there was open buffet for all the meals. Our waiter rapidly diagnosed us, since we didn't want any drink we were not some of his typical fools. He left us alone and focused his attention on other tables. The food was abundant but bland almost horrible. Despite the effort put in by the cooks they just didn't have it. We enjoyed the involuntary show given by the package tourists who marveled at all the "goodies." The only good food was served for the last dinner, Egyptian food. Of course the tourists were disappointed and mostly refused to try or touch those dishes.
There was a free show, belly dancing, in the foyer. People took the best seats waiting for the performers. The audience was warmed up by a pitiful magician. There was one belly dancer and my words don't help me to describe how disgusting she was. But of course the tourists enjoyed the show and some of the older ladies even joined in. I left. It was scary. This artificial world of pretend comfort, luxury and fun is not for me.
Disgusting belly dancing

I got upstairs on the open deck, admired the full moon and wondered what my little Egyptian brother had in mind when he put me on this boat. I didn't have to think too long, the answer was clear all around me, the Nile is worth anything...
Sun setting behind the boat and 

full moon rising ahead of the boat

1 comment:

  1. Your Egyptian brother sounds like a great guy!

    Mary Ellen


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