There are very few tourists here in Egypt, and according to my cab driver, speaking between drags of hashish, only travelers like me every couple weeks. “Like me,” is different, and better for him, than the tourists who move between the air conditioned spaces of their hotel to a black-windowed bus to a shuttle to a monument to stand in front of for a photo and then back to their hotel. They don’t see his Egypt but through the black-windows of busses. Their itineraries and services are pre-packaged, and even those busses are few these days.
The Saharan sun, Amun “Melt Your Face” Ra, is cooking my window arm, and I’m tired from spending several days in it – wandering through the suqs, neighborhoods, tombs of various dudes who share the name Ramses, and the endless jackpot of ancient architectural leftovers littering Luxor. The cab driver points out the traffic caused by a long line for petrol, which is being delivered to cars straight from the tank of a fuel truck. “Many problems here,” he says. He is glad that former president/dictator, Hosni Mubarak is gone, but tries to express to me, in choppy English, how things since the revolution have become messy. “People afraid to come,” he tells me, before warning me about the dangers of traveling elsewhere in the country – kidnappings, mafia, politically extreme or just nondescript untrustworthy people – but this place, he assures me, wherever we are at whatever moment we’re there, is the safest. I should just stay, he tells me, “no hassle.” (This is an upsell.)
Because “like me” are rare these days, random people in the city recognize me. They tell me I look like them, or like Omar Sharif, and my travel partner or “wife” (“you are very lucky man”), like Shakira – who is apparently worth at least 20 camels. People I’ve never seen tell me what hotel I’m staying at while we’re crossing the Nile. I’ve learned how to barter well, and have gotten close to Egyptian prices on most everything, but never really that close. They expect me to barter, and respect the pastime of it, but sometimes I just pay what they ask. It’s still relatively cheap, and bargain hunting for every piastre can be exhausting.
For example, this is roughly how I bartered for the price of this taxi to the Temple of Hatshepsut with a brief pit stop at the Colosi of Memnon after being harangued by a battalion of drivers at the Nile ferry crossing:
Driver: I give you good price. 40 Egyptian Pounds
Me: [shocked face] Noooo…yesterday I get taxi to Valley of Kings for 10 Egyptian!
Driver: No no. Not enough. I give you good offer. 35 Egyptian Pounds. Come.
Driver: You know how far this is? [Something indistinguishable] kilometers.
Me: I will go with you for 10.
Driver: Ok, my friend, 25. Final deal. Very good price.
Me: That’s ok, shukran, I’ll walk. [walks away from conversation]
Driver: Ok ok, for you I do 20 Pounds. Let’s go.
Me: [still slowly walking]
Driver: Let’s go, 15 Pounds.
The driver eventually agrees to 10 Pounds, and I give him 15 anyway. Know that I am not ripping him off. This is still a good rate. Even Egyptian friends balk at the prices they start at with tourists.
Once there, savvy temple guardians, with keys to un-touristed tombs and preserved chambers, will gladly, to the archeologist’s dismay, take me backstage in exchange for a little baksheesh. In the suq, Mohammed or Ahmed or Mustafa or Omar – good Egyptian people/Bedouin people/Nubian people, will see me and repeat their introductions: “Hi, where you from? America! Very nice. Good people. Welcome. How long you stay? I give you good prices; Egyptian prices; no charge for looking; no hassle.” Over time, they offer me anything a moral tourist could possibly want – an alabaster scarab, good papyrus, stuffed pigeon, sheesha, a felucca trip on the Nile, fresh sugarcane juice and falafel, a scarf, a tour or story of the region that makes absolutely no sense, a photo of their camel, or of them being authentic-looking Egyptians with their dark, sun-baked skin, turban and galabiya, coffee, dinner with their family, hashish…”you know how much?” they’ll ask. “Come see.” And when I refuse this one, it takes only moments to meet the next labyrinthine sales pitch.
The West Bank of Luxor is serene, a direct counterpoint to the bustling East Bank. Lonely Planet would call it bucolic. “Allahu Akbar” echoes through the streets from speakers affixed to the tops of various nearby minarets. The driver would pull over, unfurl the prayer mat in his trunk, and bend the knee to Mecca if I wasn’t in the car. But he’ll have several other opportunities to do so today.
A seven year old asks the driver for a cigarette. He has fresh pita for sale on the sidewalk, and his brother has a motorboat that can take me to Banana Island. “I have many family here. Good price.” (Upsell.) Even the begging children, making food gestures from their hands to their mouths, have an upsell. They can take care of everything, and no doubt we would drink good hibiscus tea, “no hassle.” The cab driver speaks to me softly before yelling something that sounds angry in Arabic to a friend in the road. They share a laugh.
As a deterrent to the endless sales pitch, I’ve learned to lie about my plans, things I’ve already purchased, or fictionalize a taxi waiting for me around the corner. Sometimes I’ll throw in one of about a dozen Arabic words or phrases I’ve picked up, invite them to visit me in Los Angeles, say something absurd, repetitively, such as “Egg McMuffin,” or, as is what happened in one case when nothing else worked – yell as if charging into battle, drunk or insane. Some get desperate or angry, but, when I can tough out the pitches and upsells diplomatically, which isn’t always easy, most simply shake my hand, tell me their name, and leave me with a somewhat haunting phrase:
“Please remember me when you come back.”
In a way, I’m fortunate to travel through the country inexpensively and to see these storied monuments without the tourist crush. But, inshallah, the economy improves and these people return to work. They are good people.
And there are way too many of them to remember when I come back.