>Hello Camel: An Introduction to Egypt and the Baksheesh Economy
Posted: June 3, 2010 Filed under: Egypt, Middle East, Travel
My first impression of Egypt? Dusty. Having arrived extraordinarily late at night and weary from nearly three full days in transit, I didn’t take in much of Cairo on the ride to my hostel during the night. By morning light though, sitting on the balcony of the Meramees Hostel, I glanced around while sipping what would be the first of many Turkish coffees, thick as sludge. It seemed as if the entire city of Cairo was covered in a light brown mixture of dirt and sand, that everything was being viewed through a taupe tinted lens. The muted color palette was actually relaxing in way especially when contrasted with the bustle and fray of life below, which was anything but muted.
After a much needed day of rest, I spent my first full day in Cairo doing the quintessential Egyptian tourist bit . . . the Pyramids. The staff at my hostel, whom I adore, proposed their standard tour, wherein a driver takes you around for a day, to three different pyramids, first the step pyramid, Saqqara,
. . . then Dahshur where the bent pyramid is:
(they started building it at the wrong angle, and had to change the angle halfway through! Hilarious.)
. . . and finally Giza . . . the pyramids any account of a trip to Egypt will certainly picture. And far be it from me to disappoint:
The pyramids at Giza were tallest man-made structures, for thousands of years. It was only recently that the Eiffel Tower took that title. As truly amazing as it is to be standing in front of the pyramids and the Sphinx, the experience is somewhat tempered by the bombardment of locals looking for any way to make some baksheesh…. (Read More)What is baksheesh? It’s a tip, a little something extra, and sort of involves the idea of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Here’s how it works: The guys at my hostel, are getting a kickback from the driver, for sending us to him. Our driver (he was really a sweetheart of a guy named Sameh, and a great tour guide) after Saqqara and Dahshur pyrmaids takes us to an incense maker and a papyrus shop. Should we buy something there, he gets a kickback from the shop guys. And these kickbacks are not taken from the actual price of the item, but merely added on top of the already inflated prices applied to foreigners. I had no doubt this was going on but the shop guys were really friendly, and suckered me in with free Turkish coffee, so I knowingly bought an overpriced papyrus map. It was only my first day, and it didn’t really bother me. But this is only the tip of the baksheesh iceberg. The guy who loads your bag on the bus, lifting it all of three feet, expects a tip. Anyone who just starts giving you a tour of a mosque . . . expects baksheesh. The children hanging about at the Sphinx who offer to take your picture may say that it’s free, but then immediately demand some cash for the service. When Sameh takes us to our last stop, the pyramids of Giza, we get out of the car, to a chorus of “Hello, Camel!” The phrase is supposed to sound like a question, offering camel rides but I start to feel like maybe they think my name is “Camel.” Sameh conveniently leads us to his friend’s stable where they try to sell us camel rides. I proceed to throw down some of my best haggling skills, and trust me, I love a good haggle. I worked it down to a price that I thought was almost reasonable, only to find out a few days later that I still paid far too much. Such is the baksheesh economy.
But it is hard for me to get mad at Sameh or the guys at my hostel, Mohammed, Achmed and Moustafa, mostly because over my few days in Cairo, I really came to like them all, and I think they were fond of me too, but moreover, because that’s just how it works. These guys are just trying to make a living in a developing country, and tourist dollars are one of the best ways for them to do that. Does that make it fair that everything is absurdly overpriced if you’re a foreigner? Absolutely not. It is infuriating if you dwell on it. I try to remind myself that it’s not the individuals, it’s the system. Some could also argue that being American, from a rich country, we shouldn’t complain about having to pay more, simply because we can afford it, and this argument has its points. But then I do some quick calculations and realize that my driver and the hostel guys all make WAY more money than me! Hmmm. Well, it’s food for thought, at least.
Of course, it would be unfair of me to complain about the baksheesh economy without mentioning that I have experienced a slew of instances of wonderful Egyptian hospitality and kindness. In addition to countless people who have given me directions on the street and various other things, two particularly nice examples come to mind. When a friend and I were in Alexandria wandering some back streets in search of food, we came across a street food vendor doling out the last of his lunch portions. He insisted on giving us his last two spicy beef and liver sandwiches . . . for free! Sidenote- apparently, when its in a spicy Egyptian sandwich, I like liver! Who knew?
By far, though, the best experience with Egyptian hospitality came from Peter, an Egyptian guy who I met working at the Tanta Waa Cafe in the Siwa Oasis. Quite randomly, he invited me and my friend Paul to go with himself and some others to a hot spring favored by locals. He seemed confused when I asked him, “How much?” He said it was free because he was going with a friend anyway, and he could drive us if we would like to join them. My friend and I, perhaps jaded by all the baksheesh and scams to squeeze money out of tourists, were skeptical to say the least. Thankfully though, I trusted my gut and we were treated to an amazing (and entirely free) evening of relaxing in a hot spring completely surrounded by a desert vista blanketed in stars. Peter turned out to be a really cool guy and we are now Facebook friends.
Egypt, the birthplace of civilization, has so far been utterly astounding. In addition to the pyramids and Siwa Oasis that I just mentioned I’ve also seen incredible Greco-Roman ruins in Alexandria including some crazy-impressive catacombs, the library of Alexandria (a must if you are a library nerd like myself), and the temples at Luxor and Karnak. Currently I am typing this while sitting on the roof of my hostel in Luxor, baking in what has to be 90 degrees Fahrenheit at 9pm. Yes, apparently I’m stuck in the middle of a heat wave that is incredibly hot even for the locals. Despite the heat, the baksheesh, and all the dirt and dust, I am completely in love with Egypt.
-Marie DeAeth, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern Abroad