Walking outside as an opportunistic cabbie offers to set you up on another tour because "your company went out of business last week" doesn't offer much in the way of improvement.
But when your transport finally shows up and all of you -- customs officials, random cabbie, and tour guide -- form a conga line, bend your arms and sing the Bangles, you know Egypt is gonna be just fine.
The 2009 Tour of Cultural Degradation came to a close in Egypt . We had planned to come here for spring break, but then someone planted a bomb in the Khan-al-Khalil bazaar in Cairo. Apparently, we felt like Bali would be safer since they hadn't had a terrorist bombing since, like, 2007; after surviving that, we gave Egypt another change. Crossing our fingers and hoping that the jihadis had packed up for Afghanistan, we booked a week in Egypt through a tour company and practiced our 80s dance moves.
We started the trip on a Nile cruise aboard a big riverboat starting in Aswan, an old Nubian city near the Sudanese border. We had steeled ourselves for a floating Motel 6, but it was a 4-star Movenpick hotel and actually quite nice. The Nile didn't look nearly as impressive as I expected; it never seemed to be much more than a few hundred meters across until we got close to the Esna Lock. The scenery around the river, however, made clear how important the Nile is in sustaining any kind of life; while the greenery at the river banks was as lush and thick as a tropical forest, the desert often started less than twenty meters from the river bank. The majority of the Egyptian population (other than the cities on the Red Sea) are located within kilometers of the river. The Nile was a major component in all the religious imagery we saw in the temples, and every temple had a Nilometer to measure the flood levels and determine taxation.
The temples were absolutely incredible. Every possible surface was covered in hieroglyphics and carvings of the ancient Egyptian gods. Massive statues brooded between columns of stone papyrus and lotus flowers. The temples used to be ablaze with colors "of the vegetables", as our eccentric and oddly shaped guide liked to say, but had now faded to bare sandstone carvings. The temples were also stuffed to the gills with hustlers and beggars who were happy to pose for pictures with unsuspecting tourists before demanding a little baksheesh for their efforts. The only thing worse than having to flip a random dude some money to access the bathroom was the twenty pound ($4) cans of Coke at the temple cafes. The tourist cafes are the only places in Egypt that will give you change for big bills provided by the ATM, but the prices are all multiple of 5 pounds in a seemingly concerted effort to prevent you from having any small bills for the hustlers and shills.
As this point in my travels you'd think I'd be used to being treated like a walking cash machine, but Egypt took it to a whole 'nother dimension. Although the tour company price included all tour guides, ground transportation, and entry fees, it did not include "tips" - and everybody wanted a tip. The motorboat driver who got paid to take us out to Philae Temple wanted 10 pounds. The van driver paid by the company got 20. The bus driver? 20 per person, really? Of course, everything is "optional - but some people like to give more!" I've never been the kind of person who believes that my lucky birth as an American required me to pass out cash to solve the world's problems; frankly, I find that to be a pretty inefficient solution. But a rather sobering experience made me feel a little less abused.
I've been hassled and grabbed at a few bazaars and souqs, but this was different. There was a hunger and a desperation in the eyes that you don't see in a normal market. We happened to have a contingent of Indian tourists on board, who are apparently pretty used to this kind of thing. They would string these guys out as long as they could, looking for bulk bargains; even as the boat pulled away and headed to the lock, they were still hanging on to the carpets and haggling for lower prices. The carpet sellers paced the boat along the shore, getting increasingly desperate as they knocked down the prices. The tourists on the boat would toss the carpets they didn't want into the river, and kids would swim out and get them. Then the sellers would toss up different models once the boat got close enough. The Egyptian government allows the whole charade because it openly admits that it can't provide employment opportunities, so trying to roll the tourists seems to be the only option a lot of people have. It got pretty sickening to watch.
Based on this experience and the travelers' stories about the capital city, I wasn't particularly looking forward to dealing with 18 million people pulling the same act in Cairo. Cairo, however, was an amazing city. The travelers' stories were absolutely right -- Cairo is filthy, crowded, polluted, loud, and ridiculously trafficked, but it is alive and vibrant and such a stark contrast to Doha. The traffic is impossibly crowded, with drivers honking constantly and weaving into impossible spaces around the clock. It took us over an hour to go maybe 5 miles whether we started at 5PM or 3AM. There are parts of the city that are filled with unfinished red brick buildings as far as the eye can see, with concrete staircases to nowhere jutting into the smog-filled sky; they are fully occupied, but the builders leave them unfinished to avoid paying taxes and reduce costs for tenants. Then there is the Zamalek island in the Nile with trendy sheesha bars and restaurants where the Egyptian yuppies go to play. There are the ancient Great Pyramids on the outskirts of the city, and then there are incredibly beautiful mosques lit up on the streets of Islamic Cairo behind the Khan-al-Khalil bazaar at night. It's an amazing city with tons to see and experience.
Egypt was an amazing place; the words above barely scratch the surface of the trip. I can think of a lot more to say, but I ought to wrap this up eventually. It was definitely an experience - often sobering, but also amazing and eye-opening. The feeling of climbing through a solid granite shaft almost a hundred meters long into the depths of a 5000-year old pyramid is difficult to describe in words; it's definitely something you should try to experience. Just make sure to get some small bills at the foreign exchange first...