Egyptiana V: A New Hope

The Fifth Part in which Steve disappoints a Small Child


 We toured Luxor Temple, the grand centerpiece of our new balcony-view. It didn’t disappoint. As I stood among the stones contemplating one great marvel or another, an old man standing several yards away gestured for me to approach. I ignored him. He gestured again, more urgently. I was made of solid temple stone. “Please!” he yelled. “You must!” There’s some weight behind “must”, and I figured if I was careful not to accept items, help or advice I’d probably be okay. I walked over to where he stood. He just smiled at me. I smiled back. He gestured toward the temple’s interior. I turned to look. It was a striking scene – the great seated figure of Ramses II framed on one side by a towering obelisk and on the other by an artistically disintigrating temple wall. “Beautiful, yes?,” he asked. “Yes, it is very beautiful,” I replied, meaning it. He held out his hand. “Baksheesh.” It took me a moment to realize he wanted me to pay him for a prospect 3,500 years in the making. It was touch and go, but at last I smiled back and, with a sympathetic shrug, said “no baksheesh.” He was furious, and started yelling at me in his native tongue. I retreated in embarassment, but he was right on my heels, maintaining a steady fire of unintelligible venom as I fled across the floor of the ancient wonder and clean out of Luxor Temple. And so it would go.

At a small, deserted temple south of town, we climbed a short flight of stone steps to see if there was anything interesting at the top. There wasn’t. A robed figure met us on the way down. The stairs were off-limits, he said, but he’d forgive our transgression for a fee. “No baksheesh,” I said. He also yelled at me.

At the Artisan’s Village on the West Bank we walked a few yards up the hillside along a well-used path to get a closer look at the façade of a worker’s tomb. A man yelled up from below that the much-traveled hillside could only be trod for a price. “No baksheesh,” I said. He yelled again, but less gently.

A worker’s tomb

We surprised a couple of young British tourists climbing out of a hole in the sand. “It’s a tomb,” said one. “Bloody brilliant.” It was bloody brilliant, and when we emerged a half-hour later covered with dust and glory a dusty robed specter was waiting for us demanding payment. “No baksheesh,” I said. His rage was Biblical, and we actually had to run away from that scene.

Burning with thirst at the Valley of the Kings visitors center, we ordered a couple of soft drinks at the lunch counter, paid for them at the register, and stood patiently awaiting delivery. After several arid minutes we went back to the cashier and asked when we could expect relief. Looking decidedly put-upon, she rose from her stool, fetched two cans from the cooler, handed them over, then rubbed her thumb against her fingers in the universally recognized gesture for “fork it over.” We pretended to not understand. “Baksheesh,” she barked, impatiently, explaining the obvious to idiots. I feigned surprise. “No baksheesh,” I said. We left her still hollering and shaking her finger at us. We ran straight into a tour bus in the process of unloading a cargo of middle-aged package-tourists. “You can go anywhere you want, and see any tombs you want,” the tour guide shouted to his flock. “You have 20 minutes.” They all went straight into the visitors center and ordered soft drinks.

I’ll admit to one weak moment. As we rested alongside a rural road near Qena, a small two-wheeled donkey-cart appeared carrying a load of fresh-cut grasses. It was driven in the most cavalier fashion by a little boy and a little girl, both perhaps 6 or 7 years old. The young carters were animatedly discussing their own innocent business and almost didn’t notice us. At the last minute, the girl looked our way and her eyes lit up like Ra on high. “Baksheesh!” she piped, excitedly. The boy instantly took up the cry, and they both yelled “baksheesh!” over and over as the donkey slowly pulled them away up the road. I was tempted, but only a fool won’t bend a principle for a child, and I was such a fool. “No backsheesh,” I said. The little girl lifted her chin in a haughty gesture surely borrowed from a much older sister and cast me a look of such magnificent disgust, such bottomless loathing, such complete and irredeemable disdain, that I laughed out loud. Then I chased down the little wagon and gave them each one Egyptian pound.  Sweet Apricot thought I was a sap, but I thought the performance was worth every piastre. The little girl seemed happy with the money, but no better inclined toward me.

Next Time: A sticky situation!

Egyptiana IV: The Meltdown

The Fourth Part in which Steve is party to an Awkward Confrontation


Our coach awaits


We decided we might have an easier time of it in the provinces and bought bus tickets for Luxor. The ticket agent told us the bus station was right next to the train station. We could find no sign of it and grew anxious as departure time approached. Percieving our distress, an Egyptian soldier wearing neatly pressed olive drabs and toting an automatic rifle hustled over and politely asked if we needed assistance. Figuring that a little baksheesh was better than forfeiting our bus fare, we asked him to point in the direction of the bus station. Instead, he motioned us to follow and took off at a trot.

The was, indeed, right next to the train station, but only in the sense that it was right next to an elevated eight-lane highway, which was right next to several rows of dilapidated warehouses, which were right next to a long, narrow, rutted dirt lot, which was,in fact, the bus station. When we puffed up to our bus not less than 15 minutes later, I pulled a wad of pound-notes out of my pocket and started peeling off what I considered, perhaps for the first time, some richly-deserved baksheesh. The young soldier’s calm expression morphed into something that might have been embarrassment, or annoyance, or something else altogether, then he waved me off with a casual gesture, turned smartly, and double-timed back the way we’d come. Watching his straight back disappear in the chaos of the bus terminal, I got a little misty. No kidding.

As we prepared to board our surprisingly posh motor coach – complete with television monitors and meal service – I made the mistake of setting my pack down next to the open baggage compartment just long enough to check the bus number on my ticket. A kid instantly grabbed it and tossed it all of two feet into the hold. It cost me LE3. I wondered why nobody else on the bus took supper service until the attendant hit us with a LE60 bill for what amounted to two lukewarm Swanson’s frozen hot dog dinners. We still had much to learn.

We were met in Luxor by a swarm of energetic young touts in the hire of local hoteliers. We explained that we were looking for the Four Seasons, described in our guidebook as a four-story building one block from the river with stunning views of Luxor Temple. “Four Seasons, yes!”, said one bright fellow. “Very good! Come, please!” We followed him to a non-descript two-story pile about four blocks from the river with views of nothing. A sign behind the desk read “Hotel el Shaikh.” We were skeptical. “Are you sure this is the Four Seasons?,” asked Sweet Apricot, pointing to the sign. “Yes, Four Seasons,” he said, nodding with almost manic conviction. “Was Four Seasons, now Hotel el Shaikh. Name is changed only.”

He spoke warmly of the great friendship that exists between our two countries, and asked if we’d like him to obtain our required police passport stamps. The stamps would cost LE5 each, and he wanted his baksheesh up front. Since we didn’t know where the police station was and didn’t really feel like wasting any time looking for it, we handed over our passports and the cash and went out to find cold beer. We found it at a sidewalk restaurant about a block from the river and right across the street from Hotel Abu el Haggag, a neat four-story building affording stunning views of Luxor Temple. We inquired at the desk.

“Was Four Seasons, now Abu el Haggag,” the girl said. We were, again, skeptical. Noting our hesitation, she pulled down a room key. The plastic tag said Four Seasons. Brochures on the desk read Four Seasons. The guest register pages were headed “Four Seasons Hotel”. A black and white photograph on the wall showed the hotel with a large Four Seasons sign above the front door. “New owner,” she said. “Now Abu el Haggag.” I fancied I could see smoke rising directly off of Sweet Apricot’s velveteen skin. There was going to be trouble.

Two minutes later she was leaning over the desk at Hotel el Shaikh, raining 10 plagues and change down on the hapless clerk’s head. He put up a valiant fight, but never really stood a chance. He agreed in principal to refund our unused night’s stay, but unwisely drew the line at the as-yet unused police stamp fees. Sweet Apricot was bent on total victory. As an interested bystander I found the battle both horribly awkward and deeply satisfying. In the end, the clerk capitulated on all points but one – he kept the baksheesh. Sweet Apricot was outraged. “Is baksheesh,” he shrugged. I gingerly suggested we check in at the Four Seasons while they still had rooms available. She retired from the field.


The (eventual) view from our hotel room


That turned out to be a watershed moment in my personal touristic development. Sweet Apricot had been wearing forged steel psychic armor since our third cab ride, but I was still lightly clad in something more akin to Formica. Witnessing a determined opponent thusly crushed made me feel like maybe I didn’t have to dish out negotiable gratitude to every smiling local who took it upon himself to look both ways for me before I crossed the street, or to subsidize every shopkeeper who physically dragged me off the sidewalk to peruse his stock. It was liberating, and a little bit daunting, too.

Next Time: The tipping point!

Egyptiana II: The Smell of Fear

The Second Part in which Steve’s supper is Rudely Interrupted

Bright and early on our first full day in Egypt, we moved to the elusive Rose Hotel. The cab ride took us by Tahrir Square at least twice, and possibly as many as four times. After checking in we discovered that it wasn’t the Rose Hotel at all. In our defense, Egyptian hotels rarely hang signs out front, possibly as a service to enterprising  cab drivers. Determined to redeem ourselves, we walked maybe 25 blocks to the genuine Rose Hotel and asked for a simple cold-water walk-up, no view, please. “No,” said the pretty young clerk, apologetically. “Has bugs.” Turns out the only room at the Rose Hotel that didn’t have bugs was a sinfully expensive cold-water walk-up with a view. For what it’s worth, it was a pretty good view.

A room 'with view'

Splurging on supper al fresco at an outdoor café in Tahrir Square, we were surprised when a stranger shuffled out of the crowd and sat down, uninvited, next to Sweet Apricot. He introduced himself as Mr. Magdhi and immediately launched into a soaring soliloquy about Egypt’s wondrous perfumes. Sweet Apricot, whose peerless alabaster skin naturally exhales an aroma of lilac and cinnamon, told Mr. Magdhi that she didn’t wear perfume, which, though perfectly true, made no perceptible impression on him. When she mentioned we’d be returning to Greece in a few days, he nearly jumped out of his chair for sheer excitement. “You very lucky!,” Mr. Magdhi beamed. “You buy perfume in Egypt, you sell in Greece three, four times price!”

It’s like this: The last thing you want is to blow precious reserves on cheap eau de cologne that’s going to wind up soaking everything in your pack and spend the rest of the trip walking around among strangers reeking like the 20-minute room of a working-class Turkish bordello. On the other hand – and maybe this is an American thing, or maybe it’s just this American’s thing – you’re loathe to give offense. So you fidge and fiddle and hedge and shuffle and offer up too-gentle apologies and wait for the smiling con-artist before you to simply give up. Only he doesn’t give up. He never gives up. He’s like the whole Zulu Nation bearing down, and it’s only a matter of time before your ammunition is gone and your camp is over-run. Despite endlessly repeated assurances that we weren’t interested in taking on any sure-fire money-making ventures, Mr. Magdhi wouldn’t be appeased until we agreed to accompany him to a perfume shop he knew of just around the corner. The owner was a friend, he explained, and the only honest perfume merchant in downtown Cairo. “You just look,” he urged. “You don’t like, you don’t buy. No problem.”

 We followed a suddenly impatient Mr. Magdhi through the teeming streets for about half a mile at something approaching a gallop, passing along the way at least a dozen likely perfume shops until he at last waved us into a small, unpromising establishment in a less-trafficked quarter of the city. The proprietor, a round man wearing a fez and a thin robe trimmed in gold brocade, sidled up with a studiously disinterested look on his face. “Like Cleopatra,” he said, motioning to no perfume in particular. We looked, as promised, and said we saw nothing to our liking. How he did it I’d love to know, but somehow Mr. Magdhi, who’d never been out of arm’s reach, had tipped the perfume-seller to our itinerary.

“You buy perfume in Egypt, you sell in Greece five, ten times price,” said the proprietor, managing to sound eager and bored at the same time. Feeling an invisible vise creeping shut, we proposed we be allowed to sleep on it overnight and come back the next day to take advantage of that profitable opportunity. “Tomorrow no good,” he clucked, and waved his hand to take in every bottle in the shop. “Only today. All be no good tomorrow.”

Now, I happened to know that 3,000-year-old perfume extracted from Egyptian tombs still retains its fragrance, and Sweet Apricot asked him point-blank how he expected us to interest the Greeks in a product that would be “no good” by the time it reached the point of sale. He didn’t even blink. “You buy today, okay,” he said, making an apathetic attempt at a thumbs-up. “Buy now, perfume okay.”

Oddly perishable Egyptian perfume

We bought two jars that, so far as I know, Sweet Apricot has never even opened. The perfumer didn’t seem especially glad for the sale, and the moment the money changed hands Mr. Magdhi lost all interest in his great new friends and disappeared into the night with LE5 baksheesh. On the long walk back to the Rose Hotel we were forced to admit we were losing ground.

But we were learning.

Next Time: A scheming woman!