Egypt – Final Thoughts
My final report from the road.
Kate looks good and is happy here; having adjusted to what is essentially Third World life. She has managed to fend for herself as she has moved from the dorms to a flat and secured DSL and basic services. Her Arabic allowed her to help us deal with cabbies, waiters and others and we’re proud of her accomplishments.
The standard transportation is taxi and here the drivers are fearless. I can’t recall a single taxi without a ding or three but despite how close they got to other cars (we’re talking like centimeters) we never saw a collision. Headlights, stop lights, turn signals and seatbelts seem optional and, despite the meter, everything is negotiated in advance or approximated. We tell them where to go, the women climb in the bank, me up front and then wee go. Upon arrival, I get out, hand over some bills and walk away. Only once or twice did they argue with the amount and Kate intervened for us. On our last night, one even stopped our drive to get gas, something that we would never tolerate in America. The drivers must make good money, though. One cabbie with excellent English told us how he began driving a cab 15 years ago, after his dad died, and somehow managed to support his family which included two brothers and a sister all at college, plus a wife, a two year old and another on the way.
Our dollar stretches very nicely here but we never seem to have enough small bills so we scramble all day long. The reason is that everyone expects baksheesh, a cross between a tip and a bribe. At the train stations and tourist attractions, every toilet (or W.C.) had attendants that expected baksheesh. In exchange they’d hand us tissues or bits of toilet paper since neither existed in the facility itself. Tourism Police, attraction workers, and the like also would sidle up to you and try to show you something in exchange for baksheesh. Some earned it such as the TP officer at the Roman amphitheatre but most tried to show us things we could find for ourselves and were annoying about it. Deb got very good at ignoring them, me less so although I did get very good at saying “la shukran” a.k.a. “no, thank you.”
We get a lot of looks but none as many as our blonde daughter. With her parents, at least the comments are missing. Police at tourist attractions ask where we’re from and we have gotten nothing but thumbs up and bright smiles as we identify ourselves as Americans. When Deb and Kate ignore the hucksters trying to speak to them in English, the next language tried was invariably German which we found amusing.
The hucksters are shameless and called after Kate repeatedly. She was hailed as “Magic Eyes”, or “Shakira”, even “Heidi” or “Claudia Schiffer.” The best offer I had for her was 25,000 chickens from someone at Giza, but I admitted I had nowhere to keep 25,000 chickens and he admitted he was poor and didn’t have them to give.
The food has been universally tasty and we’re making sure we sample all cuisines and classes of food (from street side shawarma to upscale Indian). American drinks like Coke taste a bit different here and we made a studious effort to avoid the American chains which were everywhere. There might be nothing more disappointing than staring at the Sphinx in awe and then turning around to see that he is staring at a KFC and Pizza Hut, just outside the gates.
Walking down the streets in Cairo, Aswan, Alexandria or even poor Esna, I remain amazed at how many tiny shops all seem to sell much the same stock. Fruit and vegetable vendors, butchers (with freshly slaughtered cows hanging in the doorway, tails still attached – no refrigeration or even careful wrapping), sweets and groceries, hardware, and so on. Everywhere we went, people strolled by holding small trays filled with glasses of tea being taken to nearby shop keepers. Street vendors strolled with carts selling cooked sweet potatoes, hot corn, or nuts. Beggars, of which there are many, offer a pack of tissues (a necessity as noted above) for a pound when they cost something like 10 for a pound or two. Children come up to you and try to sell you tissues, and your heart goes out to them until you see in some cases how well dressed they are. There are genuinely poor and destitute people here, begging to survive and I have no clue what sort of social services, if any, exist for them.
Another sight is the constant presence of police and army, a benefit of mandatory conscription. They are everywhere, rifles in hand, but look incredibly bored as they remain on duty and have nothing to do. The traffic cops seem to only occasionally do actual traffic management. Kate observed that if they were sent out to do actual infrastructure work, the cities would be in better shape.
It’s another world and one that seems to work as people go about their day-to-day business. I keep thinking things would be better if some of the rules we grew up were applied here but there’s no real outcry. President Mubarak is trying to upgrade the cabs but it’s the beginning of a process and one that displeases the cabbies since they will need to actually buy new vehicles and actually use the meters (which may wind up costing the citizens more). The country has been largely at peace, working with its neighbors to try and normalize relations on topics such as Palestine and Israel but there’s little real progress.
Kate is here until June 2 and the experience will do her well for the real work ahead of her. We’re very proud of how she’s managed both academically and socially. She’s taken advantage of once-in-lifetime opportunities and gotten to understand the Middle East a bit better. Our visit was certainly a busy one and for us, probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as well.