May 252008

Traveling is so much easier now than it was just a few years ago. Virtually every crappy hostel has WiFi, making it easy to stay in touch and plan your next moves (even if it is sometimes a hassle to get things up and running – most places seem not to know their own WEP passwords for some reason ๐Ÿ˜› ).

It was nice not having to lug around my laptop in Brazil, relying only on my phone for emails and the like. But I think I’ll go back to bringing a computer on all future trips. It just makes things so much easier.

No one in Egypt can believe my cellphone. I’ve literally probably had fifty people ask me “How much does that cost in the US?” “Will you sell it to me?” “How about trading your phone for mine?” over the past two weeks.

When I was in Luxor I pulled it out for less than a minute to jot down a quick blog note – and a crowd of five or six locals (I kid you not) instantly gravitated towards me to stare in awe. “Is that a PHONE?”

Sometimes it’s pretty amusing. But sometimes it gets frustrating – because I can’t ever write without being disturbed. I answer their first question or two politely, but after it happens five or six times in an hour it does start to get repetitive. Especially when I actually ask that they please let me work and they still continue to follow after me talking into my ear.

There seems to be some interesting form of “saving face” culture in Egypt.

The other day I was taking photos of Cairo from an elevated overpass. A pedestrian came up to me and angrily tried to communicate that I shouldn’t take pictures downwards – photos of the skyline, mosques, buildings and the like would be alright, but he didn’t want me returning to my home country with any photos that made Egypt’s extensive litter problem visible. “No picture garbage!”

Likewise, for as many times as someone has tried to rip me off or scam me – as soon as I actually call them out on it, they suddenly get genuinely concerned/sorry and try their best to reconcile. If you just go about your life, everybody will ask you for outrageous baksheesh for everything. But when someone asks “What do you think of Egypt?” if you mention feeling put off by everyone’s insistence for tips, they’ll never mention money when parting ways.

There are dozens and dozens of examples of this.

Remember when I mentioned how shockingly religious Egypt is?

The other day I learned why so many people have scars/indentations/discolored skin on their foreheads.

From all the praying.

They literally pray so often, kneeling on the ground and touching their heads down in front of them, that they physically scar their faces.


A quick plug: Lialy Hostel in Cairo is outstanding, mainly because of the staff.

I never really understood why hostels don’t put more effort into friendly customer service – backpackers talk to each other a lot, and positive recommendations from others goes a long way. Sky Hostel in Tel Aviv, while conveniently located, failed this test miserably.

Examples: I lived at Sky for over a week. The day I checked out, Mike and I went to the beach before catching a bus to Eilat. I asked if I could rinse off upstairs real quick before the ride. The guy at the desk wouldn’t let me. So I asked if I could just change out of my swimsuit. No. “Once you’ve checked out you’re no longer a guest, and only guests are allowed upstairs.” Are you kidding? Then on top of this, the guy actually hassled us for asking to get something from our bags – “when you check a bag with us you’re supposed to just leave it and pick it up once, not go in and out of it all the time.”

Come on man, a little friendliness wouldn’t kill you.

Contrastingly, the Lialy staff went out of their way to help us and be friendly every step of the way.

When I told them I wanted to get my broken camera fixed, the guy at the desk offered to send it to a repair shop for me and bring it right back to my room. I said I preferred to get it officially serviced by Canon – so he spent close to an hour on the phone trying to locate the service center.

When we asked for a good place to eat, he came downstairs and walked to the corner to clearly point it out.

And after we checked out we asked if we could rinse off for a minute before leaving for our next destination – just like at Sky. Lialy’s answer: “Of course man! This is your home – make yourself comfortable as long as you need to!”

What a difference.

This trip has made me a much, much better negotiator.

I used to be reluctant/shy to bargain hard, but in Egypt, everything can and must be bargained for. If you accept the first price you’re quoted, you’ll almost always be paying triple or more. This goes not only for street bazaars, but supermarkets, taxis, hotel rooms, and meals. Literally everything.

To put it in perspective, when stepping out of our hostel in Cairo and hailing a taxi to the bus station, we’re first quoted a price of fifty pounds.

Me: “Fifty pounsd? No, I’ll pay five pounds.”
Taxi: “Five?? Okay, twenty five.”
Me: “No, five. Five pounds or I’m going to that taxi over there. Right now. Yes or no.”
Taxi: “Okay, get in.”

You just can’t have any shame about it at all. Once you let go of worrying about manners in any way whatsoever, the price of your trip to Egypt will drop mindbogglingly. And what’s interesting is that it really seems like they respect you more if you knock them down to a ridiculously low price. They smile and chat with you like an old buddy. Maybe because you held your ground and proved you aren’t just some ordinary softy tourist who’s ripe for the plucking. Kind of strange though.

Our third night in Dahab we negotiated free appetizer, free desert, and free sheesha with our dinner. And the main course we ordered was well under ten bucks.

I’ve gotten so used to a heavy military presence in the past couple months that I don’t think I ever even mentioned what it’s like in Egypt (aside from the constant passport checkpoints).

Just like Israel, there are cops with massive rifles everywhere – and every mall or hotel has armed guards with metal detectors. The difference here is that no one seems to care all that much about the rules – I’ve never once even been asked to remove my bag before walking through a metal detector. They just waive me through, it beeps, and they carry on reading the newspaper.

My question is: if you’re not gonna ever use them, why bother investing in the things? ๐Ÿ˜›

The fresh fruit juice here is amazing. Just like Brazil, but a quarter of the cost. A full glass of 100% strawberry for under a dollar.

Hash seems to be pretty out of control in Egypt.

In Brazil, my friends and I would get offered drugs of every kind at every turn. Here the offers seem to be limited to hash, but hash is everywhere. You could probably buy it from any 14 year old boy on the street if you wanted. We were even offered hash by a waiter in a pretty upper-class restaurant the other day.

We also saw a 12-year-old boy walking around openly smoking a cigarette in Aswan, and a kid who couldn’t have been over 10 riding a motorcycle in busy traffic in Cairo.

No rules, no laws. It’s truly chaos.

Another thing that’s pretty interesting about the third world is that such a large portion of the population seems to sit around and do nothing literally all day long. And each culture has their own way of “doing nothing.” In China, people would sit on the streets playing checkers. In Brazil they’d drink beer. In Egypt they smoke sheesha.

If we could just figure out some way to get all these millions and millions of people to do something – anything – with their time, I’d be willing to bet we could really make a lot of headway as a species.

Mike pointed out something the other day: why isn’t there a backpacking show on the travel channel? People have so many different techniques for having fun, getting out of jams, saving money, planning itineraries, negotiating, and getting around – doesn’t it seem like it’d make an interesting show?

I think it would.

I’m gonna start off with my first tip of the day: always bring an extra article of clothing on a long-distance bus. Having something to roll up and place between your head and the window makes it immensely easier to sleep.

In an real emergency (and if available), the curtain can be used.

Restaurants and stores in Egypt carry beer, but it’s all non-alcoholic: Amstel Zero and the like.

Religious rules, I think.

Hanging out and chatting with Mahmoud really got me missing Kyoto again. I mean, I always miss it a little – but some of our discussions really reminded me of how much I love it there and how much I want to go back. Mahmoud fell in love with the city just as I did, and it was less than a week after returning to Cairo before he started struggling with the decision of working here in his home country or trying to find a way to stay in Kyoto.

What is it about that place?

  16 Responses to “Egypt Thoughts”

  1. “But sometimes it gets frustrating – because I canโ€™t ever write without being disturbed”. if you plan to be famous, you better get used to it.

  2. Negotiating is a sport!

  3. Dad: Good point ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Andy: Haha yeah – so even if nothing else comes from this trip, at least I’ll be much more well-prepared for China!

  4. Non-alcoholic beer? Unbelievable.
    I’m wondering how would Brazil be without alcoholic beer. Impossible to imagine such thing. Haha.
    Always nice to read about you, J! Let’s keep in touch! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. I am pleased to see that Japan is still in the back of your mind. Mwahahaha, fuck you, other countries!

    I think 95% of people prefer doing nothing 95% of the time no matter where you are.

  6. Gaby: Good to see you’re still reading! ๐Ÿ™‚ Haha yeah it’s crazy – Egypt was definitely an experience, but NOT a place I could live ๐Ÿ˜›

    Nick: Not the back. The front ๐Ÿ˜›

  7. those balance pics are nutz

  8. “Iโ€™d be willing to bet we could really make a lot of headway as a species” which i totally agree!! but “In China, people would sit on the streets playing checkers” most of whom retired to have fun and some who are jobless really have nothing to do ,but i think,they want to work!!:-)

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