Wednesday, January 9, 2013


Bless you!

No, that's not right?  Okay, how about, um, "Thank you!"

No?  Okay, let's try, "Please go away!"

Yeah, that doesn't seem to work, either.  Okay.  How about, "May I have some toilet paper, please?"

In Egypt, it seems, there is no such thing as a free public toilet.  Well, okay, maybe for Arabic men--for all I know, maybe even for Arabic women who are bright enough to carry some tissues in their pocket, as I assume most Arabic women would be.  But for the non-Arabic tourist, not a chance.  The toilets themselves are nominally free, I usually do carry tissues, and I possess a reasonable amount of chutzpah, yet I found myself meekly handing over one Egyptian pound (1 L.E., about 16 cents) to the Guardian of the Toilets everywhere we went.  In exchange, the Guardian, who, one assumes, had previously stolen all the toilet paper out of the stalls, would solemnly unroll a strip and hand it to me.  I could then use the (filthy) public toilet in peace.  Afterward, there might be soap by the sinks, and it might be soap I would dare to use, and there might or might not be a Guardian of the Soap wanting another coin, but there sure as shooting was hand sanitizer in my purse, so all was well.

Tipping for small services in Egypt is called baksheesh.  It's culture-wide, fully accepted.  You tip your driver, you tip people who handle your luggage (whether you truly wanted it handled or not), you tip anyone who helps you.  For tourists, though, baksheesh becomes a sort of sport.  You want a photo of that guy on a camel?  Baksheesh.  A nice man offers to take a photo of you and your family by the pyramids, and now you want your camera back?  Baksheesh.  Everywhere you go in Egypt, helpful people will be willing to take away some of your money.  At every historic site, vendors descend upon tourists, selling t-shirts, plastic pyramids, plaster cats, postcards.  Diet Cokes.  If you want to buy--and sometimes, heaven help you, you might--you're in for some serious negotiating.  Even for the Diet Cokes.  My husband went off to get us some once.  He came back with 4 Diet Cokes and a large blue scarab.  The vendor threw the scarab in for free, which means my husband probably overpaid for the beverages.  (But what's the appropriate price for a Diet Coke outside the temple of Karnak?  Outside the Vatican I once paid $9 each for two--$18--and then $12 for a bottle of wine.  At the same place.)

These were not for sale to tourists.  This was actually a marketplace for Egyptians.
 Our first guide, Hazem, told us very sternly at the start of our first day that we were not to hand money to anyone without his say-so.  He also gave us a handful of 1-pound coins for what he called the Temples of Relief.  In theory Egyptian pounds are divided into 100 piastres apiece, and there are 50, 25, 10, 5, and 1 piastre coins, but I only ever saw a 50-piastre coin, and that was only once.  Most merchants round to the nearest pound or 5 pounds, and if you ask them to change a 5-pound bill into 1-pound coins (so that you have some toilet money) they will say no, whether or not they actually can.  Egyptians all have each other's backs.  The waiters would love for you to have to give the Toilet Guardians 5 pounds.  Our tour guides were always stuck in the middle in these situations--on the one hand, they were clearly expected to uphold Egyptian rights; on the other, they felt duty-bound to be fair to us.  In Alexandria, when Bart and I expressed a wish for fresh local seafood for lunch, Hazem disappeared into a non-tourist restaurant and negotiated an enormous meal--salads--which in Egypt means fresh bread with baba gannoush, eggplant, tahini, and maybe some lettuce-- seafood chowder, "fish rice," falafel, and lovely fresh fish, for 100 L.E. per person.  There were six of us that day, my family plus Hazem and the driver.  When it came time to pay, however, the restaurant owner argued that 100 L.E. was the price for Egyptians, and that Americans should pay $20 US apiece.  (Egypt is the only foreign country I've ever been to where you can actually pay with most things using American currency.)  They argued, but since it was in Arabic we had no idea what they were saying.  Hazem prevailed; not only that, he wouldn't let us leave much of a tip, and he came back to the van shaking his head.  "That was just bulls--," he said.  "One hundred twenty pounds extra for being American.  No way."

The fish restaurant was on our second day touring.  On our first day, Hazem took us to what he called, "a tourist restaurant, but a good one."  It was a lovely open-air place with a courtyard and some women baking fresh Egyptian bread.  There weren't any menus, at least not in English, but Hazem waved his hands and said something, and pretty soon we had an assortment of salads, lots of hot fresh pita bread, rice (white, not "fish rice," which was brown), french fries, and then, set right onto our table, a brazier with sizzling grilled chicken and sausage.  It was lovely.  (Egypt, being 90% Muslim, has no pork.  Not anywhere.  Heaven knows what the sausages were made of.  But I liked them.)  While we ate, children ran about the courtyard, bouncing on a trampoline there and running up to the horse, camel, and pony that were being paraded in hopes that a tourist might want a ride.

The horse, though clean and well-groomed, was the worst spavined sway-back unfortunate creature I'd ever seen.  Katie and I debated whether he was lame or just congenitally awkward.  The pony, on the other hand, was adorable.
Note the American saddle.  It's a Wintec.

At the end of the meal I asked the pony girl if I could take her photo.  She immediately posed, with a sweet smile.  I held out 1 L.E.  She took it, looked at it, and giggled, as if I was so silly not to know better.  "No," she said, "Five."

Well.  I didn't have five pounds.  I had one other coin, which I was hoarding for the next time I needed a Temple of Relief, and the next smallest thing I had was 50 Egyptian pounds.  No way was I giving her that.  But then I had an idea.  From my pocket I pulled out a crumpled US dollar.  The girl took it, unfolded it, and beamed at me.  "Ok, fine," she said.  "Thank you."

Hazem laughed pretty hard.  "She asks for five pounds, you give her seven," he said.  "What an excellent bargainer you are!"  Then he let me off the hook.  "It's the cute pony," he said.  "The pony gets them every time."

Trust me.  You don't want to buy anything from these men.
 (A note on the child's costume: it was clearly for tourism photo ops.  Both men and women often wear the galebeya in Egypt (we'd call them nightgowns--more on them later) but children rarely do, and while most women chose to wear a veil (it does seem to be a choice in Egypt, not a requirement), they never wear one before puberty.  Unless they're trying to charm Americans, of course.)