Monday, November 10, 2008

From Egypt to India

We ended our 1.5 months in Egypt with an expedition through the White Desert, a strange and mystical portion of the Sahara where the crystal sand gleams like snow.

Anvil- and mushroom-shaped white rocks, as high as 40 feet, jut from the ashen ground. This desert looks like the moon.

The White Sahara Desert is hundreds of miles from civilization, and despite the specks of sand hovering over the horizon, the night sky still burst with stars. We could spot a different shooting star nearly every 15 minutes, sometimes more frequently.

After returning from the White Sahara Desert we had a spare day to spend in Cairo before needing to return to Mohammad’s house in Alexandria, Egypt to retrieve our backpacks. We spent the extra day in Giza, back at the Pyramids.

What’s strange about the Pyramids is that all photos taken of them are only taken from in front, so that the viewer sees the sand around it.

Take a photo from behind the Pyramids, and you’ll see a different story.

The Pyramids and the Sphinx gaze out over an urban cluster just a few meters away. Giza is a “suburb” of Cairo, which holds the dubious distinction of World’s Most Polluted City. Like most developing-world cities, Giza is teeming with honking cars, crowded streets, dogs and vendors on every corner, concrete buildings haphazardly shoved into every modicum of space.

The eyes of the Sphinx, unchanged for 5,000 years, have watched Giza grow from a desert to an urban headache.

We, however, were ready to leave Egypt after not 5,000 years but 5 weeks. We happily boarded an airplane bound for New Delhi, via Abu Dhabi.

We spent a few more days in New Delhi than we had planned, waiting for our luggage, which had chosen to stay in Abu Dhabi. We had been warned that India is a hard country to travel in, but we found it relatively relaxed.

In Cairo, you always have to be on guard, because a boy could run up to you on the street and grab your breasts. This happened to me four times.

Three out of four times, I was surrounded by a large crowd of men (as is ALWAYS the case when walking down the streets of Cairo) and couldn’t identify exactly who it was that did it. I know that it was always a little boy, under the age of 10.

The first time it happened, I thought it might have been an accident. There was a swarm of young boys around me, all reaching out with their hands, and I thought it might have been an accidental brush.

The second time, I felt uncomfortable. It was too firm a grab to be an accident.

The third time, I turned and chased down the entire crowd of young boys that had been following me. They ran away in terror. I don’t think they’d ever see an angry female screaming that she was going to beat them down.

The fourth time, a boy around age 10 who had been sitting by the side of a building stood up, ran to me, grabbed my right breast, and ran away. I was with two friends, one of which is a 6-foot, 2-inch tall man, and he chased the little kid down the block.

Meanwhile, some bystander witness apologized on behalf of Egyptians. The apology was directed not to me, but to my 6’2” friend. In Egypt, it’s customary for men to address only men. If they wanted to ask about me – what’s my name, am I also from America – they’d ask it to the male in the group, as though I wasn’t there.

India, or at least New Delhi, was much different. The only place I was ever grabbed was on my arm, by beggar girls.

The scams in India were more elaborate – people pose as (fake) authority guards and tried to convince us that the train ticket office was closed and they could escort us to an “after-hours” (fake) office – but the Indian touts are lazier. In Egypt, the touts stalk you as you walk from hotel to hotel; they refuse to leave you alone. In India, a loud firm “go away!” (“bhago!”) will get them to go away.

New Delhi was also far less crowded and polluted than Cairo. We all became sick upon entering Cairo; we immediately developed sore throats from breathing the air. Nothing like that happened in Delhi.

Perhaps best of all, India’s packaged products have “fixed pricing.” Anything manufactured in India – a bottle of water, shampoo, toothpaste – has the price printed onto the packaging, so we were assured that the shopkeepers couldn’t charge us triple the actual price.

Of course, they’d still try. I’d buy a box of apple juice and the shopkeeper would say, “85 rupees.” And I’d point to the label and reply, “But it says 70.” And – here’s the great part – the shopkeeper would reply “okay” and charge me 70. In Egypt, that would NEVER happen. A two-hour fight would ensue. (Refer to my earlier story, in which we read the correct prices for falafel printed on the menu, and the restaurant refused to acquiese.)

Once we got our luggage, we departed New Delhi for Rishikesh, the yoga-ashram capital of India. It was a tourist grotto, filled with meditating backpackers, but it was nice to be so close to the source of the Ganges River, where the upstream water is so clean you can touch it. We befriended some Israelis, went to a few yoga classes, took photos in the sand.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

At a restaurant in Luxor, Egypt, we asked the waiter how much a falafel sandwich costs.

"3 pounds" he said.

"And what about a plate of ful (Egyptian beans)?," we asked.

"10 pounds," he said.

We ordered the falafel and asked to see a menu. The menu was written in Arabic, which my friend learned how to read in college. The first two items on the menu? Falafel sandwich, 75 cents, and a plate of ful, 75 cents.

We called the waiter over. "This says "ful", 75 cents," my friend told him, pointing to the word "ful" and sounding out the letters. "And this below it says fa-la-fel," he pointed.

"Oh yeah, well what does this say?," asked the waiter, pointing to a different item.

My friend sounded out the word.

"But what does it mean?" the waiter asked.

"I don't know," my friend said.

"See, you can't read Arabic then!" the waiter said.

"I don't need to know what every food on this menu is. This says ful, 75 cents, and falafel, 75 cents! That's all I need to know!" my friend replied.

The waiter wouldn't budge, so we called over the manager.

"Those aren't the prices on the menu," the manager said, pointing to the prices on the menu. "Those, um, those are the barcodes. The scanner PLU codes."

"Why would you print the barcodes on the menu -- and why are they the same number for both dishes?" we asked.

"We have a different menu that we'll release tomorrow that shows that its 3 pounds for falafel," the manager replied.

"But this is today, and this is the menu you are handing out right now," we retorted.

"What's the big deal?" the manager replied. "Why do you care so much about money?"

This mockery lasted for more than 2 hours. In Egypt, even when you CATCH people scamming to you, they continue to blatently lie in your face, then guilt-trip you about it.

In the end, we wrangled the fair price from the manager, but it cost of 2 hours of our time.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Story of Sayid

So, the story of Sayid:

We were in Aswan, Egypt; home to about a million sailboats. These simple wooden sailboats -- called "feluccas" -- carry people down the Nile River, toward Luxor.

We had two desires:

One, to visit Abu Simbel, a stunning Ancient Egyptian monument to Ramses II, carved in rock. Two, to take a felucca ride down the Nile to Luxor.

Abu Simbel is located far south, about 30 miles from Egypt's border with Sudan, in an area that's marred with dangers (or so they say). In order to visit Abu Simbel, we had to depart Aswan at 3 a.m. flanked by an armed police convoy.

To arrange this, we had to enlist the services of someone who could reserve us a seat in a microbus traveling with the convoy.

Enter: Sayid. He, like all the other trip organizers in Aswan, stood by the banks of the Nile waiting for tourist business. He promised us a trip to Abu Simbel, followed by a 2-night, 3-day felucca ride, for a price that was far lower than any of his competitors. (We had asked around, and knew that the prices could sometimes vary by a factor of 10).

We thought we had everything in the bag, but when we went shopping with Sayid for food for the falucca tour, the situation began to unravel. With him accompanying us, the prices of food seemed to triple.

We were a bit confused -- after all, food was included in the cost of the falucca ride, so everything we were paying at the store would be deducted from the final price we paid to Sayid. If this was a scam, we reasoned, it worked AGAINST Sayid's favor.

Later that same evening, Sayid told us that the trip to Abu Simbel was cancelled. He claimed the microbus that we were supposed to take had been in an accident. An unlikely story, but it was already 10 pm and we were scheduled to leave at 3 am. It was too late to book a different tour.

We shrugged and went to bed, figuring everything would get delayed by a day.

At 3 am, there was a knock on our door. The microbus driver had shown up. Sayid had lied about the bus crash. Our trip to Abu Simbel hadn't been cancelled after all. But why had he lied? We hadn't paid him in advance. Cancelling the trip meant cancelling his business. We wondered if Sayid was a very stupid scammer.

Deciding we could no longer trust him, we met him the following day and told him we wanted to book our felucca ride with someone else. Standing at the Nile's edge, on Sayid's motorboat, we asked Sayid for our food back. He claimed it was stored on a different boat, and that we'd have to go to a different dock to retrieve it.

He drove us in his motorboat to another dock, where we sat for an hour, waiting. Then he unlocked a compartment underneath where we'd been sitting. The food had been there all along.

He demanded 40 Egyptian pounds from us, for the motorboat ride. We screamed at him for wasting our time and demanded he return us to our original dock.

With much hassle, we booked another tour for the following day. Our felucca ride was better than we had imagined: scenic sunset views on the sapphire blue Nile; the hilarious company of British and Australian travelers who soon became our new friends. We fell asleep under a starry sky, docked on the Nile River banks.

We were shocked, however, when the first morning after camping out on the boat, we opened our eyes and saw Sayid looming over us like a character from a B-grade horror movie. He was stalking us.

We had to restrain our felucca driver from punching him out. Apparently, Sayid has quite a nasty reputation among felucca drivers. Even his own family, we hear, despises him.

The 'Story of Sayid' became a bit of a running joke on the Felucca, and while we half expected him to show up again, lurking in the papyrus, it was all smooth sailing thereafter.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Scams, rip-offs and cheats

Being a Westerner in the developing world means that many people see you as MoneyBags McGee. They look at you and don't see a person -- they see dollars. And they'll stop at nothing to scam those dollars from you.

I may sound dramatic, but potential scams happen, literally, dozens of times a day. If you're not on guard at all moments, you can kiss your wallet good-bye. We've been scammed for small amounts several times, but we're doing relatively well. Most travelers we've met have lost much larger amounts.

Some of the more common scams include:

-- A tout will follow you around as you're searching for hotels in a new city. (Your backpack is an obvious sign that you need a hotel). You know full well that if you walk into a hotel with him in tow, the hotel will pay him a "commission" and tack it onto your bill. Yet you can't lose him. You tell him to go away. Get lost. Scram. Goodbye. You get stern with him. You yell. He continues to stalk you.

You and your friends devise a "divide and conquer" plan: one of you will stand on the street and engage the stalker/tout in conversation, while the other one ducks into a hotel and looks for a room. This plan fails, because the person who sneaks away immediately attracts the attention of another greedy stalker looking for commission.

-- A really suave tout stands inside the hotel lobby, posing as the staff. He has a copy of the hotel keys and shows you the room. He negotiates the price of the room with you. He helps you check in. Yes, he's a tout, earning a commission, but you might never know it.

-- "The official" -- a man in uniform stands in front of a train station and explains that a given ticket office is closed, or sells tickets to locals only, or doesn't sell tickets as far in advance as the ones you need. He then redirects you to the "foreigner office" or the "advance sales office" or the "after-hours office," which in fact is a scam-office that sells fake tickets.

-- "The counterfeit" -- a person hands you US dollars and asks you to exchange it with them for Egyptian pounds. Then they either hand you counterfeit money or they claim that YOU shortchanged THEM, and demand more money.

True story: some Australians we met got counterfeit money at the DESK of an established Exchange Bureau.

-- You pay for something at a store or a restaurant, and the shopkeeper/server doesn't give you change. You ask for change. They give you PART of it. At this point, most Westerners fail to count their change and they walk away. If you're street-smart, you count your change, then stand your ground. The shopkeeper gives you another portion of it. You continue to stand there with your hand extended. They give you a little more. Then they tell you that they don't have any smaller bills or coins, so they're unable to give you adequate change. At this point, you either demand it and make a fuss, or you ask that they trade you another item in exchange for being shortchanged. Either way, this costs you 10 minutes of your life.

-- The "premise changing" scam. You ask an Egyptian taxi driver how much a ride will cost. "Ten pounds," he'll say. You and your friend get into the cab and complete the ride. Upon exiting, you hand him 10 Egyptian pounds. He looks at you and says, "no, 10 British pounds."

When you refuse, he raises the stakes. "10 British pounds EACH."

-- The "bribery" scam. When you refuse to give the cab driver "10 each," he refuses to unlock the trunk, where your baggage is kept, until you pay him 10 each -- plus another 10 for a "baggage fee," plus a "tip."

-- If people say "everything is included" -- that means NOTHING is.

-- Inventing the amount of time it will take to get from one city to the next by bus, then encouraging you to take a "private car" that gets you there "faster."

I wanted to tell the story of Sayid, the ostensible "driver" of a felucca sailboat that cruised down the Nile River from Aswan to Luxor, who pulled one of the most frustrating and ingenious scams we've countered. But right now it seems our internet time is running short. Stay tuned for the story of Sayid next.