Travel Destinations Guides and Resort Reviews


Egyptians' Appeal

About the Egyptians and Their Shop Math

Cairo, Egypt

"[Tourists in Egypt have] suffered torture that no pen can describe from the hungry appeals for baksheesh that gleamed from Arab eyes."
-- Mark Twain, 1866

How many Egyptians does it take to change a light bulb?

I counted five. Lief, the kids, and I stood waiting in the front room of our suite while they went chaotically from fixture to fixture, one guy carrying a dozen packages of bulbs, the others twisting out, twisting in, turning the light switches on and off, on and off, to test the relative success of their efforts.

You'll never want for help in Cairo…or hospitality. As our guide Rasha today reminded us, though, "Nothing in this world is free."

In other words, a gift of a glow-in-the-dark King Tut mask proffered at the foot of the Great Pyramid probably means you're on the hook for a camel ride. A complimentary glass of mint tea or hibiscus juice in a perfume shop can translate to $300 of purchases (as it did for us this afternoon).

Shopping bazaar in Egypt

Egyptians are masters at shop math - either at price haggling or upselling you to additional
items at shopping bazaar or tour packages. 
 (Image by

Egyptians baksheesh

These Egyptians have had hundreds of years of practice maximizing the dollar-per-name return from their country's tourists. They've got this figured out. We hadn't checked into our hotel before our guide, who'd met us at the airport, was upselling us to additional tour packages.

A cruise on the Nile with a belly-dancing show…sound and light at the Pyramids…an optional day excursion to Memphis. We were receptive marks, excited to be on vacation in the country of the pharaohs--Jack, especially, nodding enthusiastically at every offering.

They offer you squares of paper in the toilets, to open the door for you, to give you directions, to help direct your vehicle in and out of parking spots. You begin to feel defensive.

The night we arrived, in the airport bathroom in Cairo, Jack and I finished washing our hands and turned to leave. The woman who had been standing, smiling, silently, in the corner moved quickly to position herself between us and the door and held out her hand. Taken off guard, I reached into my bag and pulled out the first coin I found, 50 euro cents, which I placed in her open palm. She let us pass.

Pushing our way through baggage, immigration, and out of the terminal, we deflected constant offers for taxis, rides, guides, tours, shopping… Everybody's got an angle.

Cairo Egypt

On the surface, Cairo is chaos. Twenty-two million people live in the city full-time, and another 2 million travel in and out each day for work. On top of this are the tourists. Busloads and busloads of them, amounting to more than 8 million each year. The Chinese come in greatest numbers, year-round…mostly, our guide believes, for the perfumes. On the streets and at the sights, you hear many languages. This is pre-season, yet the Egyptian Museum was so crowded we had to hold hands to stay together and bend close in our huddle to hear our guide's comments over those of all the other guides competing for attention. Evidently, in peak season, the guides give up. They give overviews out front, telling their tour-goers what to look for inside, then pull their groups through the throngs single-file.

In fact, there are rhythms and rules to this city--the regular calls to prayer, for example, but many others, too, to do with managing the tourist hoards, which is no small feat.

I can't deny it: We're among them. We've no way to disguise our agenda in this country. I'm pleased to report we're not running around in track suits and sneakers, as are many of our counterparts. Still, our more dignified dress doesn't hide who we are or why we're here. We want to see the artifacts, the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the river, the markets… We're going where the tourists go, and, hard as we try to avoid it, we're regularly being swept along with their numbers.

Egyptians are math masters

At first, I resented it. After only a half-day in the country, I could feel myself hardening toward these Egyptians, who seem always to have their hands out--either to give you something, for which you will pay later (even if you don't realize it at the time), or to ask you for something on the spot. Since that first day, though, I've forced myself to adjust my perspective, to keep a more open mind, and I've developed a respect for what they do. The tourist trade is as much art as math in this country, and modern-day Egyptians are masters.

Egyptian Museum tour

After our tour of the Egyptian Museum one morning, Rasha suggested a special, unscheduled stop before lunch. Being polite Americans (which we've realized can be a handicap), we cheerfully agreed. To the papyrus shop we went, where we were introduced to a woman who demonstrated how paper has been made from the water plant for thousands of years. We'd seen ancient painted samples in the museum earlier that day, and, in the shop, the woman showed us contemporary reproductions of the Judgment Day scene and the celestial calendar her pharaonic forefathers had painted centuries before.

The woman tickled Jack with the thistle of the papyrus stalk and quizzed the kids on details of the Judgment Day painting after they admitted they'd seen the original that morning at the museum. Her colleague brought us tea and water, plus a Coke for Jack.

Show over, the woman put an order card and a pencil into each of our hands. Another colleague took Jack away, to keep him occupied so mom and dad could shop uninterrupted. The woman who'd given the demonstration took me by the elbow and led me through the shop pointing out particular paintings she thought might be appropriate for my "nice family." If I showed vague interest in one over another, she prodded me to add its item number to my order card.

Jack returned to tell me he'd found one he wanted to buy--a painting of a bug. Kaitlin came over to ask about the names of the various gods and goddesses in the Judgment Day scene. Lief took me by the elbow to try to pull me from the woman, who kept up a constant chatter and a steady hold on my other joint.

The only way I could think to escape the whole scene was to buy something. I chose a Tree of Life painting with room for two cartouches and asked them to write Kaitlin's name in hieroglyphics in one space, Jackson's in the other.

I thought I was off the hook. Not so fast, honey, the woman seemed to say, as she kept her fingers on my elbow and led me away from Lief, telling him we had woman's business to discuss.

"This Tree of Life is a wonderful choice, a great keepsake for your family. And if you buy it in a larger size, you can choose another paper for half-price."

So it continued. By the time we finally were able to leave, I had six painted papers rolled inside a canister under my arm.

Pyramids at Giza

Still not time for lunch, though. We made another unscheduled stop to a jewelry shop, where, I'm proud to report, we managed to get in and out without buying anything. After lunch, the Pyramids at Giza, which are big and remarkable but, in some ways, not as impressive as we'd expected. Perhaps we over-expected. Modern-day Giza sprawls to their doorstep. All around their bases lay great boulders that have toppled down from the triangular walls over time.

Many stones are missing, not only because they've fallen to the ground, but also because, throughout their ancient history, locals looted them for building materials. The elements, too, of course, take their toll, and the Egyptian authorities are trying to figure out how to keep the world wonders from crumbling further and whether or not to try to restore what remains. They made an effort on one of the Sphinx's paws. The results aren't quite plaster of Paris over ancient stonework, but obviously not original either.

It took crews of 100,000 men 20 years to build a pyramid. The teams worked three-month shifts. Longer than that, and the risk became great that they'd start falling over dead. Building pyramids is hard work.

Visiting them can be, too. The buying opportunities continue, sometimes aggressively. Here, mostly, you're offered camel rides. Rasha negotiated for us, and we paid $10 for Kaitlin and Jack to ride together on one of the beasts down the hill to the smallest of the three pyramids. We drove down to meet them, taking a dozen photos along the way and recognizing fully that it doesn't get anymore touristy than that. But the kids loved it.

Perfume Shop

Next stop, the perfume shop. Papyrus paper and perfume are the two things, Rasha counseled us, you want to buy outside the markets. Jewelry and souvenirs, she told us, can be bought anywhere. Shop for the best price, for the quality is the same all over. But paper and perfume…these things are notably better in certain places. Possible translation: My commission split is greater for perfume and paper, so, please, buy these from the shops where I take you.

Our perfume shopping experience was the climax of the day. We sat down around a small wooden table. Lief, Kaitlin, and I drank glasses of hibiscus juice; Jack had an Egyptian ice cream. The young man brought out essential oils, perfumes, and blends, putting small dabs of each on our fingers and wrists. Again came the order cards, these showing 47 varieties of fragrances. The guy asked which perfumes we normally wear and promised he could match the fragrances, exactly, for a fraction the name-brand cost. He played Guess That Scent with Kaitlin, who correctly identified Scent #29 as Angel and was rewarded with a free glass perfume jar.

As soon as the gift was given, I knew we were done for. No way to escape a purchase. Only thing to do was to sit back and enjoy the experience.

Which we did. Kaitlin enjoyed guessing more scents. Jack requested random samples from his order card--lavender, sandal wood, orange blossom… The guy cheerfully obliged the 7-year-old's whims.

It was like a live, interactive infomercial. The young man entertained us with the history of scents and perfumes in Egypt…details of how the perfumes are made…how they're stored. In the glass jars, he told us, the essential oils will last 25 years or longer.

A colleague appeared to take Jack into the next room, where he was promised a "free" gift. Jack out of earshot, the guy began to describe the aphrodisiac effects of some of the fragrances. Number 27, he assured Lief, would make it possible for any man to go "up and down, up and down, up and down" for two hours or longer.

"I promise you, sir," he explained, "I know a man with five wives. He keeps them all happy with this."

Lief blushed. I blushed. Kaitlin laughed.

Jack returned with his free glass bottle. Now the close. Buy five bottles of fragrances, get the sixth free. Plus, for a limited time, three free ornamental colored glass bottles for storage (in addition to the two he'd already "given" the kids).

"No pressure, sir. I don't push. I only tell you what is better for you. Six bottles is better, because then you get one free."

We bought six bottles. Waited while they and the five glass storage jars were wrapped. Walked out with our packages under our arms wondering why in the world we'd invested in decades-worth of essential oils and perfumes.

We paid for the memory, I told Lief later.

Kathleen Peddicord
Publisher, International Living

P.S. The Egyptians saw the sun set every evening then rise the next morning. They thought death would be like this--you'd go away for a while, then return. They didn't want to come back unprepared, so they planned well, filling their elaborate tombs with beds and tables, personal effects, food, wine, games, even mummified pets. In fact, the ancient Egyptians have been reborn and live on as one of the world's greatest tourist attractions. Tomorrow, we, like all the others of our ilk, head south, to Luxor, to the Valleys of the Kings, Queens, and Nobles, to tour their final resting places and hear their stories retold.

Meantime, as we're not counting on a second life, we're trying to make sure this current one isn't cut short. Before our trip, we were warned about terrorist activity and tourist bombings. As far as we can tell, though, the real danger in this country is the traffic. Crossing the street in Cairo is like subjecting yourself to a live game of Frogger. The traffic comes in a steady stream, unimpeded by stop lights, street signs, or good sense. No point waiting for a lull; there are none. Watching others cross, we realized a strategy: Use the locals as a shield. Position yourself next to them on the far side of oncoming traffic and run when they run. They don't seem to mind.

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