19 July 2008

Suck like an Egyptian

After having shared my thoughts on the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon in Mexico last year, I thought it obligatory to do the same for my recent visit to the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. I spent half a day there, my final day in a 10-day visit to Egypt, five of which were spent in Cairo. But this entry isn't really about the Pyramids (except perhaps incidentally), but rather about my impressions of Egypt.
The Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khufre, Giza

Egypt has spent many years near the top of the list of places I haven't been to but would really like to visit. I have many well-travelled friends who have visited, and they almost invariably loved the place. I too, found much to like about Egypt, but both OD and I both felt what can best described as a sense of frustration, frustration resulting from Egypt's failure to make small, easily achieved changes to its society that would have made the experience 1000 times better. Having travelled extensively throughout the Arab world, problems like corruption, nepotism, sexism, racism, sexual harassment, tribalism, hypocrisy, lack of transparency, lack of personal responsibility, indifference towards the environment, etc. are hardly new to me, nor are they unique to Egypt. They are endemic throughout the region, but nowhere else did I see any of them reach the levels the Egyptians have managed to accomplish.

The scope of these problems was evident before we even arrived. We travelled to Egypt by ferry from Aqaba in Jordan. The terminal there was half construction site, half disorganised pandemonium. We arrived fully expecting that the ferry would not depart for at least four hours after its scheduled departure time at noon, but the fact that it didn't actually depart from the pier until 18:50 was only the start of the problems. These started with the exit procedures. Signs at the entrance directed passengers to first go to the first floor to purchase a ticket, so we hauled our typically heavy load of baggage up the stairs and found the ticket window. The agent directed us to a travel agency on the other side of the hall. He, in turn, directed us back to another one of the shipping agency's ticket windows. The agent there informed us that tickets would not go on sale for another hour, and that we should check back.
Vehicles waiting to board the Aqaba-Nuweiba ferry: items tied to car roofs include sofas, toilets, refrigerators, water tanks and – possibly – other cars

In the meantime, I decided to get the emigration formalities sorted out. The emigration office was thoughtfully located near the ticket windows, but after reaching the front of a longish queue, I was informed that I first had to go downstairs to pay the exit tax. Logical. Go downstairs, pay the tax, come back upstairs, get the passport stamped. Sit and read for a while. Then a helpful Jordanian gentleman approaches and informs us that we should go buy tickets and head to the ferry now. I go back to the ticket window, even though a full hour has not passed. He again directs me back to the travel agency. This time I tell him I've already gone to the agent, and he's just directed me back again. He waves the agent over and says something to him in Arabic. The agent motions for me to accompany him back to his office. On the way, I tell the agent to be sure to give me tickets for the "speed boat." [There are two types of ferry operated by AB Maritime – hydrofoils (which they call the "speed boat") and conventional ferries.] He tells me, no, the speed boat is sold out for today. I insist that I must have a ticket for the speed boat. He repeats that it is "sold out." I repeat that he must sell me tickets for that boat. He turns around, heads back to the ticket office and speaks briefly to the agent, then turns back to me and says, "OK, no problem". By this point we have been waiting around for over an hour, we've been directed back and forth across the departure hall to one window after another, been given all manner of conflicting information, and then, finally, the agent simply takes my $140,00 cash from me and hands me two tickets. Done. We head for the port.

On board, we are surprised to see signage in English, Finnish and Estonian, and it soon becomes clear that this vessel – the Queen Nefertiti – was recently purchased (May 2007) from Tallink after previously serving on the Helsinki-Tallin run. Upstairs we find posters promoting tourism to Tallin still in place on the walls. Otherwise, it bears little resemblance to the clean, efficient Tallink vessels I see regularly in port at home in Stockholm. There is trash everywhere, and it's obvious that many surfaces have not seen a cleaning in some months. The inlaid hardwood floor, which would have been shined to a high polish under Tallink's management, is marred with thousands of aging globs of chewing gum. The condition of the vessel in no way resembles the gleaming pictures that AB Maritime proudly displays on its website (see http://www.abmaritime.com.jo/main.html). Later, OD is to find the floor of the ladies' toilet awash in 3cm of urine.

The boat experience fore-shadowed the problems (which admittedly never rose above the level of petty annoyance) that we experienced over the next few days. Every tourist site was mobbed with persistent, annoying vendors and littered with debris. The Egyptian museum, the Pyramids and other sites had strict rules against taking photographs in many areas, a rule which enabled the police to earn a steady side income in bribes collected in exchange for looking the other way while you took pictures. Egyptian men were incredibly creative in finding excuses to touch OD.

We spent our first few days at a resort in Sharm El-Sheikh. On our second night, I signed up for a tour that took us to St. Catherine's monastery, at the base of Mt. Sinai, arriving at around 2:30 in the morning. From there we climbed to the summit of Mt. Sinai, where I joined thousands of others in waiting for the sunrise. When it did rise, its rays illuminated a landscape of empty plastic bottles, cans, cups, foil, paper and dried feces. Returning to the base of the mountain, we were assailed by hordes of bedouin flogging guidebooks and cheap trinkets.

The Pyramids were even worse. You stand before these ancient and awe-inspiring monuments, attempting to reflect on their beauty and meaning, and you are assaulted with an unending barrage of "excuse me, where are you from?" For reasons I don't understand, this question has become the standard opening line in every Egyptian's attempt to sell you trinkets, offer you guide services, or (if you are a woman) to find an excuse to touch you somewhere. It doesn't matter how you respond: "England", "Sweden," "U.S.A.", "Italy", etc., the response is invariably "[Name of Country], number one!" You could say, "I'm from East Bumfuck, Texas," and they would enthusiastically respond, "East Bumfuck, number one!" If you told me them that you were a homeless person who was currently living in small, smelly shithole, their eyes would light up, they would break into a broad smile, and loudly pronounce, "Shithole, number one!" It doesn't matter, because Egyptians apparently believe that once you have responded, they now have a personal relationship with you, one that involves some combination of giving them money or (again, usually only if you are female) and allowing them to touch you in some manner.

Talk to Egyptians about these problems and they will readily acknowledge them. But they will never admit to any responsibility for causing them, something that will always be blamed on Mubarak and his cronies. In many ways, they are right to do so – the corruption and lack of acceptance of responsibility does start at the top and no doubt much of the problem is due simply to the rest of society simply imitating their leaders. Egyptians will also attempt to minimise the importance of these problems by noting that despite them, theirs is still the most ancient and amazing civilisation ever to exist, and what's a bit of litter in comparison with an accomplishment like the Pyramids? Trying to persuade them of the illogic of this thinking is pointless.

But like so many visitors before me, I still recommend a visit. It's a unique and amazing place.

20 July 2008

1 comment:

Sherif Kadry said...

Hello, first visit to your blog and was curious to see your comments about Egypt. Spot on, as an Egyptian I am definitely ashamed to hear about the litter strewn across the landscape at anything you visit there. The corruption the constant haggling by the vendors. I took a bunch of friends from France over there and was truly ashamed at what they had to endure not to mention having to bribe some idiot at the Giza plateau so they can enter the larger of the three famous pyramids. I have no excuses to make, and will not attempt to blame it on anything, just wish one day, one day...some decent person will take a hold of my country and turn it around. If I'm not around to see it fair enough. But I hope to see that day. Like my grandfather who used to speak about the 20s and 30s and how Cairo was beautiful clean and full of decent and educated people. Somehow I am glad he died in the late 80s and never got to see the shambolic state the country is in now. Thank you Mubarak you're a truly the lowest of low humans. Thanks for the blog and I hope you'll visit again in the future and have a better experience.