On Tours

“When something ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Just when traveling on our own was becoming more of a familiar and enjoyable way of life, we had to go and mess with it. During the past few months, upon meeting other travelers and discussing and comparing itineraries, we would get a bit of advice when mentioning Egypt. We owe a lot to the Lonely Planet, but when on the road, the best tips usually come from other travelers. So we took everyone’s two cents to heart and made the somewhat last minute decision to do a portion of Egypt with a tour. Of course we had our doubts, but ultimately decided that despite the increased cost, we would benefit from joining a tour group. Too bad we were wrong. Much of it was due to the specific company we chose (Delta Tours, for anyone thinking of going to Egypt), but also the whole experience just confirmed what Jeff knew and what I suspected-that we are just not “tour people”.

To say that the tour was disorganized would be an understatement. The amount of miscommunications were too numerous to count. We did our best to be understanding, given the fact that most were based on cultural and linguistic differences, but by the end, we were fed up. We were able to see all the major sights, but between or after were subsequently driven to workshops, galleries, or specialty stores where we were sat down, served beverages and then “strongly encouraged” to buy whatever items were on display. As irritating as this was, it became even more so when we would see the same items being sold for a fraction of the price in the bazaar or elsewhere. Most of our issues with our tour company boiled down to money-that appearing to be the only factor of any real value to them (not customer satisfaction, nor genuine desire to share the best of their country). Of course, Egypt is not a rich country and people need to make a living. Understood. However, being a foreigner, one is an easy target. And to top that off, being on a tour apparently automatically means that one has lots of money and wants to spend it. I felt trapped between a rock and a hard place. It is impossible to explain that we are on a tight budget, and yet be on a tour (with a guide and transport and all the luxuries that come with). Add to that, the fact that we don’t have jobs, yet are able to travel for an entire year, and that lends itself to quite a contradiction. Obviously to the locals, we must have loads of money, and comparative to the general population of Egypt (and most of the other countries we’ve been to), it’s true. Joining a tour just added to this conception-for most of the experience, I felt like a walking dollar sign and felt little genuine warmth or reciprocity from everyone we dealt with, and there were countless times where I wished we were on our own with only our packs. Typically, everywhere else we’ve been the locals (at the very least some) have shown such kindness and interest in who we are, whether we like their country, and want to share their knowledge and culture. The fact that we never felt this way this time around, I blame mainly on our decision to experience most of the country through a tour (…and partly on the tour company itself). Once the tour ended and we were left with three days on our own in Cairo, we felt that the city and the people fully redeemed themselves. Despite the warnings, we were not hassled and the locals were helpful, friendly, (and only a little pushy). Our last three days (as well as the first few tour-less days in Dahab), were by far the best in Egypt.

Needless to say, some people never learn. We are again with a tour guide in Kenya. This however was planned months and months ago, when we were fortunate to meet someone in the Bay Area with a contact in Kenya who could tailor a tour to our budget. It has been outwardly much better than our tour in Egypt, but inherently the same issues are underfoot. This is going to be the last time we “tour it”. I have surprised even myself a little by how strongly I want to be an independent traveler again.

Posted: July 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Egypt | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

Cairo

Cairo is a city with a population exceeding 18 million people. The metro system underwhelms with 3 lines of operation. The city is spread out so people will tell you that you need a car to get around. This is LA…if you took away some of the infrastructure, aged the buildings, crammed 14 million extra people into less than half the size of it, and added 40 Fahrenheit degrees. The result of such a city is that the streets overflow with cars and people and visible order appears only to physicists who study chaos theory. Drivers are aggressive in the way they switch lanes, in the way they defend their own lanes from others cutting in, in the way they create new ones entirely. But more or less, there are other areas of the world where drivers act like this. What adds though to the chaos and complexity of street traffic here are the people that walk across these same streets (and highways). Initially I was nervous in the streets sitting in a half a ton vehicle. Crossing the street brought images of Frogger to mind. But there they were…men, women and children as young as 7 walking between 5 lanes of oncoming traffic in ways that would make New Yorkers look like complete pansies. One night we watched the cacophony of traffic from our balcony and eventually it began to unfold into, if not a symphony, a dance between people and cars—ebbing and flowing in a way that made total sense to the people below. We watched for about an hour, surprised by the beauty we found in it.
Like I mentioned before though, I am not one of those people. If you want to find a way to emasculate someone, make them insecure about something they’ve done their entire life, and is done with a daily mundaneness all around him…like crossing the street. I felt like that kid who walks around the block for hours because they’ve run away from home but remember that their parents don’t allow them to cross the street by themselves. Now that I think about it, Mari and I did find our meals at restaurants around the right corner of the hostel we were staying at…coincidentally.
By contrast to the lack of self-confidence Cairo knocked into me was President Obama’s visit here a month prior. When he came to see the sights here, the city cleaned the streets he was to visit and replanted trees along them. But that’s not what should have given our president an ego boost. Egypt wanted to impress so much that when Obama visited, the day was declared a national holiday and people were urged to stay home so he wouldn’t experience the traffic of the city. And for the most part, people took their paid holiday and watched Obama give his speech in Technicolor instead of in person. Our president was able to effectively shut down 18 million people by simply showing up. And me? I’m gearing up to tackle the streets soon enough. Maybe just a few more laps around the block first.

Posted: July 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Egypt | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Welcome to Egypt

We had heard from many fellow travelers about what to expect in Egypt-a bit of a mixed bag. A few were quite complementary, but for the most part we had been told to prepare ourselves for quite a ride. The weather, the scams, and the touts all extreme. So far, the Egypt we have experienced has been a bit of a contradiction in itself, in ways big and small. I guess it’s fitting in a way for a land steeped in folklore and oases, where things aren’t always what they seem.

For instance, we arrived via ferry from Jordan into the little port town of Nuweiba, located in the Sinai region. The whole ferry process was confusing and a bit of a headache. Luckily we ran into some equally confused backpackers, two of whom were from the states and spoke enough Arabic to get us where we needed to be. We settled in for what was a surprisingly comfortable ferry ride, despite the fact that we were never told the scheduled departure time, but whatever it may have been I am fairly certain we left hours after. The exciting part came upon disembarkation. The ferry had arrived in Egypt and had docked for at least half an hour. Jeff and I calmly waited in our seats, seeing no reason to get up since the doors were not yet open and boat security were standing in front of the exits with arms crossed. Despite this fact, other passengers began to get impatient. A couple of women accompanied by approximately six kids a piece, somehow herded their way to the front, which is when the pushing, shoving, and yelling began. Finally, before it got too ugly, the security guard stepped in and shouted long and loud in Arabic and everyone calmed down. A few long minutes later, the doors opened and the calm was shattered. I have never seen people clambering over each other the way they were on this ferry. One would think the boat was sinking. Men were shoving old women and children out of the way, old women were yelling and pushing, children were elbowing anyone while trying to scamper ahead. When we made it down to get our luggage on the cargo deck, it was even crazier. Now the challenge was to weave our way between the hoards of people, but also the tour buses and trucks with engines running. This was not the kind of baggage claim where there is order, decorum, nor any person in charge collecting baggage tags. You just dive in amongst the enormous pile of suitcases, crates, bags, and parcels, and hope your bag is somewhere in the vicinity of where you left it. We found our stuff, wrestled our way out, made it through some type of security checkpoint and found ourselves at immigration, which looked like a big open warehouse, with a metal roof on stilts. Now we had to jump, sidestep, and/or run out of the way of baggage carts, horses, men in uniform (customs officials?), and the front lines of aggressive taxi touts. In the desert heat, this could easily qualify as an Olympic sport of the crazy sort. Quite the introduction to Egypt.

Several hours later, we arrived at our first Egyptian destination in the town of Dahab, a sleepy beach town on the Red Sea Coast. As far as contradictions go, compared to what we had just experienced getting to Dahab, the town itself was the opposite. It being the slow season, all the restaurants and shops were empty, the beaches nearly deserted, and we enjoyed several days of leisurely morning brunches on the beach, sheesha, and diving, snorkeling, and swimming in the Red Sea.

Other confusing and contradictory things are as follows. Pricing. First there is the fact that all prices are written in Arabic (of which I can recognize a total of three numbers and thus already at a disadvantage), combined with the fact that there are usually two prices, the local price and of course the tourist price, which is anywhere from four to twenty times the actual price. Prices and services that one would expect to be cheap are often ridiculously expensive, while other times it is the other way around. Some items that are expensive at one establishment turn out to be next to nothing someplace else. There is no rhyme or reason that I can see and I have no doubt that we have had our share of being ripped off. When people say things are “free” and “no money”, that means you will definitely have to pay. Cairo is considered a very safe place, yet some of the areas look quite sketchy. Upper Egypt refers to the southern region, while Lower Egypt is north. On a tour to the Pyramids, we were told it was safe to leave our bags and cameras, etc. in the car, but to make sure we took our money with us. There are usually two to three designated lanes for traffic, but somehow they are transformed into five or more, creating a parking lot scenario. When standing in line, order does not matter the way it should when in a line, as lines here are more like moving crowds.

Maybe “contradiction” is not the exact term to describe our experience of Egypt. There has definitely been chaos and a disorderly feel to our travels here, but only because we are foreigners and therefore by definition everything here is foreign to us. All the things we view as contradictions I’m sure make complete sense to the locals. And as much as I’d like to get it, I doubt I’ll ever get to walk like an Egyptian.

Posted: June 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Egypt | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »