10 December 2009
Backsheesh? More Like Back-SHEESH!
Our flight into Cairo lands on time. We scurry through customs where we are warned of our imminent sentencing to death should we be caught with drugs, by our sticker “money-making enterprise” VISAs and exit the airport. First order of business: find a taxi. I am approached by countless men whom I shrug off. Finally, a mom-aged woman approaches me. “Taxi?” she asks. “Yes, to Dokki. How much?” I inquire. “75 Egyptian Pounds.” As this is 25 pounds less than what I had already been offered I jump on it.
She leads us outside to a man wearing blue pants, a pink shirt and brown loafers. I hand her a 100-pound note. She forwards this on to him along with a receipt. He hands her back 25 pounds - our change. What, do you think, this charming mom-aged woman does? She pockets 5 pounds, hands a twenty to me and says “some for him, this for me and here is your change” before b-lining back to the airport terminal to rob another unknowing tourist. Blue pants man leads us to a gaggle of men sitting along a fence and points to another man who jumps up in his matching track suit before grabbing my bag and descending some stairs into the parking lot. Minutes later we’re zipping through Cairo at an alarming rate given traffic, road size and speed limits. We arrive to our crash pad and the man asks for “a little extra.” I give him 30 Egyptian pounds and a promise to hire him for a day of driving to the Pyramids. That’s a total of 110 pounds now including the fare, the obligatory tip to the woman and voluntary tip to the driver.
I say “tip” but what I mean here in Egypt is “backsheesh.” While we translate it as meaning “tip” that is actually quite fare from the truth. You see, while we tip if service is good as a sort-of reward for hard work and effort, “backsheesh” in Egypt is completely expected and if you’re foreign, the amounts just skyrocket. I have realized in the course of our eight days that while traveling in Egypt appears cheap on the surface, it’s actually one of the most costly destinations in the developing world thanks entirely to backsheesh.
Why? Because you have to backsheesh for everything. Take a taxi? Backsheesh there. Somebody give you directions? Backsheesh there. Stay somewhere and have a guy help with a bag? More backsheesh! Get site information or a tip on where to take a good picture? Backsheesh squared. It’s a never-ending onslaught of “appreciation” and while it’s only a $1 here or $4 there, by the end of the day you’ve backsheeshed your way into the poor house!
At the Pyramids our guide (whose fees were supposedly “included”) had the audacity to say, after being given $10 in backsheesh after only 90 minutes of our two hour tour, “what is this? This better not be for me. Maybe for the horse boy, but not me.” This led to a somewhat heated argument on horseback with the Pyramids as our backdrop and I proceeded to lambast the guy as a common criminal and somewhat crazy human being, telling him he has “made it awkward” and “ruined my afternoon.” This AFTER a $10 tip on a $20 tour.
Then it was the all-day driver, who got $10 more in backsheesh. Then it was our taxi to the bus station. Our hostel helper. Our guide at Karnak. Our driver at Luxor. Slowly but surely the cheap cups of tea and student-priced entrance fees lose their majesty to the neverending onslaught of pushy tourism industry pros trying to squeeze a few more pounds out of me.
This practice is completely exhausting and - at times - has the effect of totally destroying what is supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime exploration of some of mankind’s greatest monuments in one of mankind’s oldest civilizations. Of the more than 60 countries I have visited, no place comes close to being as big a hassle as Egypt, where you almost always feel like someone is taking you for a ride. That is, as long as that someone is in the tourism industry because literally everyone else in Egypt may best be described as saintly, charming and preposterously generous.
Egypt is - like China - a nation of extremes. Either exhaustingly nice or exhaustingly theft-like. Extremely rude or literally TOO NICE. In turn, my attitude or “Egyptitude” apparently only exists in extremes as well. Either having the time of my life and wanting to stay forever or frustrated beyond reason and desperately searching for a cheap flight out. As the days wear on a new mantra emerges: when in Egypt, do as the Egyptians do. Welcome to Egypt: Please hand your currency to a local. Don’t worry, they’ll find a way take it from you anyway.