Top of any list of what to pack for a visit to Egypt should be your sense of humour. It won’t add to the weight of your luggage so make sure you pack it all because Egypt can be one of the most stressful countries to visit if you don’t know when to laugh. Fortunately the country can be so absurd or funny that – from mistakenly threatening to punch a bus company to a cat slipping into your dinner – it is very easy to find a reason to laugh your head off.
Fed up saying ‘no’ to every shop and stall owner in Aswan market I decided to pretend to be Dutch and deny I could speak English. The ruse lasted less than 10 seconds when the shopkeeper smugly pointed to the ‘We speak Dutch’ sign above his doorway.
…But not from Norway
A little less funny were the Norwegians we met while cruising down the Nile who were pretending to be from Iceland due to the fallout from the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
No need for no
We learnt how to say ‘no thank you’ in Arabic very quickly, later adding ‘I don’t want’, ‘I don’t need’, ‘It’s not possible’ and ‘please go away’ to our vocabulary. Yet, despite two visits to Egypt of four and six weeks, we still don’t know the word for ‘yes’ – it was never needed.
The phone tree
We watched with some amusement when our Sinai tour guide driver climbed into the branches of a tree to make a phone call from his mobile. Phone signals are not easy to come by in the desert and we saw another couple of drivers queuing for their turn in the tree.
Wandering away from Deirdre to ask directions in Cairo I came back to find her talking to a smartly dressed man. She had been told by the man he had already met me and each presuming the other had found someone to show us the way we ended up in a perfume shop. As we sat there plotting to leave without buying anything, we wondered just how the hell that happened.
I’m Mahmoud, and so’s my wife
In Edfu I took a business card from shop owner Mahmoud and fobbed him off with a promise to have a look at his wares when I came out of the temple. Returning to the row of almost identical souvenir shops I deflected the first no buy just looking enticement by saying I had promised Mahmoud I would visit him. It turned out this shopkeeper was called Mahmoud, as was the one next door and everybody else in earshot. Eventually I found Mahmoud the first at the end of the row and, as promised, took a look around his shop. When I emerged empty handed he tried to charge E£10 (£1) for the unwanted business card he had given me earlier.
The foreigner tax
I can’t say this was always a pleasant laugh but you had to admire their cheek when someone tells you a price only to see on the board behind his back the real price is five times less than his quote.
The chicken dance
A stroll down Aswan’s Nileside Corniche had turned into dark comedy as I metaphorically put my head out the window and shouted ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE’.
Deirdre orders everyone off the bus
Arriving in Hurghada we were pounced on by the hotel touts. One followed us up the road and onto a minibus. We’d had this done before. A tout follows us to a hotel, nips ahead at the last moment and bumps up the price of our accommodation. This time Deirdre lost her head and ordered our current annoyance off the bus. The driver backed us up and the tout slunk off. Another two guys got on and she ordered them off too until I explained that we are on public transport and she couldn’t just throw everyone off.
Offering out the bus company
This time it was my turn to lose it (again). Buying the bus ticket I found that a small sum had been added onto the price agreed. If you can’t even trust the bloody bus company, I thought, and actually stamped my foot like a ten year old in my efforts to get the extra fee waived. It was such a silly amount too and I’m not proud of the foot stamping or for raising my fists in boxer style and offering all three of the middle aged ticket staff to step outside. They calmed me down by explaining what the fee was for and we all went away as friends.
The toilet touts
By the end of our first Egyptian trip we thought we had met every type of tout in existence – taxi touts, hotel touts, shop touts, restaurant touts, caleche touts, felucca touts – until we heard about the toilet touts who try to encourage tourists in Dahab to use of a particular lavatory: “My toilet is the best, best toilet paper, very clean. That toilet over there, very bad, very bad people.”
Sharing a toilet with a camel
Squat toilets are hideous at the best of times but a camel trying to stick its head inside above the gap in the flimsy door doesn’t make them any better. Whenever Deirdre needed the bathroom, while we were staying the night with a Bedouin family, I was called to shoo the beastie away.
Taxi drivers don’t lie
We had made our way on foot to the Valley of the Kings but on leaving we were told by taxi drivers we were not allowed to walk back home. It was too late. It is for our own safety. Yeah, right, we thought; our cynicism of both taxi drivers and Egyptians involved in tourism having long since kicked in. Unbelievably it turned out they were telling the truth and the police picked us along the road. We rode back to the river crossing in the back of a police van with a score of friendly policemen.
Take my gun
The next day we had another encounter with the police. A police guard whispered conspiratorially he would show me something ‘special’ and led me around the back of a temple to a hole in the ground. After declining the chance to pay to snap away at this delight he tried another tack and offered to give me his assault rifle for a photo op. I declined, thinking I would feel like a knob each time I looked at that photo.
Baksheesh for sweeping the street
Luckily for one government employee doing the job he is paid to do two foreigners are nearby. He slides over and sticks out his hand for a tip and is a little disappointed when we laugh in his face.
Laughing with relief
For three nights and two days we cruised from Aswan to Luxor in comfort on a big ship and laughed at all those fuckers that couldn’t get on our boat and try to sell us their shit.
Glad to be alive
The relieved laugh of the still living each time we made it to the other side of the road in Cairo.
Cat’s head and rice
Dahab is one of the more relaxing places in Egypt. Not as relaxing as it would be if it were somewhere other than Egypt, but these things are relative. Aside from the restaurant touts, who are mostly polite and funny, the cats are the biggest nuisance in this town. So much that many eateries provide water pistols to keep them away from customers sitting on the floor, eating from low tables. I wrestled with one cat that tried to claw a chocolate brownie – a birthday treat – from my fork (yup, I still ate it), while on another occasion one clumsy moggy slipped on the table and landed head first in Deirdre’s dinner (yep, she still ate it). It seemed quite embarrassed by the whole business.
No camels and horses
We spotted this sign on the beach. Moments later a camel rode past followed by a horse.
Please just leave me alone
On returning home to the UK, slightly traumatized by a month of cajoling, pulling, hassling, lying and hundreds of offers of no buy, just looking, I found it difficult to cope with a shop assistant in PC World. I just couldn’t manage the interaction of dealing with another human being and had to run away and hide in the next aisle.
Disclaimer: I always feel the need to add a disclaimer after writing about Egypt to express how I really feel about the country. I always think I have made it out to be an awful, dreadful place and have put people off going there, but despite the stress of dealing with all the touts, hassle, lies and extortions that come with travelling independently around Egypt – or perhaps even because of this – I absolutely love the country. I might even rank it as my favourite place – though I do need a holiday after each visit.
I have also added a link to a tour company in this piece. We haven’t been paid to do so but we took the trip with them for free a few years ago in exchange for advertising. Our obligation to them has long been met but we enjoyed the tour and are happy to continue to recommend this company.