Sunday, June 13, 2010

On Egypt, Part III: the Yin and the Yang of Egypt

I ended up spending a full week in Hurghada - it's not that I actually liked it, no, it was just comfortable, my hotel had AC and internet, and diving was cheap, easy, and nearby. After a couple of dyas of local dive trips though, grander things came calling, and I agreed to go South to Marsa Alam for a day of diving there; after all Marsa Alam is about as good as it gets for diving in Egypt.

Marsa Alam: so beautiful... so empty...

Sting ray on lying on the bottom in Marsa Alam

Coral Reefs, with lots of fish all around

But it is Egypt, so the trip went terribly right from the start - I was taking a bus, instead of a private car (even though I was still paying the price of a private car?), the bus was taking five hours to get there, instead of the three I'd been told, and the bus was two hours late - well, sadly, it was actually only an hour and 57 minutes late as I had set 7AM as my deadline to call the whole thing off, but the bus finally showed up at 6:57. I should have called the whole thing off... instead, I went to Marsa Alam, the Yin of Egypt came along, or the Yin of the people of Egypt is perhaps better. It's a simple pattern really, that never fails to repeat: first they overcharge you, then they proceed to under-deliver...

So, somewhere around hour five of the "three hour trip to Marsa Alam", I was sitting by a window, watching the Red Sea slowly pass by, quietly raging, and passing the time composing the scathing review of the Hurghada tourist services I was going to write (but the passing scenery was nice). Then the Yang arrived: a bunch of kids boarded the bus in Al Quesir. One of them sat down next to me at first, did not speak any English, just called me 'Habibi!' (common term of endearment, literally meaning something like 'my lovely'). A bit of re-shuffling came forth in a few minutes, and I was now sitting next to Said. Said spoke English, made fun of the other kid a little, and explained that they were all heading to the beaches around Marsa Alam to sell newspapers on the water-front. At exorbitantly inflated prices, of course. But since I had no interest in the papers, we just chatted for a bit. Said comes from Cairo, he had attended university there studying to become an accountant, but upon receiving his degree and spending six months looking for work in Cairo, gave up and came out to the coast and sell papers by day and work at a restaurant by evening. I'm sure I would have hated him were he to approach me on the beach and try to sell me yesterday's paper for ten times its cost, but here on the bus, where he wasn't trying to make a sale, he was a genuinely nice kid, and fun to talk to. He explained about the lack of jobs in Cairo, his nine years of studying English which, in reality, does not appear to help much in the job search, and how he liked the Russian girls because they were happy to talk to him, even though he was a mere paper boy - the British, on the other hand, were all stuck up and just thumbed their noses at him... Consequently, his collection of girlfriends presently included two in Russia, one in Switzerland, and an object of affection here in Egypt, who was apparently marrying another, richer, man... I wished him the best of luck with the Russians... The Yang of Egyptians: those exceedingly rare moments when you can have a conversation with an Egyptian man, who is actually not trying to sell you something.

The Yin survived and prospered, of course, as the great under-delivery of Marsa Alam continued right on course when I finally arrived - we were going shore diving, instead of the boat diving I had been promised (shore diving is an interesting experience to try, but is not what I had in mind when agreeing to get on a bus at 5 in the morning... which left at 7. Oh wait, 6:57 actually!) The shore diving, naturally, reduced my desires down to just two dives, instead of the three I thought I was going to be doing, but poor Imad was incredulous that I wanted to pay less for my two dives than I had originally agreed to pay for three. By now, I just laughed at him, fairly openly. His dive master had let the normal prices slip beforehand, so I was paying double anyway. The five hour bus journey back turned into an hour and a half by bus followed by two hours in the back of a cramped ancient Peugeot, whose driver seemed intent to kill us all. I did get a measure of revenge the next day when I yelled at Ali, my fixer, and got him to return a quarter of what I had paid for my disappointing experience. I'm not entirely sure where exactly to place Ali on the Yin/Yang scale as he actually seemed a reasonable fellow, and did come through with both my hotel and the diving in Hurghada. And I did watch him set up the Marsa Alam trip with another 'associate', who didn't looked so reasonable, or trustworthy, actually he had more of a look of a used car salesman. An exceedingly sleazy one at that. I later found him to be utterly incredulous that I had chosen to pay less for my two dives than what had been previously agreed upon as the price for three dives. He may have presented it in somewhat more convoluted terms... Regardless, whether my man Ali really was getting screwed himself or if he was just trying to re-assign blame to make me feel better, getting some of my money back was a major victory (and a minor financial one), especially as that's normally an outright impossible proposition here in Egypt.

On the way back in the evening: Egypt's listening... Somewhat ironic actually - the censorship turns out to be much stricter in Tunisia

So, I filed this whole experience away... Somewhere under 'if you found a place in Egypt that doesn't offend you much, like Hurghada, just stick with it already!' Following that line of reasoning, I promptly decided to skip Alexandria, since I was by now sure that it would be disappointing and frustrating and caught the bus straight to Cairo to get to the airport. Yin and Yang came along for the ride. First up to bat: Yin. The bus is 'scheduled' (as much as schedules exist in this country) for 3 in the afternoon. I arrived at around 2:20 - I didn't have much to do anyway. The bus showed up at about 2:45 and ... promptly left at 2:50. An Egyptian bus might leave two hours later than scheduled, or 10 minutes earlier - plan accordingly, and by that I mean, try not to have any plans riding on the bus arriving (or departing) anywhere at any prescribed time.

But, alas, the bus didn't actually leave Hurghada, he left the bus station, circled through the city to the bus depot, dropped us off and took off, with some vague promises to come back 'shortly'. In the hour that passed, I had time to make friends with the Yang - I met Hany, an Egyptian now working at a hotel in Dubai, but formerly a tour leader in Egypt. An interesting guy to talk to - spoke perfectly good English and was also frustrated with the unreliability of the Egyptian buses. If anybody's going to Dubai (and I certainly would like to some day...), I can hook you up with some help! Hany also, of course, has a Russian girlfriend - in fact, he's on to his second one. But this one is all of 21 years old, so he didn't particularly trust her.

So, Hany, the Yang of Egypt - the man was smart, knowledgeable, easy to talk to, and shared most of my frustrations about the place. He didn't prove to be entirely without some local mis-judgments though, as we talked about car prices in Egypt. Apparently, a Toyota here costs slightly less than it does in the States. But 75,000 Pounds is much more difficult to come by for an Egyptian than the equivalent $13,500 is for an American, he countered. Quite true, I offered, but do you expect Toyota to sell cars at a loss in Egypt out of compassion for the impoverished people of the country? He was definitely still the Yang though - we chatted, he helped me try and figure out where to go upon arriving in Cairo. This was nice... then the bus finally came back: Yin happens... how much is a ticket to Cairo, I had inquired (more than once). Well, prices in Egypt are never posted - it's a little harder to over-charge tourists if you actually post prices, you see - so I first happened to ask my sleazy car salesman. He told my 75 Pounds, I assumed he was lying, just on the off-chance that I would actually ask him to get me the ticket. I figured I'd rather walk to Cairo than ask for his help, but I digress. He was, of course, lying - I asked the ticket office, they said 55 Pounds. I asked Hany, he too said 55. I gave 70 pounds. I got five in change. I complained - Hany translated. The man matter of factly stated that the tourist price was 65 Pounds. I declared Bullshit, Hany apologized, the ticket seller walked away. I figured I had a better shot at getting one of his teeth than getting any money back. Yin happens, you are in the wrong country to be crying over 10 pounds (almost $2 - pick your battles!). The bus approached Cairo, the Yin percolated on board... finally deciding to demonstrate that it's an equal opportunity affliction and can haunt the locals too (especially the ones who stray from the true path of robbing tourists... with a smile): you see, Hany's parents lived not far from the airport. The airport wasn't on the way, but there was a convenient spot along the way for him to get dropped off. And since it wasn't all that far from the airport, I was going to get off there as well, and my taxi to the airport would be cheaper than one from downtown Cairo. Would have been, I should say, as this was an excellent plan, of course, and Hany shared it with the driver, in fluent Egyptian Arabic. The driver signaled his approval. We arrived in downtown Cairo... Remember the smiling kid in Hurghada with the apparent learning disability? The driver probably had the same condition... It's called the Yin of Egypt.

To summarize: Egypt has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to world class attractions - from the ancient temples and Pyramids of Giza, Luxor, and Aswan, to the dynamic cities like Cairo, Alexandria, and (for some) Sharm el-Sheikh, to natural wonders like the Red Sea, the Nile, and the vast deserts. It is absolutely worth visiting. Egypt also has some really nice people. These people, unfortunately, can be hard to find. The vast majority of the people are greedy, lying, unscrupulous bastards, who have heard their politicians talk about the difficult economic conditions of the country (likely caused by the same greedy and unscrupulous people never paying any taxes) long enough to feel it is their absolute right (and responsibility) to extort money from the tourists who come anywhere near them. And if you don't choose to come near them, they will come chase after you. If you ask my advice, I'd just say reward them for their behavior by staying away, but if you do decide to go anyway - the place does have all those amazing attractions after all - take a tour! It will, of course, over-charge and under-deliver too, but at least they'll take care of all the negotiating for you, so you'll get ripped just that one time when you buy the package ticket, and when your bus will be delayed for an hour for no good reason whatsoever (and yes, it will be), you'll have someone to yell at!

The Great Pyramid of Khufu - Giza, Egypt

I'm so excited, my pants are going to split at the seams in three... two... one... now!

The Mosque of Mohammmed Ali (no, not the American boxer!) - Cairo, Egypt

The forest of columns at the Temples of Karnak - Luxor Egypt. To think that all these massive things were built nearly five thousand years ago absolutely blows your mind!

The Great Temple of Ramses II in Abu Simbel

Larger Scale: the Yin and Yang of Northern Africa.

Egypt threw one final piece of smelly Yin my way on my way out, when my flight to Tunis was delayed from 9:30PM to 2:30AM, but five extra hours weren't enough - we finally left another hour later. I could blame TunisAir, the Tunisian airline, but I think it's Egypt's fault! And, eventually, leave we did! And after a couple of hours, we had landed in Tunisia. And yes, of course, Egypt was still being very fresh in my mind, but Tunisia seemed like such an amazing breath of fresh air! Prices are posted, the people are helpful (without expecting a tip in return for their help), the buses are easy to navigate. There is no army of angry, foul-smelling cab drivers offering their services in place of the bus that is "no longer running." People do come up on the street trying to sell something, but when you just say 'No, Thanks,' they actually leave you alone... And every conversation doesn't start with 'Where you come from?' Better yet, the locals go to all the same places that the tourists go, which, keeps the prices in check (helps that they are posted too). I've also met some wonderful people here in Tunis, after finally deciding to give CouchSurfing a chance - they spent a large chunk of their Sunday showing me around the city. CouchSurfing, for the un-initiated, is a website that connects people with couches with other people that want to spend a night or two sleeping on said couches - it's like a community thing. Everybody gets reviews, both the hosts and the surfers, so you, generally, try to not stay with people who get described as rapists and murderers. I'd never used the service myself before, but I've met many a traveler that swears by it - a free place to stay, and you meet interesting local people who are more than happy to show you around their town, time permitting, or at least tell you what to do. Then Irina and I got a place for the night at the Kibbutz on the Dead Sea using CouchSurfing (which worked out incredibly well), so I was ready to give it a try myself, and so far, I'm extremely pleased with the outcome!

But this place does quite well as the Yang to Egypt's Yin of Africa in its own right. It's cleaner, it's greener, it's quieter, it's calmer. The traffic isn't as horrendous as Cairo's; the attractions are better preserved; the people have some understanding of the concept of a queue. The attractions (the ruins of ancient Carthage and the beautifully preserved old city of Sidi Bou Said) might not be quite on the world-class, 7 wonders of the world, par of Egypt, but I've enjoyed the experience of seeing them so much more, that I do very much want to some day return to Tunisia to see the rest of the place. Egypt, on the other hand, the Yin of Africa, remains as a definite 'maybe... if I run out of other places to see.' And if you'd like a haute-couture all-inclusive beach resort vacation? Well, Tunisia has plenty of those on the Mediterranean coast as well.

Mohamed, Nes, Ossuama, and myself at the amphitheater at the ruins of ancient Carthage. Mohamed not quite timing the wait time on his camera correctly...

More ruins of Carthage, and Mediterranean in the background. Nes striking a pose in the foreground

Sidi Abu Said, where there is a law that all the houses must be blue and the decorations must all be in this very shade of blue. The result is gorgeous!

Panoramic view from the top of the hill at Side Abu Said

Central Tunis in the distance

The Clock Tower in Central Tunis as dusk gathers

Mohamed's in art school, takes some great pictures, and can do some fun things with Photoshop

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