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Cairo Update

Date Written:
  21 October 1998
  Beware of Tourist Touts
  Return to Cairo Update Index

Dear Friends,

We've rushed to get a newsletter off which you should be receiving shortly. Actually, according to our timing we should have sent it in September but that was a very busy month for us.

We've come to the end of another busy week but we have to continually learn not have high expectations on what to do each day. Wednesday last week was a very frustrating day. I set out to do three main things- extend our air ticket return date to next year, fix my computer and get a haircut. I started the day by going early to the airport to visit the Olympic Airways office. Taxi rides to the airport are always expensive, not because of the distance but because the drivers know that the people who go there are rich and can pay more. After a small disagreement with the taxi driver I managed to get into the building and find the office. All the other airline offices were open, Olympic were the only one closed! I enquired at the information desk about the whereabouts of the Olympic airlines representative, she replied that the only time when someone is present is when there is a flight, and the next flight was at seven o'clock that evening.

I decided to return later, but in the meantime I had to wait around for a bus to take me back. Taxis are expensive getting to the airport but going from the airport they are even more expensive. As I've told many people here, taxi drivers are nothing more than pickpockets who let you use your own hands.

I arrived back at lunch time and had a quick meal. Later I took my computer to the repair shop- I had a good idea what the problem was but I didn't have the equipment to test it out. At the repair shop I was told to take a seat while the guy did the testing, "This shouldn't take long sir . . ." I waited with Hannah in reception. The guy who should have been doing the repair kept on coming out of the room to do other tasks. In computing terms he was multitasking, an expression that means doing more than one thing at a time. Well, more accurately it means only doing one thing at a time but when you change the thing that you're trying to do often enough it gives the impression of doing many things at a time. The more you live in this culture the more you realise that Egyptians are very good at multitasking and this guy was no exception.

You also see multitasking in places like metro stations. If the ticket seller doesn't have enough change then the person who bought the ticket will wait around until someone else pays with the right amount in change then the ticket seller will pay him back. Sometimes there will be five or six guys all waiting for change and the ticket seller will effortlessly keep track on who to pay next and how much. He will also deal with queries and complaints, giving each person a small time slice at frequent intervals but never giving any one person attention to the exclusion of everyone else. The Western mind would find this confusing, we can't multitask. We prefer to keep things simple and do one thing at a time.

After patiently waiting a long time at the computer repair shop I realised that my computer wasn't getting the frequent time slot that it needed and that is why it was taking so long. You can't work against this system because it is embedded in the culture. To give one person or project exclusive attention means having to ignore others which would be impolite. The guy finally called me into the room to show it working. Unfortunately it wasn't- he had just exchanged one problem for another. He apologised and said that it was time for him to go home anyway so I had to return again in the morning . . . I tried to hold back my tears. I managed to get home in time for tea, no time for the haircut.

I quickly ate then went to the airport to extend the tickets. Unfortunately there still wasn't anyone in the office that I needed although there was a flight at that time. The lady at the information desk explained that there was another office in the city centre that would be able to help. I spoke on the phone to an airline representative who confirmed that there would be people present the next day for definite. He gave me the address and the phone number. I took the bus back home a bit disappointed with the whole day. I had achieved a BIG ZERO. Nothing accomplished- the day had been a complete non-starter. No airline tickets, no computer and no haircut.

The next day I achieved everything but the haircut! I went to the city centre with Hannah with the intention of finding the Olympic airline office. All I had was an address and a vague idea of where to go. After walking for a bit I realised that I needed more than a vague idea. You always have to be careful when asking for directions in Egypt. No one wants to look ignorant so even if the person doesn't know he will always give you SOME directions even if they aren't right. Whilst pondering what to do next someone passed me by and said "Welcome to Egypt". This is a very common greeting for a foreigner, and everyday I hear it several times from complete strangers. I usually just reply "Thanks" but this time I decided to take the opportunity to ask for directions. I answered in Arabic

"Thank you, can you tell me where Kaser el neel street is please"

He replied in English
"Ah yes, I know just where it is. Follow me please . . . "

We walked for about five minutes then he finally came to a shop. It was a tourist-type shop full of tourist-things that tourists buy and take back to their own countries. "I will show you where the street is but please come into my shop first, I want to give you and your daughter a drink."

The alarm bells immediately rang in my head- "uh oh, tourist tout alert!" These guys are experts at separating foreigners from their money- in a completely different league even than taxi drivers. They are very friendly and polite to begin with . . .

To refuse hospitality would be an insult and would be likely to cause a commotion in the street unless I could think of a good reason. "I'd love to go into the shop and sit down, in fact I hope to do so on the way back, but I really must go to the street first because the office that I need to visit will close soon". This is a typical Egyptian answer, a downright refusal is completely unacceptable, and the fact that it had a few "untruths" doesn't really matter. Still he tried to make me stay but because I politely insisted for about 10 minutes he relented and let me go.

To keep me to my word to go back he took me to the airline office himself and waited outside to take me back. The service in the airline office was fast and efficient, I managed to extend the return date to May next year. As we finished I noticed that the man was patiently waiting outside, no doubt planning how to take my money.

My options were grim, if I refused to go back to the shop he would accuse me of not keeping to my word, if I still insisted on not going then he would raise his voice and cause a scene in the street and probably bar my way. If however I agreed to go to his shop and have a drink, he would insist on showing me some artefacts and tell me that he would give them to me for a very special price (they ALWAYS say that!). If I refused he would insist that I should stay as his guest anyway- hence making it culturally unacceptable to leave and again causing a commotion in the street if I tried to go. Another alternative would be to go to the shop, buy something cheap and try to leave, but that would be unlikely to work since they are never satisfied unless they have taken a lot of money. Even if I say that I don't have any money he will still insist that I go anyway and show me lots of things, taking up lots of time.

So what would you do? How do you get out of a situation like this? These guys are experts at getting around excuses and they cling on to you like limpets until they are satisfied.

Whilst pondering the options I noticed there was another way. I noticed that the office that I was in had a back exit into a side street. "Mind if I use your back exit?" I asked the assistant.

"Er, not at all . . . " she replied

There must have been a few puzzled bystanders wondering why a foreigner was running with a three-year-old to the nearest metro station. Call me weak but I just hate dealing with confrontation! Anyway, I never said for definite that I wanted to go back to the shop, I only said that I HOPED to go back . . .

When I returned I found out that my computer was fixed and my friend was bringing it back from the shop for me. Because the people in the repair shop know my friend very well there was no charge for the repair- in this culture relationships are more important than business, so you see that sometimes the culture can work in your favour!

So I had a bad day followed by a good day, but for me the highlight was escaping from the tourist tout. One thing is for sure- I'm going to be extra careful when I go back into that area again in case I see him.

Greetings to one and all,

Toodle Pip,

Jason, Alison, Hannah and Esther

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It's a Fact!

Facts about Egypt:

  • Egypt's population is 66 Million

  • Egypt is four times the size of the UK

  • Only 3% of the land can be used for arable crops

  • Cairo has 18 million people and is growing by 1 millon each year.

  • Cairo is the Largest city in Africa and the Middle East

  • Official literacy rate is only 45%

  • A total of 11 languages are spoken in Egypt

  • Public Debt per person is $790

  • Average annual income is $630

  • Unemployment is estimated to be 17%

  • Religion: Approx. 85% Muslim and 15% Christian

  • Most Christians are affiliated to the Orthodox Church, less than 1% of the population are Protestant

  • There are an estimated 100,000 street children in Egypt


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