“The don’t make you pay to get on the camel, they make you pay to get off the camel.”
I’m no fan of touts. The in-your-face desperation, at once heart wrenching and rage inducing, exists the world over. I’ve elbowed past them in Thailand, stubbornly turned my head in Cambodia, scolded a horse owner in Jordan, and fought back tears in India, but I always thought that I was fairly skilled in the art of dodging them, at least in the best way I knew how.
Until we went to Egypt.
When unrest in Egypt bubbled to the media’s surface again last December, we knew we wouldn’t cancel our trip, but we did decide to hire a guide service, not only for safety, but we only had a long weekend and it was simpler to let the experts manage our time.
So, after a weird flight delay, we arrived late into Cairo and missed the first part of our scheduled tour of Old Cairo. We were driven over to our hotel, which sat in the shadow of the Pyramids, and spent the afternoon chatting with the young, enthusiastic bartender and admiring the view.
The next morning we met our guide, and were hustled to and fro. “Look at the Nile!” “Here is Tahrir Square!” “Only one and half hours in the Egyptian Museum. Hurry!” “I know the best authentic place for lunch!”
We’re used to this. It’s fine. We have a limited amount of time and we want to focus on what we really want to see, the Pyramids and the Sphinx. So we hop into and out of the van at various intervals, listening to our guide and looking at various things, until it’s finally time.
We’re arriving at the Great Pyramids of Giza.
As the driver parked the van, our guide turned around to utter the same words he must say to all of his clients. “Don’t get on the camels unless you really want to, and you can afford it.”
We’d discussed this previously, and decided that we did, indeed, want a photo of ourselves on camels at the Pyramids. So we exited the van and dove headfirst into the tout fray.
Most were children selling postcards, and as our guide began his spiel, he batted them away mindlessly. We wandered around, listening as he rattled off dates and statistics, and, for the most part, we were tout-free. Until we went back to the van.
They descended upon us, camels in tow. The next thing I knew, my head was being wrapped in a dingy, white scarf by an Egyptian man, his brilliant but shady green eyes right in front of mine. “Where are you from? Ah, Abu Dhabi, beautiful! Meet my camel, Moses!” I glanced at Will who was being similarly accosted and wrapped in shrouds. Our guide looked at me once, shook his head and moved away.
With a quickness unique to cats and charlatans and one well-versed in the study of human psychology, he had me on Moses’ back, and with a heave and a lurch, I was riding a camel at the Pyramids. This man knew exactly what he was doing, and had likely made a small fortune doing it. The camels were led a distance away, so we could have the ubiquitous Pyramid perspective photos, fingers atop the point, and such. This was over rather quickly, then I noticed that Will and I were being taken in separate directions, at a distance that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with.
The man brought Moses to a halt, and those green eyes looked up at mine, and a sly grin spread across his face. Oh shit. Here it comes.
“How much do you want to give to Moses?”
“I don’t have any money. My husband has the money.”
“You don’t have Egyptian pounds? What about American dollars? You have dollars?”
“No, I only have dirhams.”
“Dirhams is good! You give me dirhams!”
Here I thought I would make a somewhat cheap getaway. I dug into my bag and handed him the smallest bill I had, 50 dirhams, which is about 18 USD.
“This is not enough.”
“It’s 20 US dollars!”
He gave me a look that said that he knew every exchange rate in the world. “No, it’s not. You give me more.”
At this point, as nice as Moses was, I wanted off his goddamn back. I pulled a 100 dirham note from my bag, thrust it into his hand, and with a very pleased look, he led Moses back to the car park area and helped me down.
I met Will on the ground, and there was a moment of frustration when we realized how much the other had paid, but what can you do? We both knew the consequences of getting on the camels.
Did we get our money’s worth?
Yes, we were able to get off the camels.