Baksheesh, cockroaches, and ancient wonders

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Aswan, Egypt. From Luxor I caught the train to Aswan. My first night was spent in a cockroach infested pit called the Nubian Oasis. Even the cockroaches were complaining. Still I was only in the room for a few hours before being woken up at 3:00 am to go to Abu Simbel, perhaps Ramses II's (the Great) most magnificent monument to himself, and to a lesser extent, the gods.

The entire temple complex was saved from being flooded by the Aswan Dam project back in the 190's by UNESCO, and an assortment of international and national groups. It was moved, after being painstakingly taken apart brick by brick, above the high-water mark and reassembled exactly like it had been before (Paul you would have loved to have been part of that). Some have likened the deconstruction and reconstruction on par with the original building of the complex itself. I'm of two minds about it. There is no question of the magnificence of the place - it is staggering. That it was saved from destruction is a credit to the intellectual and cultural forces in the world. But oddly, a small part of me is upset that it is not in it's original location, (which, granted, is now under water), and that modern hands have torn it down and re-built it. Ironically, I have no problems with statues and artifacts being removed from their original locations and placed in museums for safe keeping, so how is this different? Would it have been better to have let it been lost? Of course not. Still...

I liked Aswan, especially once I moved from my crap hotel to one with air conditioning, no noticeable cockroaches, and a wonderful view of the Nile River.

I took a ferry over to Elephantine Island, containing two Bedouin villages. I wandered around the island until I found a nice spot overlooking the Nile and passing feluccas (Nile sailboats). I was joined by two boys around 10 or 11 years old who jumped in the water, sang songs in about five languages, fought with each other, and then asked for money. Of course. Afterwards I continued walking and was joined by a young Bedouin in his twenties who took it upon himself to be my (self appointed) guide. He told me it was not allowed to wander on the island if you were a foreigner (a lie), and he would walk with me, no money (another lie). I finally gave him one of my bribe packs of Marlboro cigarettes at the dock to get rid of him.

The whole "baksheesh"/ripping off the tourist thing is practically an art form in Egypt. You expect it, and are even ok with it to a certain point, but occasionally you reach a saturation point. Mine came on the ferry on the way back from the island. I knew the price for the ferry, one way, was one pound ($0.20). The guy asked for 10 pounds ($2). I laughed, kept it light, and said "No - one pound." This went on for a while until he said "Ok, ok. Two pounds." I said, "Two pounds - there and back." And while he likely didn't take the full meaning, I gave him the two pounds and jumped on board.

On the way back, it was a different driver. Everything was smiles and sunshine until I stepped off the boat without paying. He immediately started yelling, and suddenly, there was the other driver from before, telling me I must pay the ferryman. ("Don't pay the ferryman, don't even fix a price! Don't pay the ferryman, until he gets you to the other side." Bonus points to whomever is the first to identify the artist and song.) I calmly told him I had already paid - him, two pounds there and back. He said, "No, you paid for one way. You must pay again." I said. "No, I have already paid. One pound, one pound." Between the slowly rising volume of the conversation, and the yelling of the ferryman, we were attracting amused looks from some locals. After another insistence of payment from the driver I said "Ok, fine. Come with me. We will find a police officer and ask him to help us." Viola, magically the problem was solved, and I was waved away, albeit with some disgust. I know how pathetic it sounds to take a stand over something as small as $0.20, and frankly I have been taken advantage for much, much more many times. Anyone who has traveled in developing countries, however, knows that after a while it gets to you - the begging, the baksheesh for nothing, the blatant rip offs, and the being viewed as nothing more than a walking ATM ready for withdrawal. So I made my stand - over $0.20, and it felt great.
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