About a week ago, i was invited to attend a recruiting trip in egypt for my employer. This is why I’m 7500 miles from home today, filled to the gills with mezze, and trying to learn the local customs governing baksheesh. Right now I’m south of Cairo, about 20 minutes’ drive from the Great Pyramids at Giza.
It takes a long time to get here. I flew from Seattle, Minneapolis, Amsterdam to get to Cairo. It’s a pain, although the 8 hour layover in Amsterdam allowed me to see some of the city (I’d never been). I got to fly business class too – which was nice. Don’t know how they managed to fit an 18 hole golf course into that Airbus 330. The Olympic-sized pool helped to pass the time too. I was pretty comfortable.
What I didn’t do was sleep, other than perhaps two hours. We landed in Cairo this morning at 2:50. It took an hour to get the necessary visa, and my luggage. Just before 4 AM I teetered out the door to get a cab to the hotel (about an hour south of the airport).
Then I broke a rule I wouldn’t normally have broken. Especially in a country where I don’t speak the language, where I don’t have a map, where I don’t really even have a rudimentary lay of the land. I allowed one of the many people offering cabs to convince me to get into their car. After all it had writing on the outside, so I knew it wasn’t just some random private car. Since the writing was in Arabic, it might have said anything – such as "Frank’s Mobile Hairdressing Salon" or "Dean’s Friendly Human Sacrifice Studio". Nope – I prepaid, and got into the back seat. Hey – what could go wrong?
Well – a lot more could have gone wrong than did. As it was, we drove about an hour southwest, and then nearly 40 minutes more looking for the hotel. What was I thinking? Surely I’d be able to recognize the telltale blue hilton sign from a distance. Mm-hm. After passing the same landmark for the second time, I asked the driver (gently at first, then more forcefully) : "do you know where the hotel is?". "No problem" he said – which only meant that he knew a few more words of english than I know of Arabic. Note – there was nothing around us : just desert, and the occasional bit of rusted wreckage on the side of the road (when you see how they drive in Egypt, you’re surprised there isn’t more wreckage). Once in a while there’d be an industrial site, or a highly secured luxury hotel or estate.
Eventually, he got out and flagged a semi down to ask for directions. Finally I did what I should have done 20 minutes sooner and called the hotel on my cellphone and asked them to direct the driver, as I couldn’t communicate with him. Then he drove past the hotel once before turning around (at my strenuous recommendation to do so). When he dropped me off, I gave him more than I felt he’d earned : an absolutely tiny tip. He politely pointed this out. I not-so-politely told him I didn’t enjoy the impromptu tour. Did he often take fares without knowing where he was going? What sort of baksheesh is appropriate for that? See – I really need to learn the local customs.
I got to my room just before 5. I slept for a couple of hours (once I could sleep), then ate and hired a car to go see the pyramids.
It felt odd to hire someone to sit while I toured, but given the previous night’s experience, I didn’t blink. The guy was nice enough, friendly and dependable. Best of all he knew the way there and back!
But you know this way has its tradeoffs. When I go someplace with my camera, I like to walk around a bunch, take my time, and click off several hundred throwaways and maybe four keepers. With a ‘tourguide’, I was driven to the place with the ‘best picture’, then hustled back into the car to go to the next place. He’d asked me on the way if I was interested in riding a camel. I declined. This was all forgotten when we drove to the top of a hill where he introduced me to his friend who owns a camel. I was turbined, and installed on this smelly (but thankfully docile) beast. Then we were walked over to the next hillside where he snapped the pictured he’d promised me. It was kind of a kick, but I felt annoyed that this somehow turned into another ‘obligation’ to settle up.
Anyway – it was a brief and relatively inexpensive adventure. Tomorrow I’m heading out there again with some coworkers. It’ll be nice to watch someone else clench their legs in terror as a smelly, humped creature stretches up to full height.
I do feel disappointed in myself for not preparing more for the trip – reading up on culture, geography and such. Without having at least a cursory knowledge, I feel at loose ends about lots of things.
It will be an interesting trip.