The undisputed king (or pharaoh, if you will) of baksheesh

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Africa » Egypt » Upper Egypt » Luxor
May 5th 2008
Published: May 23rd 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

One would think that finding the central bus station for a city of 20 million people would be a relatively straightforward task, unfortunately in Cairo, nothing is straightforward. From our guidebook, we knew that the main bus station was called “Turgomen” and it was located near Ramses Square, however, the book stopped short of providing a precise address since “the bus station is prone to relocations”. Confused, Rozy and I mulled the idea of a roaming central bus station but couldn’t connect to the logic or reasoning behind it. Anyhow, we set off to find the elusive Turgomen and his fleet of buses to take us to our next Egyptian destination Luxor. After arriving via metro to Ramses Square, we began approaching locals one by one asking if anyone knew where we could find Turgomen Station…nobody had heard of it.

After walking around for 15 minutes and asking scores of people, the word “Turgomen” finally connected with a Tunisian man (Mohamed) I asked whilst crossing the street. He didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Arabic, however, we both had a few words of French to toss on the table and we eventually connected. He then led us around Cairo for about 20 minutes using the same interview tactic on the locals (he had only been in Egypt for 10 months and had heard of Turgomen but never been there) but in Arabic instead of English. Every third person had heard of Turgomen and pointed out the general direction in which to walk. Mohamed repeated this process for us over and over until we finally arrived at the back of a large building under construction…Bonjour Turgomen!

Our bus ride down to Luxor from Cairo quickly made us realize just how important the sleeper-bus invention was, and how much we missed bus travel in China and India (something I never thought I’d say). The Egyptian overnight bus, is just that…a bus that runs through the night. For the 12 hour trip to Luxor, we sat upright in our small bus seats, with the inside of the bus lit up like a Christmas tree while annoying people talked on mobiles, listening to music, walked around, etc. Sleep came in 5 minute intervals of unconsciousness that were separated by a random outburst or a ringing mobile. We raced along the Red Sea coast all night long, stopping periodically at police checkpoints where cops boarded the bus, had a look at those on board then scurried off again. We probably had 10-12 such stops throughout the night, one of which resulted in a heated exchange between our driver and some police officer not in uniform. The police checkpoints with bored police officers all dressed in white and carrying fully automatic rifles was a bit unsettling, however, they didn’t really seem very alert and the sense of danger was less than fleeting. As we approached Luxor, the checkpoints were even more frequent and larger numbers of bored cops could be seen roaming around the sides of the streets.

Finally in Luxor, the plan was to stay for about three days and visit all the big sites and do our best to maintain sanity amidst the veritable army of tour buses and touts. We checked into the Happy Land Hotel early morning and listened to their rather lengthy spiel regarding the amenities they offered, and, of course, tour options that were “happily” available to guests. The professionalism was actually quite nice in Happy Land and much appreciated since our previous hostel in Cairo (Meremees) was run by a bunch of kids that seemed to have no clue what they were doing. In no time we were on our way in search of the magic of ancient Egypt.

This “magic” is sprinkled all over Egypt, in fact, it is more like a dousing…the number of temples, tombs and artifacts in Luxor alone is staggering. The Luxor temple and Karnak temple are unbelievably huge and amazingly well preserved especially when compared to many of the ruins in Rome or Athens. The tombs in the Valley of the Kings still gleam with colorful paintings and minute details of the work are still visible thousands of years after their creation. Hatchepsut’s temple, cut right into the rock facing of a small mountain is startling while Medinat Habu’s massive stone-carved depictions of battles and slaughter reveal a pharaoh obsessed with war. All of the relics show an amazing (albeit upsetting at times) layering of history since the time of the pharaohs. Everything from 2,000 year-old Greek and Roman graffiti to 1,500 year-old Coptic “adjustments”, to (considerably less intriguing) some jerk named John Gordon who etched his name in big letters in at least two important temples in Egypt in 1804 (Karnak and Medinat Habu). All of the sites are simply awe-inspiring and it is easy to find a spot in the shade (and you will need to because it is bloody hot!), just staring at the enormity of it all and contemplating the past 3,500 years…but….

The annoyances run deep…very, very deep. We watched as one “security guard” (tout in disguise) at Karnak temple “cleverly” kicked sand atop a broken walkway to disguise it from view of starry-eyed tourists. As senior-citizens repeatedly stumbled on the hidden danger, the guard came to their assistance to help them along only to request baksheesh (tip) three steps later. These same security guards are placed in all temples and CONSTANTLY interrupt you by pointing out the obvious (literally, “hey column”, or “hey ceiling”) in an attempt to hit you up for baksheesh. It is all very irritating, especially after you have paid extortionarily high rates to gain entry to the sites. This behaviour isn’t limited to Luxor, rather, it is quite common to every site in Egypt that we visited.

Outside of the temples, the annoyances are even more intense and intrusive. Walking anywhere within 200 meters of Luxor temple, we were constantly bombarded by kalish (horse and buggy) drivers harassing us to take a “cheap” ride with them. A simple no only incites more harassment; several no’s and finally a “please, no thank you I do not want a ride” earns you a dirty look and very angry sounding Arabic. Anywhere within 20 meters of the Nile within Luxor and we were constantly harassed by felucca (sailboat) owners to go for a boat ride. Once again, if you turn them down, it usually ends in a mean look and some unpleasant sounding words (dammit! I need to speak Arabic). For the most part, the tourist police seem pretty useless (and they enjoy the baksheesh game as well), however, the one place where the tourist polices’ presence was appreciated was near the Luxor Temple. So long as you have a tourist police officer within 10 meters of you, you are almost guaranteed not to have people harassing you as the officer yells at the touts to move along. However, once the cop moves out, the touts move in without delay (you can literally watch the touts watching the police move away and then move in on their prey…amazing!). As with a number of things in Egypt, this was extremely taxing and impossible to avoid.

After dealing with all the rotten taxi drivers and scam artists in Cairo, Rozy and I decided to book a half day, three person tour to see several of the Luxor sights, hassle-free, even though it promised to cost more than it would cost on our own. Given the small size of our tour (Rozy, myself and a really nice Canadian lady named Anna….hi Anna!!) we were quite nimble and didn’t have to wait around for other peoples’ schedules. Unfortunately, as it seems to go with tours (or at the couple of taken in my life), our tour guide was infinitely more concerned that we listen to him and follow his rigid agenda rather than enjoy the sites in our own way. So, ultimately, we ended up paying our tour guide to drag us through the sites at a less-than-desirable pace and scold us for taking pictures when he was talking…seems you can’t win in Egypt!

Given the huge success of booking a tour through our hostel (hmm), we signed up for an evening felucca ride down the Nile rather than dealing with the pain of a street negotiation with a con who would probably just rip us off. The felucca ride was ok, unfortunately, the wind was on holiday and we were left in the wake of several motorized vessels as they bolted past us. In addition to the lack of wind, the evening was rather cloudy and we didn’t have the beautiful Nile sunset we were hoping for. Nevermind, our captain Mohamed and his 1st made Ahmed were excellent and did their best to make our time enjoyable. We floated along at a snail’s pace, drank tea, and relaxed as the fog settled on the banks of the mighty Nile.

Luxor, undeniably, has absolutely incredible sights, however, there are a heap of annoyances to deal with, ultimately eroding much of the magic of the ruins. In addition to the multitudes of touts, the overwhelming number of package tourists (and we were traveling at the start of the low season), swallowed entire sites (there were over 50 large tour buses at Karnak when we were there) effectively destroying any measure of serenity with their sheer numbers, loudmouth guides and herd-like behavior. Oftentimes, it seems, the tourists filing off of massive buses in huge crowds behind “mother duck” (the name Rozy and I
Ancient graffitti on even more ancient ruinsAncient graffitti on even more ancient ruinsAncient graffitti on even more ancient ruins

Roman or Greek grafitti I believe
have given to the flag-bearing tour guide) are either culturally insensitive or are just plain ignorant. For instance, Egypt is a very conservative, Muslim country and the culturally accepted tradition is for both men and women to cover up most of their bodies. It is not reasonable to think that tourists will (or should) adopt the local dress, however, making an attempt to be respectful seems to be a no-brainer when you are a visitor to another country. A large percentage of the folks flowing off of these buses chose to wear rather revealing clothes (short shorts, tank-top shirts, some guys with no shirts, etc), appearing extremely disrespectful, and looking rather ludicrous when standing next to local men wearing galabias and turbans and local women covered head to toe. One women I bumped into, was wearing shorts that actually showed the lower portion of her butt, a white, midriff, tank top shirt with no bra and a pair of heels…amazing. After seeing this, it makes you wonder how much research (into the basic customs and culture of the place) any of these folks conducted prior to their arrival in a foreign country, or, are they just lumping a pile of

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cash on the table, catching a plane and snapping photos of whatever the guide points to. Frustrating and annoying, but, certainly not an irritant limited to Egypt…it is just one more item in a very large stack.

Hopefully this doesn’t sound like incessant whinging, however, these are all important details to be aware of when deciding on that next holiday or reflecting on those places you have visited. Next up is the most remote oasis in Egypt, Siwa…we have high hopes that we are in for a delightful change of pace and a part of Egypt that departs from the norm.


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25th May 2008

John Gordon
Found out who John Gordon was. Thought u'd be interested.

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