Robbed in Egypt

Before myself and my three companions left the safety of our homes in Blighty last week, we knew that in the adventures ahead there were a few traumas that at some point or another on our journey we would have to face. We knew that long nights of vomiting and diahorrea would become comfortable normality, that regular showers would become a distant memory, that hot showers would become a barely believed myth and that we would be risking almost certain mild peril in every destination that we visited. We also knew, with our packs stuffed with expensive cameras, solar powered gadgetry and plastic currency, that we were bound at some point to get robbed. We prepared long and hard for all eventualities; mountains of Imodium, rehydration sachets, all purpose soap, dry soap and SAS survival guides weigh down our secure bags, protected from slashing and pick-pocketing by exomesh cages and security alarms. But despite all of our best forward thinking and planning, none of us were prepared for the foe we would meet only hours after we’d stepped off the plane in our first destination – Cairo, Egypt. We were robbed of our money quickly and effectively, not by the gun toting desperados against whom we had sought to defend ourselves, but instead by our seemingly kindly hostel owner who claimed that he just wanted to help the four poor, exhausted white girls who had stumbled through his door to see all that they wanted to in Egypt safely. In short, we were stiffed. Tired from the hours of flights, grumpy from the lack of our checked baggage that had actually made it to Cairo with us, disarmed by “welcome drinks” and (in my case) uncomfortable from pissing daggers every time I used the bathroom, we were in no place to resist the hard sell or to disbelieve the patter that this was the cheapest and best way we could see all of Egypt’s many sights. It wasn’t until the next morning when we woke up from a refreshing sleep and began to decipher who and where we were and how we’d gotten there that we began to wonder exactly how we’d both signed up to and paid for that hideously expensive tour of Egypt the night before.

It could have been an awful lot worse. We did actually get a tour of Egypt for a start, and although well beyond the shoestring budget that I had been planning to stick to, it was a very nice and well organised tour of Egypt. We were sorted out with student cards so that entry to all the sites would be half the adult price, met in each new town by a local rep, shown around each temple and tomb by a knowledgeable guide, ferried from place to place by private minibus and lodged in hotels that were nicer than any accommodation that we can expect for the rest of the trip (one of them even had a rooftop swimming pool). Had we been on a holiday to Egypt, with no pretentions of going any further no doubt we would have been delighted. But we weren’t. Well, I’m being a bit generalist here; I wasn’t. There was something about the whole affair that offended me, and not just because I thought I’d been ripped off. Not just because I think we were patronised for being female either, although that certainly came into it. Making our own way around Egypt on local transport would have been much cheaper, but it wasn’t the price that was the point – it was the “making our own way”. After even the first day of being driven around by pre-organised drivers from place to place, met by guides, guided around monuments and then allowed a small amount of “free time” to take some photos and have a closer look before our next pick-up we all felt utterly smothered and molly-coddled and like we weren’t in any way the independent travellers that we’d set out to be. We had become just like all of the other tourists being ferried around Egypt in coaches and on boats, seeing all of the same tourist sights, and never getting an insight into the “authentic”, “real” Egypt that we felt should be the preserve of independent travellers like ourselves. It was this that we had been robbed of.

The distinction between “travellers” and “tourists” is of course a pretension. People who call themselves “travellers” do so to set themselves apart from the “mere tourists”, upon whom they look down from a lofty high ground built on their certainty that they find a richer and more fulfilling experience in their vagabond-like wanderings than anyone on an all-expenses paid tour to see the sights. I have to admit, it’s a pretension I find it difficult not to ascribe to; there’s something about spending a night in a cramped and battered bus chatting merrily to a local in some poor pidjin approximation of your language and their own that you feel the “tourists” in their air-conditioned tour buses where they sit next to only other tourists will never be privy to, and maybe that’s true, but both are looking to see something new. The new that they’re looking for might be different in each case, but in the eyes of those whose countries they’ve come to visit they are all tourists, one and the same. And in the words of Jarvis Cocker, everybody hates a tourist. Well, that’s perhaps not quite true, but in Egypt and I suspect much of the rest of Africa, everybody is out to make money off a tourist, whether they want to look at temples from the comfort of their tourist bus, or meet “local” people doing “local” things – after all cultural, volunteer and adventure tourism is a big market these days, and the world is full of backpackers, budding travel writers and shoestring travellers all after a more “authentic” experience than everyone else.

Authenticity is an interesting concept, and one highlighted very well by the pretensions of world travellers. It begs the question – what is an authentic experience and what isn’t – particularly in a world where tourism is such a big market that the extent of cultural change that has taken place in the last few hundred years and the influences of globalisation are often removed from the picture in the name of “authenticity”. Is the recreation of a “traditional” Masaai Village in Kenya, with songs, beaded tribal costumes and handicrafts more “authentic” than a visit to such a village when the inhabitants aren’t decked out in the tribal finery that they reserve for the tourist buses, and are instead clad in jeans and t-shirts, talking to friends in the city on their mobile phones? The answer would depend on who you talk to, but its a contentious one – Arjun Appadurai in The Social Life of Things talks of the way people define authenticity as a kind of “cultural capital”, used by people in place of more traditional displays of wealth to mark out their place in a social hierarchy. Nothing could be more true of the typically white, middle class, well-off shoestring travellers like myself who head off backpacking around the world – they may be living on a budget, but the feeling of cultural and intellectual superiority they gain from their experiences are considered priceless.

So what of our experiences at the hands of Mr Ataf, the not so kindly after all hostel owner? Were we really robbed of the “authenticity” of our Egyptian experience, even if just an imagined authenticity that we were unlikely ever to find in a country so tailored towards tourism? As I’ve sat and licked my wounds, I’ve begun to think that there’s another way to see it. That maybe the reality of life in Egypt is itself the tourist industry, and the culture is one where the uninitiated are led astray, sold luxuries for more than they are worth and invited with open arms to experience, as long as they pay the right price. Over the past week we have seen more ancient monuments than you can shake a papyrus stalk at, ridden camels at sunset, sailed on the Nile in a felucca, been given a personal guarantee that if we buy Arabian Nights perfume then our men will become stallions and ride us for four hours and drunk enough “welcome drinks” to fill a small section of the Nile. We’ve haggled in markets for tourist tat and still probably been ripped off even after our best efforts to barter down the stall owners. In short, we’ve done everything that a tourist in Egypt could possibly want to do for a much greater price than we wanted to pay. But maybe that’s just what travelling here is like. And looking at it that way, what experience could possibly be more “authentic” than being robbed in Egypt?

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