Egypt’s corruption rudely presents itself before we officially enter the country at Port Said. The space between the gangplank of our ship and the immigration/customs shed is occupied by about a dozen vendors, tables set with their fake papyrus, guidebooks (“in English”), postcards, tote bags, pseudo carved camels and pyramids and sphinxes. They would not be allowed to accost us before we clear security if they hadn’t reached some kind of “arrangement ” with the officials.
The gauntlet continues beyond security – in fact all the way to the tour bus waiting outside. The vendors are persistent, entreating us with their friendship, wanting to shake our hands. One member of the group has his hat removed by a tote salesman and placed in a bag that is then hung on his arm, all in one fluid motion.
The rampant corruption is one reason that extremist Islam has made inroads in Egypt that have prompted the government to establish a division of Tourism Police, providing armed escorts for all tourist buses that make the 150-mile trip between Port Said and Cairo.
Our Egyptian guide, Hanan, points out the government concern as our three-bus convoy begins winding through Port Said, police cars and motorcycles insuring that our path is clear in spite of rush-hour traffic. The government, she says, provides such services to show the world that Egypt is safe. Hanan, obviously, does not appreciate the irony of her statement.
We soon learn that the bus driver and Hanan, like the vendors, have their own hustles. The driver has cold drinks for sale; Hanan tells us about the cartouche of Pharoanic Egypt and then passes around a catalogue offering cartouches with the name of our choice embossed in Egyptian heiroglyphics.
As Hanan tells us about Egypt’s ancient glory, we watch as the country’s present reality unfolds along the highway.
There are conical pigeon-raising coops, irrigated fields of vegetables being worked by hand, rundown and seemingly abandoned mud-brick buildings, their occupation revealed by clothes fluttering on lines as they dry.
There are donkey carts, roadside stands filled with piles of melons and mangoes and other fruits and vegetables. Donkeys and goats are ever-present; occasionally there are horses; and we even spot a couple of water buffalo.
Mechanized farm equipment is rare – in the entire trip, we see maybe three tractors.
Everything is dust-covered, and everything says poverty.
We run close to the Suez Canel, passing the occasional looming ship, seeing the western edge of the Sinai desert across the waterway. At checkpoints, our escorts change. Sometimes it’s Tourism Police, sometimes it’s regular police, sometimes it’s soldiers. All are armed with automatic rifles. The Tourism Police have distinctive all-white uniforms; the soldiers, three to a vehicle, ride in the back of small pickup trucks, rifles resting on their stocks. Their young age and bored looks don’t engender much confidence.
We pass donkey cart after donkey cart. We pass motorscooters, sometimes with children aboard. One female driver balances an infant between the handlebars. Another driver is accompanied by his veiled wife, riding side-saddle.
As we reach the industrialized outskirts of Cairo we notice each business is surrounded by a wall, most topped with razor-wire, many with guardtowers attached.
Apartment complexes, vast in size, start to dominate. All seem unfinished, stopping after four or five stories, with rebar sticking from the roofs. Later Hanan tells us that is because the government doesn’t tax buildings until they are finished; the builders never want to call a building finished.
We enter a neighborhood of prosperity, with fancy hotels and mansions, sidestreets paved, a rarity, as we will discover. There is Shepheard’s Hotel, the British-empire landmark, still in business. There is a Four Seasons, dominating one block. There is the American Embassy, secure behind thick, high walls and armed, alert-looking soldiers. At one intersection, an old lady in black, her feet bare, sits begging on the curb as Heliopolis’s BMWs, Mercedes, and Jaguars pass in front of her.
Heliopolis, Hanan tells us, home of President Mubarak.
We continue on into Cairo, headed for the Egyptian Archeological Museum, home of its greatest treasures – and more hustle practitioners.
The museum is crowded with hordes of tourists, each supplied with a “whisperer” and accompanying headphones. The amplification devices are necessary so each guide is speaking to an individual group. Otherwise each tourist would be overwhelmed by a barrage of languages.
We hit only the highest of high spots: Rameses and King Tut. And then we’re introduced to an archeologist friend of Hanan, who has DVDs for sale. Each contains more than 1,500 photos of the museum’s treasures, and costs only 12 euros. Hanan’s second hustle of the day.
We have our “Nile cruise” lunch, a big circle along the river featuring mediocre food, awful music, and a belly-dance hustle, the dancer working her way through the crowd with her photographer accomplice taking pictures that will later be produced for sale to each subject.
Back on the bus for our next stop, the pyramids and the Sphinx. And the serious gauntlet of camel jockeys, purveyors of everything imaginable, pickpockets and their child accomplices, and, perhaps most telling, a Tourism Policeman on the make.
To escape the camel jockeys, a couple of us climb the rocks off to one side of the pyramids. There, a uniformed policeman beckons us to a spot for what he says is the best picture. Trusting no one at this point, we refuse to hand him our cameras so he can take the photo. Finally he gives up.
Later, one of the students, Dina, tells of letting him take her photo, after which he asked for a “little something” for his trouble. She refused.
We move down the hill to the Sphinx, where we encounter more of the same, though the vendors here are mostly children. Maybe one has to earn his way up the hill to the pyramids. Here, Stephen encounters a child who claims to have picked up a euro belonging to him. But Stephen has already been warned. The ploy is to discover in which pocket the mark keeps his money, making a pickpocket’s job easier.
Zaina, who speaks Arabic, is besieged by another child, this one selling postcards. She begins talking to him in his native language, and he tells her how tired he is. She gives him a $5 bill and tells him it is just for him, that he must not give it to anyone else. His smile is ear-to-ear as he is overwhelmed by the kindness of his “mark.
By now, everyone has had enough of Egypt. But we have one more stop, thanks to Hanan. A nearby papyrus museum has special deals for us. And the cartouche shop, where we can pick up whatever we ordered earlier, is upstairs.
As the buses sit outside, armed tourist police stand on the sidewalk at the front and back. It’s good to know that we are well-protected even as the hustle continues inside the shop.
The ride back to our ship is quiet; we lose our driver and Hanan as they get off near Port Said after passing around an envelope for tips. There is one last run through the vendor gauntlet, and then we’re safely on-board, everyone glad to see Egypt fading away in the rear-view mirror as we sail back to Cyprus.