Tuesday, December 7, 2010

10 things to know about Cairo

1. Cairo is amazingly polluted. Not just dirty (which it undeniably is) – polluted. It makes LA in 1972 look like Alaska in 1654. Smog blankets the city constantly, and it feels like you’ve been smoking a half a pack a day.

2. People stash coins in their ears. For real. I have no idea if these are makeshift earplugs, or just somewhere for people to keep their spare change.

3. The shoe shine guys don’t shine your shoes while you’re wearing them, instead they give you a piece of cardboard to put your feet on while they do it off to the side. There are a lot of shoeshine guys, and a lot of people who take shoeshines. I’ve noticed there’s something about having busted kicks that doesn’t sit right with people in many, many different places.

4. Cairo is a truly 24 hour city. The secondhand clothes market ($6 for a purple pleather snakeskin jacket!) is rocking at midnight. People - kids, adults, whoever, are out on the street at all hours of the night. It makes New York look like Jacksonville.

5. As such, Cairo is a pretty safe place to just wander around – wherever, whenever. My general rule of thumb is that if there are kids and old people out, a place is probably safe, and there are always kids out.

6. This does not, however, mean that you will be left alone. Quite to the contrary. If you stand out as a foreigner, people will start talking to you every 10 feet. The problem is it is not the kind of approach you can just tune out and let bounce off of you, like street preacher or panhandler in New York. It’s a heavily interactive approach and as such requires a heavily interactive rejection. The only thing in New York I can compare it to are the Chabad (“excuse me, you are Jewish?”) guys, or maybe a real, real aggressive solicitor for Children's International. Or, if you can remember, about 10 years ago there were these Chinese massage guys who would grab you on the street and start rubbing your shoulder going “free sample, free sample.” Now, these approaches are not threatening or malicious, but they are constant and extremely, extremely, extremely annoying and make it completely impossible to just wander the streets in peace.

7. Out of all the people who talk to you, the kids are the best and pretty fun. With them you’ll end up playing soccer or taking pictures (I can’t tell you the amount of times we got approached by kids wanting their picture taken with us). Everyone else is trying to sell you something or rip you off. It gets to the point where people will flag down your cab, jump in, and redirect it to their shop. Seriously. And then be pissed when you don't buy anything.

8. And people are constantly, constantly trying to rip you off. Now given, this is a country where foreigners are simply expected to pay more than locals because they can afford more than locals. Everything remotely touristy has an Egyptian price and a (much, much higher) foreigner price. But there is the honest way to do this, and the dishonest way to do it. My first day the guy at the museum (the museum!) tried to shortchange me 100 pounds. The fastfood schwarma place charged me 3x what they should have. You have to argue over the price of a cup of coffee if you don't want to just pay whatever they happen to make up. It's this, not the "Entrance, 1 pound. Children, 1/2 pound. Non-Egyptian, 20 pounds" signs that makes me never want to spend a dime in that town again.

9. Even beyond this, Cairo is the most cynical city toward tourists that I have ever visited. Worse than New York, worse even than Rome. I've often written about how cities that no longer have to try and sell themselves to visitors degenerate into shameless rackets designed to simply milk every last dollar they can out of tourists. This is Cairo, and it's compounded further by the fact that, unlike New York or Rome, tourists have vastly more money than locals. In the Cairo mentality the purpose of visitors is to have them depart with their pockets as light as possible, and that is just the way of the world.

10. A big part of this is the culture of "Baksheesh," which is basically means "bribe/tip" (there's no real hard and fast line). "Baksheesh" is so prevalent they put it in the official guidebook they give you on the airplane. I initially thought "great, I can just bribe my way wherever I want to go." But as a smart person once told me you bribe someone to do their job, not to not do their job. Bribing cultures exist not so that you can pay to do cool stuff you wouldn't otherwise be able to do, they exist to get your money. Successful uses of Baksheesh including bribing some squatters to let us check out the abandoned mansion they were living in (right next to the Dutch Embassy!), and bribing someone who may or may not have worked there to let us up to the top of a minaret after-hours. Unsuccessful uses of Baksheesh include trying to bribe the construction workers to let us up to the top of an under-renovation skyscraper, and trying to bribe the guards at the pyramids to let us stay overnight and climb them. Perhaps the best "Baksheesh" anecdote is this: there is a rope a few feet away from something - the edge of an observation platform, the pyramids, whatever. The guard will then motion for you that it's perfectly OK to cross the rope and take pictures. Then you're supposed to give the guard (or whoever it might have been) money. They could, of course, just not put the rope there, but then there would be no Baksheesh. This is how bribing cultures work.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

More Tunisia Quick & Dirty

I'm currently waiting for it to be time to take a cab to the airport, and killing said time in the Internet cafe looking at a big sign over the computer which reads "Il Est Strictement Interdit de Consulter Les Sites Prohibes." So far I've discovered Flickr, YouTube, and (for some reason) The Atlantic don't make the cut. Facebook is OK. This and the huge pictures of the president everywhere make this otherwise fairly friendly and relaxed country feel a bit like 1984. On with the observations - I hope I don't offend whatever Tunisian intelligence agent is monitoring this.

1. There is Tuna Fish everywhere. They put it on everything - a big handful with your fries or on salad. There's huge industrial cans of it sold at corner kiosks. One time they used the oil from a Tuna can as dip for the bread instead of Olive Oil.

2. Bread is everywhere and is basically free. It's subsidized and price-controlled, and I they can't give you enough of it. You get free bread with basically anything you order anywhere.

3. Food, in general, is not that good, and there is absolutely no correlation between price and quality. With the possible exception of couscous dishes, the Tunisian standards would be pretty par for the course in America. However it is incredibly cheap - a huge meal at a restaurant never runs more than 5 dollars, and can easily be had for more like 3. Toothpaste, on the other hand, costs about 12 bucks.

4. Desserts and pastries, though are great, and generally involve some wonderful combination of Pistaccio and Honey.

5. I cannot tell if I've eaten Camel. We tried once and failed, but may have done so a few other times without trying.

6. There are stray cats everywhere. People generally like them. It's sometimes acceptable to feed them scraps at a restaurant. There are no stray dogs.

7. One of the country's best experiences is getting twisted into various WWF-esque holds by a burly Tunisian man in a sauna. This is called a "massage" and you get it along with a vigorous scrubbing with a scouring pad. For you wrestling fans, holds including a sitting full nelson and a surfboard. It is actually wonderful and worth the 10 dinars we probably overpaid.

8. Running your hand through the Sahara sand is one of life's more wonderful tactile experiences. It's like dipping your hand into a mound of cool silk. You want to bathe in it until you realize what the aftermath would be.

9. There is a strange, almost hypnotic desire to walk straight into the desert and just keep walking. I have no idea if this is just me, but my hunch is it's not.

10. There is cell phone reception in the Sahara, or at least there is up to about 10 kilometers outside of town.

11. It might just be that I've never been in a large Middle-Eastern city before, but the Tunis Medina is an amazing place. Without context, if you were dropped there at night you would probably think it was one of the spookiest, most dangerous places on earth. The incredibly dark and narrow twisting streets are made darker by the fact that many of them are covered over. Farthi, a perfume store owner who grew up in the Medina, explained that he and his friends used to race over the rooftops from one side to another, but never completed a race because someone always got hurt.

12. Speaking of Farthi, drop by his perfume shop right by the Great Mosque if you're ever in Tunis. An impromptu tour of rooftops, the inside of the Koranic school, craft shops, and other nooks and crannies was well worth the 30 dinar I ended up dropping at his perfume store without complaint.

13. Don't try to tour the rooftops by yourself at night. The shops in the Tunis Medina mostly sell crap now, but there's still high, high quality jewelry in some of the souks. They have guard dogs patrolling the roofs after the shops close.

14. For some reason, Tunisians seem to have a thing about how they're better than the Algerians. "Not like in Algeria" was a common phrase when extolling the virtues of Tunisia.

15. If you are into ancient Rome visit Tunisia, not Italy. There are incredibly well-preserved ruins, including a giant Colloseum (used in the movie Gladiator) in El Jem, as well as entire hilltop cities often interspersed with older Punic ruins. And unlike Rome, entrance will generally cost about 3 dollars, without a fence, guard or "keep off" sign in site. Now, you can't exactly take the subway to these places like you can in Rome - our journey involved three van trips and quite a fight with an unscrupulous driver - but at least in the off-season there will also generally be about 3 other tourists there - the Star Wars sets get way more tourist traffic. The only exception is Carthage, which is much more of your standard European tourist experience. Even though there's not a whole lot to see in terms of ruins, getting a sense of the geography of the ancient city and port was really cool.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Tunisia - Quick & Dirty

I am way behind on my travel writing: Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, US Road Trip, Stockholm, Moscow, Kiev, Istanbul, Odessa, and more stories from the usual suspects (London, Paris, Rome, Naples) have been woefully neglected. But today, I find myself in Tataouine (Tunisia, not Galactic Empire) with not much to do but hang out at the internet cafe, and thought I should get down some tips and observations above and beyond the standard guidebook fare while they're still fresh in my mind. So here goes:

1. All travel here takes place in the morning. If you want to go anywhere, it's probably happening before noon, and definitely before 3. There's no "sleep where you want to wake up" going on, unless you want to pay an arm and a leg to buy out the whole van.

2. There really is a strange, casual resemblance to "Star Wars" that is above and beyond the tourist sites. Road signs point the way to minor Jedi. Dudes are occasionally dressed like Obi-Wan Kenobi.

3. Tunisia is basically Jamaica, or maybe the Dominican Republic, for the French. A place to go for a cheap and all-inclusive beach holiday, with the more adventurous folks taking a day trip into town, or maybe arranging a 4x4 tour.

4. As such, all even mildly touristy towns are laid out basically like Vegas: a regular city, and then a huge, guady, and insular "zone touristique" a mile or so outside of town.

5. This ends up - especially in the off-season - leading to a serious lack of interaction with other tourists if you are the dirty backpacker type. My brother and I are used to backpacking around Latin America, where you're hard pressed to avoid Australian or German 20-somethings if you tried. But here we're following the Lonely Planet faithfully, and have encountered 2 Japanese solo tourists and a middle-aged American couple who wandered into the internet cafe to watch "America's Next Top Model."

6. There really is a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Here is how it works: roll up to the El Ghriba synagouge on Saturday. When they tell you it's closed, tell them you're Jewish. Wait for them to check your passport and let you in. Say Shalom, kick off your shoes, throw on a yamulke and tallis, and try to follow along with the guys inside. Save the 1 Dinar admission fee because it's Shabbas and you aren't supposed to have money. Feel kind of bad as you roll past the guys walking back from Synagogue in a taxi. Don't feel that bad though: they don't let the non-Muslims visit the Mosques in this country, so you figure it's only fair.

Note: sorry ladies, I am pretty sure the worldwide Jewish conspiracy only applies to men.

7. The cult of personality is weird. There have been two leaders since independence. The first guy was the leader of the independence movement. The second guy deposed the first guy in a bloodless coup when the first guy was 83. All the posters are of the second guy, but the main street in each town is named after the first guy.

8. This is the first place I've been where I can't speak the main language, the second language, or the main tourist language. 50 words of French will help you immeasurably.

9. The best marketing scheme I've seen so far: accost tourist on the street. Ask where they are from. When you get the answer, pull out tattered notebook and point to a page written in their language. Have tourist read what a great guide you are. Successfully sell 4-hour tour for 10 dinar more than what the guidebook suggest it costs despite not speaking a language in common.

10. The worst-executed tourist scam so far: try to sell 35 dinar ride from Matmata to Gabes. Make a deal to give a ride to Nouvelle Matmata, and then arrange for a van for tourist to Gabes for 20 dinar total. When arriving at Nouvelle Matmata, fail to arrange van ride that gives you sufficient profit margin, try to claim to tourists that there are no buses or vans to Gabes, and reiterate offer to drive to Gabes for 35 dinar. Don't get money in advance and end up taking the 5 dinar offered when tourists do not fall for the scam.

11. Best executed tourist scam so far: do not make deal with guy above to take tourists in your van for (I'm guessing) 10 dinar. Try to get 25 dinar from them directly. Make deal for 20 because tourists do not do "walk away" trick quick enough and are tired. As soon as money is handed over, magically fill the rest of the van with 6 other people despite initially insisting there is nobody else who wants to go to Gabes.

12. Best bargaining strategy. Show interest. Immediately get price quote. Immediately walk away. Keep walking and do not look back for at least three or four "hey, hey, HEYs." Return. Do not give a price yourself until original price has been lowered to almost appropriate amount. Haggle. When you get close to a deal, walk away again. Return after one or two "hey, hey, HEYs" or the guy will think you are actually not interested. Haggle. Overpay.

13. Remember to constantly remind yourself that finding the love of your life in a lunch counter behind the bus station in Gabes only happens in the movies. But still enjoy demure smiles and extra olives on your merguez sandwich.

14. Pay the extra 93 cents for "Confort" class on the trains. Realize this only guarantees you A seat, not the specific seat that is actually on your ticket. Still easily worth it.

15. Spellcheck on the computers is in French. Sorry for the mistakes.