Dates in Egypt


This blog entry about the events of Friday, June 04, 2004 was originally posted on June 12, 2004.

DAY 230:  For some reason, a feeling of shame fills me whenever I cave in and sign up for a guided tour.  I feel like I’m “cheating” the Blogreader from stories of independent (mis)adventures, or defying the unspoken backpacker code or something.  For some reason, this scolding voice inside my head manifests itself in the voice of opinionated Lara (“The Trinidad Show” recurring cast member, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil), who always brought up the distinction of the “traveler” and the “package holiday tourist.”

However, after having been taken for a ride more than once the day before, enough was enough.  I was too tired, and my Lonely Planet Shoestring guide was no help; it might as well be a door stop.  (I don’t know why they targeted people on shoestring budgets; you end up having to spend more money on the maps and information they cut out.)  Someone, please just lead me around without scamming me. 

Fortunately, Tahrir Square, where my hotel was located, had dozens of tour agencies to set me up with a tour.  The “standard” tour involved journeying to the southern edge of Egypt to see the historical sites near Aswan, then making one’s way back up the Nile northbound, seeing Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, and then over to the Red Sea for a little R&R on the beach.

I went to a couple of tour agencies with cheap deals in the windows, but for some reason, they declined my business and told me to go elsewhere.  Weird huh?  I thought I was in Egypt!  Perhaps it was my inability to speak Arabic or my American accent that got to them? 

No matter, there were still plenty of other tour agencies.  At Baron Tours, an attractive, dolled up woman pitched me in very broken English a Nile cruise that went to all the sites via a luxurious liner for just $180 for five days.  Looking at the pictures, it may have been a bit too fancy for me and my stain-clad t-shirts. 

DeCastro Tours, recommended by Lonely Planet, was headed by a nice and professional clean-cut man who spoke perfect English.  He worked out the dates and details of the classic five-day tour for me on a piece of paper in a polite and professional manner.  Bottom line $190, and it would be a private tour, meaning it would just be me and a guide.

“Is that the final price?  You can’t come down?”

“Yes.  You are not going to an unprofessional tour.  I make sure all my guides are professional and speak good English.  All the hotels are three-star.”

“So that’s the final price?”

“Yes.  I don’t play games here,” he said.  “I am not a taxi driver, I have a good reputation here.  If you want to go back and forth, then I’d rather not take your business.  I have to maintain my reputation.”

Yes, that professional — and it struck me as a positive.  Or was that he wanted?  Was this a scam in disguise?  You can’t tell with an Egyptian I was soon realizing, which is a shame, because you can’t really tell who’s initially genuinely nice or genuinely a scammer.

I told him I’d return after checking out other deals and he was courteous about everything and let me think it over.

HASSAN, A NICE TWENTY-SOMETHING GUY at Citigo Travel had my next pitch.  He went over his standard tour with me, which included all the major sites, an overnight trip in a traditional felucca boat up the Nile (highly recommended to me by anyone that’s traveled to Egypt) and a couple of days on a waterfront city on the Red Sea of my choice — he broke down the options to two:  Hurghada, the big touristy resort town, or Dahab, the cheaper, more laid-back backpacker haven on the Sinai Peninsula.  If I chose the latter, not only would I be able to scuba dive the Red Sea (arguably the world’s number one diving destination), I’d go on a hike up to the monastery of St. Catherine’s to see the sunrise over the biblical Mount Sinai. 

Hassan didn’t like playing games either, and set his final price at $170.  When I became skeptical, he threw in the application fee for (and transportation to get) a student card from the International Student Identity Card office since I looked young enough to get one without any problems.  The student card would get me half off at all the sites — the fees weren’t included on the tour.

It was the most promising deal.  It was a compromise of the argument between me and the Voice of Lara; it was a tour, but I wouldn’t have to follow a flag around.  Instead, an escort would take me from public transport to hotel to public transport — sort of like doing it the independent backpacking thing without having to consult a book or think about anything.  I’d go on sightseeing tours in groups pooled by hotels where other independent travelers were staying, which meant that I could meet have conversations with people other than the same guide for a week.

I told Hassan I’d think it over; I wanted to figure out my diving options with a lost scuba certification card, and figure out all the dates and see if I could squeeze a trip to Petra, Jordan at the end, and still be back in Cairo to take my flight to Morocco.  I sent some e-mails and did some reading at the travel section of the bookstore at the nearby American University of Cairo, and in the end, figured I could go to Petra if I canceled my Cairo-Casablanca flight and get a ticket to Morocco from Amman, Jordan instead. 

I explored the options with Hassan back at Citigo, looking up all the dates for flights and buses and ferries.  My plan as far as he could see, was doable; I’d take a ferry across the Gulf of Aqaba into Jordan and then take a bus up to Petra for a full day tour and then head up to Amman and fly to Morocco from there.  Perfect plan.  In the meantime, I booked the tour and the ferry to Jordan and was relieved that, for a change, someone would lead me around.

WITH ONE SWIFT SIGNATURE OF THE PEN, it was settled.  I’d be off on tour, leaving on an overnight train the following night, making that night my last night in Cairo.  At the suggestion of Blogreaders Neven and Amira, both of Egyptian ancestry and living in metro New York City, I called up two contacts they sent me so that, for my last night in Cairo, someone could lead me around too.  There was no answer on the first contact number, but the second, the number of a guy named Hesham went through.  He was happy to take me around that night after work. 

After dining on a McArabia — two grilled chicken patties, white sauce, lettuce, tomato, all inside a pita bread — at the American University’s McDonald’s, I met up with my platonically heterosexual “blind date” in from of the KFC on Tahrir Square.  My description to him:  “a guy with a beige shirt and glasses;” his: “a white shirt and freckles.”  Out of all the olive-skinned people roaming the crowded Tahrir Square area, it was actually easy to spot each other with the vague descriptions.  I hopped in his car and we drove amongst the red rear lights of Cairo’s never-ending traffic.

Hesham was part of Cairo’s upper-working class; a sales manager for Sheraton Hotels, he was fairly well off by Egyptian standards.  He took me to his upper middle class neighborhood of Mohandiseen, and area devoid of tourists, which was just what I needed.  We ended up in C. Mansour’s, a swanky cafe (picture above) where the trendy Egyptian set went out for drinks and sheesha, the national pastime of smoking fruit-flavored tobacco through a hookah — something that I had seen in every level of cafe in town.  The waiters in fancy threads and fezzes brought over a sheesha of cantaloupe and a sheesha of peach, each with an individually-wrapped plastic tip for sanitary purposes, and kept the coals burning all night for us as we sat and talked about current events — his from the Arab point of view, and mine from the non-Republican American.

“You know in Islamic culture, it is forbidden to kill another person, but with two exceptions,” Hesham explained to me.  “First, if someone invades their country, and second, if they invade their religion.  You know there are people from Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, going to Iraq to fight?  Why?  It’s not their country, they shouldn’t care.  But the Americans insulted their religion.  You know the Americans invaded the mosques and humiliated them?  That’s why they go to fight.” 

It was intriguing to hear the other side of the story, away from filtered American news media.  He continued to tell me things that also might have been filtered out; like the fact that the U.S.-led coalition used many soldiers that are not even American; the government took people from developing African nations and gave them a salary, citizenship and a gun if they went to war for the U.S.A.  What was even more intriguing than that revelation was about the video footage of Saddam Hussein’s capture in December 2003.

“You know in the back of the video, there were palm trees,” Hesham explained to me.  “But there were dates on them.  Dates don’t grow in the winter!  Everyone here knows that, but the Americans don’t see it.”

It didn’t surprise me; I always thought it was suspicious that the announcement of Saddam’s capture conveniently came at a time to wish America a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  I told Hesham all about Michael Moore, his books and Bush-slamming documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11.

Despite the contrast in the nationalities and cultures the two of us came from, I was glad to hear Hesham when he said, “We know it’s not the Americans’ fault.  We like the Americans.  What did they do to us?  We know it’s just the government.”

Conversations progressed about non-political things as we sat with our sheeshas, fruit-flavored smoke escaping our mouths.

IT’S A FUNNY THING about the Egyptians.  Olive-skinned people like myself — many people told me I look Egyptian — they too could probably pass for other nationalities like I have been.  From the sheesa cafe, we drove downtown to the After Eight club for some live music.  That night’s set:  latin jazz.  It’s amazing what a little mambo and salsa music can do to an Egyptian; in an instant it transforms them into Latinos, not just in appearance, but in motions on the dance floor. 

“We love Latin music here,” Hesham said as the powerful and lively band wailed all through the night, reverberating their rhythmic noise throughout the little club.  It was a great vibe and nice place to chill out with a couple of beers. 

Hesham had to call it an early night at 2:30 (Caireans go all night) since he had work the next morning.  It was fine by me because I was pretty tired anyway.  I was just content that I went through a day without many scams, which was more than I could say for my fellow Americans back on the homeland.

Next entry: A Student in Babylon

Previous entry: Taken For A Ride

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Comments for “Dates in Egypt”

  • america media - best scammers in the world huh?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/11  at  08:38 PM

  • i’d bet that egypt has their share of media “scams” as well.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/11  at  10:24 PM

  • Wow - that’s an amazing point of view - thanks for the stories. I hadn’t thought about the palm tree issue. Yikes!

    I’m with Markyt - the scammers are the media in the good ol’ USA. But, then again, there are only a few companies in the country to disseminate the news.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/11  at  11:08 PM

  • That is VERY interesting (the dates not blooming in winter). I know a couple of peeps in the spookdom world and will ask them if this is true!

    All media is bias though, no matter which way you look at it. Even out there. It’s best to always find a middle ground…by trying to filter through the BS.

    Word Life.


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/13  at  05:23 AM

  • So what time of the year do dates grow on palm trees?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/13  at  06:34 PM

  • all news media anywhere = scams with a bias

    however the daily show with jon stewart is worth watching.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/13  at  06:59 PM

  • WOW - Interesting about the dates.

    I’ve been looking up articles on it this morning.  Could be another kind of date plant - who knows?  Good stuff.  Your Egypt entries are really interesting.  I know the guilt about taking a touristy-tour but you know we understand!

    In Spain you’re running with the bulls, right?  I’m looking forward to that too.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/13  at  07:19 PM

  • We’ve been had! It’s a good thing that we have people like Michael Moore and Erik R. Trinidad to keep us from being totally ignorant.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/14  at  12:20 AM

  • MIDDLE EAST MEDIA IS ALSO CONTROLED BY the CIA. Truth or Lies..People will never understand the other side of midnight. and have no courage to change places.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/16  at  04:06 AM

  • Okay, I’m way behind, so tonight I’m playing catch-up. Doesn’t surprise me about the US Media shielding us from truth & details. We saw it while in Europe on our last few trips. And yes, media, whoever is running it, will likely only give you parts of a story, from their own point of view. So, I do what my 9th grade social studies teacher taught me… consider the source, their frame of reference, consult mutliple independent sources, and come to your own conclusions.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/18  at  04:02 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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A Student in Babylon

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