Cairo Day 2

Mon, 07 Jul 2008 15:45:22 +0000

Siwa to Cairo Index Cairo Day 3

Did I say last time that I'd innoculated myself against scams? Today I got my booster shot: and this time it stung. It's worth recording in some detail how this worked, excruciatingly embarrassing though it is, because the details matter when you're trying to guard against this kind of thing.

The mission for today was to visit the pyramids. To save you skipping to the end, I did visit them, but got tricked into spending 250 EGP on a tour by horse. Even though I hate horses, and knew perfectly well I hate horses. I got chafed and saddle sore and had to give up after an hour.

My basic problem was lack of information. Wikitravel really failed to deliver the goods today: it simple says that you take the train to Giza, and then airily suggests that you "ask around for the minibus". You should never tell a traveller to Cairo to "ask around": the only answers will come from scam artists.

So I got off the train, found a place where there were numerous minibuses, and asked for "pyramids". A guy led me to a minibus. Of course I asked how much, and he said three. Which was OK. But he also muttered something about five, it wasn't clear. Of course, at the end I would be charged five. Meanwhile, I couldn't help noticing that everyone else who got on the minibus paid no more than half a pound.

Halfway to the pyramids a guy got on, and he sat there next to me for a few minutes. Then he asked me the time. I showed my watch to him, and he said he didn't read western numerals, so I told him the time. Of course, this was the guy who reeled me in like a fat stupid fish. In retrospect, if he spoke English that well, he must have been able to read a watch. My defenses were down because a) I wasn't sure exactly where I was going to get dropped off, and b) I wasn't expecting an attack from a fellow traveller in a minibus. I realise now that he only got on the bus because he saw a lone traveller there. That's an incredible amount of forethough to put into the job of misdirecting tourists. These people are not antisocial opportunists: they are career players who take pride in their work. He told me he was a chef. Obviously this was one of many lies.

"Where are you going?" "The pyramids." Gah. I can't believe I answered truthfully to that one. Never say where you're going: it's an invitation to follow you the entire way. Even when it's perfectly obvious where you're going, as in this case, you just can't admit it.

The best way to bamboozle the mark is to keep them talking, and if your English is rather broken and hard to understand, so much the better. When someone speaks to you, you have to concentrate on their words, which puts your brain into short-term mode. That prevents your mind wandering into high-level thoughts, such as "oh, look, I'm being conned". So he expertly kept me talking the entire way, explaining the layout of the pyramids, even drawing a diagram (for which he had to ask for a pen, which had me diving into my bag, yet more distraction). I have to admire the timing: he started talking about the "stable entrance" just as the minibus was turning away from the main entrance that I should have been heading towards.

His line was that it was better value to go on a horse tour because the pyramids had all these fees: 50 to get in the gate, 100 for one pyramid, 100 for another, eventually it adds up to "600, 700 pounds". A little knowledge is a dangerous thing: I knew that this was actually true from Wikitravel: there are separate fees to go into each pyramid - not 700 pounds worth, but enough to make it much more expensive than you expect. But the fees only kick in if you want to go inside the pyramids, something I had no intention of doing. I would have been far better off just paying 50 EGP and wandering around.

But I ended up thinking "yeah, I guess it's not bad value, since there's a horse and a guide and stuff, so there's less walking". Almost plausible, except that I hate guides, hate horses, and like walking. But it's a habit, and in fact one deliberately inculcated into us at school, to try to see the sense in what other people are saying, even if you disagree with them. Whenever I read some Republican ranting about how the major purpose of Islam is to destroy Western civilisation, I at least make a cursory effort to see things from their point of view. What with all the distractions, that habit put a small but significant bias on my decisions, in the wrong direction.

Despit this, I had definitely decided that I would ignore his advice and walk straight back where the bus had come from. But I still hadn't cottoned on to the fact that he was a scam artist, I still thought he was on the level, and I didn't want to blatantly snub him by turning and walking away. Stupid, but I don't think I ever have snubbed anyone before, and it's something I need to work myself up to, rather than just walking away on the spur of the moment. And so he got out of the taxi, told me to get out too, and kept me talking the entire way to handing me over to the guy who ran the stable. He pretended to try to "fix" my bad negotiations with the minibus driver from earlier, but in fact ended up telling me I really had agreed to pay 5. That made it two against one, instead of just me versus the driver, so I forked over the five. And then I was being instructed on how to say "salaam" to the stable owner, instantly marking me out as an idiot, and I was in the web.

At this point I was rationalising to myself that yeah, a horse trip might be fun, while he kept me talking. I didn't really know where the main entrance was, or even if there was a main entrance, which made the prospect of just walking away even more problematic. In fact, one of the best features of the deal is that they promised to see me safely onto the bus back, which would eliminate the whole "figuring out where I am" problem. I still hadn't realised that I'd been sucked in from the start. And when he allowed me to negotiate him down from 350 to 230, the endorphins kicked in telling me I had achieved a success, and whatever remaining resistance I had crumbled.

So the deal was done, and I forked over the cash. And it was a pain in the arse to get my 20 EGP change, as well. He wanted to give it to me when I got back, the flaming cheek. Up came the horses, and while I'm no judge of horseflesh, I'm pretty sure they generally aren't supposed to have running sores over their eyes. My Siwa experiences have raised my tolerance of animal cruelty a little though. I had a minor triumph when I managed to mount the horse without making a fool of myself, perhaps a legacy of the one other time I've been horseback riding. Then again, it was a small horse. And off we went.

I cannot ride horses. I've now tried twice, which is enough to draw some generalisations, the first of which is that horse riding is no job for anyone with testicles. I've read that once upon a time, men rode horses all the time, but this is clearly a revisionist lie made up by horse breeders. It's a stupid form of transportation.

I could just about steer the thing, but that wasn't much use since I had no idea where I was supposed to be going. The guide actually rode behind me. I occasionally turned around to ask where the hell I was supposed to be aiming for, but he'd just wave his hand vaguely. No use at all. We didn't seem to be sticking to any kind of track, and mostly seemed to be aiming for "good lookout points" where I was instructed to take photographs. I can't stand it when people tell me when to take photographs. Bring your own bloody camera if you care so much.

There were a couple of gallops, and actually this seemed to work much better than the trot. My body seemed to be naturally flung about at some resonant frequency that had my testicles bouncing up when the rest of me was bouncing down, hard, on the saddle. I must have looked like a ragdoll being torn apart by frenzied sharks, but compared to the trot it was bliss. And quite fun, too, with the breeze blowing past. But then I noticed that my calves were hurting, and realised that I was getting chafed all to hell by the stirrup strap. I'd elected to wear shorts, today of all days, since my tracksuit pants were in the wash. I have a nasty graze there now, all scabbed over and tender.

We got to the small pyramids, where I was instructed to touch them. The guy seemed unprepared to move on until I'd done so. I've been brought up to never touch the antiquities, but what the hell, if it gets this bloody horseride over with a little quicker.

I insisted on getting to the Sphinx, since I had to have a photo of that, but after that I'd have to give up the whole stupid thing. I clearly wasn't having fun, and if I spent any more than an hour on that horse I'd be bleeding into my socks. Even the Sphinx was problematic: you can't ride anywhere near it, so I had to get off and walk a few hundred metres. But the guide was incapable of spelling that out clearly. There was a low wall and he told me to "jump". At first I thought he meant on the horse, and that was seriously not going to happen. I kept wandering around trying to figure it out until I realised he meant I had to walk. Eventually I got my photo. You can't even get especially close to the thing.

It seemed like an absurdly long ride back to the stable. By this time my responses to the guide's queries and suggestions were getting terser and terser, and he realised I wasn't a happy camper any more. He started trying to convince me to give a good report back to his boss. I guess it wasn't really his fault. He also started dropping hints that he was expecting a tip. I thought 10 EGP was fair. I didn't actually have a ten pound note and then decided that 20 wouldn't break the bank. When I eventually handed it over, he had the nerve to suggest that it should be 30 or 40. No, dude, there are limits.

And seeing me safely to the bus? "Go up the street to that green building, turn right, cross the bridge, and there is the bus". It was a several hundred metres walk, not especially obvious, and he'd omitted to tell me exactly where on the major road that brought me to I'd be able to find a bus stop. But during the periods of quiet testicle-slamming reflection afforded by the horse riding, I'd finally had time to figure out how I'd been played since the minibus ride, and so I wasn't expecting anything more than this treatment once my ride was over. I resolved to find my own way.

Which didn't work too well: I couldn't see the bus stop. I started walking to where I now knew the main entrance was - funny how when your brain has had a little time to digest what you see, suddenly things get mapped out perfectly clearly. So I was walking along and a couple of young blokes were chatting to each other, walking in the same direction. They asked where I was going, and I said I was going to the bus. Yes, yes, it's ridiculous that I apparently still hadn't learned anything. They said they were too, and said it was "this way". So I followed them at a distance of ten metres or so. "This way" started out being the direction I was going, but then turned down a side street, and then they turned into a rather quieter street. Finally, it clicked. I stopped at that intersection, and decided to go back. They turned as if to ask "you coming, or what?", and I said I'd rather go back to the main street, thanks. I may as well have explicitly said "I now believe you are muggers", and I now realise that that is, in fact, precisely what you have to do. I can't be 100% sure that they were actually muggers. I am merely 99.5% sure. Again, to actually wander up and down the street looking for people looking for the bus, pretending to be on the way to the bus yourself, is a mark of workmanship in the profession that you would never, ever see in the first world.

After wandering a bit further in the direction I was originally going, I did find the bus stop. The stable owner had at least given me a correct bus number. I waited in the shade, and there was a western woman chatting to an Arab bloke. She'd obviously had a great time at the pyramids and was now actually being shown onto the correct bus. So that was a good point of reference: it was fairly unlikely that she would be sent to the wrong place, and if I followed her and did end up at the wrong place, at least I'd have an ally.

Nevertheless, I thought I'd try getting on a minibus. Which I did, and asked to go to the Giza station. But when I handed over my half pound note, he actually stopped and told me to get out. The damn cheek. So I trotted back to the bus station.

The bus that turned up, and which the woman got onto, was a different number to the one I wanted to catch. I dithered, and then the guy who'd told the woman to get on the bus asked me where I was going. Yes, yes, again, I know. "Giza station". He told me to get on the bus, and since the woman had got on there, I decided it was safe. And in fact, the bus did go to Giza station. My instincts are gradually being knocked into shape I guess.

So I was back at the hotel by about 1:00. I'd lost about EUR 30, still well below my daily budget. I was a bit sore, but not as sore as the last time I went horseback riding. I had not actually been mugged. So maybe not all that bad. But I was fuming about how I'd been conned, again. I love being in control of what I'm doing, even when what I'm doing is stupid. The entire morning I was being told where to go by other people, and it's very frustrating. The other aspect is that it's such a blow to my self image. I thought I was a fairly experienced traveller. Maybe not exactly an adventurer, but a bit less green than the average tourist. But to be taken in twice in just a few days, clearly I'm as clueless as the next hapless foreigner. A real eye-opener.

There's not a lot to record about the rest of the day. I went and got some food, I used the Internet. I finally downloaded the last five days of news: Ingrid Betancourt was rescued! Incredibly, she says she's going to run for president again. Amazing, I'd long ago given her up for dead. Also, some Palestinian flipped and went on a bulldozer rampage in Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, killing three. That's the road that my hotel was on. Typical: the interesting stuff happens only after I leave. No doubt Beijing will be completely annihalated in a terrorist nuclear blast during the games, and I'll be too late to experience it.

I decided that after today's misadventures, I could do with a beer. So I headed back to the rooftop bar that had worked well last time. This time I ordered some food, some meat with okra, and it was pretty good. And of course, on the way home I got some sweets again. At least some things in Cairo are reliably good value.

Siwa to Cairo Index Cairo Day 3