$4 Justice in Luxor

Friday, Laura and I rented bikes to run errands and visit Karnak 5 km north of Luxor. Our first stop was at the train station; we inquired at the tourist office about buying bus tickets to Dahab. Playing with his son, the nice man told us that the bus office was around the corner from the train station. So we walked the bikes over to a junky office, and, while standing outside a bit confused at the appearance, two men waved us inside.

As we entered, the man behind the desk rudely spoke to two Asian backpackers who where trying to see if they could store their bags there and return when they had to catch the bus. He offered them a price, they called him a thief, and he told them loudly to leave. He looked at us with all smiles and asked what we needed.

Abdul began to sweet talk us, showing us Egyptian coins (which aren’t used), and asking about US cents. When all was said and done, Laura and I had a pile of tickets and receipts for Dahab (about ten total), and plans to arrive at the office the next day at 4pm for sheesha, tea, and a gift of US cents. Abdul also told us that the minibus would meet us here at 5pm and take us to the station (for some reason, maybe safety, bus stations in tourist cities are located out of the town center). Abdul said he knew Ibrahim, our Happy Land hotel owner, and wrote him a note in Arabic for us to deliver when we returned there.

While renting bikes at Happy Land, Mahmud the desk clerk, told us he could get us the bus tickets because we’d have to “go out to the bus station to get them.” Our whole stay at Happy Land was a continuous upsale from the staff for their services: tours, felucca rides, balloon rides, etc. After being hassled all the time, flags went up for this offer, so, later that day, Laura and I began to question Abdul’s sale at the bus office.

The tickets had no English translation, so we weren’t sure if we had proof of payment for the minibus. Abdul assured us that everything was taken care of, and that he’d stay after work tomorrow to make sure that we got off safely. The other man, sitting by us in a rotting office chair, said nothing and seemed to be a friend of Abduls who was just lazing about. Sadly, when Egyptians start acting friendly, alarms go off. Who the hell do you trust in this country? We where unsure about Abdul’s good intentions.

All day at Karnak, and while riding through the chaotic back streets of Luxor (the well-maintained tourist road on the Nile hosts buses, taxis, and carriages but hides most of the poverty and dirtiness of Luxor), we kept feeling like Abdul got us for backsheesh. He wouldn’t be there when the minibus arrived, if the minibus shuttle existed. We decided to figure out if one of these ten tickets was proof of purchase for the shuttle.

After a great day at Karnak, wandering among the ruins and biking through the retail store/strip mall construction boom around it, we rode through the crazy traffic of the city to the Happy Land. We gave Ibrahim the note. He didn’t know Abdul and asked to see our tickets. We asked about the minibus and got a blank look. Adding up the ticket costs, all for the main bus to Dahab, we totaled EP240. We paid EP265 and thought that that included the minibus to the station. Ibrahim said that there was no shuttle and that we where overcharged by EP25. “Why didn’t you let us get you the tickets?!” he asked. We couldn’t tell him it was because we didn’t trust him either.

Though only $4 USD, I fumed over the whole “milk tourists for every cent” vibe that reeks in Egypt. During my meltdown in Cairo, I just wished that there’d be honest folks who didn’t want anything from me. Over the trip, I had let many Egyptians take my money as backsheesh, but some times hurt worse than others. This time, I wondered why Egyptians leech off of tourists.

Is it a geo-economic side effect? A cultural phenomena? Do western tourists deserve the touts because we are more well off than the locals? Does the dictatorship have anything to do with it? Why are Egyptians so poor in the first place, making them resort to stealing to get by?

That night, eating late at a Chicken King restaurant, the owner honestly apologized for the harassment that tourists constantly receive. “I see it everyday outside my restaurant and am truly sorry for it.” As has happened several times on the trip, he gave us a free item (dessert) out of generosity. We accepted his apology and thanked him for his hospitality and warm presence.

Saturday morning, we rented bikes again to enjoy the remaining six hours in Luxor. Biking offered a bit of a shield from the barkers. We rolled past the taxis and carriages, one driver yelling at us to ditch the bikes for a ride. We dove into the melee of traffic: scooters, donkeys pulling carts, buses, taxis, trucks, pedestrians, and other bikes. I saw a father riding on a bike with his three children hanging off of him and the bike with ease.

We turned off of the main roads through Luxor and ended up hitting deeply poor areas. Several times, children tried to grab us, pleading for us to stop. I had to knock a girl’s grasping hand away, fearing that she’d topple me. Laura got chased by two boys that begged us to buy their cigarettes. Still, I felt much more happy and in control on a bike than on my feet.

Laura had decided to give backsheesh to the people who didn’t ask for it. Luxor seemed worse than Cairo in begging. Random street sweepers and children would ask for backsheesh as we walked by. No pitch or “where you from.” Just a hand out and the word “backsheesh.” So Laura gave the polite, quiet woman who cooked our breakfast a tip. I gave our cleaning woman, who put towels in various origami shapes on our bed, a few USD for her unique service.

The gentleman at the train station’s tourist office seemed nice and trustworthy, so we rode to his office asking about the minibus. Once he realized that we’d been stiffed EP25, he walked away and came back with a tourist policeman. Then, a bit nervous, Laura and I walked to the bus office with the policeman. We didn’t want it to go down like this, and, still confused, didn’t have a straight answer about the minibus. On the walk over, the policeman asked us if we where sure we wanted to make all this trouble for EP25. We said we did!

In the office, Abdul’s boss did the talking. He wasn’t there the day before and didn’t know anything about a minibus shuttle. Abdul got out a few sentences, basically covering his story by saying that he booked us a taxi with the driver who was sitting in the office with us yesterday. Laura and I both remembered him saying a minibus left the station and that Abdul had never said that the other man would taxi us there. After Abdul handed us the EP25, the policeman indicated that it was a misunderstanding. We all left things friendly. Though Abdul did lie, and probably did it all the time, we didn’t care because all we wanted was to pay the correct price.

Back at the tourist office, we again said that we’d get to the bus station ourselves and walked away happy that we gout our EP25 back before having to pay another EP25 later that day for a real taxi ride to the station.