Thursday, March 15, 2007

Like A Good Toupee

From Cairo we took the overnight train south along the Nile to Aswan. Aswan is Egypt's most southerly own of any note despite being some 300km from the border and is where customs and immigration formalities are conducted if you want to push on into Sudan. I'm not planning on going that far, but there are reasons for visiting nevertheless. A few kilometres downstream is the Aswan High Dam, a monster of a dam built between 1960 and 1970. The dam produces a whopping percentage of the country's electricity and has allowed a huge surge in agriculture by taming the annual floods and increasing irrigation. All good then? Well, perhaps not for the Nubians who used to live upstream of Aswan and whose land has now become lake Nasser. Forced from their ancestral homes and with little support for their language and traditions the Nubians have generally not had a great time in Egypt, although things are slowly improving as the government tries desperately to spread its ballooning population a bit more evenly away from the heavily crowded Cairo-delta area.

Other victims of the rising waters of the Nile lacked the mobility of the Nubians and had to be helped to survive drowning. Altogether about a dozen temples spanning the entire ancient Egyptian civilisation were cut into manageable blocks, transported to above the new water level, and faithfully reassembled in an archaeological and engineering race against time. The most famous of these is undoubtedly the temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel. The colossal rock-cut temple was shifted 55m uphill along with its own personal cliff. As equally impressive as the four imposing statues of Ramses at the entrance (each 20m tall), and the undeniable technical feat of the temple teleportation is the fact that it's almost impossible to see the joins between the pieces, even up close, like a particularly good, made-to-measure toupee. Visiting Abu Simbel is a whole day affair, mainly because it's 4 hours by bus from Aswan one way. Most people visit on organised tours that leave in the wee hours of the morning in a large convoy, but that wasn't for me. Not only is 4am far too early for me (I need my beauty sleep), but I'm stubborn and will insist on doing things independently even if they end up costing more, taking longer and causing serious aggravation. This time everything went OK and we arrived at the temple at noon and had the whole place to ourselves (which allowed me to take a few surreptitious photos inside). Getting back proved simple enough too as we managed to find a microbus going our way relatively quickly. When it came for us to pay we managed to seriously annoy the driver by insisting on paying the standard fare and not the inflated foreigner one. Luckily we were already in Aswan and had exact change so there was little he could do. And this leads me nicely to today's rant (it's been a while since my last rant and I thought you deserved another one).

I have become used to paying an order of magnitude more than locals to visit tourist sites. I still don't like it but I've made my peace and come to grudgingly accept it (as there's not much else I can do). Here in Egypt, however, this concept has been taken to a whole new level and in places that are frequented by tourists (most notably here in Aswan and from what I hear also in Luxor) even the most basic services and provisions are often charged at several times the going rate. It's particularly galling when the correct price is displayed in Arabic and yet you're still quoted a ridiculous even after pointing out to them that you can read Arabic. On several occasions I've been treated with outright hostility for wanting to pay the same as a local would for a cup of tea or some dates. On one occasion Dad and I bought a couple of ice-creams where the displayed price was £1.75. I handed over £10 and the server had the nerve to ask me for the rest of the money. After a good deal of arguing and me almost losing my cool I finally managed to get another £4 off of him (he acted as if it was him doing me the favour). What possibly angered me more was the fact that when a group of Egyptians came to buy ice-creams from the same shop not only did they pay the correct price, but they seemed to think it normal that I was being charged three times as much as them and that I was somehow brutish to be getting upset about it.

And so, travelling on a budget the way I do, I've had to become a person I don't particularly like: I'm automatically mistrustful of everyone I meet, I always have to ask the price of even the most trivial thing in advance, and my first, automatic answer if anyone approaches me on the street is always no. It's a real shame as there are certainly many honest and interesting people that I would love to talk to (the most fascinating aspect of travelling is never the temples but the local people), but how does one distinguish them from the hordes of others pestering you and tugging at your sleeve to sell you a plastic pyramid, scarab paperweight made in China, or ugly papyrus scroll that you neither want nor need. Who is to blame for this state of affairs? Is it the tourists who come in their droves on pre-paid, organised tours, stay in resorts owned by large companies, don't have any contact with the locals and contribute little to the local economy? Or is it the locals who see foreigners not as people, but money on legs, to be relentlessly hounded and exploited at every possible opportunity? The reality probably lies somewhere in the middle, but it is a truly sad state of affairs when travelling, instead of bringing people of different cultures together, only causes them to view each other as less than human.


Ex-Shammickite said...

I didn't go to Abu Simbel when I was in Aswan. There was a sightseeing trip offered by the tour company, but we decided to take a felucca across to Elephantine Island and just wander around. It was a good decision. We met some of the local people in the Nubian village, including one lady who was very gracious and allowed me to take a picture of her children, but not of herself. We had a look at the excavations of the temple . We ate at a restaurant in Aswan called Aswan Moon, food was good, and the Egyptian beer was cheap.
It certainly helps when you can read Arabic. We obviously paid the Tourist price for everyting, not knowing that there was a cheaper price for nationals. Oh well....

Oberon said...

.....poverty will make people do unnatural things.

Erik said...

True, poverty will make people do things they wouldn't normally do, but I wouldn't consider the average Egyptian to be poor. They have homes, electricity, free running, drinking water and most of them even have satellite TV. Compared with people I have met on my travels (who have treated me with unspeakable kindness) they are relatively well off. Basic morals (such as the Golden Rule) ought not to be income dependent.