Not-so-Innocents Abroad

Aswan, Egypt – It was all a mistake. I grabbed the kid by the collar and dragged him kicking and screaming back to the train station. I don’t have your money, he was shouting. But I was sure he did. A crowd formed at the ticket counter where I held him to the window and waived our train tickets at the clerk. I pushed the tickets through the slot as the kid and clerk argued in Arabic. I interjected hopelessly in English as the crowd expanded and the shouting grew louder. Suddenly the clerk snatched the tickets, threw 400 Egyptian pounds on the counter—the 400 pounds I thought the kid had stolen from me—and shouted violently: Go! Go! My stomach turned and I released the kid, realizing I was wrong. Ten minutes earlier he’d offered to take our money to the clerk and return with tickets; I assumed he’d scammed us by giving us bogus tickets and pocketing the money. But I was wrong. The money was right here, and I’d completely overreacted. Egypt was getting to me…

Travel changes you, not always for the better. When I arrived in Egypt, near the halfway point of my trip, I was already a different person than when I set out seven months earlier. I’d had some of the greatest experiences of my life and some of the worst. I’d been dismissed as a foreigner, spit on by beggars, and even subject to the pranks of local children. There was also the over-charging foreigners often suffer (a “foreigner tax” as some jokingly call it). Food prices are inflated, taxi fairs tripled, and the cheapest hotel rooms and bus seats are oddly unavailable. It’s not that everyone is a cheat or a liar—not by far—but when you’re on the road long enough you encounter a lot of it. “First world problems” though they are, facing this day after day takes its toll. By the time I arrived in Egypt I was nearly defeated by it.

I saw myself swinging through a great range of behavior I never exhibited back home. I ignored street beggars, cursed at touts, and threatened taxi drivers when they inflated their fares. Things got ugly—I got ugly. Often I was steely or callous. In the early days I might have been alarmed by a scam, but by the time I arrived in Egypt I was simply hostile. If a taxi doubled my fare I’d exit the cab in mid-traffic, leaving the door ajar and a few bills on the seat. Sometimes I was cruel. When men brushed past me on busy streets whispering you want girls? hashish? party? (it happens a lot) I’d pause with a smile and shout, Boys? You’re selling little boys? How much for your boys? Nine out of ten times the men slink shamefully away, under the judgmental stare of passerbys. It was a bad joke and a poor attempt to take control of a situation where I had none, by cheating the cheaters. I didn’t like feeling like a victim.

No two places have been more challenging in this respect than Egypt and India, and I spent several long car rides through the desert wondering why. My guess was it had to do with two things. For starters, these are two very, very poor countries. Half of Egypt lives on less than $2 per day, and the same is true for three quarters of India. Of course, there are other poor countries in the world, many even poorer. But India and Egypt have another common quality—both have a very long history of tourism. For centuries destitute locals have come face to face with foreigners of inconceivable wealth. Tourists arrived in Egypt not long after European scholars descended on the Nile Valley in the 18th century. In his 1869 Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain tags along with one group on a trip through the Holy Land, visiting the pyramids at Giza. The British Raj brought a similar wealth to India in the 18th century. If the poor in those times struggled to reconcile the absurd disparities in wealth, it wouldn’t be surprising that some made an art of extracting wealth from the rich.

I in no way judged the people who did this. Was I angry—yes—but I was in no position to judge. It wasn’t right or wrong that I was overcharged, it just was. I was more concerned with the way it made me feel, with how I lost control of my emotions. Trying to understand it helped me achieve the sense of control I needed, and that was the best I could do. So it was a sign of progress that I was amused when I met a fellow traveler in Egypt who, paraphrasing the great American swindler John Quinn, reminded me that “It’s wrong to let a fool keep his money.”

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PHOTO: A typical street seen in Aswan, with men in jalabiyas.

Exiting the train in Aswan, 500 miles south of Cairo, I met two broad-shouldered American brothers just starting a five-week trip through Egypt. Aaron and Ryan were big, athletic Midwesterners with good smarts and level heads. Aaron was studying Arabic in Cairo, and Ryan was over for a visit. The day we met, we were walking along the Nile when an Egyptian boy asked us to exchange money. The banks were closed and he needed to swap five Euros for US dollars. When Aaron fished money from his pocket (something I would never have done) the boy snatched sixty dollars and began walking away. The brothers snapped into action and surrounded him, with his hands deep inside his jalabiya. Although he insisted he only took five dollars, bill by bill Aaron and Ryan gradually extracted the money through intimidation and subtle threats. Eventually the boy slinked away with nothing but a scowl and his five-euro note. Aaron was lucky.

Because of this episode, the brothers were somewhat less judgmental of me when I later roughed up the kid in the railway station. I’d become paranoid, and they generously suggested that I just needed a break. So not long after the Luxor station incident the three of us set off into Egypt’s Western Desert. There—in the center of one of the most stressful countries in the world—I found the distance, quiet, and peacefulness that I needed.

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PHOTO: The old village of Al Qasr at Daklha Oasis.

We took a bumpy night train halfway up the Nile and disembarked in the university town of Asyut. Around 4am a bus drove us to a dirt lot where we waited in the cold January morning as Aaron negotiated the fare for our next leg. As the sun rose we set off on the long drive into the Libyan Desert, heading for Al-Kharga. I slept as the car barreled through the empty, brown landscape. At midday we arrived in Al-Kharga and swapped vehicles before continuing on. By late afternoon a sea of palms appeared on the horizon and we came to Al-Qasr at Dakhla Oasis.

Al Qasr is a dusty little village near the outermost point of Egypt’s elbow-shaped Libyan Desert highway. It’s a quiet place where life is slow—a world away from Cairo. We found a small inn with a kind host who cooked us dinner and afterward arranged for a small tractor to tow us to a hot spring outside of town. Behind a tangle of reeds we found a steaming earthen hole about three meters across. Inside, half a dozen boys lounged or bathed with soap in the steaming water. We sank in and relaxed under the purpling desert sky as the sun cut through the blue grass like spears and cast long shadows across the water. An hour later the sun was almost gone and we walked back to town, dripping along the dirt road. After dinner and popsicles I collapsed in my bed for the first good sleep I’d had in days.

We spent the next day exploring the desert around Al Qasr. In the morning we wandered the decaying remnants of a two-hundred year old village. The abandoned mud-brick buildings, bent and crumbling under the hot sun, once housed a vibrant desert community. Several of the earth and wood structures were an astonishing four stories high, and we climbed atop one to survey the surrounding landscape. From a nearby rooftop a desert fox watched us. Later we wandered the empty lower chambers where families once slept on sandy floors. Although the place was abandoned, there were clear signs that some of the homes had recently been lived in.

That afternoon we hiked toward the tall cliffs north of town. Immense sand dunes dripped from the tops like giant brown ski hills. After several hours of walking we arrived at the base and began the painful one-hour hike up the face.  The top was a vast desert mountain whose windy summit offered a tremendous view across an empty expanse of the Libyan Desert—it was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in all of Egypt. We stayed up there for several hours, walking along the shelf’s edge and peering over the backside to the rippling dunes beyond. Eventually we took a long running start and threw ourselves headfirst down the dunes, laughing and tumbling as far as we could. It was the most fun I’d had in ages, and it was exactly the release I needed.

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PHOTO: Me and friends, before hiking up the dunes in background. On the way down my camera was (fatally) consumed by sand.

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Several days later we arrived in the town of Bewiti. From Al Kharga to Al Qasr, and onward to Qasr Farafra, we’d nearly completed the desert loop that would bring us back to Cairo. Aaron found a driver to take us the final leg, and once the man located eight more passengers we were off. The packed van barreled down the long desert highway as the sun set and I settled into a deep sleep. I’d grown accustomed to napping with someone’s elbow jabbing my side, or the sound of Arabic sitcoms playing through staticy cell phone speakers, or the cold air of an open window blowing over my face. So I slept easy and soundly.

Around 11pm, I awoke to movement inside the car.  The passengers were handing money forward to the driver and Aaron was speaking in Arabic.

“The driver wants 35 pounds,” he explained. “Everyone else is paying 25.”

“How do you know?” I grumbled, “Are you sure?”

“I heard him ask them for money,” he replied. “It was clear. They each pay 25, we pay 35.”

“No way,” I said. “We pay the same as everyone else.” I scanned the other passengers, Egyptian men between twenty and fifty years old. They stared back quietly.

Aaron laughed uncomfortably, trying to lighten the situation, and explained in Arabic that there was no reason we should pay more than the others. We would pay 25 pounds each, and no more. After some back and forth, the driver stopped the car on the shoulder of the road and hopped out. The men in the back of the van whispered in Arabic as he walked around to the side door where we sat. Pulling open the door, he pointed at the three of us and then out into the black desert night. The car was silent.

“You’re kidding,” I said.

The driver snapped his fingers. “Go.” From my position behind the driver’s seat, I looked past the others into the night. There wasn’t even one light anywhere in the distance, just cold, empty desert.

“Not very subtle,” Ryan said.

I looked around at the other passengers. Most were silent, while a few grinned in amusement as Aaron argued with the driver. Aaron said no and the driver said yes, Aaron said no and the driver said yes. On and on until finally Aaron, sensing the other passengers were growing impatient, agreed to pay the money. I sat fuming as Aaron counted his money and the driver returned to his seat with satisfaction. I didn’t want to pay, but there was no conceivable way out of this. I’d never felt more helpless and frustrated than I did crammed into the back of this van in the middle of the Egyptian desert.

I didn’t have a plan, so I delayed and fumbled with my wallet until the driver had counted the money. When he turned to say with exasperation that there was not enough money, I simply saidNO. Aaron and Ryan looked at me like I was nuts and the driver’s eyes flashed in the rear view mirror. I’d said it loudly so the entire car could hear. There wasn’t much more I could say in Arabic, and it wasn’t much of an argument, but it was an objection all the same and I wanted to object. Again, NO. The driver leaped from the car and throwing open the side door once more, he looked at me and said go. I shook my head. It was a senseless dispute between two people who couldn’t communicate. I had no idea how it would end, until the driver reached over the car’s roof and fiddling with our luggage.

“Oh shit.”

He began unstrapping my backpack from the car and pulling it from the roof. I wasn’t getting out of this one.

“Ok! Ok! Stop.”

I was burning with anger. Although I hadn’t yet convinced myself of it, I finally confessed that I would pay. This time as the driver retied my bag and got back behind the wheel I drew cash from my pocket and I clenched it bitterly in my fist. And when he turned around to extend his hand I did the most disrespectful thing I could think of—I balled it up in a small wad of paper and looking him square in the eyes I threw the money in his face. He erupted.

The driver jumped from the car and began throwing his fists into my window and shouting in Arabic, inches from my face. I looked away. He stormed to the other side of the car and throwing open the door tried violently to climb over the others and pull me from the car. Several of the passengers were alarmed and held him back while the rest looked on in horror. Like a six year old, I crossed my arms and shook my head. Two of the Egyptians calmed him while another searched the car floor for the money and displayed it to him conciliatorily. I glanced around the car, making eye contact with the other passengers in an attempt to shame them for not speaking up for us. They looked away, just as likely from embarrassment for me as from shame.

The spectacle was over, and after calming himself for a minute the driver got back into the car. Adjusting the mirror, he looked me in the eyes and the car crept forward silently. An hour later we arrived at the outskirts of Cairo where our trip ended. It had cost my 10 pounds more than expected, or about two measly dollars.

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PHOTO: For all the touts and cheats I met, there were also lots of great folks like Mohammad (right). We chatted for an hour outside the temples at Kom Ombo, after which he insisted on giving me the bracelet he was selling and wouldn’t accept money.

That was the last time I let myself get wrapped up in this sort of thing. By getting under the driver’s skin I’d managed to extract my pound of flesh, but it had cost me two of my own. I understood now how these situations were going to play out—the best I could ever achieve was to do equal damage to my opponent as they did to me. And it would always end up hurting me more. I began to see that ultimately I had no control oven these situations save for how I chose to react, and that was enough for me. I had lots of travel left to do, and I wasn’t going to let this ruin it.

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