It’s been more than a year since my troupe moved back to the U.S., but the adventures of our last 5 years still all seem very close and tangible. These adventures touched us deeply, and as we face new challenges, it’s good to reflect and remember the past.
We were lucky enough, as a family, to travel to places like Athens and Crete, Britain and France. And I spent a brief time in Egypt on a reporting trip–a trip that was filled with discoveries for me. Much of my reporting was meant to give a snapshot of that time in Cairo, which was (is?) still figuring out where it was heading in its revolution.
But in this post I wanted to jot down some of the money-making observations I made while hoofing through Cairo. I hesitate to call them scams, because most of them were just ways people had inserted themselves into the tourist economy to make a few bucks. (Egyptian Pounds.) For most of these observations ‘scam’ is too strong. ‘Hustle’ might be closer to what I mean. And in a lucky break, my identifying the hustle helped me leave Egypt with a little more money in my pocket than I expected.
Hustle 1: The Underground
The first hustle isn’t so much a hustle as it is an illicit market. In my reporting I relayed the items that were appearing in stalls in the famous bazaar–knives, stun guns, Chinese cigarettes, fireworks. The calls from the stall barkers represented well what the mindset was: “I don’t know what you need, but I have it.”
HAMED SELIM: “Yeah okay, I didn’t see electro-shock before, you know, in the street.”
TONY GANZER: “Stun guns and things like that?”
SELIM: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I didn’t see this, or these knives. Farther, before the revolution, if you walk with a knife in your pocket, and a police officer stop you, you are in a big problem until jail, you know? But now you see, they sell everything. You couldn’t see it before.”
Hustle 2: Check Your Camera
Something I never quite figured out in my brief time in Cairo was who was a legitimate authority and who wasn’t. I realized the military was not to be crossed for any reason, but police were less obviously still in charge of order. And the plain clothes policemen, or who I assumed to be plain clothes police, were hard to read. I erred on the side of being respectful, but skeptical.
The “camera check” hustle was employed at both the national museum, and the pyramids. At the museum, I walked in and was told at the security checkpoint that no cameras were allowed–I had to check it at the shack across the courtyard, still in the museum compound. I took out the memory card, and handed over the digital camera (I was prepared to never see it again) to an attendant who gave me a wooden ticket. I went into the museum, enjoyed the time, and went back to the shack. I took out the ticket, and the man looked at me for a moment before saying something like “Oh, yes, um, let me see if we can find your camera, sir.” I took this as a hint, and took out 5 EGP, less than a dollar. He found my camera right after that, if you believe it.
At the pyramid the situation was murkier. A guy who could be legit, could be just a guy, blocked the entrance of the pyramid and said no cameras were allowed. Again I took out the memory card, and prepared myself to never see it again. When I came down, again, there was a hesitation in trying to “find” my camera. 5 EGP later, it was again found as if by a miracle.
Hustle 3: Pyramid Guide
One hustle I had been warned about was the camel and horse ride hustle–tourists are offered a ride, and then not allowed off until payment is made. Or maybe you’d be taken in the desert. But I wasn’t warned about inside the pyramid.
As I climbed upward toward an ancient room, a man in slacks stood holding a flashlight at the top of the stairs. He motioned for me to go into the room, with him in tow. His motion bordered on an order. I waited for my companion, an Egyptian, as the man with the flashlight grew impatient. My companion came up and asked the guy what the problem was–nothing, he just helps tourists with the flashlight and then demands payment. Before we left, a young man was seen pulling bills out of his wallet and paying for flashlight service…
Hustle 4: The Airport
I’ll go ahead and call this one a scam, and I’ll defend my little white lie because of it.
I knew cash was king when going to Egypt. I brought U.S. Dollars, Swiss Francs, and Euros. The dollars were highly valued, and I paid for my tourist visa with them…it was a better price than the other currencies, despite the others worth more. I also exchanged a fair amount for Egyptian Pounds to pay for food and other services, like renting a car and driver for a day. (though the foreign currency was still more helpful) Suffice it to say, in pockets, shoes, pouches, and other spots, I had enough money for various purposes.
My driver brought me to the airport after a long day of reporting, and I paid him in Euros from a batch of cash in my shirt pocket. After paying him, I had 5 EGP (a helpful amount, eh?) left in that pocket.
Inside the airport there was a security checkpoint and metal detector right away. I walked toward it and an airport employee grabbed one of my bags from my hand, without asking. I looked at the police officer and he didn’t react. The bag went through the x-ray machine (or rolled on a conveyor, at least.) I said to the police officer I had keys which would set off the metal detector. He took them from me, looked at them, and then pretended to shoot me with them, laughing all the time. Guns were his concern, not keys.
On the other side of the metal detector, which I set off, the airport employee had my bag. He looked nervously around, and said, “You have money for me now.”
I said, “What?”
“Money, now,” he said. I patted my pockets.
“I don’t know if I have Egyptian Pounds…” I said.
“No, foreign money. Now, please.” I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out…5 Egyptian Pounds.
“This is all I have left, sorry. I spent all my money,” I said, handing him the 5.
“Fine,” he said, and he gave me my bag. I found my way to my gate and waited to go home.
When I counted my left-over cash, I had about 900 Egyptian Pounds on me…roughly $125.
Cairo was an amazing place, and I was fortunate to briefly visit and report from there. It was a foreign environment for me; a place still very much in flux. But most of my interactions were greatly positive, and the few instances of a hustle I witnessed didn’t do any real harm. I didn’t mention the times that a cab driver would just say an amount because he thought I wouldn’t know how much it should costs, or the other times 5 EGP or some Swiss chocolate made an interaction move a bit more quickly.
As surreal, and as special as that adventure was, I still draw from those memories in my current life in Cleveland, and will likely do so for the rest of my days. Sometimes I wish I didn’t see so many connections between Cairo-in-flux and an American city. But I hope reflecting on, and savoring, my past experiences help make for a more enriched present and future.