Friday, May 21, 2010

Pyramid scam

People in my family firmly believe that I spend more time on travel and tourism than I should. So to clarify, I was in Egypt on work. Just that I had a day to see the place. I was super excited.

A tourist almost always gets scammed. But given that I'm not one of those tour group 15days/20countries/take-pics-with-monuments kind of traveler, I always assumed that I get scammed less than others. It's not so. This is the email I wrote to a friend of mine describing what turned out to be my single worst experience as a tourist.

Background first - The people from the client side have two company cars at their disposal. One of them, a BMW, has been given to this 47 year old wine-and-womanizer called Waeel (Wild minus the d, he lives up to his name). His driver is called Araabi. In Egypt, the drivers and the drivees share a very Munnabhai-Circuit kind of relationship. You would often see an Egyptian get into a serious discussion with his driver, furrowed brows et al, as if they're discussing matters of national importance, only to figure out that they're discussing how many crates of diet coke are needed for the day.

Anyway, Araabi introduces himself as someone who doesn't know English well, but he knows every tree in the whole of Egypt. The latter is far more important. He's a geology graduate. He has three children - one engineer, one commerce grad and the third is still in high school. He insisted to his boss that he will escort me to pyramids, otherwise I will get cheated. He tends to be very dramatic when he talks, and needless to say, I had no choice but to trust him. My colleague chickened out, and I was left in the care of Mr. Araabi.

Determined not to get cheated, and knowing well that they hike price of water at tourist spots, I picked up two bottles of water, and left to see the leftover wonder of the world. It was a long drive, and it was hot outside, but I was way too excited. Araabi convinced me on the way that the best way to see the area is to take a horse carriage (a tanga), and that he knew people. Of course, I agreed. As soon as we reached, he quickly took me to this guy, supposedly his friend, the "owner", who told me, "I have three type - small, medium, large." I thought he was refering to the size of the seat for my butt, but he wasn't. The long tour included a perfumery tour and a papyrus factory tour, where they'd sell stuff which I wouldn't want. Medium tour had something else. Short tour was just a glimpse of the pyramids and the sphinx. "You cannot see much." The pyramids are huge and impossible to miss, so I don't know what he meant by the last bit.

He then promptly lifted me into the tanga.

I asked, "how much?"
He said, "450 LE for the small tour, 650 for medium" et cetera. (5.6 LE = 1 USD)
I said, sharpening my fangs, "I pay you 150 LE for small"
He said, "500 LE for small, 650 for medium", clearly not understanding a word of what I was trying to say.
I said, "No thanks, Very expensive. I don't have money. Let me go, I will walk."

Note, how the numbers are moving randomly much like the stock market. Also note, I am already on the carriage, and almost held hostage.

That's when Araabi came running to intervene, much to my relief. He discussed something intensely in arabic with the owner for 5 minutes, and turned around and told me that the owner has obliged to take me on the long tour. "To everyone it's 600 LE, but since you my friend, for you and only you, my friend, it is 400 LE." Very good price, he said.

They should be recruited by investment banks.

Not wanting to offend someone I'd taken a favour from, I paid my way out and agreed.
That's when I was introduced to Mahmood (pronounced Makhmood), the tangawala. A flamboyant young man, who seems to like tourists and women in general. So he put me on the carriage and took me around to enter the area.
His principle was rather simple - Not letting me get off the carriage. "You should see the pyramids from far, since you can't imagine the scale from close by". (What about my childhood dream of touching the pyramids?) Then, at random points during the tour he snatched the camera out of my hand, and started clicking pictures randomly making me pose. (You know and I know, I am very insecure about giving my camera to people.) He also made me get up onto random walls and places - and in the process of helping me get up and down, as you would expect, he was a tad too touchy feely. Hands under the armpits to lift me up, trying to hold my hand, et cetera - you get the drift? The good thing is, this chap has a perfect idea of perspective. The pictures are howlarious, all of the Patel variety - me touching, feeling, kissing and kicking the pyramids, but all from a distance. It didn't take him more than 10 seconds to compose and click. I was suitably impressed. As for the guiding part of the tour, he told me the names thrice, and then repeated the same fact 15 times - "All the artefacts are in the Egyptian museum, there is nothing here."

Needless to say, I was totally annoyed by now. So I told him, I will walk on my own and click pictures I like. Or just sit around for all I care. He insisted, we still had the papyrus factory and the perfumery to see. I insisted on walking around on my own. Got off and walked around and then to the sphinx, only to be welcomed by a familiar language - "Behenchod", "hat yaar photo kharab ho rahi hai" "yaar, isme zoom kahan hai yaar" etc. That little enclosure where the sphinx sits, indeed has the highest density of Indian tourists I've ever seen. And by ever, I really mean ever. It is full of peddlers who sell you everything from headgear to tiny pyramids (all made in china) and speak in every language from Spanish to Chinese, but don't understand the three simple words - "Leave me alone". You can imagine what a hassle it can be to arguing with them and dealing with them.

To cut a long story short, there is no peace. The big moment you imagine in your head about the day you'll finally see the pyramids, gets ruined by all the noise around.

Mahmood asked for a baksheesh (a tip). He said "They give me 100bucks." I didn't give him anything. The "owner" took 400 bucks from me. Araabi asked me if I was happy. I said I was, wondering if he and the "owner" are a nexus.

And that's the story. Either way, the place is stunning. Each of those rocks you see is 2.5 tonnes, and to think they achieved it back in the day leaves me confused. More on that later.

Yep - so: Entrance to the area - 60 LE. Scam Tour - 400 LE. Patel snaps - Priceless.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

State of the union..

.. it is not. But there are odd thoughts about twitter and facebook.

Amit Varma speaks of Twitter* and Internet Hindus and the alleged Enemy #2** on twitter, and how we shouldn't take people seriously. His point is rather simple, and I quite agree with it. The people who argue passionately on twitter will often not take such extreme positions in the real world. We often argue for the sake of argument, without any objectivity, and sometimes without a clue. We have little to add - voice has indeed entirely become noise.

I recently spotted it again with the Kasab sentencing. Like the incredibly hot SpyMaami said, 90% were talking like right-wing nuts and 70% like Arundhati Roy***. That death sentence led me to have a little flashback to the day it all fell like dominoes on twitter. It was 26/11. That day, we were sitting and chit-chatting like we always do. We discussed failwail, jazz and punkrockers (with flowers in their hair). And then the attacks happened. Twitter came handy, people managed to organize help and resources. It was quite brilliant, the way it all worked, the way it really put power and control in the hands of the common person. Everyone became very involved and suddenly, very serious. For a few days, anyone who would dare to say "Oatmeal for brekkie" was reprimanded. "Be serious, this is no time for frivolity", they said, "a country is in crisis". #Mumbai was trending for days. The aftermath was that the publicity in MSM brought many more curious people to twitter. Soon the mood had almost entirely changed - it became about issues, about making a point, shouting a message out. Some people thought that twitter would give them an opportunity to see their name in print. The lack of care was gone, and twitter, for me, came of age.

Now the place is all herd, all mob, especially when it comes to re-tweets and trending topics. It looks odd when people start talking about topics other than the ones which are already under discussion. People celebrate the arrival of a celebrity on twitter. People re-tweet the celebrity till the comment has lost its context. Often a discussion on a serious issue loses its merit because the objectivity is long lost, and people are relentlessly hashtagging.

Not that all is lost, not just yet. I've met and still meet wonderful people there, who have become some of my close(st) friends. There is still a lot of wit and wisdom -- in fact, way too much of it. I still have a lot of fun, but when there is noise, I tend to run away. Still, somehow, I don't turn and run, I don't quit.

Elsewhere, I find this piece about why one can't quit facebook. The list-maker says:
Sure, Facebook has privacy issues, but you don't care about privacy anymore. Remember when you wouldn't use your real name on the Internet?

I absolutely hate it when they equate lack-of-anonymity with lack-of-privacy. People don't mind using their real names on the Internet only because there are gazillion people out there, and to some people there seems to be little point in hiding a under a name.

Privacy is different. It's more about who you really want to share whatever you want to share with. That's why I have the Internet, so it can make sharing easier, so to me, it's quite strange when people say, "Don't put it on the Internet then!" Don't get it? Picture this - I have a, errm, picture I want to share with my friends. Instead of spamming their inboxes, I want to put it somewhere, so they can see it. I don't want to share the picture with my colleagues. Both these sets of people know my real name. In fact, I don't want these people to ever know my moniker, lest they google me out. See the difference?

*Quite a few sentences are more than 140 chars. Such a noob (sic). :) See, some of us can now naturally write sentence shorter than 140. I'm quite sure the first bit about twitter above is all under 140.
**Who's the enemy #1 that everyone likes to trip on, is anybody's guess.
*** According to me, 35% belong to the third kind - the people on twitter who claim that people on twitter don't know anything.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Death sentence

The capital punishment for Kasab leaves me very confused. That guy came to India all prepared to die, then how can giving him a death sentence act as a deterrent to the terrorists? They'll just call him a martyr, and he will perhaps make an example to all the hot blooded but confused young men, much more than the others from 26/11 whose names we don't know. As my friend Senthil says - "It's applying a common man's law to an uncommon man, almost like sentencing a fish to drown." It barely counts as punishment towards such a heinous crime.

I was also given the argument that it will allow the families of victims to make peace. Which makes me think (and it's at 5 am now), how our ideas of justice are perverse it's always been about tit-for-tat, albeit structured and rule based.
Though we throw words like Gandhigiri and "Hate the crime but not the criminal", most people perhaps don't actually believe in it.

As I said, it leaves me confused.