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.


Prasoon said...

Oh come on, this sounds so much fun.. Must've been quite a sight to see those Pyramids.
You should've posted more than a couple of pics here. Koi nahi - elsewhere? :D

Ashwin said...

That was a scam all right, from the very beginning. It is hard to get out of these. I hate being a part of these and usually stay back, if this is the only option.

To gently get out of the situation, what I usually do is to give a reason which will not offend them, but they cannot reason about with. Ex: "Oh, suddenly I am feeling very sick in my stomach/head. Must be the food/heat. I will go back and take rest. This Wat will have to wait another day. So, sorry about it." End of problem.

It involves a bit of theatrics. But, it also gives you a chance to "recover" in a few minutes after the irritant has disappeared and go do your own thing.

Actually, I use similar methods for similar irritating problems:

Him on phone: "We would like to offer you this new Uranium credit card with zero interest for first year."
(If I cut the call or say I am busy, he will call again. If I say I do NOT want the card, that means I will have to get drawn into a long reasoning war with him. He has obviously been well trained for this. So, instead ...)
Me: "Oh, you mean the ultra-new Uranium card launched yesterday that comes with awesome radioactive credits, right?"
Him (getting excited): "Yes, yes, that is the one!"
Me: "I *just* got it today morning. Thank you so much for calling." *End*

Mo said...

@Prasoon - It was indeed. I love them.

@ashwin - Oh, I am pretty decent at that. But this time around, since I had taken a favour from someone, I had no choice but to agree.
Almost penny wise, pound foolish.

Ashwin said...

I meant for the "favour" case too. No one can argue or be offended if you say you are feeling sick :-)

Mo said...

@Ashwin I tried, it didn't quite work. I managed to get out of the Papyrus/Perfumery bit by saying it's too hot. Which is why I think this turned out to be the mother of all scams, at least for me.

Anonymous said...

only to be welcomed by a familiar language .....

hahahahaha .... awesome !!

a female italian friend of mine had a very similar experience in Egypt and Iran :)

shub said...

Strangely enough, around the same time, I was in the uber-commercialized piece of paradise, more commonly known as Phuket. Left a bad taste in my mouth.

It's such a letdown when all you want to do is come back with some good memories of a place.
Would've been fun to visit a few years back before it became all bout the money.