Thursday, August 19, 2010

Excursion to Egypt - Thoughts & Observations

For the last post in my "Excursion to Egypt" series, I have gathered together some thoughts about what we witnessed over there. These are not comments about the big sites, the history of the country or obvious stuff. You can read about those things in my other posts about Egypt. Rather, these are a few observations on culture and what appeared to be happening around us.

So enjoy as I explore topics such as fat Russian men with skinny Russian girls, picking and arranging, standing around and more...

Security and Safety
We never had any safety or security scares in Egypt - that we were aware of. And, annoyances like aggressive hawkers and gawkers were not anything worth worrying about. Hell, we've seen worse in New York, New Orleans and our home city of Seattle.

None the less, Egypt is in the Middle East. While you won't mistake it for a wild and unsettled Iraq, Yemen or Afghanistan, it has in the not too distant past witnessed terrorism against tourists. Those very attacks back in the late 1990s and mid-2000s were, in fact, why we postponed visiting Egypt at those times until a time when things were calmer.

In any case, we had a wonderful trip. However, part of the reason it went so smoothly from a security standpoint may just be that the Egyptian government has invested heavily in making sure tourists are safe.

Hotels. At every hotel entrance there is a squad of soldiers. Each vehicle coming in is stopped, the driver's identification is verified, a dog sniffs all around the car and one of the soldiers checks the undercarriage of the vehicle with a special mirror affixed to a long pole. Occasionally, they'll look in the trunk or cargo area. We saw this happen a couple times, however not for a vehicle we were in. Once satisfied that the vehicle is safe, they wave it through. But, that's not all for hotel security. Once you exit your car or taxi, you have to go through a metal detector staffed by more soldiers to get into the hotel.

None of these procedures are scary or hinder a tourists comings and goings. The Egyptians want tourists there and they want to make sure they are safe. So, we had no problem with these procedures at all.

I imagine each hotel has a 24x7 security detail inside and out as well, but other than the team a the front entrances we did not see evidence of them.

Armed guard. Everywhere our tour group went out in public, we had an armed guard with us. In the bus, on the street at the sites we visited and even during our entire Mt. Sinai adventure. Now, you couldn't overtly tell they were an armed guard because they wore a business suit. But under that jacket? A fully automatic rifle. Small, compact and deadly. Think Uzi or similar.

These guards were not assigned to us because we were from the U.S.A. nor because there is any heightened security issues in Egypt. No, they are assigned because it's the law. As mentioned, Egypt has a big sector of its economy tied up in tourism, and they have indeed had some horrible incidents in the past, so they want to make dang sure nothing happens to people who come now. Therefore, the guard is partly to simply ease tourist fears - real or imagined - but also an very real deterrent and/or response to anyone wishing to do tourists harm.

Such was the dedication to protecting tourists that when we toured the massive bazaar in Cairo, a guard continued on with us even when our guide had to leave and technically the guard could have too.

Tourist police. Most "tourist police" you encounter in cities around the world (including some in the U.S.) are a scam...just criminals trying to shake you down. However, in Egypt they have a huge Tourist Police force. You see them, decked out in all-white uniforms, black beret and AK-47s - everywhere  tourists are. Now, they're not overwhelming in number or anything that takes away from your experience, but they are at each monument, museum, temple or site. Their job is similar to the private guard - protect tourists.

A last note on security. The Egyptian military REALLY protects President Mubarak. On two occasions when we drove from our hotel to the airport in Cairo, we witnessed mile upon mile of soldiers standing on the roadside in anticipation of the president's motorcade coming by.

Pickin' and Arrangin'
To be sure, Egypt is a male dominated society as most in the world are. Outwardly, you see this in a number of obvious ways. Virtually all women dress conservatively with a head covering of some sort at minimum while men where whatever they like. Women do a lot of the hard work while most men - seemingly - are not doing as much. Men are head of the household, but women do most if not all of the child raising and manage home life. It goes on and on like that.

In a society like that where men dominate, they are not so concerned with what women may think of their actions. Why would they care? They are just women after all.

One very common activity I saw men do in Egypt that surely must be a result of simply not caring one bit what women think is nose picking. That's right. Aggressive, obvious, out-in-the-open, unapologetic nose picking by men. We saw it everywhere.

You think these men would be picking their noses with such open aplomb in a society where they valued what women thought of them? How they might be perceived by the opposite sex? Hell no. But in Egypt, no big deal. Nose picking is a common daily activity. By the way, we never once saw a woman doing this.

The worst of this for me was on our flight over to Sharm. Diane and I both had isle seats - one across the isle from the other. This meant we were sitting next to someone else who occupied the respective window seats next to us. Well, there was an Egyptian guy sitting next to me. He slept the entire 1 hour flight from Luxor. But, as soon as we landed, he woke up and started picking his nose profusely. This guy was diggin' for gold. This really grossed me out. But worse, he started flicking his boogers - kinda sorta aiming for the floor. "HOLY SHIT, this guy's going to flick a booger on me!" my brain screamed out. Thankfully, the plane arrived at the gate and I was able to escape. But man...GROSS!

The other thing we saw a lot of was men publicly arranging their junk. Yep. You know what I mean. Moving their Johnson around or scratching their nads. All this is done while fully clothed, but a westerner, it's a bit strange to see guys just openly arranging themselves like that all the time. Again, I think that its a behavior predicated on not giving a shit what women think. I mean, hey, western men get uncomfortable down there sometimes or become itchy. It happens. But, you don't walk around New York City, London or Paris and see guy after guy arranging themselves like this.

Cairo is polluted. It may not be quite as bad as Shanghai or Beijing, but for sure a gray/brown haze hangs over the city...graying it out most days. So, yet another massive city pumping out massive amounts of pollution every day.

On our second visit to Cairo on our trip, skies were clearer and you could really see what the smog had been obscuring in our earlier visit. Here's what I'm talking about:

First visit

Second visit

Whole Lot of Standing Around Going On
Like other places in the third world we have been, I have noticed a lot of people standing around doing nothing. Mostly men. Women seem to be very busy with work, children, errands, etc. Men seem to be standing around a lot.

Our guides said that unemployment is very high in Egypt because the tourism industry has gone way down over the past couple years - mainly due to the overall global recession. There are simply fewer people from Europe and Asia coming to Egypt for vacations, and given that tourism is the second or third biggest sectors of the Egyptian economy (the other two being electricity via the Aswan Dam and toll fees for the Suez Canal), there are huge numbers of people normally employed in tourism now out of a job. I assume that there are other sectors of the economy hard hit too.

This explains a lot of it I think, but regardless of the reason, when you have hundreds of thousands of poor, unemployed men standing around doing nothing for extended periods of time, things might get a little sketchy. Egypt is a relatively stable nation, but there have been increasing complaints about the President Mubarak's iron clad grip on his office...and how his son will likely succeed what is supposed to be a democracy. Many of these complaints are legit, but many are also coming from religious radicals who would replace the Mubarak system with a fundamentalist religious regime.

Not a "Food Trip"
We ate very well in Egypt. But, we ate cuisine from other places - Lebanese, Indian, Thai, Italian, American for example. We did this not because we wanted to avoid or we disliked Egyptian food, but rather because it was simply not that easy to find. Or at least it was hard to find given we were staying at really nice places and on a tour.

When you go to France there are restaurants and bars all over the place that serve up French food - everything from rustic classics to inventive new cuisine. Or, say you go to Vietnam. Every place you go is loaded with local fare. The same was our experience in India and China. It's easy to find indigenous food without trying very, all you have to do is walk down the street.

Well, not as much in Egypt - at least for a western tourist. I am sure there are many pseudo Tony Bourdains out there (and I love me some Tony B believe me) who would challenge this and say, "hey, you're not trying hard enough! Go find the good stuff." And technically I know they'd be right. I am sure we could troll the many back streets of Cairo and find some very good local joints serving the local fare. But, we made the decision to be part of a small tour group (16 people) for the ease and security of it and once you sign up for a group trip, you also sign up for (mostly) group meals...and that means lowest common denominator food. Even if it's really, really good food, it means eating what the tour company thinks most Americans are going to like.

So, that's why we did not have a major "food trip" this time. There were some exceptions of course, such as the trio of Cairo places Diane and I went to on our own (read about them at the bottom of my post HERE) and the Italian place we ate at on our own in Sharm (info in the post HERE), the Thai place at the Hyatt resort in Sharm and the plate of snacks in the Nubian village near Aswan.

Does Egypt have wonderful places serving delicious indigenous food? No doubt. But, unlike a Paris, Amsterdam, Hanoi, Xi'an, Udaipur or many other places around the world we've been, it did not seem prudent or easy to find it.

Fat Russian Men With Skinny Girls
It became immediately clear upon checking into the Hyatt Resort at Sharm that the place was crawling with Russians. It's just a language you automatically started hearing upon entering the lobby. No big deal, but obvious.

Within a day or two of bumming around the grounds, sitting at the beach and eating in the resort restaurants another thing became clear about these Russians. Namely, almost all the couples we saw were fat men with skinny attractive girlfriends or wives. It didn't matter if the guy was young, old, attractive or not...he was fat. And, his girlfriend or wife was young, skinny and attractive. We saw no equally attractive or fit Russian couples.

To be clear, there definitely were Russian families on vacation at the resort and I'm not talking about them. Their situations spanned a wide range of ages, fitness, etc. No, I'm talking about Russian couples clearly on holiday together sans children or other impediments (like a spouse).

The next thing that came to mind was the question of why this might be? Why would these young, attractive girls go for these fat guys? Why was it so consistently the case?

Well, who knows for sure, but my speculation is that it's all about money. These fat Russian guys are fat for a reason. They have money. Probably a lot. They can afford to fly from mother Russia to the Sinai and stay at the nicest place on the beach. What's a young Russian girl to do? Why not date one of them for the benefits of his money...including a long weekend on the Red Sea at a resort? This is the only explanation I could think of.

Love for Americans
Each guide, shop owner and driver we encountered professed to really like Americans and prefer working with them rather than French, Russians or Italians. Usually, the feedback was that U.S. citizens are friendlier, more talkative and not condescending or rude. Apparently the Italians, Russians and French are consistently all of those things, so Egyptians like Americans by comparison.

Now, some of this reaction may be obvious because, well, what else are they going to say to us? After all, they all have an interest in you spending money in their country and - in the case of guides - tipping them after they're done.

None the less, I think I have a pretty good BS detector, and I think the feedback about the attitudes of the different nationalities rings true to Egyptians no matter whether you will be paying them or not.

And with that, this wraps up my Excursion to Egypt series. I will aggregate all the posts into one place with relevant links here shortly for a one-stop page for all elements of the series for those who have not read the other parts yet.

Thanks for checking in on the blog and following my ramblings!

NOTE: The two pictures in this post were taken by me, Marc Osborn. Any use of these pictures is not authorized without written permission directly from me.

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