Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Curse of Baksheesh and Overcharging

Author's note: I have met plenty of friendly and honest Egyptians throughout this trip, some of whom have even been mentioned in this blog in previous posts. However, Egypt's economy largely remains dependent on tourism, and in many of the more popular tourists sites, a few bad apples amongst the population still regard tourists as a walking money machine. Here are just some of my personal experiences and annoyances that I've had with them.

In addition, the Egyptian currency is the Egyptian Pound. Any references to 'Pound' in this post refers to the Egyptian Pound (as of this writing US$1 = E£5.54), and 100 piastres make 1 pound.

Any traveler to Egypt will quickly learn the word “Baksheesh”, the request for a tip, or a hand-out for services rendered. While I have no problems tipping generously when when good service is provided or when a staff member goes above and beyond their call of duty to assist, I get terribly annoyed when baksheesh is requested or expected, sometimes even forced upon you, when little to no service was provided.

Take the toilets at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo for example. Coming out of the bathroom stall, I find the attendant standing up against the door of the stall, blocking me from exiting with a hand outstretched asking for baksheesh! Feeling intimidated, I hand him one pound, and went about my business. Right outside the bathrooms, I see a sign in English I hadn't noticed before: “Please do not tip the bathroom attendant. - Cairo Museum Management”. Feeling a little stupid, I treat this incident as a lesson learned.

Another time where baksheesh is frequently requested is at a historic monument, where guards will let you into 'closed areas' for a little baksheesh. However, it is hard to tell if the area was actually closed to the public, or if the guard simply put a stick across the entryway to make it seem inaccessible, only to earn a few extra pounds by letting willing tourists into these so-called “forbidden areas”. I have to admit that I've succumbed to the pressure and paid more than a few guards a few pounds, only to get access to that perfect picture, or a closeup view of the wall paintings on a few occasions. Almost every time though, I feel bad afterward for encouraging this bad practice and behavior. I guess we, the tourists, are part of the problem as well!

The one time I refused to pay any baksheesh was inside of the tombs in the Valley of the Queens. Because I visited the site on a bicycle, and timed my arrival in between waves of tour groups, I found myself alone in many of the tombs with the guard standing inches from me, breathing down my back. All of them were eager to explain every symbol, and image on the walls to me for a little baksheesh. As soon as I realized what was going on, I flat out told them that I have my trusty Lonely Planet guide with me, and that it does a great job of explaining most of the highlights of each tomb. “You can stand there and explain all you want, but I am not giving you any baksheesh!” I said. Most leave me alone after that!

What is probably worse than the constant asking for baksheesh is the blatant over-charging of tourists and the lack of fixed prices for anything. In the morning, a bottle of water could be 2 pounds, and in the evening, the same bottle in the same store will cost 5 pounds! The best felafel sandwich I've tasted in Egypt is from a little street-side stand in the souk (bazaar) in Aswan. However, for three days in a row, I paid a different price for the felafel each time! On the first day, I asked for one felafel and was charged 2 pounds for a sandwich made with half a pita. The next day, I ordered two felafels and was charged 5 pounds for two halves of a pita sandwich. On the third day, I was back again, and ordered one felafel and without waiting to be told how much it was going to be, I just handed the guy 2 pounds. This time, in return, I received two halves of a pita sandwich! Perplexed at the seemingly inconsistent prices, I later asked a local working at the hostel front desk how much a felafel should cost. And his answer: One felafel consists of one pita (two halves of a pita sandwich) and it should cost 1 pound! Oh well!

My biggest pet peeve right now is the practice of short changing. And this has happened to me on several occasions, from street side stores, to seemingly nice and reputable restaurants, and even at a museum ticket booth! Handing over a 200 pound bill at the Temple of Kom Ombo for a ticket that should only cost 60 pounds, I was casually handed a ticket and change in the amount of 40 pounds. I was ready to just pocket the change and walk off, when at the corner of my eyes, I notice the ticket agent hiding something under the ticket booklet. Something felt wrong and I took the extra effort to count my change at this time, realizing that I was 100 pounds short. I immediately questioned the agent about it, and only then, with a slight embarrassed smile for being caught, he pulls out the 100 pound bill from under the ticket booklet and hands it to me!

Since that incident, I always count my change before I leave any store, and I've found waiters to be the most prevalent at the practice of short changing. Even when service and taxes have clearly been added to the bill, I have caught waiters short changing me anywhere from 5 pounds to 30 pounds. While on the way to catch a bus out of Luxor, I stopped to purchase a to-go or take-away meal for the bus ride. Two days ago, at the same eatery, I bought this same meal for 10 pounds, but this afternoon, the bill came up to 12 pounds! Too tired to argue over what really amounted to a few cents back home, I let it slide and handed over a 20 pound bill. At first, the cashier handed me back five 1 pound notes. I looked at him, shook my head and demanded three more pounds. He opens the drawer, picks out two more pounds in 50 piastres denomination and handed the coins to me. Still short of 1 pound, I shook my head again, stood my ground, and demanded one more pound! Ordinarily, I wouldn't have cared, and would have let the 1 pound go, but after constantly being over-charged and short changed for the last month, I have had enough! Furthermore, I know I've been over-charged for this meal already, did he really think he could short change me as well? Only when I refused to move did he finally relent and pulled a 1 pound coin out and handed it to me! Unbelievable!


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