By the time you read this, I’ll be flying to Egypt on vacation. Yes, it’s true. I’ve been spending way too much time traveling lately, but this is the last one. Because now I’m broke.
I don’t really know why I’m going to Egypt. The last thing I remember is that I was talking to my friend Jamie last year about going whale watching in Baja in February, and the next thing you know, she’s convinced me to go back to Egypt.
Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG
Which is expensive. And I’ve already been. Well, actually, once you endure the long grueling flights to get there, Egypt is fairly cheap, due to the favorable exchange rate. But it costs a pretty penny to get there. Almost as much as a carton of eggs.
I allowed myself to be persuaded to go again because I can do the trip differently than I did 13 years ago when I traveled by myself with two little kids. This time, I can spend more than 20 minutes in a museum without enduring an endless litany of complaints from miniature humans whose feet hurt and who are starving to death.
On that trip, I hardly bought any souvenirs, because of the culture clash. You’d walk down the streets browsing, and see some key chains that might make small nice gifts for the folks back home.
So you ask the proprietor how much they cost. Now, in our part of the world, this transaction would take, what, 15 seconds? He tells you, you decide whether it’s affordable, and either buy it or move on.
But this is not how things work in Egypt. Instead, the owner says, “Come into my shop and have some mint tea.” Everything in Egypt starts with mint tea. If you allow yourself to be drawn into the shop, you sit on a low stool and a ritual ensues that involves bargaining over the price of the keychain.
Yes, you might say, “I’m not thirsty! I just want to know how much the doggone keychain costs so I can decide if I want to buy one for Aunt Frida!”
But that’s not the culture here. Egyptians have been merchants for millennia, and they do it brilliantly. They quickly move you away from any idea of the paltry keychain, which is from China anyway, and onto other items for sale. They ask you how much you want to pay for the handsome rug in front of you.
You say, “Nothing, because I don’t even want a rug.” And, yes, then you foolishly think you will escape. But, no, you will not. That is considered to be your first bargaining maneuver. The objective of the merchant is to get you to name your first price, so he knows how much you’re willing to spend.
Should you actually want to buy the rug, you should name a price that is about 30 percent of what you would really be willing to pay. Then, a look of shock and outrage will come over the face of the proprietor, in which he assures you that he couldn’t even buy the item for that.
He will counter at a price that is twice as much as he will actually accept, looking at you eagerly to see if you’re stupid or naive enough to bite.
Eventually, if you’re smart, you will settle on half of what his original offer was. Once you agree on a price, there is great rejoicing and more mint tea, and the store owner instantly becomes your best friend.
This is why I bought no keychains in Egypt. It was just too exhausting.
At the end of our trip, when we were at a resort town on the Red Sea, I realized I had bought nothing in Egypt to bring home. This just seemed morally and spiritually wrong. Cheetah Boy, who was 13 years old at the time, said, “I want a hoodie from Egypt.”
Now, everything tends to be inexpensive there, so I saw a hoodie I thought he’d like at a tent store on the ocean boardwalk, and stopped to ask how much it cost.
Somehow, in the blink of an eye, I was sitting in the tent drinking mint tea. No idea how I got there. I refused to bargain with the owner, and just kept asking him how much the hoodie cost. Finally, he told me $80. Now, this was absurd, and I was so outraged that I jumped up and tried to walk out of the tent.
“But it’s Egyptian cotton,” he argued, barring me from leaving the shop, having realized that he’d made a grave miscalculation as to my naivete.
“Let me out,” I told him, furiously, as he stood in front of the entrance, blocking the way. The kids were in the shop with me, watching with interest.
He kept trying to persuade me to sit back down, but I was just too insulted. So I started yelling “Police! Police!” at the top of my lungs. This quickly drew a crowd.
At this, the proprietor stepped aside and allowed me to leave his shop. When I walked out, all the local people were laughing. And one man walked up to me and said, “Come to my shop. I’ll sell you a hoodie.”
So, I followed him and bought one for $20. It was still too expensive, but at least it wasn’t an insult. The zipper broke as soon as we got home.
To this day, occasionally the kids will remember that experience, and just start giggling and shouting “Police! Police!” at me. Evil little creatures.
So, yeah, on this trip I would actually like to buy some souvenirs. We’ll see how much mint tea I have to drink to do it.
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