Thursday, December 2, 2010

Guilty life of Luxory

Okay, I'm technically in Aswan now, not Luxor, but then the pun wouldn't work, would it? If anything, Aswan's even cheaper - check out my budget balcony Nile view, which is identical to the view those snobs in the 4-star hotels on each side of me have paid a hell of a lot more for (just pretend there isn't a busy main road in-between me and the scenery and it's ideal).

I've written before about how pleasantly shocked I was by the steep drop in prices as soon as I crossed the Taba border into Egypt, but heading into the south of the country (confusingly called Upper Egypt), this drop becomes effing vertical. Since arriving here, I've been eating in restaurants every day.

Actual restaurants, where people come to your table and ask what you'd like, as if you're better than them (this type of service still makes me uncomfortable). My hotel restaurant even brings the meals to your room so you can eat them in bed like a normal person!

I can't remember the last time I ate in a restaurant before Egypt. It was probably for Beardo's leaving meal back in the UK. But even if my current hotels did have kitchens, there's no incentive to boil stuff in a pan, or whatever else constitutes my cooking (nothing else; it's actually that), when I can get some slap-up nosh for under a fiver.

The fact that I would never normally say things like 'slap-up,' 'nosh' or 'fiver' might give you some idea of how Egypt is changing me. For the worse? My formerly neglected stomach and taste buds would disagree - they've never been so pleased.

Formicidae flatmates

Speaking of my accommodation, I had an en suite room in Luxor for the equivalent of £3.33. Okay, so the bathroom itself may have been infested with ants, but it made up for this with a handy pipe in the toilet bowl that shot a powerful jet of water directly into your digestive system, so you could enjoy all the pseudoscientific benefits of colonic irrigation in the comfort of your room.

Probably. I didn't use it or anything, and anyone who says they heard the muffled sound of a powerful jet of water spraying for six minutes through the thin walls each night, followed by an exhausted groan, is lying.

I'm only paying about twice that for my more upmarket, air-conditioned Aswan hotel room, which is hardly infested at all. Even if their racist 'No Israeli' policy is a little disturbing. Worse than the time I saw a copy of Mein Kampf being shamelessly displayed outside a book shop on a major shopping street in Cairo, which could have at least been for historical research purposes or something. I hope.

Habibi harassment

So it's clear that Egypt's low prices don't come without some costs, whether it's the xenophobia or gender imbalance that get to you, or just the needlessly amplified prayer calls at 5am sharp. But once you've learned to embrace things like the ceaseless sales pitches as an amusement rather than an irritation, dodging the cars and donkeys in Egypt can become pretty enjoyable. As long as you're not in Cairo.

But then, I'm a man (or something in that ballpark), so this dark side of Egyptian tourism is mostly hidden from me... unless I'm hanging around with girls. Which I try to do as much as possible.

According to one terrifying statistic, 98% of foreign women experience some form of sexual harassment in Egypt, which seemed kind of insane and unbelievable when I first read it, until I realised that of the two girls I've spent time talking to here, both were propositioned, groped and/or unpleasantly kissed by their pervy hostel managers during their stay.

It's also revealing when you walk down a street by yourself, as a male, and get pitched to by maybe one or two touts, but after meeting up with your female friend at the train station and returning back down the same road, they won't leave you alone. 'Habibi' is the Arabic word for 'beloved' (you'll be over-familiar with it if you've had the dubious pleasure of listening to their rubbish pop songs), but it also seems to double up as 'foreign lady I would like to make fuck.'

The harassment isn't constant or anything, but the atmosphere takes a while to disperse. I'll admit that on an average day, I pretty much only open my communication frequencies if there are attractive women around, but it's pretty angering and depressing when managers who've helped you sort through problems, and feel at home during your time in their hotel, end up making your friends cry by knocking on their doors late at night with strange requests or kissing them in extremely inappropriate ways.

The frugal voyage continues...

I'm spending the next five days in Aswan and Abu Simbel, which is so far south it's practically Sudan without the civil wars (except Sudan wouldn't let me in), so I expect this growing sense of post-colonial guilt to be nurtured even further as I leave the privileged West behind.

I wonder which deprived country I'll head to next, where I can continue to live like a king and feel falsely generous leaving my 25% tips, which equate to less than £1. The sort of king who won't buy a second Egyptian Stella because he doesn't want to break his £5 budget.

I still don't take taxis either, but that's more a matter of pride and independence than about saving money. But I can't go back to RRPs now.

I guess if you're one of those middle-aged Americans in matching yellow baseball caps who's visiting Egypt as part of a cosy tour package, you could be paying a reasonable amount for your inspiring holiday. But I'll always prefer the less reasonable, almost shamefully negligible cost of going down the DIY route - staying in charmingly infested hostels, getting lost on trains and having some of the best experiences of my life for less than a tenner.

It's the only way to experience the 'real' Egypt - sexual harassment and all. I'll miss the stingy sumptuousness when I leave.

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