Saturday, April 28, 2007

Pretty Cool Day

First, let's start with a bit of a news flash:

All those in Egypt, please remember to turn your clocks ahead one hour

That's right, Daylight Savings [sic] Time has finally arrived in Egypt. To be fair, actually, I think the real deal is that it arrived one month earlier in the States starting this year (with unpredicted results [don't worry it was a joke]). In any case at 12:00 AM on Friday, April 27th clocks officially went ahead one hour. I didn't find this out until 3 pm today, when suddenly I found out it was, in fact, four.

And of course, in Egypt (and, I assume, the rest of the Muslim world) this happens on a Friday, for exactly the same reason that it happens on a Sunday in the west (interestingly, the word for Saturday in Arabic is Sabt, with---AIGH!!! frikken ant on my screen (seriously, an ant just crawled on my screen, unfortunately my apartment has lots of "holes" for bugs to get in it)
---the word coming from the Hebrew "Shabbat", apparently, even though Saturday is not the day of rest).

So I woke up late, around 12pm (actually 1pm) and spent, no joke, nearly an hour trying to find my keys (they had somehow fallen out of my pocket when I was sitting in bed and had wedged between the matress and the wall; before I finally found them I nearly went insane trying to figure out what the hell was going on...). Then I went down the street to finally get a haircut -- after 3 months or so my hair was getting ridiculously long and it's really hot in Cairo now. The people in the barber shop were really, really nice and one of the people there asked me if I would be willing to trade English lessons for Arabic lessons. We'll see how that goes.

After this I walked the long way (in fact, so long that it's not even *a* way) towards Imbaba, the nice neighborhood I wrote about earlier which is loaded with markets and people. On the way I had a rather unpleasant experience. Basically, I got accosted by a shoe shiner who stood in my way and insisted I let him polish my shoes. To be fair, they've been needing it for weeks but I didn't want to get my shoes shined then. If I do get my shoes shined I prefer to have it done by someone who I know will do a good job -- someone who's polishing a lot of other people's shoes! But I felt sorry for him (he pulled the whole I need money so I can eat shtick which is of course true but a mean blow to use as a sales tactic). He didn't mention the price at all, and I assumed it would be something reasonable.

At the end I asked him how much and he said 20LE. I was pretty much floored. 20LE is only around $4 (in real money) or so but to give you some perspective, he polished my shoes for maybe 3 minutes, absolutely maximum. The haircut I got earlier that day took 20-30 minutes, cost 20LE and included two shampoos and a nice cup of tea afterwards. For just 10LE I can get a 15-30 minute car ride from my apartment in Mohandesseen to downtown Cairo -- and even that's paying too much! Egyptians and locals pay 5LE for the same trip. Granted, gas is heaviliy subsidized in Egypt, but is shoe polish really that expensive? In this situation, I was suffering my constant problem of not knowing what the fair price was for something, but I had an idea that 5LE (the equivalent of $1) was probably about right, and I expected to be charged around 10LE. 20 really was ridiculous, so I gave him 15 and it took me a few minutes to convince him that, no, I was not going to pay him any more. I was already overpaying at 15 and I don't like overpaying for things I didn't even really want.

These situations make me really angry. It's painful because it's awkward. A dollar for me is not a big deal, but for poor Egyptians it means a lot. So I feel like a real jerk for trying to get a fair price, for refusing to pay more. It makes me feel petty. At the same time, while I feel like it's okay to pay a higher price for some things, I don't think that it's okay to pay a ridiculous price for things and in any case, if I want to donate to charity I'll donate to charity. If I want to conduct business with you then I'll conduct business with you, I won't pay for your service and then give you a handout. I'm more than willing to pay the "foreigner tax" of, say, 20-30%, but I won't pay a stupidity tax.

The rest of the day went really well, though. I continued on to Imbaba and had a lovely time, found out it was 4pm, drank some Hilba (fenugreek tea) with this crazy blacksmith guy, bought some juicy peaches and oranges, and headed back home. Then I headed right back out, because I realized that I'd forgotten all about the peachy-keen 100copies electronica concert that was taking place. I grabbed a taxi and headed down. When I arrived I realized I was in one of those awkward situations where you know zero people at a gathering so it's really weird to start a conversation and hang out with someone (at least, it's weird for me). Thankfully, one of the girls from my school was there so I went up to her and got her to introduce me to her friends. A bunch of them are really fantastic and hopefully I will see them again. After the concert we went to a party which coincidentally turned out to be for someone I already knew, which was sorta Dickensian and cool. I party heartied until 3am or so, then trudged home (it was pretty close to my apartment).

Well, I'm just now hearing the call for morning prayers, which of course means it's time to go to bed.


Cairogal said...

It's a tough situation to reconcile in Egypt. Someone on the Lonely Planet travel board suggested, when this complaint was made, that we 'give Egyptians as much as they want' based on the impoverished nature of the country. Like you said, there are charitable ways to aid the Egyptian economy. Most foreigners come to terms w/ the foreigner rate. Playing the sucker doesn't actually help, like you said.

Mom said...

Hi - maybe it would be good policy to ask the price before agreeing to anything.

Sphinx said...

The ant on your computer screen is miner compared to the hundreds of stories I could tell about at least 10 different species of insects and one rat in my apartment in Alexandria. Nevertheless, it made me laugh, as I know all too well the reality of what you were experiencing.