Trust me, you're welcome
copyright 1998, James Waldron Design, all rights reserved
N 30 deg. 03.351 min.
E 031 deg. 13.440 min.
JIf you are a foreigner, and visit Egypt, you are welcome. Second onlyto, "Hello," "Welcome!" is your most frequent greeting from the locals.And you are welcome. Welcome to see exotic treasures from the Nile, welcometo sit, and talk, and drink strong, sugary tea. Welcome to haggle endlesslywith taxi drivers, shop owners, and welcome to pay about ten bucks foreach ancient tomb you visit.
I didn't feel welcome. I'm too deep a cynic to believe anyone who meetsme on the street has any motivation except to remove me and my money fromeach other's company. It's not a fair assessment of course, but it trulyconfuses me when someone actually steps forward and invites me into theirlives for no apparent reason other than I'm not from around there.
My first day in Cairo found me in a fairly nice gang hostel eight floorsup a rickety, open-walled elevator and suddenly living with five roomates.As hostels go this was pleasant enough, and the close quarters always guaranteesome people to talk to, stories to share, and occasionally a travellingpartner for a few days. In my room I met Gus, a Palestinian living in Australia,Sarah, a Kiwi returning home slowly from England, and Ariela, an Israeliteacher on a three week excursion.
Living in hostels involves a certain level of trust. Most back packerscarry around their house on their back, and when you enter a hostel youdump you pack under your bed. One must be confident that most of the peopleon the road are not thieves, because anyone could go through your things,pull out the valuable stuff, and catch the bus to the next town withoutyou ever knowing. We keep the really precious things Ñour passports,plane tickets, cash and credit cardsÑ in little belts attached toour waists night and day. But aside from that, you have to have a littlebelief that there is good in all people and that the person snoring nextto you, who you met three hours ago, is not going to wake up, pull outa machete, and hack you into little bits. It happens, of course, but wepretend it doesn't. Without that trust you just couldn't travel like wedo.
Through my year abroad my trust has been tested. My shoes were stolen fourdays after I started, and after 10 months of good luck my passport andcredit cards came up missing in Scotland (from the hostel safe I mightadd). So I'm a little more wary than some of my traveling partners, notparanoid, but aware. I figure the more you travel the smarter you get.So, it was with great pleasure I set out on an afternoon with Ariela totour Cairo by foot.
Ariela lives with her boyfriend, teaches history, and plans to marry soonand have some kids. She's been traveling for ten years all over the world.Her man likes to stay home while she gallavants around and they both enjoythe freedom her holidays afford them. What I liked about Ariela was thatshe had a definite plan for touring the city, and I got to tag along withoutmaking too many decisions, which I very much liked after nearly a yearof roaming aimlessly. I trusted her to be my guide.
Despite our traveler pedigrees, we were the victims of a quick con rightaway. We negotiated with a taxi driver to take us to the Citadel, Cairo'sancient fortress. There are two gates, about a half mile apart. One gatelets you in, one doesn't. Guess which one we were driven to? Simple con,the driver would gladly take us to the other one for an additional fee.No thanks, we'll walk. Along the way we bought some cooked sweet potatoesand chatted about our lives. Our trust in the goodness of people was onlybruised, not damaged.
After the Citadel, we planned to walk to the City of the Dead, which lookedto be about a three kilometer walk through some local neighborhoods. Whenyou are exploring a new city it's too bad there aren't signs like, "Watchout tourists, you could get killed here," or "You are about to enter anarea that will challenge your conceptions about the durability of the humanrace." We found ourselves someplace the guidebooks don't describe.
But maybe they should. We were looking for the City of the Dead,a large ancient graveyard, but we found, instead, the City of the BarelySubsisting. After a meandering walk through a maze of high, crumbling apartments,we discovered where Cairo brings it's trash to be recycled. Perhaps recycledis too modern a concept. It's the place where huge bags of garbage aretrucked up a hill by donkey carts to be torn apart and picked through bya few thousand people who apparently scrape out a livelihood this way.It is not prettyÑabhorrent in factÑ but somehow still a happyplace. The bags are not stored in some huge, wide landfill, but stuffeddeep inside the first floors of the tall buildings. People wade throughthem in every available open space.
Everywhere you look there are people pulling apart the garbage and pilingit into some sort of systematic heaps. Most of the mounds were organicmaterial of dubious origin, but some were growing bags of nails, paper,glass, bone, plastic. To what use I can only imagine. The aroma changedevery few feet, sometimes of burned plastic, sometimes of rotting flesh.We did, in fact, stumble over the fresh carcasses of some chickens, a pig,and a donkey, all the time happy, dirty, curious children surrounding usalong the way. It was just surreal.
But it did strengthen our resolve on the inherent goodness of mankind.Even living in the bowels of Cairo, separating one form of waste from another,the people were friendly, unthreatening, and constantly chanting, "Welcome!"We were uneasy, but not outwardly afraid. Our only problem came when wecontinued to look for the City of the Dead. A group of locals hadn't reallyheard of it and sent us by taxi to the outskirts of town. When we finallyfound a taxi who knew where it was, we were returned just across the streetfrom where we first got our directions. Apparently the citizens of theCity of Trash don't know they are neighbors to the City of the Dead.
Happy after surviving our excursion into the Seventh World, far beyondthe Third World, we continued on to much more concrete goals. Ariela wanteda compact disc of Egyptian music and knew the general direction of theshops. It was there that her belief in human goodness was shattered, andmine was reaffirmed.
Just outside of our hostel, on the way to get the CD, someone targetedme for a Con involving duty-free shopping. I'd read about this on a bulletinboard in the hostel. This fellow, said hello, and handed me a paper explaininghe needed my help to get some duty-free discounts. I said no thanks, andwhen he persisted, put my hand on his shoulder, smiled, looked straightinto his eyes, and said "no." He went off looking for another victim. Thescam works in a way that at some point he has your cash in his hands, asksto meet you somewhere, and is gone. Simple con, and I bet it works well,especially if you like friendly people and believe in the goodness of man.Like Ariela.
She is an intelligent woman, and I had relied on her to do all the bargaining,food choice, and motivation, while I was in charge of navigation. It workedpretty well. I am much more likely to study a map and she is apt to asksomeone directions. She's friendly and unafraid. Herein lies the foundationof a Con.
"A Con" is the slang phrase for "Confidence game." The key is getting thevictim to feel comfortable about trusting the perpetrator of the Con (hencethe phrase "Con Man") Our Con Man must have been watching us ask everyoneon the street where the CD store was, and he stepped right up to help.
I think he said his name was Mohammed, and he was only slightly skillful,but really energetic. He asked if he could help us find something. Arielaexplained what she wanted, and sure enough, he knew a place. Off we wentto the CD shop, and he explained that if he did the talking we would getthe best price. After some shopping, a short listening session, and a littlehaggling, Ariela had her new CD.
But Mohammad pleaded with us to join him for tea nearby. "Only a few minutes,it's been such fun helping you out, spend a cup of tea with me." Fine.Off we went to some tiny garret off the beaten path, to a place I was nearlyunwilling to enter. Three teas and the Con continued. Given that I wasuninterested in his chatter he focused on Ariela, always politely askingif I had any problem with his attention to her. This is where theCon Man gets you used to being with him and that he is just a regular guyinterested in tourists. He talked of his family, his wife, his job, etc.Then he did something funny. Out of his breast pocket he produced a smallvial of perfume and offered it to Ariela as a gift. She refused sayingshe doesn't wear any. He gave it to me instead. Then he insisted givingus his address so we could send a postcard when we got back to our homecountries. "Gee what a nice guy," we thought. Actually, I was still curioushow he intended to get our money.
Next step. "Have you any paper money from your country? Any coins?," Ithink this is a way to get you to dig around in your wallet so he can geta look to see if you have any decent cash around. I begrudgingly produceda Finnish coin which he marveled at, but insisted I keep it anyway as acurio from my trip there. He also asked if we would be nice enough to posewith him for a Polaroid photograph from the camera he had in his car. Yeahsure, maybe this guy is legitimate and just a pleasant dork in love withtourists.
Just about now it was time to pay for the tea. It occurred to me I mighthave just ingested something bad, but dismissed it as too public to bepoisoning tourists. As Mohammad took my money to pay for the tea, he askedAriela if she needed to change any larger note bills into small change,which is in notorious short supply in Cairo. Why yes, she said, and hetook her 40 pounds (about 12 US dollars) up to the counter. I said no anddidn't really notice that she had given him anything.
He returned saying the owner refused to make the change but he'd do itaround the corner. "Let's go make the photograph!" "Do you still have mymoney?" said Ariela, "Yes." "He's got some of her money?," I thought briefly.Off we strode into the street again, walking quickly to his continued flirtychatter with Ariela. Just a few feet from a street corner a man bumpedinto me and separated me from Ariela and Mohammed. Our Con Man took thisopportunity to tell her that he'd get the camera and be back in a minute,and quickly dashed across a busy intersection. In that same moment I realizedthat he did, in fact, still have her money and we would never never seehim again.
I tried to follow him, but immediately lost him in the crowd. Returningto Ariela, I explained that waiting was futile. In the meantime, the manwho had bumped me was interested in what happened. Well, I explained, thatwe had just been Conned, and if this were my hometown of New York City,this new guy would be part of the Con and we would be entering level two.He kind of chuckled and said that he was a psychologist and saw Mohammedwalking with us and he thought there was something peculiar going on. Heoffered to buy us some tea. I laughed and we. accepted. Ariela was in anangry shock.
He helped calm Ariela down, who wasn't so upset about the money, but crushedbecause her belief in the goodness of man was being challenged. He didsuggest we go to the police, but between the suspicion that it was a continuationof the Con, and the thought of the hassle of a police station trip, wedecided against it. Off we went into the night.
Hello, welcome to Egypt." said the man at the next corner. Welcome indeed.
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