Fresh off the ferry from Jordan, my first stop in Egypt was Dahab, the hip Sinai beach resort town popular with ravers, backpackers and hardcore divers. I was immediately hustled by a 10-year-old Bedouin girl who sold me a tourist trinket for what, I later discovered, was 300 percent more than the going rate. If a child could out-haggle me, I would surely be dead meat in the hands of a veteran merchant in Cairo’s Khan El-Khalili Bazaar, the venerable open-air market where I planned to do the bulk of my gift and souvenir shopping.
Haggling, of course, is a skill. And like with any skill, the route to mastery lies on that long, rocky road called practice. In the town of Aswan, I haggled for a fair accommodation rate by showing up en masse with six travelers and threatening to take our business elsewhere if we didn’t get a discount. In Luxor, I was able to get a good deal on a day-long donkey-back tour to the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut’s Temple by cutting out the middle man, in this case our hotel manager, who wanted a hefty commission for introducing us to the tour outfitter.
By the time I got to Cairo, I felt like a bargaining machine. My confidence was boosted by the seeming familiarity of the surroundings; Cairo reminded me of New York City, my home, the streets throbbing with traffic, and eateries, sheesha (the ubiquitous tall water pipes of the Middle East) joints, and bars bustling with activity into the night. The people were a motley mix of women dressed head to toe in traditional Muslim covering, local teenagers scantily clad in the latest Vogue-inspired fashions, and a number of hucksters no doubt itching to take my last pound. I knew this manic energy, this patchwork of disparate cultures and personalities.
Or at least I thought I did. Tenacious and determined, I ventured to Cairo’s most renowned shopping venue, the Khan El-Khalili Bazaar. In business since the Middle Ages and without orderly aisles and air conditioning, the Khan is the antithesis of the Western shopping experience. All manner of shops line its narrow, dingy streets and alleyways, as oxcarts and mopeds jostle with shoppers for space. Rather than try to navigate in any organized fashion, I chose to plunge in and let my feet take me where they would. I walked down the Muski, the pulsing main artery of the market, passing pungent spice stands and produce stalls buried in bananas, mangoes and nuts, and besieged by a chorus of sing-song beckoning from jewelry and perfume hawkers.