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.
I crossed the labyrinthine Khan and made my way to Midan el-Hussein, the section where most of the tour buses drop off their well-heeled passengers. Here, I found one of the well-stocked shopping emporiums: an air-conditioned store, packed with rugs, colorful wall hangings, ivory and bone chess pieces, inlaid jewelry boxes and backgammon sets. My strategy was to buy all of my gifts and souvenirs in one place, banking on a bulk rate.
As soon as I walked in, I could feel the salesmen appraise me. No, I was not one of the older tour-group crowd, but neither was I a fresh-out-of-school backpacker. I sized up the store in return. It was well-kept, modern and, with the exception of myself, utterly devoid of customers. Confidently, I went about plucking goods off shelves and out of display cases, depositing inlaid box
| Travel notes|
Egyptair is the only carrier with direct flights from the U.S. to Egypt, with three 11-hour nonstop flights departing weekly from New York (www.egyptair.com). Getting there from Europe is considerably easier, with a variety of carriers making daily roundtrips from such hubs as London, Paris, Frankfurt and Rome.
Red Tape and Visas
Bureaucracy has flourished in Egypt for 5,000 years, and you'll come up against it when obtaining travel permits or visa extensions. So get used to it. All visitors to Egypt must hold passports that are valid for at least six months beyond the proposed date of entry to the country. American citizens must also obtain tourist visas, available at the Egyptian consulates in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Houston, as well as the Egyptian embassy in Washington, D.C. (consult www.egyptandus.com for more info on location and prices). In addition, special travel permits must be secured for travel in some parts of Egypt, and travelers with Israeli stamps in their passports will, as of this writing, still be refused entry.
Cairo offers a broad spectrum of accommodations, with everything from luxury palaces, familiar from movies such as Death On The Nile, to homely pensions and flea-ridden dives. Even in high season you should be able to find something in your preferred range. Egyptian hotels are loosely categorized into star ratings, ranging from five-star deluxe class down to one-star. Below this range, there are also unclassified hotels and pensions, some of them tailored to foreign backpackers, others mostly used by Egyptians.
Deluxe hotels are almost exclusively modern and chain-owned (Sofitel, Mövenpick, Hilton, etc.), with swimming pools, bars, restaurants, air-conditioning and all the