The Smiles of Strangers
For a moment, I thought Egyptians were the second friendliest people I’d ever met in my travels, Nepali being the first. The word ‘Welcome’ was always at the tip of their tongue. In Luxor, Upper Egypt, strangers would approach me and say ‘Where are you from?’ – No greeting, no hello, nothing, just straight to the question – and when I answered, they would say ‘Welcome’ with a big smile. Nepali were equally curios. They would start with ‘Where are you from?’, and then follow it with, ‘Have you eaten? (or ‘Have you eaten rice?)’ At first I never knew how to respond to the follow up. I didn’t know that ‘Have you eaten’ is equivalent to ‘How are you’, so I’d say ‘No, I haven’t eaten,’ and they’d offer me tea or snacks without hesitation. When I’d turn down the offer, they’d get angry, and not understand my refusal. Egyptians almost always limited their curiosity to that one question, but Nepali often plunged into an inquisition; ‘What’s your name? Are you married? What’s your caste? How many are you in your family?’ They ask about anything, and everything, prying into very private matters that it sometimes became unsettling.
I visited Luxor for about a week in February of 2017. It’s a touristy town. The streets are filled with hustlers in the trade, taxi drivers, guides, hantour (horse carriage) drivers. It seemed as if everyone earned from tourism, yet there had been a big reduction in tourists, and I could feel their desperation for customers. Often, friendliness turned into harassment. The first few days, I’d chat with them, until I realized that this niceness was a marketing trick. They were trying to sell me a service, and would not take no for an answer. Whenever I engaged taxi drivers and hantour drivers in conversation, me asking about local this and that, they would soon start saying how good they are at their jobs, and how I’d not regret hiring them for this or that service.
- My Short Films
- The Fun of Backpacking in Nigeria
- Will You Marry Me?
- The Ghost of DIctators in Bukoba
Walking along the streets was pure pain. Every few feet someone would yap at me to take a boat ride (‘You know how much it costs? Only 60 pounds an hour’) or a horse carriage drive, or a taxi, (‘You can’t walk my friend, it’s too far for you! Take a taxi, only 5 pounds! I’m going where you are going!’) or to guide you through all the temples and all the sites (‘I was born here. I’ve been a guide since I was ten, I know everything you want to know’) I couldn’t find peace. I couldn’t sit by the riverside and enjoy the scenery and the solitude of the banks. I could not just walk about and enjoy the atmosphere. They wouldn’t let me. Even if someone saw you stepping off a boat, he would try to offer you another boat ride, promising better service than the one you had just stepped off. I don’t think I want to experience that ever again!
Slow business. A hantour (horse carriage) waits for tourists outside Luxor Temple
Of soccer and tourist hustlers
Speaking to these hustlers, trying to be nice, encouraged them to try harder, so I stopped. Ha! Not a good idea. One time at West Bank, this guy was talking his tongue off – you want horse ride? Camel? Donkey? You want a boat? A taxi? Anything, I can give you. I ignored him. He got angry. “I’m talking to you,” he shouted at me. “Listen to me! I’m talking to you, why are you rude? Answer me! Talk back?” He stepped in front of me to block my path, and I had to shove him aside. That infuriated him even more. “Don’t touch me!” he screamed. “You touch me? You want trouble?”
I didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, I saw a policeman, and I walked to him. The hustler vanished.
Eventually, I started to respond in Kiswahili, pretending I didn’t know English. That worked nicely. They would see I’m nice, but can’t just understand them, and they would give up quickly.
I must say it was not always like this. A few times, I ran into people who I had really good conversations with, although, often, a hustler would see us talking and join, and then the conversation would turn into another nightmare.
I found it really strange that they hardly knew about Uganda. I thought that they would at lease know where the waters of the Nile came from. ‘Ourwanda?’ they would ask when I mentioned my country. ‘No. Uganda.’ I spoke slowly. ‘You-Ga-Nda’. ‘Where is that?’ they would say. ‘Africa?’
I got called ‘Africa’ a lot.
I was there during the time the African Cup, and one day I was talking to this boy of about fifteen. He was genuinely curious about my origins. He barely spoke English. He pointed at his chest and said, ‘Egypt’, then he pointed at me with a question on his face. ‘Uganda’, I said. He repeated the name a few times, pronouncing it as ‘Ourwanda’, and then he jumped up, very excited, laughing and celebrating. I heard words like ‘goal’ and I figured out what he was saying. A few nights before, Uganda had played Egypt in the African Cup, and Egypt beat us 1-0.
‘He is saying he beat you,’ a hustler budged in. ‘Did he beat you? I can take him to police.’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘We are talking about football.’
‘It wrong for him to beat you,’ the hustler said. ‘I arrest him? I take him to police?’
I walked away. The boy seemed disappointed as he looked like he wanted to talk some more about soccer. The hustler followed me, offering me protection. Security. I ignored him, wishing I knew a bit of Arabic, so I could have had a good conversation with the little boy.
The author enjoying a horse ride through the villages on the West Bank of the Nile in Luxor,
A hot-air balloon floats over the West Bank of Luxor, just before dawn.
Horses and Balloons in the West Bank
I wanted to do something other than just sightseeing, something I’d never done before in my life, and I heard that I could go horse riding even though I’d never ridden a horse before. I jumped right at it. I found a business called Pharaoh Stables, and their website said I’d pay 1000 pounds for a half-day horse tour. I tried calling, the phone did not go through, so I did not even bother with emails. I jumped on a ferry, crossed the Nile to the West Bank, and started to look for the stable. Wary of hustlers, I asked for directions at hotel receptions. Of course, I got lost in a village. Fortunately, I met a young man who took me to the stable. He didn’t speak much for he was no hustler, just a regular village guy.
The stable owner told me business was bad. A few years back, they got hundreds of customers each day, and they would turn many away. You had to book a ride weeks in advance. Now, I was the only person who, in the last week, had even inquired about the service.
I was prepared the pay the price on the website, but then, he asked me, ‘How much do you want to pay?’ and I knew I could bargain. We settled for 500 pounds, and plus a tip for the guide.
They gave me a pony, one that was gentle to ride, and off we went. It was a great way to experience the tombs on the West Bank, certainly much better than going on a tour bus. I almost felt as if I was not a tourist. At first I was afraid of the horse, and hung on to the reins too tightly, but eventually I got used to it and I relaxed enough to take selfies 🙂
I had always wanted to do a balloon ride. It is a booming business in Luxor, unlike horse riding, so I thought the price was fixed at 1200 pounds. I called in to book, and I asked; ‘So I have to pay 1,200 pounds?’ The person at the other end said, ‘Yes, that’s the price.’ And I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ And I don’t know what he read into that, because he said, ‘How much do you want to pay?’ It beat my understanding. We settled for 800 pounds. I did not have to go to their office to make the payment, they sent someone to my hotel, which was kind of nice and convenient.
They picked me up before dawn, because the rides happen just before sunrise. The point was to see the sunrise from up there, it’s supposed to be beautiful. And you see the beautiful pictures of balloons and sunrises over the Nile, you think it’s going to be an experience like that. What a disappointment.
Later, someone told me I took a huge risk for those balloons are not safe. They are poorly maintained and get overcrowded. Maybe that’s why they offered me a bargain. There was no formula to jumping aboard. I thought it would be orderly, since we had boarding passes, but it was total chaos. ‘Just find one and jump on’, the guide told me. Any balloon. I to fight for a place. I nearly missed the flight because I’m meek. The guide shoved me aboard, fighting off a couple of other people so I could get a place.
Once in the air, everything seemed nice and beautiful, great views of the tombs and all. I waited for the sunrise. It never came because there was too much dust. ‘I should have come tomorrow,’ I complained. ‘There’s no guarantee you’d see the sun,’ a man next to me said. ‘There’s always too much dust.’
And more disappointments set in. I thought they could guide the balloon so we could see specific sights, go to specific places. But no. There was no way to guide the balloon. It just drifted about, going wherever the wind blew, and I had to endure a very boring hour up there, seeing nothing but rooftops and gardens. It totally was not worth the 800 pounds. I should have bargained to pay 300.
Hot Air Balloons float over villages in West Bank, Luxor
Now that you are here, I have a small favor to ask. I regularly make science fiction short films and I’m looking for your support. It’s very difficult to make it as a filmmaker in Africa, where there is virtually no market to encourage big film investments, and so any dollar you can spare will go a long way into changing things. Please pledge on patreon.com/dilstories You only pay after I make the film, and you can stop payments at anytime. For other options, like donating via mobile money or PayPal, please go here dilmandila.com/donate