I have to admit, of all the countries I’ve ever visited,
Egyptians are the most entrepreneurial of all people on Earth. It must be
ingrained in the DNA. I’ve had the opportunity many times to haggle and buy
things: out of cruise ship windows, out of bus and car windows, off of
street carts, off a cart pulled by a donkey on an interstate highway, and while
idling at the red light in rush hour traffic. I have even had chocolate
ice cream cones delivered to my car window!
If there is a way to take something and transform it for
sale, an Egyptian will find a way to do it. I have personally seen women dig
through the trash bins outside restaurants, collect all the green garnishes and
leftover raw vegetables, and sell it for horse fodder to the cowboys offering
rides at the pyramids. There is also a man on a motorized cart (it’s
really half motorcycle, half mini-truck) who cruises up and down the side
streets yelling into a bullhorn, “Do you have anything you want to get rid
of? I’ll take it off your hands!” There is also a man who collects
plastic water bottles, another who collects paper and cardboard, and at any
stoplight in Cairo you can buy packages of tissue or kitchen towels.
This spirit is part of a larger element of the Egyptian psyche which includes their ideas about work and preserving the dignity of each person; thus, the 50 EGP tip to the intrepid salesman I dubbed “John Elway.” (Read the “John Elway” blog post here, and read more about tipping here.)
As always, we enjoyed our recent Nile cruise, including an intrepid salesman who braved the fast currents of the Nile River at Esna (because of the High Dam, the river now has a series of locks and dams at Esna). The oarsman pulled up parallel with the boat and the hawker began yelling at the side of the ship: “Hello! Ola! Salaam! Bonjour!” Of course, the sundeck was full of tourists watching the ship go through the lock, so everyone looked over the side and I stuck my head out the window of my stateroom. From there, he began tossing merchandise up to the various prospective buyers. This guy should play American professional football – he had the aim and the arm of <insert any famous quarterback here>!
He catches my eye in between haggling with a group of
Chinese tourists on the sundeck and a Russian man two floors down and to my
left. “Hey, lady, where you from?”
I lie and say I’m from Canada. “Ah, Canada Dry!”
I smile and nod.
The first thing I get is a plastic sack containing a truly
hideous black and orange beach towel with a print of the pyramids embossed on
it. I don’t want it, but he insists I keep it. He then tosses up a
bag with a lovely printed scarf, and I yell down, “Yes to the scarf. More!”
“What color you want? You want red?
Yellow? You want blue? I make good price for you!”
“Yes, blue – throw some blue scarves!” Up come some
more scarves in assorted colors. I choose what I want and tie them to the
railing so he can see what I’ve kept.
“Hey, lady… you want tablecloth?” A tablecloth and 12
napkins came sailing into my room. (I swear, this guy is an Egyptian John
Elway… actually, better than Elway, since this guy is throwing accurately
from a standing position on the prow of a moving rowboat tied to the side of a
cruise ship sailing down the raging Nile River.)
“No, I already have a tablecloth.” (As I had just bought a
similar tablecloth at Philae Temple, I send the package zipping back down to
the rowboat. My aim and my arm are not nearly as good as his, but I
somehow manage – probably with divine intervention – to hit the rowboat and not
So now I have indicated I intend to keep some merchandise,
and he’s ready to haggle. I look surreptitiously at Adel and ask what’s a
good price for 4 scarves. He answers, “200 Egyptian pounds.” I yell
down to the man, “How much for 4 scarves?” as I gesture to the scarves I have
tied to my balcony railing.
“900 pounds! I make good price for you!”
“900 pounds? No! 200 pounds!” “John Elway” affects a look of sheer horror. He is scandalized that I would sully the reputation of his merchandise by offering this pittance, when his scarves are clearly worth four times this amount. But he’s no fool… he’s got me on a hook, and he’s willing to deal.
“OK, 500 pounds! You believe me… This is good price!”
I look over at Adel. He shakes his head. “Too
I yell down again. “200 pounds. No more!”
Now “John Elway” is beating his chest and looking like he
will have a heart attack. “I make lower price. Now you must make
higher price! I say ‘500’ and you say again ‘200’. You believe
me. I make you a good price. 400 pounds!”
(Remember… all this is happening in passable English and he
is simultaneously dealing with other buyers in at least two other
languages. I swear, I think he’s even conversant in Chinese.)
“200!” (I am wavering under the constant pressure of
haggling but when I look over, Adel is still shaking his head.)
“OK, 250!” I look at Adel. He’s nodding. 250 Egyptian pounds is apparently an acceptable price for 4 scarves, and he whispers, “Put 50 more. This will make him happy. We want him to be happy.”
So I put 300 Egyptian pounds into the cellophane bag with the hideous beach towel and drop it out the window, where “John Elway” neatly catches it one-handed. He swiftly counts the money, finds the extra 50 pounds (remember, in 2017, 50 EGP = $3.50), smiles a beatific smile, and bows to me. We have successfully haggled, I am happy, and he is happy. He is most grateful for the “tip” which wouldn’t even buy a small Starbucks back home. His shouts out his parting words to me as our ship heads through the lock and his oarsman is forced to release the lines holding it to the rowboat: “Thank you, Canada!”