We had been pre-warned that we would experience some hassles from touts in Egypt (we appreciated Mike and Ashley’s honest account here). We developed some different ways to deal with people in Egypt (note, I am not talking about people we asked for help, hostel staff etc but people that approached us unsolicited to offer camel rides, horse and carriage rides, selling souvenirs at temples etc)
- The first and most useful thing we did was make our first response “La, shukran” (no thank you.) Sometimes this would be enough.
- We practiced simply ignoring people – this works better if you are walking somewhere. You don’t have to respond to everyone who asks you something or shouts at you!
- If people didn’t listen to “La shukran” I would speak to them only in Maori. Now, I don’t actually speak Maori but if I put together enough song words and look confused they would eventually decide I didn’t speak English. Reubs and I had a code for when we would be non-English speakers. I’m not sure if this actually helped but it did help me to smile in stressful situations!
- We didn’t engage much in conversations on the street – every tout will ask you “where are you from” etc. As travellers we are used to engaging in these conversations but with touts you are just playing into their sales pitch – although it felt rude, we just didn’t get into these conversations. It helped to realise that at home if a stranger on the street started asking you questions about where you were from, what hotel you were staying at, trying to change foreign currency or saying they wanted to practice their English you would run a mile – so why would we want to engage with randoms on the street just because we are in Egypt?
- We repeated “La shukran” a lot, and stuck to it – the last thing we wanted was for people to hassle us into going back on our “no” as it would then mean they would hassle other tourists until they changed their mind. Some of the camel vendors thought we were just bargaining hard – we really, truly didn’t want a camel ride.
- We were fine with saying “I don’t like it” as a reason not to buy something.
- We adopted a healthy mistrust of people – meaning that we refused to go to a shop with a man who “just happened to own a shop in your town in New Zealand”, we checked out for ourselves if the museum was shut (it was open) and we generally were suspicious of people who approached us for no reason.
- We tried to do research beforehand so we knew what we wanted to do – for example, we knew we wanted to go from the metro station to the pyramids by mini van, so we were able to ignore people trying to lead us in other directions. We booked our train tickets online so we didn’t have to deal with vendors refusing to sell us non-tourist class tickets.
- We moved away from people trying to sell us things. If they gave something to us, we put it down (this only happened once). We realised that nothing comes for free, so we ignored people offering to take our photo for free etc – a tip is always expected. We just asked other tourists to take our photo instead.
One of the things I didn’t deal so well with was being public property – having strangers tell me to “smile”, comments on how we must have been to the Pyramids as we were dusty, always being asked where we were from, the charming taxi driver who reached out his taxi and tried to grab my butt, having people constantly say to Reuben about me “lucky man”, the group of guys in Aswan who insulted me and called me names and when we yelled at them just laughed at us and told us they weren’t talking to us (in context, we had been warned by a lovely shop keeper that there were pickpockets just up the street, so when one moved to put a scarf on Reuben I used my body to block the bag – this made them pretty mad. Other Egyptians were quick to apologise for his behaviour.) We learned that yelling doesn’t work, and doing the fingers at the taxi driver was probably not the wisest. We practiced ignoring – as someone who has struggled with weight issues my whole life it’s definitely a challenge to ignore people yelling at me how big my butt is!
Our advice to anyone coming to Egypt is:
- Be prepared. You will be hassled in some form.
- Develop a thick skin.
- Remember that the bulk of Egyptians are amazing, friendly and helpful people…try not to be put off by the touts – they don’t represent the majority. We had great tour guides, an amazing felucca captain, people in restaurants who helped us understand the menus and welcomed us into local places, people warning us about places to beware of pickpockets…We were also aware that as tourists you don’t get many opportunities to meet people who aren’t involved in the tourist industry, so that definitely meant we met more touts than we would if we were living here.
- Be comfortable with ignoring, being less nice and less friendly than you might be in other countries.
- Be very clear about what you are interested in buying and only begin the process if you want to buy. No-one can force you to spend your money (and if someone is hassling you repeatedly, do you really want to give them your business?)
- Be empathetic. The tourist industry in Egypt has taken a massive hit in the last couple of years since the revolution and a lot of people here are desperate. That doesn’t make the hassles right but it does make them more understandable.