Wednesday, July 31, 2013

‘Gypt in a land of wonder.

Small boys riding Arabian dancing horses, competing with small boys riding motorcycles. Grown men driving cars with no headlights at breakneck speed in the same poorly lit street. There's barely enough room for pedestrians and even they are very erratic, to say the least. In the midst of it all, a wedding cavalcade of mini-vans escorted by a traveling disco sound system. The police are very noticeable by their absence. The situation is unsafe and it all happens so frequently. It is dangerous, annoying and it is deafening. This is Luxor, one of the major tourist destinations on earth. It's also the festival of Eid. But, this is also Egypt after the authorities lost control. It isn't a pleasant experience but it's what independent travelers have to endure if Egyptology is on their minds. And, after visiting the ruins of one of the world's early civilizations, it has become a wonderful mystery as to why it's all so un-inviting.

The chaos, cacophony and crap on the streets appear as sure signs nothing good lies in the near future for the people who speak so proudly of their recent "revolution". It's as if this is their only period of "freedom" since the pyramids were built 5,000 years ago. And, they're going nuts with it. For example, it would be very difficult for foreigners to drive a car in Egypt. Car rental companies have vacated the country. I noticed a lot of missing headlights. I noticed very few traffic lights. The most were near the stretch of highway that connects the airport to downtown Cairo. In this city of 18 million it can be anywhere from 30 minutes to never when estimating how long it might take to do that trip. I've never experienced traffic congestion such as I lived with during my 5 days in Cairo.

I travelled by road from Abu Simbel to Aswan to Luxor. I'm sure that road operations were much smoother when the police were on duty. The linear urban strip all along the Nile lends itself to modern traffic control techniques but instead it can be pure pandemonium at times, often times. There's evidence of a police presence but I got the sense it was only interested in controlling the locals. Now, where the main Cairo road runs parallel with the Nile, traffic calming has sprung up in the form of crude bumps on the road. Using bricks, debris and concrete, speed bumps have been constructed at every school, market or intersection. Many have crumbled under the constant strain turning them into speed bumps to be avoided, rendering them more like gates through which both north and south bound vehicles must pass single file. In the absence of more sophisticated methods, these crude barriers to speed are taking a huge toll on travel time
The police are in their barracks, stationed only immediately outside. Government is frozen. So too are the wages many had come to rely on. Before the revolution most Egyptians had a daily government placement for at least 4 hours of paid labour. That's all gone now. For many it wasn't a tough job but it was where everybody got their share of the net worth of the Country, their institutionalised baksheesh, as it were. As far as I know, after a very short visit, while Egypt is not as resource-rich as Libya or Saudi, it does have significant wealth opportunities. The generosity of the waters of the Nile as it flows through the Egyptian desert is wonderful to see. Farm produce, hydro electricity, some oil, gas and significant infrastructure investments are all examples of the Country's gross domestic value. However, there's a saying in the arab world, "as poor as an Egyptian", and that is so very true.

The balance of an Egyptian's livelihood is supposed to come from income earned as licensed independent operators within their own communities. They work as taxi, horse and camel drivers Many are hotel, restaurant and perfume shop salespeople. The souks too are large employers. They’re all volume based tourist dependant occupations.

These days, it's very evident nobody's buying. I was told, tourism didn't slow down after the January 25, 2011 protests and police action - it came to a thundering halt. What's on offer in the shops, souks and museums has all the appearance of last year's goods. Income from that source has dwindled significantly. 

Now shopkeepers are stuck with cheap imported junk, a lot fewer customers and an unsustainable approach to merchandising and selling. It's obvious too that much of their inventory was not manufactured locally. Unlike other countries in the region where I've visited, Morocco and Turkey, there appeared to be no local craft industry. Yet, everywhere there was delicately manufactured chattels and trinkets. 

Honestly, I saw nothing being made that a tourist would be interested in buying. When challenged, they say, "No, it is made in Egypt". But, the empty "Made in China" packing cartons scattered all around the souks tells the true story.

Another thing, for the prices locals are paying for these goods the cost must be extremely low. It's interesting to ponder the value of the Egyptian market to China. Many home essential goods are imported from there. Based on my use of some of them during my trip, there is a lot of room for product quality improvement. If they are making a profit in such a poor country imagine how fantastically profitable it must be selling to the USA and European markets.

Most Egyptians in the tourism sector are living off a 5,000 year old story. It's a hugely valuable asset, a well established brand but poorly nourished. 
Culturally, this seems to be fine with the locals. They are acutely aware of the essentials of capitalism but seem to have little understanding of marketing or long term planning. It's as if the total revenue from tourism is divvied up among too many recipients and there's never much left over for repairs or improvements. Based on my own experiences, there’s the same neglect in public spaces, boat landings, train and bus stations from near the border with Sudan all the way north via Aswan and Luxor en route to Cairo. Egyptians don't seem to be making any strides to modernize, or even maintain, and glaringly unaware of the threats to their feature assets.

It's unfortunate too that while tourism revenues are down, the rest of the country must be in better shape. Egypt still produces wealth from the country's other assets. For example, Egypt is a major force in the construction industry throughout the Middle East, producing many of the materials used in it, like cement and other raw materials. In spite of this, the museums, hotels, taxis, camels, horses and donkeys all look down on their heel. That's a poor business decision that will have an increasingly negative impact for tourism. 
These people are screwed. It looks to me like the police and military are just waiting them out. The majority of Egyptians are poorly educated and so culturally retarded to be any match for the 1% that hold the levers to coercive power. The oppressors will undoubtedly reappear, and maybe soon when temperatures rise again to their most enervating. The country needs leadership but it's more likely to get another richly-anointed Chief Corruption Officer. Egypt has been controlled by force since antiquity and the current military machine won't tolerate change that endangers its preferred status. The oppressed can't hold out forever either. 

A weird combination of a lowering of the cost of many goods, in the face of a decline in revenues, has conspired to deaden the shock waves of the 2011 Egyptian Spring. It looks like a good deal for the controlling segments in the society but it's a lousy one for most. China enjoys good relations with Egypt for reasons solely to do with natural resources. I'd say the Chinese got the gas but 99% of Egyptians got the pains.

Amazingly, I noticed a number of references to Che Guevara, the kind of leader Egypt needs. But, I saw no evidence that his image is portrayed as anything but another piece of eye candy for the tourists. When I quizzed those retailers about their product offering they appeared to have either no clue who Che Guevara was and even managed somehow to link him with Bob Marley!  

This was the dirtiest, downtrodden country I've ever visited.
The underlying combination of religion and paganism could well be designed to maintain the population close to the lowest common denominator. Along with the chilling effects of fiscal withdrawal and a hands-off police force, it simply looks like another slight-of-hand piece of politics. The kind of political machination measured sparingly enough to mollify the great unwashed until such times as their oppressors re-emerge from their holes to get behind another modern day leader. One who will no doubt take a "rightful" place among a long line of despots. What this country needs is a severe injection of socialism but I fear the "Gods" will resist and the people appear inept at channeling their own collective power.

I went to see the only remaining Wonder of the World, the Pyramids and the Sphinx. They're located in a huge open air museum that is also an active archeological dig. At the edge of Cairo, in a suburb that threatens the very sands these monuments sit upon, Giza public transit takes you right to the foot of the Sphinx. It's an easy walk from there to the ticket office but you must endure another onslaught from the world’s most annoying tourist touts.

Where you from? (Canada, ah Canada Dry, never die) 
What's your name? (Lovely name, same as my father) 
You want scarf? (Made in Egypt, look like Arafat)

It drives you nuts and there’s no relief - even if you fight back.

Where you from? (Afghanistan, oh yea?) 
What's your name? (Osama bin Laden) 
You happy he's dead? (Don't even go there!)

Once through the gauntlet there's a lot more to endure. There’s garbage strewn everywhere. Horse, camel, donkey and dog crap desiccating in full sun and under foot. 

You can’t stop for a look around without some tout approaching and going through the same old, same old routines. Of course, there are two Egyptians. Any who were not annoying touts came across as friendly enough. But, the touts are surely leaving an indelible image on the minds of visitors. I came across a few who I rewarded with a tip of Toronto proportion but in every case my generosity was scoffed at in a most demeaning manner! These were not nice people at all.

Everywhere you look there are solutions that would make the situation better, but Egyptians aren't interested. A simple thing like a garbage bin is resisted because, "who wants a garbage bin on their corner?" That the garbage is tossed on, or swept to, that corner anyway doesn't seem to resonate. These are a culturally stubborn people. That so much of their well-being depends on tourism concerns them very little either. My guess is only the most die-hard Egyptologists would ever want to return to this place.

On the night before I left Cairo I walked by Tahrir Square. Friday is the holy day and the day of protest. That Friday was at the tail end of the Eid holiday. The streets were absolutely crowded with little room for cars or people to move. Drivers honked incessantly, out of holiday joy and frustration. The horn in Egypt is both a toy and an imaginary weapon for disposing of obstacles. 

In one of the roundabouts off Tahrir, three or four young men had taken up position on the statue in the centre. It was obvious they were spouting political protest but only a small crowd was paying any attention. If CNN had been filming it could easily have looked like a growing protest. 

Thankfully though, that didn’t happen until a week after I left. Having been ‘gypt enough, I was happy to have seen what I wanted but also quite happy to get the hell out of there.

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