Jenss Family Travels, Mysteries of Egypt – Part II

Rainer Jenss and his family are currently on an around-the-world journey, and they’re blogging about their experiences for us at Intelligent Travel. Keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts, and follow the boys’ Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.

On the remote chance that someone from the Ministry of Egyptian Tourism might be reading this post, I urge you to gather up all the street vendors and merchants from around your country, put them in a room, and send them a simple message: If you ease up on constantly harassing tourists to buy something from you, we might actually purchase something!

It’s staggering the amount of time and energy we spent fending off souvenir salesman during our two weeks in the Middle East. We actually started to devise strategies on how to minimize the pestering, and even though the boys are just 12 and nine, they were not immune to being hounded. Don’t make eye contact, don’t say a word or answer their questions (“Where are you from?”, “For you my friend, no charge to look”, “How much you want to spend?”), don’t stop to look at anything, and whatever you do, don’t ask how much something costs. If you do, you better have a sound exit strategy.

I remembered this side of Middle East travel clearly from my first visit there some nine years ago, but it still didn’t make the situation any less irritating. One positive aspect of all this, however, is that it kept our shopping in check, something that had challenged us since we stepped foot outside the U.S. seven months ago. We needed to try to keep our spending down, and buying stuff for a house we don’t even have yet, no matter how tempting, was becoming too frequent an occurrence.

In Egypt, our guide took us into alabaster, papyrus, and carpet workshops to see how legitimate items from these materials are made…and sold. Sure, it’s a blatant set up to lure you into buying something, but most of us in the tour group ended up with our credit cards out. I’m sure this was due in large part to the fact that pushy merchants didn’t beleaguer us and that we had the chance to peruse in relative peace. But if you do decide to buy something, you still need to be prepared to negotiate. Even after getting about 50% off the starting price, I still was not quite sure if I got a good deal or not – another one of those “mysteries of Egypt” I guess.

While I have your attention Mr./Ms. Tourism Minister, I should compliment you on those cool sound and light shows you put on each night at many of the major attractions. My sons particularly liked the one at the Pyramids of Giza.  As touristy as it may be, it was still a thrill to be sitting in front of those ancient wonders, listening to the tales of their creation while admiring the magnificence of the moon rising over the Sphinx just after the sun had set. And you may want to suggest to your counterpart in Jordan that they consider doing something similar in Petra. Those amazing 2,000-year-old sandstone buildings might look really cool all lit up at night!

Finally, you may want to do something about the traffic situation in Cairo. It seems to have become a tourist attraction in its own right, but not for the right reasons. Navigating through the busy streets of the city can really wreak havoc with a tour schedule.

Evidently, there are driving rules in the country, but no one seems to pay them much attention. Red lights are merely a suggestion and turning on headlights at night is strictly optional. The cacophony of horns is ever-present and apparently a “honking street language” has formed as a result. This seems to be the case since no one in our group could quite figure out why cars weren’t piled up in heaps all over the road.

For a country that draws so many sightseers, I was struck with how seemingly unaffected everyday life in Egypt is as a result of this large influx of visitors. Travel just a few kilometers away from the bustling Pyramids in Giza or downtown Luxor and you’ll be seemingly transported back in time to the way Egyptians ostensibly lived for the last several hundred years. In some ways it felt like being on a game drive in the African bush – staring out the window at life the way it was before tourists invaded the place.

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But it was pretty impossible not to be labeled a tourist while traveling through the Middle East, especially since we were traveling with the kids.

For that reason, it was all the more special when we had the opportunity to connect with the local people – something we’ve always been seeking out during our year-long journey. While we were in Jordan, I was invited with my family and the two friends we were traveling with for lunch at the home of one of the hotel porters I had met. I became friendly with this local Bedouin when I noticed he also owned the Turkish bath house I visited after a long day of hiking through Petra.

It was a real treat to spend some time with Bassam and his four children (only the ladies could meet his wife, who as custom dictates, stays out of sight of males she’s not related to), while enjoying a feast of chicken and rice. His home was proudly appointed with family photos, traditional Bedouin crafts and a television set that remained on during our entire visit. Apparently, TVs are always on in this part of the world, maybe to show off the fact that you have one. One of his young daughters changed her outfit three times during that afternoon, much to our delight, as well as hers. What else changed that afternoon was the connection we had with the people that live here. This time, being called “my friend” by a local really meant something.

Photos: Rainer Jenss

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