Road to Jordan: Part 3 – Shopping & scoffing

Well, I should have been writing about the Aswan portion of our On the Go tour by now, but Part 2 ended up being so long – and no doubt difficult to digest – that I decided to save a few miscellaneous, but important, comments about touring Egypt for another blog entry.

This blog entry.


Shopping is one of the hardest things in Egypt. I’m not talking about going into a little supermarket to buy some water and a packet of chips. That’s as simple and straightforward as it is at home. However, when it’s time to do some of the typical tourist shopping for assorted knick knacks and memorabilia, that’s where the problems arise. You see, Egypt is a haggling society. If an item doesn’t have a price sticker, its price isn’t fixed. It’s up for negotiation. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, or you don’t know a reasonable price for items, you’re likely to be ripped off… badly.

Let’s pause for a moment, and briefly consider a typical tourist-store owner exchange (after the initial clichéd attempts to appear friendly: “Where are you from?” “South Africa.” “Ah, Bafana Bafana, World Cup 2010!”):

Tourist: How much is this?

Shop owner: Don’t worry about the price. Find something that you like and then we’ll talk.

Tourist: Well, how much is this pashmina?

Shop owner: 120 Egyptian Pounds.

Tourist: I’ll give you 20.

Shop owner: My friend, this is genuine Egyptian wool [or silver or silk or ceramic or cotton, etc.]. Here, let me show you what a 20 Pound pashmina looks like. [holds up a faded rag]. Do you see the difference? You’re paying for the quality.

It’s just… I don’t know. It doesn’t seem worth it. My tour guide said not to pay more than 30 at the most.

Shop owner:
I can give you discount if you buy more than one. The more you buy, the cheaper it is. 100 for 2.

Tourist: I’m not sure. [Examines pashmina more carefully, hums and hahs a bit.] You know what, thanks for you help, but I think I’m going to look around a bit more. Heads for door

Shop owner: No, wait! 95 for 2.

[Haggling continues until an “agreeable” price is reached.]

Shop owner: [No longer friendly] Hmph, I suppose cost price is better than nothing. You have a hard, black heart. Goodbye. [Throws item into plastic bag.]

As you can see, enduring this process repeatedly can be frustrating (especially when you’re short of time) and emotionally exhausting. Even if it is largely an act, the traders’ flip from friendliness to frustration, and aggression, can make you feel like a heel.

Although I did get better towards the end of the trip, I personally found bargaining very difficult. I’m someone who has embraced online shopping because it cuts out all the manipulative salesman crap. I can do my research, shop around to compare prices, make an informed decision and then outlay my money.

No such luck in Egypt.

You have to be incredibly careful when shopping in Egypt. And there’s a simple reason for this. The Egyptian traders take chances. They’re only ever going to see you once before you flit out of the area and country so they don’t really have to care about giving you a gratifying consumer experience. It’s up to you to stand up for your rights! As quiet as you have to be when witnessing animal abuse, as vocal you have to be about getting what you want. So, before you buy an item make sure that it isn’t damaged in any way. If you buy a figurine that is supposed to be holding a staff, and isn’t already, make the trader get you one. And if you buy a T-shirt customised with a name in hieroglyphics, make sure the name is spelt correctly before leaving.

Other Egyptian shopping tips to remember include:

1) Don’t show a definite interest in one specific thing. If the traders recognise your interest, they will pump up the price because they think your desperation will overrule your common sense.

2) Never touch things on offer from the vendors wandering with bags of merchandise by the tourist attractions. Physical contact with the object may be interpreted by the vendor as an agreement to buy, and it can lead to some nasty arguments.

3) Clarify currency upfront. If a trader says “5” or “5 pound”, check that they mean Egyptian Pounds and not British Pounds for example.

4) When a store owner doesn’t have what you want, don’t follow him to his other stall or his friend’s stall in the bowels of the market. Because of the “effort” made on their behalf, and the recognition that you are very keen for something specific, they will push up that item’s price considerably.

5) As a guideline, when in the tourist markets, most things – with the exception of jewellery – are between 10 and 20 LE (Egyptian Pounds).

6) Speaking of jewellery, it’s one of the items you have to be very careful when purchasing in Egypt, along with perfume and papyrus. From overpricing by gram (in the case of jewellery) to selling poor quality fakes, you can be badly ripped off. This is where it helps to have a local tour guide at your side, as he can (hopefully) point out the reputable retailers.

7) Cash is king in Egypt. Don’t think you’ll be swiping your credit card, or travel debit card in stores and restaurants like you do at home, or in so much of the First World. You’ll need to always have cash on hand, but ATMs are common in the major Egyptian cities and towns. In fact, most of the good hotels will have one in their lobby, or right nearby on the street. Foreign exchange facilities are similarly easily available – allowing you to change your currency (South Africans should take US Dollars, British Pounds or Euros) into Egyptian pounds (LE) at a uniform government-set rate.

8) Don’t wait to do your tourist shopping in Cairo Airport’s Duty Free area. The selection of items there is terrible and the frequently damaged, dirty goods are very overpriced.

For the record, the place where I do recommend doing your touristy souvenir shopping is Cairo’s centuries’ old Khan el-Khalili market. This is where my sister and I spent a good chunk of our last day in Cairo. It’s a very pretty and atmospheric market, full of narrow passageways and shiny things. Best of all the selection of goods is excellent, and the traders seem less intent on ripping you off, or resorting to aggression in the closing stages of a sale. The traders we encountered here weren’t too pushy and their starting prices for haggling weren’t ridiculously overblown. This is in comparison to the market in Aswan where it is exceptionally hard to find what you want, and then get it for a reasonable price. Plus, I’m sure my hair was pulled by some passing brat during my brief, frustrating visit to the Aswan market.

Anyway, Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili is also right next door to the locals’ market – basically one long street packed with people and every object you could think of, from non-stick pans to fireworks. It’s actually enjoyable walking through this largely tourist-free market; although the fact that you have to keep moving with the crowds means you can’t really stop to take photos.

Food and drink

Most Western tourists are paranoid about eating and drinking in Egypt. Everyone knows a horror story about an acquaintance who ended up in a hospital bed on a drip, or confined to their hotel bathroom for 2 days after eating a salad or having a block of ice in their soft drink. Some people won’t even brush their teeth with Egyptian tap water.

Well, the paranoia does have some basis in reality. You can’t drink Egyptian tap water. However, it’s not for the same reason as most of us think. Basically Egyptian tap water is highly chlorinated, and while the locals are used to it, our weaker Western stomachs can’t cope with it in larger amounts. So, yes, you can happily brush your teeth with the tap water, but don’t swallow a glass of it.

What was particularly interesting to learn from our tour guide is that upset stomachs for travellers in Egypt - "The Nile Piles" - are more of a seasonal thing than anything else. December through January is the tourist high season, and also the Egyptian Winter. June and July are the country’s unbearably hot Summer months, and that’s when up to 75% of people on a tour group can succumb to tummy bugs or food poisoning.

Whether you stay away from salads, raw vegetables and fruit you haven’t washed, or are more daring – or just unwilling to offend your host by refusing to eat – one thing is immediately apparent about food in Egypt. It’s incredibly cheap. In Egypt I finally found a country where meals are better value for money than in South Africa! Having stressed in the past about paying 6 Euros (R66) for a sandwich in Paris, in Cairo I was able to buy a big place of chicken schwarma and fries, along with all the accompaniments, for half that price. Even with the excluded 10-15% tip and service charges – which you should always be aware of, if not marked in the menu – that’s a real bargain.

And given the large portion sizes that are the norm, you will never go hungry in Egypt!

I was also very impressed by the Egyptian food. American fast food (hamburgers, fried chicken) and Italian cuisine (pizza especially) are readily available but you don’t receive the impression that traditional meals are being muscled out of prominence.

Typically you start a sit-down Egyptian meal with meze, basically a selection of vegetable appetisers and dips (including hummus), served with ubiquitous pita bread – which will be available throughout your meal to eat with everything, and wipe up scraps on your plate.

For the record, Egypt is a very bread-centric country. Breakfast buffets feature every conceivable sweet and savoury roll; and Breakfast Boxes, made up by the hotel when you have a very early tour departure, are typically 80% white bread. Personally I can say my stomach didn't always agree with so much refined starch.

Anyway, returning to the topic of sit-down meals, Egyptian stews and soups (especially the lentil soups) are delicious. Meat dishes worth sampling are the kebabs, chicken schwarma and kofta – spiced ground meat that is typically barbequed and reminiscent of boerewors, taste-wise.

Egyptians eat lots of sweet pastries and cakes, but dessert is normally very simple – just in-season fruit such as bananas and apples. For the record, Egypt produces the most amazing giant, sweet strawberries and mangoes.

As for quick take-away snacks while you’re roaming about, you definitely have to try falafel in pita. Falafel is ground up chickpeas, shaped into a ball and deep fried. You'd be surprised how filling a single falafel in pita is. This probably helps to explain why you get sick of them quite quickly.

One final point to be aware of when eating in Egypt is that there is absolutely no pork. Following the Swine Flu epidemic, the Egyptians slaughtered every single pig in Egypt. So don’t look for any bacon on the breakfast buffet spread, and if you order a Hawaiian pizza during your stay, it will be topped with chicken, not ham or bacon.

As for drinking, bottled water is easily available. In supermarkets you can buy 1 Litre for LE2. We were pleasantly surprised to find that all the tour buses during the Egyptian portion of our tour had mini-fridges stocked with ice-cold water – we were paying LE5 for 1 Litre.

As for alcoholic beverages, that’s where things get a bit more complicated. Being a Muslim country, alcohol is banned outside of tourist areas in Egypt. Much like the Indian Sub-continent, the Egyptians have instead developed a love for super-sweet drinks like Pepsi and local, non-alcoholic fruit beer, Fayrouz (which is definitely worth a try).

The alcohol that is available is not that expensive, all things considered, and actually quite good. I’m not a beer fan but Stella, the local brew, is very palatable, and around LE7-20 for a quart. Wine is a bit more expensive at LE40-60 for a bottle, but the dubiously named Obelisk Red made for smooth, easy drinking.

As for spirits the ID brand Vodka was certainly a hit with our tour group, as was the Egypt Brandy, especially when we were introduced to a bottle store in the laid-back Red Sea town of Dahab, where we could buy a 750 ml bottle of the latter for a ridiculously low LE13 (R17). But the full story of that adventure, my friends, is material for a future blog post…


Jason Matthew said…
To avoid having to file cash for gold complaints, you should take some time to become familiar with the gold industry and the selling
process. The first thing you should research is the current price of gold.

Cash for Gold
Pfangirl said…
Uh, thank you, Jason...
Brandon said…
Excellent write up. Hopefully Google will index this because this is exactly what future travelers to the country will want to read before going. Mixed in with lots of nice memories! I still have a bottle of Egyptian whisky!

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