education 200: avoiding scammers at the Pyramids

In the Fall of 2011 Jessie and I were fortunate enough to add on a week’s trip in Egypt to the end of our Italy/Spain vacation. By the end of the week we really grew to like Egypt, and we hope that we might go there again some day. Cairo has a strange feeling to it. On the one hand we were extremely conspicuous, so all eyes were on us wherever we went. But on the other hand so many people were so welcoming and friendly that we didn’t mind the attention too much.

Of course, when you hear the word “Egypt” the first thing you probably think is ‘The Pyramids.” That’s exactly what we thought too, so we decided to spend a whole day discovering these ancient structures. Luckily, our friend was able to set us up with a taxi driver who’d drive us around all day for about $25, so we didn’t have to worry about transportation. He didn’t speak or understand a word of English, but through a translator we expressed to him that we wanted to go to the Step Pyramid and the Great Pyramids of Giza. The custom in Egypt is that the man rides in the passenger seat while women ride in the back, so I helped Jessie into the back and then took shotgun.

Our driver was a 50-something man with an agreeable personality. He was constantly trying to communicate with me and when it became clear to him that I had no idea what he was talking about he’d laugh and pat my hand and say “Good.” He maneuvered the traffic like a pro. We passed donkey-drawn carts full to the brim with vegetables. Children with dirty faces sat atop the pile and beamed at us with half-toothed smiles. An endless sea of palm trees lining the road whipped by us for half an hour until a break in the trees revealed the unmistakeable outline of the Step Pyramid.

If you ever visit Egypt I recommend that you read about the common scams that tourists face. I was so glad that Jessie and I had meticulously studied our Lonely Planet guide on this topic. At the Step Pyramid we paid the entrance fee and walked through the museum at the visitor’s center. Then our driver took us up to the base of the pyramid structure. It was very empty and we hesitantly made our way up a path. We hadn’t been walking more than a minute when a man popped out of nowhere, looked at my camera, and offered to take a picture of us in front of the pyramid. I was caught off guard and I accepted. As he took several snapshots Jessie poked me in the ribs and reminded me that tour guides here don’t ask if you want their services. They follow you around and offer information for everything you look at. When you are ready to leave they remind you of all the things they did for you and ask for baksheesh – a “tip” – and if it’s not enough money they’ll try to guilt you into giving more. So after giving my camera back he hovered around us and starting talking about anything my eyes landed on. He was very good. But I told him several times that I didn’t want a tour and eventually he left when I pressed a few Egyptian Pounds into his hand. The Step Pyramid was pretty impressive and we basically had it all to ourselves, so I definitely recommend going to check it out.

Soon we were both hot and getting anxious to see the main pyramids. We jumped back in the taxi and made our way to Giza. As we drove back through Cairo the iconic three pyramid tips poked above the skyline. We were so excited! But when our driver dropped us off in the middle of a street and pointed us to the ticket booth our hearts sank. Our driver had apparently brought us to the back entrance, which was a dark unmarked trailer. There was no writing on or near it to identify it as the entrance. It looked so completely sketchy that we had to ask our driver several times to make sure it was the right place. When we stepped up to the barred window an unsmiling face just stared back at us. “Is this the entrance to the pyramids?” I asked timidly. The woman showed me the official seal on the pass to let me know it was legitimate. I paid the money and they opened the door to let us in the trailer. Inside two security officers inspected our bags and patted us down before pointing us toward the rear door.

I took one step out the door and was stopped by a man who demanded to see our passes. Once again, I was so glad I’d read up about scams. The most common scam at the Great Pyramids is that a tour guide will pretend he is a park ranger and ask to see your ticket. When you give it to him he pockets it and proceeds to lead you around the complex. He won’t return your ticket until you pay him for the tour. So when this guy blocked my path and said, “Ticket please,” I stepped right around him and replied, “No.” He didn’t try to stop us. I felt so cool!

We walked around the complex for the next two hours, taking photos of the Sphinx and the three pyramids. During these hours we never went more than ten minutes without someone trying to sell us a headdress or a camel ride or give us a tour. We wondered about taking an official tour that went up inside the Great Pyramid, but after walking around the entire site we realized that we’d have to finagle with a bunch of tour guides in order to do it. We decided it was’t worth it.

As we walked along a kid no older than 10 approached us with his wares. He’d probably just been allowed to go off on his own to hawk, but he talked just as smoothly as all the others. We thought he was pretty cute. At one point he even said to me, “Is this your wife? You’re a very lucky man!” I laughed at this totally not ten-year-old thing to say. Jessie looked at him and said, “You’re pretty good at this!” For a second his guard was down and we could see he was flattered by the compliment before he snapped right back into his shpeel.

We finally got rid of him and made our way around the back side of the pyramid. At one point there weren’t many people around and a police officer who was sitting on the pyramid called us over. “Go ahead! Climb on it! It’s ok!” he told us. But we knew that it was illegal to do this and that the cops here weren’t always truthful. If we climbed on the pyramid he’d probably have demanded a large bribe from us in order to not be arrested. Despite his many attempts to get us to climb, we politely declined his offer and moved on.

We walked over to the second pyramid to get a clear picture of the Great Pyramid. As I set up my camera and tripod another police officer came over to me and told me that he knew of a better angle. He walked up a bit and said, “Take your picture here!” He was right. It would’ve been an excellent shot. There was a camel lying on the sand directly in the field of vision. But I knew that if I snapped a shot the camel’s owner would demand payment. And since the police officer was in on it also the cost would probably be steep. So once again I declined the offer, set up my camera far away from the camel and took my shots.

Despite all the scams that were attempted on us at the pyramids that day, we only spent the 50 cent tip I’d given to the first guy at the Step Pyramid. It definitely wasn’t ideal having to be on guard and fending off schemers all the time, but even with these negative experiences we found it was still worth it. Being able to touch and see the pyramids up close with our own hands and eyes was an unforgettable experience.

It’s definitely possible to do all the activities you want without having tricksters take advantage of you. You just have to be prepared. So if you’re planning on traveling in a country that has a reputation for trickery, make sure you take the time to educate yourself on all the latest scams and practice saying a friendly but firm “No.”

Pyramids compilation

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