Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The difference is the security

When people ask me “what is Egypt like” I usually tell them “It is different.”
Different from Ireland, unlike your typical holiday destination, historic beyond comprehension, traditional yet modern, in upheaval yet relaxed.

What is so different? The Irish would argue our Newgrange is older than the pyramids so we can tick off history, Ireland has always been a traditionally religious country so we understand Egyptians passion for their religion, we understand borders too and the need to preserve our culture and we have also been known for our political upheavals.

The actual difference my friends is the level of security.

The amount of security around Cairo and Sharm El Sheikh is like none I have ever seen before. It is intense and it is everywhere. The reason for it is pretty obvious, but aside from the necessity it is there to make you and me and foreign diplomats feel at ease.
Except it does the opposite.

Mubarak party headquarters, Tahrir Square was burned out during the revolution in 2011
(c) fifiheavey

When I arrived at the Hilton, Cairo at 2am on our first night, I barely batted an eye to the security, well my eyes were barely open. But the next day the level and effort put into security around Cairo astounded me.

Airport security is something we have all come familiar with, we know the deal, the checks what is allowed, what is not. Now take that airport security, the metal detector, the bag xray machine, along with some serious looking armed men and their important and urgent questions and place that at every hotel in the country, every shopping mall, every cinema, every museum …. and you get an idea of the level of security in Egypt.

Security at hotel entrance of Marriott Sharm El Sheikh
(c) fifiheavey
If you take a taxi to your hotel, the taxi must stop and show identification before being let inside the 24 hour guarded gates. Also before the taxi can be admitted the boot must be popped open, and checked for explosives. Terrified passengers will also be given the once over with the guard's stern eye before you can be allowed to enter. You may have only left 20 mins before  but the same checks apply each and every time.

You may only want to step outside the hotel door for a cigarette or to check if your taxi is on time, but each time you enter you must pass the metal detector and your bag is scanned.
It is annoying, but is it too much?

For many it provides a safety blanket, a sure bet that your hotel will be safe from any suicide bombers and for a country that has a huge reliance on tourism that is a bet Egyptians want to win.

Sometimes it is the food, the people, the dress, the night-life, the social activities that divides one culture from another, for me it was the security.
Security is a loose term in Ireland, we don’t need it, so it gets little use. But even if we did need it, could we do it? I don’t think so not to that extent, we are too trusting and too lazy to be all the time on the watch out for terrorism activity.

The difference between Ireland and Egypt? The security.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Money scams at home and abroad

Going to any foreign speaking country with a different culture to your own, brings risk.
The biggest and most probable of those risks is that you will get fleeced for money.

Egyptian pounds
(c) fifiheavey
You will hand over too much money for services or goods. It may be by mistake or it may be that you want to avoid any international catastrophes.

Egypt is one of these countries where its inhabitants are professionally qualified to rid you of your money. And lucky for you they take any currency you have!
I am not talking about pick pockets here, no my experience of Egyptians is that they rather to politely ask you for your cash. Maybe for a tip or perhaps for some item that you do not want.

I didn't want a papyrus painting. I wanted to see the pyramids and go into the Egyptian museum and see the the Khan Ali-Kalili market. I also wanted to experience real Egyptian culture.
I did all of those things but I also bought a papyrus painting and some essence. I could have said no, I could have just walked away, at no point did I feel my safety was in danger - but still I felt pressured, I felt guilty and in the end I bought a painting.

Khan Ali-Kalili market, Cairo
(c) fifiheavey
My first 24-48 hours in Cairo were very expensive.
The main reason for that was it was my first time in Egypt and I stupidly told people that.
It is the first question Egyptians ask tourists. And the reason is if you say no then you probably know better than to trust them, but if you say yes – they have you!
So after 48 hours I was angry, I was resolved to be rude if I had to, to avoid spending unnecessary money on things, services I did not want.
And I mastered it, I haggled for my life, I walked away, I said 'NO' a lot and even tried to turn a money trick back on a native. I was a pro!

But then I got a huge shock, I had been fleeced for money long before I entered this new culture.
I was “robbed” at London Heathrow Airport.
My next door neighbours in the UK, of similar culture and the same language had tricked me out of so much more money than a hard working taxi man in Cairo ever could.

My flight to Cairo stopped over in Heathrow from Dublin. At the airport I realised that we would be landing in Cairo after midnight and was unsure if airport banks and exchanges would be open at that time. So I picked one out of the hundreds of currency exchanges shinning in the departure lounge in Heathrow.
I handed over €400, the nice smiley man told me an extra fiver and they charge no commission. Bargain. I did that and he handed me 2,600 LE (Egyptian pounds). It was only when we exchanged money in Cairo that we realised I had been squandered out of €100 in the first exchange because the nasty bankers had converted my money to sterling before moving it on.

Moral of the story: You don't need to go to Egypt to be fleeced, but at least I got a papyrus painting while there!
The Final Judgement -  the most famous scene to be duplicated on papyrus.