Here is my sequel on “Shopping in Egypt”. I’ll scrawl my account on “Women in Egypt” later – The current post will get too long otherwise. And you know how I hate to gas away for more than 2 pages. At any rate, you know now.
Let me begin at the very beginning, always a good place to begin. I own 4 watches that don’t work & 2 cheap watches that do. If you search my locker, you will find 2 more watches that don’t work. The watch that my brother gifted me from his first salary (a “Titan”). An old watch of indeterminate make & a fluorescent pink strap that will make your eyes water – a hand-me-down from my mother. I’m married to a man who thinks that – if you buy watches cheaper than a “Citizen” or a “Seiko”, you must be below the poverty line. He firmly believes that if something doesn’t work, it must be in the garbage bin, not the locker.
As you can see, I think spending too much money in shopping sprees ranks right next to “Original Sin”. My husband is a serial sinner. I took this man shopping in Egypt. I’ve been trying to lose a few pounds around my hips – I haven’t lost any, but my purse lost lots in that trip.
Before we started for Egypt, we were told that bargaining was a way of life there. I inwardly cringed – I hate bargaining. It simply drains me. My tendency is to chicken out & look for “Fixed Price” shops everywhere. I specifically don’t bargain with poor people: A few pounds more or less makes no difference to me. We needn’t have worried so much. True, most of the products don’t have a Price Label in Egypt. Still, contrary to what we were told, we didn’t face any problems while buying essentials like Food, Mineral Water, Toiletries or Medicines in Egypt. As long as we avoided the road-side vendors, we found the prices very reasonable.
You will most likely be cheated on the price & quality of curios – that’s part & parcel of being a tourist, so take that with a shrug & a smile. What got my goat was this – there’s no price listed even on the books! For crying out loud! It felt weird, negotiating the price of “The Life & Times of Rameses II – 3rd Edition”. After a couple of days, we were negotiating like native Arabs – with gusto & know-how (I hope). The shop-keepers are friendly & they really love bargaining. Its a battle of wits! Some of the shop-keepers thanked us for being friendly & went out of their way to help us, give us discounts or show us their best wares. A little politeness went a long way in Egypt.
Egypt will be a disappointment for the inveterate & discerning shopper. There are plenty of tourist traps that sell you cheap, tacky stuff. But, there are very few good buys – “steals” – to be had. The path to historical sites is paved with shops selling knick-knacks. And the tourists have to walk the gauntlet, braving touts who woo them with ardor. All these shops from Cairo to Alexandria to Luxor to Aswan sell the same kind of stuff, uniting Upper & Lower Egypt in a way Narmer never imagined. Scarabs, Imitation Beads, Key Chains, Glass Pyramids, Heads/Statues of Gods, Ash Trays, Vases, Boxes. Even Khan El Khalili was a major letdown. I had these fantastic visions of the Khan as a thriving Souq: And verily it pulsates with – tourists and apocrypha.
While making our way to the “El Fishawy” Coffee House in the Khan, we found a nice looking figure of Bastet, the Cat Goddess. The shop keeper sauntered to me & said with a knowing wink, “Lady, its made of Aponis”. Dim realization dawned on us that he meant “Ebony”. Ebony, my ass. It was made of plywood coated with plastic & painted black. Anyhoo, we bought the “Aponis” Bastet.
Serious shoppers can buy Alabaster, Papyrus, Essential Oils, Carved Wood, Carpets, Spices, Glass, Silver-ware & Brass-ware. All these are of exceptional quality & hence cost a neat packet of money – so be prepared to spend your $$$. We decided not to buy anything bulky, so we had to give carpets a pass. And please – my eyes are about to go blind from the tasteless overuse of Wood, Silver & Brass in India. If I had a choice of either that or a cup of Hemlock – Thank you, I’ll take the Hemlock with 2 cubes of sugar. That left Alabaster, Papyrus & Essential Oils. Alabaster is either machine-cut or hand-made. MC Alabaster looks depressingly & suspiciously glossy, as if it had ODed on cheap varnish. Hand-made Alabaster looks nice, provided you know how to look for damages.
So we settled for Papyrus & Essential Oils. And plenty of kitschy stuff that we hated at first, second & third sights. We didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the Egyptian shop keepers. “You don’t like ANYTHING in my shop??” “Ooh, no no – We love your shop. We’ll take the fluorescent green cup with “CLEOPATRA” emblazoned in Red!” Travel is fraught with such dangers.
A parting shot: I wish the tour guides would stick to guiding & refrain from touting. Some of our guides were more interested in taking us to a “very nice shop that sells Egyptian Cotton” than in explaining Nefertari’s legacy to us. The more enterprising ones wanted to sell us “a nice CD with photos because we were historical people” – hope the guide was alluding to our interest in history, not our age. It becomes very uncomfortable when your guide can’t put a lid on his/her sales pitches & you want to be left alone with the priceless legacy of Pharaonic Egypt.
Next Up – Will be a piece of fiction from me. Hang in there.