Musings on the Middle East

Monday, February 1, 2010

Thoughts on two weeks traveling the Middle East, in no particular order.


For reasons passing understanding, restaurants in Jordan and Egypt often provide kleenex instead of proper napkins for wiping one’s hands. All over the place – everywhere from the Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum to the posh seafood restaurant where we had supper in Dahab, Egypt, there were boxes of kleenex on the tables. At first I thought they’d been hauled out because the place had run out of proper paper napkins and was improvising, but in fact it seems to be the norm. As you’d expect, it sorta works, but not really.


I'm finally – FINALLY – running again. Not regularly, but I ran twice in Amman on the treadmill in the Magic Hotel. And I hashed in Amman in the torrential rain. And best of all, I got to run outside twice, once along the waterfront in Luxor and once again in Aswan. I was a bit worried that I’d get hassled by the local men, and I did get quite a few comments, but they were all positive. “Good exercise!” and “Very nice!” and “Strong Woman!” and stuff like that. I even got some sporadic applause when I passed by one or two different groups. It was a nice change from the hassle you normally get when walking along touristy spots. Then it’s a constant barrage from touts selling felucca cruises or carriage rides or from taxi drivers or people manning the endless stream of stalls selling tourist tat. It’s exhausting trying to stay pleasant but asserting, for the eight hundredth time, that no, you do not want a taxi, or a felucca or a papyrus print or a scarf or a crystal pyramid with a 3D image of King Tut suspended inside it. When I was running I was immune to all that, maybe because I was moving too fast for them to bother with me.

The view along the Nile

And the other nice thing? I’d forgotten how good it feels after a run. It’s been so long since I’ve done regular exercise that I was surprised by the wave of contentment and happiness that washed over me after my run in Aswan. Great.


Tipping – baksheesh – is a way of life in the Middle East. Hotel receptionists, bellmen, housekeeping staff, local guides, camel drivers, station porters, donkey wranglers, dive shop owners, felucca sailors, taxi drivers, guys at checkpoints, police, waiters - basically anyone drawing breath within a 10 metre radius of any activity in which you are involved - will expect a tip of some kind. As the Imaginative Traveller trip notes say:

Throughout the Middle East, tipping is part of the fabric of life. The local word is 'baksheesh', which when translated into English falls somewhere in between 'tip' and 'bribe'. Everyone constantly tips everyone else and foreign travellers are expected to comply with this system. It is part of everyday life and is a form of remuneration for doing something, regardless of the standard of service. This is quite confusing for those used to the western concept of tipping as a way of showing appreciation. Over the years we have found that most of our customers find this constant need for tipping to be both tiresome and embarrassing, especially if you don't have the correct small change.

No kidding – in Jordan this was a nightmare. Imtrav (T.W.T.C.K.C.I*) usually suggests that the group establish a “Tipping Kitty” of about $3.00 USD per day to cover all these sort of tips, handled by the guide. This sounded like a really good idea, but our Jordan guide said that the suggested amount there was 5 JD per day, which is closer to $7.00 USD and seemed quite high to those who’d already been travelling in the area for a while and were familiar with the system. This dissention meant that we didn’t use a group fund in Jordan and therefore were each expected to tip all the appropriate people the correct amount at every turn. This was frankly impossible because you almost never have enough small change, and I, at least, am usually oblivious to when a tip is appropriate anyways. It was extremely frustrating to feel like you were either constantly being hit up for money, or constantly (and unintentionally) offending everyone around you.

In Egypt, with our fabulous guide Ahmed, the Tipping Kitty was back, including documents that showed exactly how much is allocated for each different service in each place. (why didn’t we have this in Jordan?) I simply gave Ahmed my 165 Egyptian Pounds (about $35 CDN) and most circumstances were taken care of for my entire time in Egypt. It may not be in the spirit of the region, but at least it was off my mind.

The fabulous Ahmed. He was very creative about distributing baksheesh. Sometimes it was just cash, but sometimes it was a small bottle of cold water given to a guard at a checkstop so that he wouldn’t make us all show our passports or open all our bags. Once he even promised a cell phone top-up. Crafty.


Ok, here’s the most annoying thing about the Middle East – it’s really hard to find a beer! Turkey was 98% Muslim but it’s still a very secular state, and it’s easy to find alcohol wherever you want. In Jordan and Egypt it’s frustratingly rare. Very few hotels we stayed at (including the magical Toledo Hotel in Amman) had alcohol available on any menu. Similarly, restaurants will usually offer soft drinks, smoothies, fresh juice, four kinds of coffee and 98 kinds of tea, but no alcohol. It was a rare event indeed to have a drink with dinner, which was annoying (though it did mean the bill was usually a lot cheaper). There were bars in Aqaba, which was good, and Ahmed told us we could walk down to the corner store for beer and bring them back to the posh seafood place in Dahab, but it would have been nice to see beer show up on a menu with food. And please God, let me never have to endure another bottle of Amstel Zero non alcoholic “beer”. Ugh.


It seems to be a universal truth in the Middle East that no one ever has change. Bank machines spit out £100 and £200 notes, or £50s if you’re lucky. Admittedly, a £200 note is worth about $40, which is a lot of money in this neck of the woods, so I can understand why someone would be reluctant to change it if you were buying a $1 can of pop. But I bought two 10 dinar SD cards for my camera in Aqaba and the shopkeeper only agreed to change my 50 dinar note when I said I’d buy a third card. I think they see it as a game, and whoever ends up with the small bills wins. This is probably because the small notes - £1 and £5 in Egypt – are the ones you need for the endless stream of baksheesh that’s constantly flowing out. Usually this means you have to lie about what’s in your wallet. You hand over a £20 note and the shopkeeper shakes his head sadly. “Oh, have no change. Anything smaller?” You shake your head sadly… no, you have nothing. “Ah, is problem.” You stare, unflinching. It’s £20 or nothing. You are prepared to walk out without making the purchase if no change is available. The trick is in who backs down first. If it’s something you don’t really care about, you can hang on until the shopkeeper relents and sends someone off to find change, or magically produces it from his pocket, and you win. If it’s something you really need, you pull out your wallet again and perform a much more thorough search than before and – remarkably – discover that you do have a smaller note, and the other guy wins. I sometimes wonder if they actually keep score.

Exact change! I lost this round.


We spent a lot of time in small buses and minvans in Egypt, and though it’s a warm part of the world, it’s still January and temperatures are not always comfortable. Nevertheless, the drivers we had almost always kept their window at least partly open, creating a cold draft (or in Cairo, a smelly one) that just added to the discomfort. Once we asked that the window be closed and Ahmed told us that it’s normal for Egyptian drivers to keep the window open, so they don’t fall asleep. Naturally this begs the question: If you’re so tired that you need a cool breeze to keep you from falling asleep while hurtling down the road at 120 km/ph, then should you really be behind the wheel?


It’s weird to me that in a region that produces an infinite variety of sticky, honey-soaked treats, the most common thing we are offered for dessert in a restaurant is… fruit. And I’m not talking about a nice fruit salad. I’m talking about a whole orange, unpeeled, and rolling around on a side plate. It’s terribly disappointing that no one seems to understand that fruit is not dessert. Fruit is… fruit. Dessert is sticky and sweet and should involve licking fingers and aching teeth. Come on Middle East!

THIS is dessert – at a nice sweet shop in Amman


Ok, I realize this might all sound a bit whiny, so I'm going to close with a couple of my favourite and most recently discovered things in the Middle East. Naturally, they are both edible. First, lemon juice. This is NOT lemonade. I'm not sure what makes it different, but it definitely is. Very. It's got a sort of creamy frothiness that makes it taste a bit like a lemon julep. It's tart and refreshing, and I think there's a bit of the lemon zest in it. And it's always freshly made and served icy cold and it's very very very good.

Second, roasted sweet potatoes. I only found these on my second-last day in Cairo, but I wish they'd been everywhere. There was a street vendor selling them outside our hotel - he had a cart with an oven on it where he was burning some kind of charcoal. And he had a bunch of the roasted potatoes on the top of the oven to keep them warm. When you bought one (or two, if they're small), he'd pluck them off the top slice them open, and serve them on a random scrap of paper. The first one I got was on a glossy KFC menu, the second was presented on what appeared to be a photocopied page from a UK personal income tax form. And they were great. I'm not sure if you're intended to eat the skins, since I think they go straight from the ground into the fire, but the skins had a nice smokey flavour, and I think they're the best part, so I gobbled them down along with the soft, sweet flesh, and probably a thousand thousand thousand germs and gunk. But they were fantastic, and only £1 each - about 20 cents.

The Potato Man's cart. The Potato Man himself declined to be photographed.


And those are parting thoughts on the Middle East. By the time this is posted I'll be in Delhi starting another 2 week tour of northern India and Nepal, accompanied by my friend Patti. The Middle East was good, and I'm glad I got to tick off all those amazing sights - Petra, the pyramids, and the Valley of Kings. But despite my constant complaints about being tired and moving around too much, I'm ready for something new. On to India!

* That’s What The Cool Kids Call It. (And to Rob H: Yes, the asterisks are back, in moderation. I am making an effort to include my parenthetical statements in the body of the text, but sometimes I just feel the need for an asterisk. Plus Steven G. likes them, and I like Steven G.)


Unknown said...

By the time I got to your * at the bottom, I had forgotten what it was about.

Do what you like with the text, just don't cut your hair. You are looking spectacular in recent pics!

India - onwards and upwards!

Rob H.

Karen said...

What is Rob's obssesion with your hair?

Kathryn said...

I'm so happy you got to meet a Sweet Potato Man. I have a great photo of me by one in Dubai - with the biggest smile on my face. I wish you could've experienced the "Shrimp Slide" though - a two level platform with a slide going from level 2 to 1, chefs at the top cooking up shrimp and then shooting them down the slide to awaiting diners! Very weird. And kinda splattery if you are too close at the bottom.

Enjoy India- can't wait to see the pics.


Anonymous said...

Wow, pictures of wooden boats AND and asterisk!!
This must be my lucky day.

Fascinatingly large dipping lug sails on those feluccas. Obviously a little wikipedia research is in order on my part.

And yes, why is Rob H. obsessed with your hair??

Steven G.

Lisa said...

A run is the cheapest form of therapy...and you don't have to tip it!!!

Natalie Duhamel, HHC said...

"It’s been so long since I’ve done regular exercise"... what, no NHRPW??? I'm crrrrushed... :-)

Kerry said...

I love the bit about the trains in India...brings back memories...are you missing us??

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