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  • Egyptian Police Double as Photography Consultants

    On Sunday, January 23 I returned from a journey to Egypt, just days before the unrest sparked by Tunisia erupted into major protests on the streets of Cairo. I arrived in Egypt on January 9th, two days before joining a group tour run by Wilderness Travel. The day before the official tour began, my husband, Glen, and I walked to the Giza pyramids on our own. It was on that day that I learned that Egypt's "tourism" police had photography skills.

    Tourism police watch the monuments of Egypt. At times, there seems to be an excess of police assigned to a particular post. I'm inclined to be on my best behavior around police, particularly foreign ones. Didn't some tourist in the USA get killed because he ran from the police instead of obeying their commands? So when two tourism police motioned for me and Glen to walk over to them, we did. It turns out that they wanted to give us some photography advice.

    One of the cops pointed to a spot and motioned for me to take a photo. I had already taken dozens of photos of the Great Pyramid and really didn't want another one, but I appeased him. Then he motioned for me to give him my camera and proceeded to take several photos of me and Glen in a variety of police-directed poses. He and his buddy had us raise our hands, first separately and then together. I couldn't figure out what they were doing. Finally I said "enough!" I really didn't want any of these photos. I took my camera back and walked away.

    The two police quickly pursued us and insisted we give them money for the service of taking photos. We handed them the smallest bill we had—a 10 pound note, and walked away. Take a look at the photo. Do you think it was worth it? Now I understand the strange poses!

    After that, other police tried the same thing, but I refused to acknowledge them. The police annoyed me so much that I finally put on sunglasses and looked straight ahead to avoid eye contact. To be fair, the police weren't the only ones playing photography consultant. The Giza pyramids were full of horse and camel riders who were as persistent and annoying as flies at a picnic. If I had taken everyone's "advice" who approached me, I'd be out at least $50 USD.

    The police trapped us once more, inside a small tomb on the back side of one of the pyramids, a little off the beaten path. While we were inside looking around, a tourism police approached us with some "helpful advice" to crouch into a small passageway that led to a sarcophagus. I sensed this would cost a "tip" so I responded that I wasn't interested. After walking around the tomb, the cop approached again, insisting that it was safe to enter the small passageway. Safety wasn't my concern; I didn't want to get shaken down for more money. He continued to insist and my curiosity got the best of me. When I crawled out of the passageway after viewing the sarcophagus (which was very cool), he asked me for money. I threw up my hands, said "I have no money", and walked quickly out of the tomb. Glen did the same.

    Someone told me that the Egyptian police are not paid very much. Perhaps that's why the police give photography and sightseeing "advice" to earn more money.

    Egypt is full of poverty and illiteracy. I could sense the hopeless lethargy in the air when I was there. I'm not surprised at the events unfolding this week.

  • Trash of the Pharaohs

    The word "pyramid" always painted a picture of a pristine sandscape with towering stone tetrahedrons breaking the monotony of the sand. I was not disappointed when I opened the balcony window in my room at Oberoi Mena House in Cairo. There it was, my first face-to-face encounter with one of the great Giza pyramids.

    I arrived at Mena House two days before I would meet up with the Wonders of Egypt tour I signed on with. I couldn't wait that long. I had to experience the great pyramids more closely. So I walked the short distance from Mena House to the pyramids. Walking gave me the chance to exercise and get a feeling for the streets—something you can't get from the sheltered environment of Mena House. Walking also gave me a unique view of the pyramids, one that isn't as obvious from a tourist bus.

    Just outside the gate to the pyramids is a large staging area for the horses and camels used for tourist rides. It is also a place for dumping trash. The problem isn't confined to outside the pyramid. Trash is everywhere on the grounds themselves. If you are with a tour group you are likely to be herded from a bus to a photo stop, back to the bus, then to a line for a pyramid, then back to the bus, and so on. But if you are an independent traveler, it doesn't take any sleuth work to encounter old sandals, water bottles, candy wrappers, cigarette boxes, and more.

    One issue is that there aren't any visible trash cans at the Giza pyramids. I spent some time observing the tourists to see who was tossing trash on the ground. The guides I've met have been quite conscientious about making sure their charges were clean and respectful. Tourists aren't the problem. The trinket vendors, along with the camel and horse people who work at the pyramid site, are the culprits.

    When I toured the rest of Egypt, I realized that trash is as pervasive as the poverty. Travel photographers, reporters, and Egyptologists overlook the trash. Who want's to see it? Certainly not the armchair traveler.

    At the end of the day, I mentioned the trash and the bribery (see related post Egyptian Police Double as Photography Consultants) to one of the staff at Mena House. He was shocked that I ventured out on my own. Wouldn't it be best if tourists leave Egypt with the same impression they would get sitting in an armchair at home watching Zawi Hawass on a travel channel? I don't think so. I travel to experience the reality of an area. Despite the trash, the pyramids still amaze me. I am amazed even more now that I see how well they are preserved amid the poverty and problems that Egypt has. (Note: I left Egypt just days before the January, 2011 revolution.)