Of the Egyptian Train

We had an overnight train journey, from Giza (near Cairo, in the north) to Aswan (in the south), and had, of course, the chance to see an Egyptian railways station, and some trains, from up close.

There are two parts to the story here. The first is as a bystander, as trains presumably along the local routes came and went. Well, they could be long distance trains; just that they didn’t seem to be so. These trains were… in terrible shape. On the outside, they were dirty, on the inside they didn’t seem much better; We later saw one of these trains after sundown, they didn’t have lights on the inside either. Didn’t seem in good shape at all, and we were worried about how our own transport would be like.

The other part to the story is as a passenger, on the overnight train from Giza to Aswan. An air conditioned train, clean on the outside, prim on the inside; but what we really liked was how well planned and well thought the design is.

If you talk about the Indian Railways, what’s the one thing that you usually don’t like (I know, we love almost everything about it, but still :P)? The toilets, yes? Not very clean at best, water everywhere, having to touch things and places that others may have touched with hands that may have been far from clean… not usually a very pleasant experience.

Guess what the Egyptians did. They made every button foot operated. Press a button, the toilet drains itself. Press it further, the flush kicks in. Press another button, the washbasin tap turns on. All with the foot. No ickyness involved. (Also the toilet was clean and dry, but that’s because 1. I think this train was more in the ‘expensive’ category and hence the passengers were probably more familiar with the word ‘hygiene’ than what you would find in the cheapest travel modes; and 2. Here the toilet paper is a viable and practical option; not so in India. But even take out these two factors, and you still have a better planned system.)

There were other small elements that were extremely well thought out, but I won’t compare those with India: the Indian rail system is the de facto mode of long distance travel for a huge number of people, and making it efficient and cost effective while keeping prices down bring their own design constraints.

There was the small compartment cut out in the wall to keep personal items when you sleep (in India no one would use them for fear of theft), the coups had doors that you could lock (not cost effective unless it’s 1st class, in which case in India people would nowadays rather fly), the sleeping arrangements were better and more comfortable (again the cost effectiveness comes into the question; also the ‘beds’ could only be made by an attendant assigned: for the Indian Railways, this brings huge logistical issues).

The only (mild) hiccup that we had was in the food that we were served. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t too great, but hey: what’s travel in foreign lands if there isn’t weird food once in a while? All in all, a very pleasant train experience.

(Although note that this may not be the general case as I think our train was a 1st Class train. I’m not sure ‘cheap’ and ‘affordable’ will be much better than what I described at the beginning of this post. :P)

P.S.: I have a question. Have we, as an independent nation, made any major improvements over the British rail system that we inherited? I know, I know, we put in better lights, better berths, more comfortable bogies, and we also made progress engineering-wise in the engines that drive the trains. But have we made significant changes to what facilities the passengers get when they board a train? Not upgrades, but changes?

Egyptian Drivers

I’d said earlier that Egypt is like India, including the fact that the traffic is unruly. Well yes, it is, but no, it’s not like India, and especially not like Kolkata.

We were at Kolkata just after we were at Egypt, and we were back to the familiar unruly traffic that is so typically Kolkata. And yet, there was a big difference from Egypt.

In Kolkata, the unruliness is based on skill, where the drivers are aware exactly of how much space is available, how fast other vehicles are moving, and how much time he has to squeeze through a space before the next car rams into him. That’s skill, honed over years of driving and sharpening the judgement bits of the brain.

Not so in Egypt. There, you just go, and trust that the others are watching you as you go and will not ram into you. Often, cars changing lanes just start moving into the next lane, without the slightest idea that another vehicle is moving just behind. A few seconds of blaring horns later, he’s jolted into realization. At an intersection, a car simply starts going on the wrong side of the road, simply because there’s a traffic jam, even though someone on the other side can just ram into him. The list is endless. There is a lot less skill, and a lot more recklessness, in driving in Egypt. No looking, no judging, just hitting the accelerator and going.

Sorry, Egypt is not like India in this respect. We’re far better drivers.

A tale of two cities

We had two extremely different experiences in similar situations in two Egyptian towns, and were left thinking why things must be so in an otherwise excellent country.

First was Aswan,  famous for its High Dam and Lake Nasser that former Egyptian President Nasser built to control the flow of the Nile. Our guide there was a local man called Ahmed, and after the first hour or so we realized this guy was a gem of a person: uncomplicated, free spirited, and thoroughly enjoying his job. We were quickly friends, and at the end of the end we asked if he would accompany us to the local markets: we wanted to shop for souvenirs. He agreed, went with us, and translated while we looked and bargained.

It was a good experience. The prices were reasonable, the shopkeepers were pleasant, and we had a happy time moving around. Indeed, it was only the ticking clock that made us come home for the night. We were content, and were heavier by a few pounds with the shopping bags we had acquired.

Our next major stop was Luxor. We went around the place with another local man, also called Ahmed, and at the end of the day we requested him too, to accompany us to the local markets: my mom had remembered that she needed some more things to give away as gifts. Alas, Ahmed of Luxor had another engagement for the evening. Nevertheless, he dropped us off at the local markets, and warned us that we must remember to bargain ruthlessly.

In we went, and were pretty soon completely shell-shocked. What we had bought for 30 Egyptian Pounds (EGP) at Aswan, and for which the shopkeeper their had originally asked EGP 40, was now being offered to us for EGP 150. How can you bargain with that?? For the item that we are familiar with, we know what the prices should be. For something that we are unfamiliar with, how much bargaining can we do? We were soon disgruntled, and left the place fuming.

A number of thoughts come to mind.

First, it’s not just that the two different places reacted differently to a group of obvious foreigners who were there to have a feel for their items; the presence of a local guide probably had a major impact. When they have a local man doing the talking, the foreigners are ‘friends’ of the local man, and are not to be cheated from; by themselves, the foreigners are suckers to be extracted money from. Big difference, isn’t it?

Second, Luxor is more commercialized and famous as a tourist destination; this presumably drives the prices up in a small-ish city such as Luxor. Lots of foreign tourists with cash to spare, and not too many markets to compete among themselves to bring the prices down. Voila!!

We were pretty disgruntled at our experience, and were promptly uttering statements such as ‘This doesn’t happen in Kolkata / India… it’s much better at home’. Indeed, we were reminded of what practically everyone we knew who had come to Egypt had told us: beware the local shops and such, they will take every opportunity to extract more from you than you should.

But on second thoughts, does it not happen at home, in Kolkata? I am reminded of the bargaining that we ourselves have to do at major shopping zones such as Gariahat, the times when a bag priced at Rs 1000 is sold for Rs 400. Isn’t that the same thing? The only difference is that at Kolkata, we’re the locals, we know what the prices should be, and can shout the shopkeeper down when he says the prices are right. In Egypt, we don’t know the prices, and we can’t bargain as well as we need to. Big difference, no?

The other thing that I can’t help wondering about, is why the prices must be driven up. Surely, over time, the idea that prices are high at such-and-such shopping area will filter out to even new arrivals at those places, and they will desist from shopping there? Doesn’t it benefit both the shopkeeper and the tourist if the tourist is assured that the prices are genuine, and he doesn’t have to bargain and heckle with the shopkeeper? The tourist gets a good price, and the shopkeeper sells more items, thereby increasing his total income. Yet, that’s not happening. What’s the economics working here?

Irony

What Egypt is most famous for are the Pyramids, Palm (date) trees, Perfumes and Papyrus.

Their currency is the Egyptian Pound, where One Pound equals 100 Plasters.

All of which contain the ‘P’, a sound that Arabs cannot pronounce.

Landing in Egypt

Egypt is like India.

Take out the greenery and replace by sand; take out the Indian automobiles, and replace with foreign cars; replace the odd mosques and more frequent temples and churches with a mosque every couple of blocks; and voila – you have Egypt instead of India.

You still have the crowded roads, the unruly driving, blaring horns, pedestrians anywhere and everywhere, and a society that smacks more of poverty than of affluence, more of making do with what they have than deciding where else they can spend their money.

In fact, in some ways, Cairo almost seemed even less prosperous than the major Indian city – most of the private buildings and high-rises of apartments were not even plastered on the outside. Where in India plaster of paris is at least mostly visible, most outside walls in Cairo were simply cement.

Have you ever seen Egypt on Google Maps? You should – it’s a beautiful sight, and more, it’s a stunning visual confirmation of what we all know: Egypt is the land of the Nile, and the Nile is what sustains civilization here. Northern Egypt is home to the Nile delta, and is green, southern Egypt is green and flourishing only on the two banks of the Nile. The stunning difference is visible around Cairo too, both from the air where you can see the clear demarkation of where irrigation from the Nile stops, and on the ground where the landscape changes suddenly from yellow to green, from dusty to lush. (Oh, and by the way, I discovered at Doha airport today when they were announcing our flight – Cairo is known as Al-Kahra in Arabic. Cairo is only the English approximation. – As is, on second thoughts, other major cities: Luxor (Al-Uksur), Alexandria (Al-Iskandaria), etc.)

BELLY DANCING!

Our first evening at Cairo was spent on a dinner cruise on the Nile. The major attraction was, of course, everything but the food, so, perhaps expectedly, the food was less than world class. Everything else, though, was great. It was a pretty big vessel sailing around on the Nile, there was a small open upper deck where you could take in the breeze and the sounds – and there was some choreography, with the major attraction being belly dancing.

And it was good! I’d never seen the real thing before, so the muscle control and flexibility was amazing to watch. The dancer took turns dancing for and posing with several guests, and even inviting several to center stage to have some fun. And fun it was. A few people were challenged to match he flexibility, and when one person matched the first act that she was challenging, she promptly moved up a gear to where no one could reach. The music was of course typical Arabic fare, with a foot tapping score and raucous vocals (I didn’t get a word of the lyrics of course – so I don’t know what they meant).

Other than belly dancing though, there was another local dance form that was equally, if not more, amazing. Belly dancing is the more famous form, so we at least have some idea of what we would see, but this other dancer really surprised us. His whole routine comprised turning round and round, with props of various kinds making appearances, and various pieces of cloth turning about with him – it was a spectacle indeed. Really – what control, and what sense of balance!

Anyway, the first evening in Cairo is over, and it’s time for me to hit the bed at 1.25am. Early start tomorrow, and we’re headed to the Pyramids!!

The Egypt Diaries

Well, if you’ve noticed, the start to the ‘series’ of posts had an abrupt stop about three weeks ago. Well, we went traveling to Egypt, but what I had not taken into account was that I wouldn’t have regular internet connections while I was traveling, and neither would I always have the time to write up my accounts for the day.

Well, what you don’t take into account, always happens. There wasn’t adequate internet connections, and often we were staying at a place for too short a time to warrant purchasing the expensive internet access rights at the hotel. What I then planned was to write-up my posts, and then blog them later when I was back with regular internet access. Well, that didn’t happen very regularly either, because often we were left with too little time to sleep, recharge our physical batteries, and also upload all the photos and prepare for the next day’s outing, to actually sit down and write some blog posts.

Well, now I’m back to the US, and what I’ll do is post whatever I did manage to churn out while I was on tour, and well as try and spend some time writing up some of the interesting things that I remember from the trip.

Coming up: the Egypt Diaries.