I spent a week in Luxor in February, which qualifies me as an expert on all things Egyptian.
OK, fine — but it does qualify me as an expert on being a tourist in Luxor. I had two thoughts per day, which makes fourteen thoughts in total:
1. The Baksheesh Problem
“No, sorry,” he said, rapidly backing away, “I’m all out of baksheesh.” The man patted his pockets for added effect as the Egyptian tomb guard followed along for a few steps, then gave up. What an asshole, I thought, and then I patted my pockets and realised that perhaps I was an asshole as well.
We’d only visited a couple of tombs in Sheikh Abd el-Qurna — the Valley of the Nobles — when it became clear that we had a serious baksheesh problem. It was a issue of simple mathematics: Sheikh Abd el-Qurna has dozens of tombs dating from the New Kingdom period of ancient Egypt, which is to say that the tombs are older than pretty much any structure still standing in Europe or North American, not to mention a good deal prettier. Around a dozen are open to the public, and you can buy tickets for them in groups of two or three tombs each, for around 50 LE. LE means Egyptian Pounds; $1 equals 8 LE, which means a ticket is about $6.
Usually each tomb has its own guard — a man (and it’s always a man) who checks tickets, ensures tourists don’t wreck it up, and provides running commentary on the various ancient gods and kings and queens on display inside. Sometimes the commentary is accurate and welcome, often it’s unwanted. In any case, the tomb guards really expect a tip from tourists, because:
- The Valley of the Nobles is not especially well-visited, being overshadowed by the far more famous Valley of the Kings next door, home of bigger tombs for more important people. These tombs aren’t necessarily ‘better’ than those in the Valley of the Nobles — and that goes doubly so for Tutankhamun’s tomb (also in the Valley of the Kings), who by all regards was not a very important person by ancient Egyptian standards, nor does he have a very spacious or impressive tomb. But hey, you’ve heard of The Valley of the Kings, you haven’t heard of the Valley of the Nobles, and you’ve only got a day or two in Luxor, so what are you going to do? The point is, there’s not much traffic and a guard’s gotta make money somehow, because:
- They’re paid very little. I have no idea exactly how much, I’m guessing a few dollars a day. This guess is based on the fact that taxi drivers in Luxor are willing to work for an entire day for under $25, and they’re much further up in the social and financial hierarchy than tomb guards. A tip of just 1 LE, or a bit over a dime, is therefore a pretty big deal, especially when:
- Thanks to the Egyptian revolution, which everyone just called 2011, plus various well-publicised terrorist attacks, tourism has just about dried up. Of the 350 Nile River cruise boats that used to visit Luxor, only a hundred are still running. Hotel occupancy in Luxor is under 25%. It’s not fun times.
Now, no-one likes being hassled for a tip. You’d prefer to hand over a buck or two in a benificent manner for a job well done, delivered via a subtle handshake just like how Monica’s old boyfriend Richard taught Joey and Chandler how to do. But as established, the going rate of 1 LE is practically zero money to a western tourist, plus the tomb guards get really bummed out when you stiff them, so you’d be advised to get over your initial irritation.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that no-one has any change in Luxor! ATMs usually dispense 200 LE notes, with the odd 100, 50, and 20 thrown in, and most things that tourists buy are denominated in 5 or 10 LE increments. This means that you barely ever have any 1 LE coins in your possession. Sure, you could give out 5 LE or 10 LE notes as tips, but you’ll run out of them rapidly as well. The end result is the Baksheesh Problem.
As we trekked between tombs in the Valley of the Nobles, I had to perform triage arithmatic to see how far we could stretch our meagre stock of coins and 5 LE notes. I wondered why the authorities couldn’t just add a few LE on to the cost of each ticket and give it to the tomb guards, or just install a change machine in the car park.
Later in our trip, we asked the hotel receptionist for change from a 10 LE note. She shook her head sadly, and then gave up two 5 LE notes from her purse. This made me feel appropriately bad. Going to the bank wasn’t possible because they were closed for the weekend.
And then we found out that small water bottles cost 2 LE, and our pockets overflowed with coins, and our hotel minibar overflowed with bottles, and the Kingdom was once again at peace, with order and Maat restored.
*There was little logic in our tipping behaviour. We gave guards anything from 1 LE to 10 LE, and hotel staff even more. I suppose this isn’t any different from tipping culture in the US or UK though. Continue reading “Ancient Egypt: Generation Country”