Bartering in Dahab

Tourism is down here in Egypt.  This translates into 1) good prices 2) not much of a crowd and 3) individualized attention.

These all sound positive, but each have a negative too.  Take the individualized attention, for instance.  You can’t walk five feet without having someone try selling you something.  Good prices sound good, but it is bad for the locals.  Local store owners find themselves in a catch-22: desperately needing business so having to offer dirt cheap prices to stay competitive.  But since they badly need money now they try selling at even higher prices than normal to stay in business.  This translates into a lot of shameless “bait and switch.”  They’ll call out a low-ball price on something as you walk by on the street, but the second you give them the time of day the prices goes up ten-fold.

I’ve heard in Arab countries bartering is the norm.  So I was prepared for some good-natured back and forth.  However, I was not prepared for the level of persistence I’m badgered with for my business here.

Granted, the town I’m in, Dahab, is touristy.  But it gets old when nearly every shop and restaurant I pass results in me being hounded by the owner.  It’s over the top from anything I’ve experienced before.  Woe be to the person who has the gumption to enter anywhere! it will be difficult for them to exit without buying something.  Thankfully there are exceptions, but they are exceptions. 

Like I mentioned in my last post, prices here for everything (from food to lodging to adventure sports) are all cheap.  The sobering side is the sellers are desperate for business!  The Egyptian Revolution has put a whompus on tourism, and I think most here are hurting financially.  There ARE tourists in Dahab, but I’m betting the town is running around 10-20% capacity, and I’ve been told the last two months were even more dead than now. 

Regarding prices, at first I thought all the bartering was good natured, but I’m beginning to realize there’s more to it than what appears on the surface…  I may be a dense and gullible westerner, but I’m starting to feel sorry for these folks. I think they genuinely just want a customer… so they can put food on the table for their own families.

I stopped to inquire about the cost of a hamburger and the shop owner next door took the opportunity of me stopping to practically drag me into his clothing shop.  He was good-natured about it, but he REALLY wanted me to buy something.  He had some really cool stuff, so I was a sucker and ended up walking out of there with both a "Dahab” hoody and t-shirt.  I know I could have haggled him down further, but was embarrassed to go down below fair USA prices knowing how bad the situation is here.  As it was, we went down to half the price he initially was asking (and I hate haggling!)  The interesting thing to me was how sooo very happy this man (Mohammed) was I had bought something – he was practically jumping up and down!  I think we are friends for life now.

This situation is a buyers market, if you want to haggle down to the lowest dollar, one can go down a looong ways down.  I’ve seen this.

I saw one tourist barter down an item that would have cost $30 in the US from a not-so-bad starting price of $15 to about $8 (all the haggling done in Egyptian Pounds of course, but I’m converting to US currency for the benefit of the gentle reader).  At one point the shop owner began telling this guy, “Hey, at this price you win!” and, “Be reasonable,” etc – statements that may have been a ploy, but at these prices I was tempted to believe him.  Then the price went a bit lower and finally the owner got angry and said, “I don’t won’t sell it to you! and I won’t sell it to you!” and wanted him to leave.

Head scarves around here are pretty popular.  I thought it might be nice to get one, they’re ubiquitous in the touristy shops.  I’ve seen them hawked for as low as $2 (12 EGP).  So I stopped at one place and the guy showed me his scarves, then when we got around to price he started at $30! (180 EGP)  I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding.” 

I didn’t even feel like haggling if we were going to start at such a ridiculous price, but he wasn’t about to let me leave his shop, so after going back and forth awhile we got all the way down to $4, and I agreed to buy it for that, but this guy was persistent.  He now wanted me to buy two head scarves.  I tried explaining I didn’t have room in my pack, bla bla, but it was like talking to a brick wall. 

The odd thing was he wasn’t confrontational or annoying, it was like he was pleading.  And I could tell he was a nice guy.  Finally I was like, “Hey! I’m only going to buy one, but I’ll pay a bit more for it, say 30 EGP?” (about five dollars)  Then I put my arm on his shoulder and asked what his situation was?  At this his mask dropped and he started treating me more like a human.  He just sighed real big and told me there is hardly any business – he hadn’t made money today.  Apparently I was his first customer (and this was around 9pm).  I felt pretty bad, the revolution hasn’t been good for the tourist traps.  I’ve even heard a number of places have plain gone out of business.

So anyways, those are a few thoughts, for what they’re worth.

First Day in Egypt

After getting a passport photo from a local camera shop in Eilat, applying for a visa at the Egyptian Consulate and waiting a few hours for the paperwork to get processed, I was finally cleared for entry to Egypt!

After catching a local bus to the border crossing at Taba, paying the Israeli exit fee, having my backpack sifted through by bored Egyptian guards (a security check wouldn’t be considered thorough without first figuring out how all the different modes work on my flashlight!), I was finally IN Egypt!

Welcome to Egypt

After entering, I was immediately accosted by mini-bus drivers.  I had been informed it was best to take the real bus as it would be much less expensive than the mini-bus taxis (maybe safer too?). 

Though persistent, they were surprisingly respectful.  Some drivers spoke English, so I inquired directions to the bus terminal (I knew it was close by).  Finally, to get them off my back as much as anything, I agreed to have one drive me to the bus terminal for a dollar. 

They were all insisting the bus was not running anymore and I HAD to take a mini bus.  I didn’t believe them.  My friend Tomasz (who got to Egypt several weeks ago) told me in a recent an e-mail to ignore the mini-bus drivers no matter what they told me and take the real bus instead.  I didn’t want to travel 90 miles by taxi.

At the nearby bus terminal I met two other tourists standing around with their mini-bus driver.  These tourists were a cheerful couple from Malta who spoke impeccable English.  I pulled them aside to have a little pow-wow. 

“Do you think they’re telling the truth about the buses not running anymore?” I asked.  The guy answered he wasn’t sure, but was beginning to think they were.

Turns out one of the drivers agreed to take us down to Dahab for about $16 each.  That sounded like a good deal to us, considering it was nearly a two hour drive.  A fight did nearly erupt between the two drivers, but we drove off into the sunset before it got too bad.

Our driver, Suleiman, turned out to be a nice chap, and seemed legit.  He had a business card with a telephone number and offered drive us other places like St. Catherine’s or what-not if we wanted to in the future.

The back story on the young Maltan coupple was they ran a souviner shop back in Malta and travelled during the low season.  One year they travelled across Africa, one year they travelled across South America.  This year they were doing countries in the Middle East.  They had already been to Morocco, Israel, and Jordan.

Our driver, Suleiman, stopped the van at a scenic overlook to say his prayers to Allah.  He told us we could take pictures of the Red Sea.  I took one of him too.

Red Sea

Praying Toward Mecca

So as it turns out, the drivers were telling us the truth about the busses.  The workers on East Delta bus lines have been on strike eight days now. 

I thought it was pretty funny how my Maltan friends told me they didn’t believe it at first and waited at the bus station for over an hour, apparently all the while being badgered by drivers telling them it was futile. 

The Maltans said they began wondering if the drivers were honest when one of them, in frustration, raised his arms to the sky and swore by God he was telling them the truth. 

Anyhow, Dahab is quite the interesting tourist town.  Seems it is some sorta premier spot for watersports like diving, snorkeling, windsurfing, kite-surfing, etc.  Not to mention desert tours, camel trips, and who knows what all.  The brochure map I have lists around thirty scuba dive shops alone!

Everything here seems quite inexpensive too.  I bought a large meal tonight at a sit down restaurant for $5.  It consisted of a heaping plate of grilled chicken wings, a soup, a salad, a side of rice and vegetables, and a pile of bread with delicious dipping sauce.

Touristy things are inexpensive too.  For instance, a snorkeling day trip costs $6.  That includes transportation to a nearby reef and the snorkeling equipment rental.  And my hostel is only $3 per night!  It’s not a bad place either, a sight nicer than the YWAM facilities I stayed at in Haiti.  Think I’ll move up to nicer accommodations tomorrow though – for this price, why not? 

Seeing the locals walk around in their flowing robes is different.  I’ve been to Arab towns in Israel and the West Bank, but generally there, they only wear the turbans and not the flowing robes.  Also see women completely covered except for a slit for their eyes.