After sitting in traffic another half an hour, we eventually caught our first glimpse of the Nile and crossed to the opposite bank. Ahmed led us to a place called 'Pharoahs Hotel', into lobby and reception area. One night would cost US dollars $56.00. No, !!!. Nevermind the whole bus fare economy thing… $56.00 is a Comfort Inn in America, but equivalent to 4 nights stay in cheap travel land.
Our discomfort mounted, torn by wanting Ahmed to get home to his family and leave this awkward situation he got us in. "Well, what do you think? You no choice, it is very late and all hotels in Cairo are full because of this festival. I cannot sleep a good night to know you have no place."
Gregg and I decided we should at least check the other hotels nearby to see their rates. I stayed behind with our bags while Ahmed and Gregg went down the block. When they came back, Gregg reported the rates were all more than the Pharoahs. Ahmed was growing more anxious, asking why we would not stay. "It is not too expensive, if you have no money, I can help..." reaching for his wallet as he said this.
"No, no, no, we have the money, it's just that it's a lot for us to spend on a place to sleep (especially when it's already past midnight!)," we tried to explain. Eventually, we resigned ourselves to staying. It was past midnight, neither of us had the energy to go back out there and look for another place, and whatever we did, Ahmed would not go home until we were settled. Chances were we wouldn't find any other vacancies nearby. We still had no idea that every night was "festival night" in Cairo.
Ahmed let out a deep sigh of relief, "This is much better now I know you have a place. It is not safe at night in Cairo, and it is very late." I asked him what we owed him for the cab fare…12 pounds. I handed him a LE20 note to pay his fare home. (Cab fares within central Cairo turned out to be no more than 2-3 pounds a ride). Ahmed said if there was anything we needed while we were in Cairo that he would gladly help. We thanked him without taking his address (nor did he offer it), and began heading up to our luxury suite (which it was not). Before we turned around, Ahmed asked if there was some kind of souvenir he could give to his son from us. I recalled a US dollar bill I recently came across in my pack; Jimmy, our friend from back home, had given it to me as a Jewish tradition--I was to give it to the first person I encountered who needed it. I pulled it out and handed it to Ahmed. He insisted I sign both our names on it.
We dropped our bags off and saw on the back of our door that the posted price for a hotel room was indeed $56/night. Without saying anything, we separately wondered what Ahmed was getting out of bringing us there, then headed out again in search for a quick bite. Down the street from the hotel, we found a fast-food shawarma joint, ate for less than 2 bucks US, and retired to our room. Both of us slept poorly that night--I tossed and turned, Gregg woke up angry. We had avoided talking about that night until the morning, not wanting to believe we were suckers, nice ones too.
Not that travelling is all about going place as cheaply as possible, but with as far and long as we had to go, not to mention without an income, cost was always an issue. This first experience in Egypt made us remount our guard and it seemed each time we let it down, we were overcharged. We became more closed and distrustful of people, doing the obnoxious thing of having to ask the price for everything beforehand. We tried to keep in mind that as Americans we represented Americans and came off as either cheap or obsessed with money. It was a matter of principle for us, and consent to overcharging tourists set a bad precedent for other travellers. And in the same way, the Egyptians we encountered (mostly service-oriented people) were giving Egyptians a bad reputation, whether they cared or not.
In retrospect, it's clear to me now that I was bothered by was the feeling of being regarded as just another couple of tourists to make money off of, and few locals we met were doing anything to change that perception. The more I saw things this way, the more true it seemed.
At one point, Gregg and I talked about this feeling of being 'tourists' rather than 'travellers' in Egypt. So far on our travels, we hadn't been to a major destination country where there was a developed infrastructure catering to tourists. This had something to do with us feeling that it was difficult to have meaningful exchanges with locals. It wasn't that people were simply mean-spirited and trying to rip us off all the time. Things had a price range and if you were willing to pay a little more, people were certainly open to making a little more. Once we got beyond this, and the more comfortable we became as we travelled in Egypt, we began to have better experiences.
Balancing your judgement and instincts is wonky at best when you have nothing to go on. Even now, I don't know that we could/would have done things any differently. A little decency can cost you sometimes, but it doesn't mean we should be bitter about giving people the benefit of the doubt. Unless Ahmed is a con-artist who's gig is to ride the miserable bus from the airport into the city, hoping some tourists are aboard, he likely just figured we were lost foreigners who needed a place to stay. No one is hurt taking advantage of this a little. But there's also nothing wrong with taking things at our own pace, acknowledging that while others may have good intentions, the decisions we make are ours.