Thursday, November 03, 2011

Another Ahmed

Cairo is scam-a-delic. Please do not think that I do not like Cairo. I love Cairo. I would move here in a second. There are so many wonderful people that live here; the scammers just add a gaming element to the experience.

Thus at some point, though it can be taxing, the endless amount of scams and scamming should be looked at the same way as climbing a mountain or running a marathon. You take it one step at a time, one scam at a time. And you just try to stay on your feet.

This morning, I thought I would find a bakery and have coffee and a croissant. First, I went into a bakery by my hotel but I was not pleased so I kept walking. As usual, someone stopped me in the street. The scam this time - did I want a hotel? No, I told them I was looking for a place for coffee.

“My brother has coffee or tea,” the jovial man said and I proceeded to follow him. He led me a 100 meters or so down the sidewalk and through a shop of papyrus art, which is always a red flag that you are going to be conned or scammed into buying papyrus for way too much. Funny how this is a continual scam that after you have been here for a day or less you know the scam so it does not seem like it would be that affective.

Like last night when I was at the Khan el-Khalili Market, a scammer latched onto my teacher friend and I. He went on about how he just wanted to hear us talk so that he could practice his American accent. He loved Americanisms.

“I am not sketchy people,” he kept repeating to us.

We followed him because we did not want to be rude. He told us he had the best papyrus in Cairo, written about in the guidebooks. His father, who has since passed, was a papyrus master.

Of course, these scammers think that we are pushovers because we are nice. That is never the case with me or hardly ever the case. Although the first day I was here, I was taken for a ride but I actually knew I was being taken and I wanted to see where that ride was going to take me. It almost took me to the pyramids where I had been promised to be taken but it did not take me quite there. It took me to a place of essential oils where I knew once we stepped in the shop I was going to be fleeced.

But with the papyrus scammer what was odd, when this scammer showed us the guidebook entries in Lonely Planet and Frommers, half a sentence had been marked through with a sharpie by him or someone else at the Papyrus gallery because obviously there was some caution to be practiced on behalf of the traveler.

Before this happened earlier in the evening, the other teacher and I sat and had kebabs at a place my teacher friend had been recommended to him. The staff was incredibly attentive. They brought us tea and set it up on the brass tray in front of us. As soon as the tea was laid, we were inundated with hawkers - some of these mere children, which always sends a tinge of guilt through me. These hawkers were selling everything from scarab bracelets to glow sticks like you would see at a rock concert. Occasionally a boy with the most dejected look on his face would walk through with cheap looking mugs that he did not even seem to think he could sell.

A beggar with a shoeshine box offered to shine my shoes. We agreed on 5 pounds, which is a little less than a dollar. I had the coins in my hand, which I showed him. He nodded yes.

He took my shoes off which was a bit worrisome because I had just bought them. I am not sure if I had previously mentioned my shoe amnesia. When I packed for Jeddah, I seemed to have forgotten to pack all of my shoes except for my Kiss Hotter than Hell Vans, a pair of leather Pumas and the random boa skin shoes that I bought in Thailand in the spring. Yes, I left my Jil Sander snake skinned loafers (How do I have two pairs of snake skinned shoes?), my Prada white patent leather, and my Prada grey with green trim, I left them all Stateside. Packing my Prada hiking boots for desert weather would have just been silly but these other shoes I needed. How did I come halfway around the world and forget half of my shoes?

So the first couple of weeks in Jeddah, I made do with the shoes I had brought with me. The boa shoes from Thailand soon started to show stress so I went on a reconnaissance shoe mission. I hit every mall and boutique I could find. For once, I wanted some normal sensible leather shoes of good quality.

At the Stars Mall, I located some Paul Smith shoes that were by no means cheap. They were not on sale. For me to pay full price for anything is rare. Nevertheless, the Paul Smith shoes are comfortable. I can wear them every day to work though the instructions say that you should only wear the same shoes every other day at most. These shoes are nice. They will wear well. I closed my eyes and bought them.

Thus, the beggar with the shoeshine box disappeared into the market depths with my shoes. This was slightly offsetting. I tried not to think about it. The food arrived and I still did not have my shoes but we did have four - sometimes five - cats eyeing us and our food. One of the braver cats even went so far as to put his paws up on the makeshift table that the host had fashioned out of a stand and a big brass tray. At this point, we had the tea tray table of tea and another tea tray table of food. The salad and meat and bread and hummus was all vying for space on a tea table that was meant for just half of what had been set upon it.

Add to this the added bonus of more and more hawkers at our table - some selling the same goods, which brought about sharp words from the hawker who had staked his claim first and planted himself assuming we would eventually give in to him and buy some of his bracelets.

One young boy with a crazy eye and the manner of Chico Marx, who I tried to go back and find later, kept piling bracelets into my hand and making better and better deals. At one point, the host grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and tossed him out. This did not faze him. He came back several times during the course of our dinner. The comedic quality of it never wore thin. Most of the hawkers were clean and did not make me lose my appetite, though I did not eat everything because of the sensory overload to the ordeal.

When we were halfway through our meal, the hajib clad beggar ladies came through scanning for leftovers and plastic bottles. One of them took a Dixie water cup from our table.

“I was using that,” my teacher companion told her.

After she had stuck her thumb in the cup, she put it back on the table. My shoes were brought back before the end of the meal. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Yes, all of this could be bothersome but then you can also look at it like a game. This morning, when the man, an Ahmed, most everyone is named Ahmed, tried to coax me into having coffee above the papyrus gallery and I quickly put together that I was in a reception room where full-fledged fleecing takes place, I turned tail and ran.

“Thank you but no thank you!” I called up to him as I turned and ran down the stairs.

He was actually quite fast and followed suit and called after me:

“Tyson! Tyson! One minute!”

“No thank you.” I called back laughing at the absurdity of this situation of wanting coffee and getting papyrus.

Now, in my flight, I was not lost but I was on a side street that I had not planned walking. I passed two separate mule carts loaded with fruits. The fruit sellers manned the carts and guided them down this street as if this was a village not downtown Cairo with a population of 20 million. Within a couple of minutes, I saw a steer or perhaps an African yak in front of a random automotive parts shop. Maybe it was a parts shop. Maybe it was a VCR repair shop.

I finally found a coffee shop and sat and had my croissant and coffee. Inside a café I was on base, I was safe from hawkers.

Although, you never know – a few days I was at McDonalds. Sometimes when I cannot make a decision, even though I would never eat at McDonalds in America, I will head for McDonalds overseas. I was seating eating my McMuffin and I noticed a man sitting a few tables away. When he saw me see him, he came and sat down at my table and introduced himself. I was cautious but nice. He told me his name is Ahmed. He wrote his name down and his phone number. He told me he would like to be my guide around Cairo. I told him I did not want a guide. He told me it would be free. I was leery at best.

We then traded emails. He contacted me through email and asked me to visit him at work. He works for a computer company behind McDonalds he told me. He gave the address as Cassation Court, the company Gateway. I told him that I would come visit him the next day. I was intrigued. This was all very Graham Greene, intrigue at its most Egyptian. I was to meet him at 10 am. At 12 pm, I was meeting my teacher friend at Café Riche, a hangout for intellectuals and artists supposedly. At 9:30 am, since the place was an estimated 20 minutes away, I took off to meet him.

On a small piece of paper, I had written the directions he had given in his email. When I arrived to the area behind McDonalds, I thought that it would be all self-explanatory and easy. I was wrong. My scrap paper written in English and not Arabic was unhelpful when I asked the people in the places I found myself. I started walking up stairs in buildings with no addresses posted. I was looking for 25. On one side of the street was 26 on the other side of the street was 24. This made no sense. Gateway, though I did not think it existed any longer in the West I assumed like many defunct companies (Hardees anyone? Hang Ten?), it had taken up residence in the East or Middle East or Africa rather. Rather.

I wandered through a teahouse where men smoked hookahs. They directed me into an Internet café. I asked the attendant there. He was not helpful. I took an elevator up to what was a rug warehouse, not the flying carpet kind but the hideous Home Depot variety. I thought about giving up and going back to my hotel but I had promised that I would visit this Ahmed who seemed to be a good Ahmed omen.

When he wrote court, he could not have meant that his company is in the big government building that looked like a courthouse. Gateway would not be in an actual courthouse. I decided to go in because I had run out of options. It looked like a scene from Dr. Zhivago. I swear I saw (a young) Omar Sheriffe but he did not hit the journalist (feel free to hum the Bob Marley cum Eric Clapton song here).

In this building were people milling about everywhere. I saw a police officer dressed in white as the police officers dress here topped off with berets giving them the look of French sailors imagined by Gaultier or Tom of Finland. I showed him my scrap of paper, which had been handled by many men at this point. He looked at me questioningly (Okay Ramones song here – Road to Ruin if there ever was one.).

I then looked up and saw a glass booth where there were cashiers of sorts. A sign over the booth read – Court of Cassation. I had found it. I thanked the policemen though he did not know why.

On the paper, I had written down the 3rd floor. There was no office number on the paper. There were no office numbers on the doors. My assumption that he worked for the company Gateway was not correct. If he had worked for the company Gateway there would not have needed to be an office number because it would have been a big enough office to find without a number was my assumption.

So I wandered from office to office in this huge building looking for him. The key information that would have been helpful, his last name, I had forgotten to write so I was looking for a random Ahmed who worked for a computer company. Man after man led me to office after office but no luck. The 3rd floor was vast. There were many offices with many people in each one, fifteen people in offices that would comfortably house five.

Everyone that tried to help was incredibly cordial. They all asked my name and where I am from. When they could not help, they led me to a colleague who possibly could or whom they assumed spoke better English to no avail.

I was not going to give up. If I had to open the door of every office I would but then I would not have to because through the crack of a door I thought I spotted my Ahmed. For the benefit of the person that was trying to help me, I pointed into the office as the door shut and I said.

“I think I saw him.”

The door opened back up and I peaked in and it was not him - but then the person behind not him was him. Or I thought it was. He then turned around. There stood Ahmed with a big smile on his face and a welcome in his eyes.

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