luxor: the trouble with taxis

A guest post from Allan:

Laura has mentioned some of our troubles with our various taxi drivers in Luxor. She has not wanted to get into too much detail, but she thought a guest post on the subject would be a good idea. So I’ll be the one giving you way too much information.

In Cairo, we were extremely lucky when Tito at the Pyramids View Inn hooked us up with Abdul for our trip to Saqqara, Memphis, and Dahshur. During our second day with Abdul, driving around Cairo, he asked how we would get around in Luxor. (In addition to the sites near town, there would be at least one long road trip. Luxor was the kind of city where we would either need cabs everywhere or we would hire someone to drive us to various places.) We said we planned on asking at our hotel. Abdul said he would make some calls and see if he could assist. In seemingly no time at all, he had lined up someone to drive us for our entire stay in Luxor! He told us what this would cost; it was an amount that was more than reasonable for us and one he said that was generous to the driver (who was also guaranteed six days of work).

Monday: The shitty overnight train from Cairo arrived in Luxor roughly one hour late and we missed our pickup from the hotel (apparently he gave up when the train was late (?)). The arranged Luxor driver was meeting us at the hotel at 10 AM. Abdul told us that the driver should say Laura’s full name -- that way we would know he was the correct guy, rather than someone hanging around the hotel saying, yeah, sure, I’m your driver. When we went downstairs, the guy (a young man named B’lal) held up a piece of paper with Laura’s last name on it. That seemed good enough for us. We explained that we had arrived late and asked if he could come back at 1 PM.

When he returned, we explained that we were not going to do any sightseeing but would instead go into Luxor for lunch and then wander around a portion of the town. Our hotel is on the west bank of the Nile. Luxor is on the east bank and while there are local boats you can pay to ferry you across the river, if you are driving, you have to go maybe 10 km south, cross a bridge and then drive 10 km north into the city. As we were en route, we told B’lal where we wanted to go for lunch, the name of the restaurant and the address. Right away, he suggested another place that he said was very good. We know enough from our travels that this type of suggestion often means that the driver/guide has a relationship with the particular restaurant (or shop or hotel or whatever) and will receive a kickback when he brings in business. So we were mildly annoyed right away. We had arranged for a driver, not a guide. And we started wondering if this was the guy Abdul had hired for us. He seemed to not be as professional.

We got to our restaurant and as we were eating, B’lal came in with another man. He said this older man would take over as our driver for the rest of day. They told us to enjoy our lunch and the second driver would be waiting outside. After lunch, we said we’d like to go to a small store that I had read sold locally-made crafts. Our new driver launched into a pitch for a store he knew that sold everything under the sun. Three floors of items at very cheap prices! And the money benefited a local orphanage. He went on and on. Our mild annoyance grew with this new “helpful” suggestion. He did take us where we wanted to go -- as we employed the “maybe later” excuse for the mega-store -- and he was expecting us to return in perhaps 30-45 minutes. We spent a fair bit of time in the shop chatting with the owner and a few other customers. We wandered around the market area, and were accosted by dozens of men selling crappy tourist souvenirs. Someone launched himself at us and asked if we wanted some tea. Laura did, and so we sat down. On the way back, Laura bought some things for certain members of her union. That took awhile and when we got back to the car, Orphanage Guy (OG) was annoyed because we had been away longer than we had said. (But we hired you for the entire day, we both thought to ourselves, so who cares?) This guy was now supposed to drive us back to our hotel, but he made it quite clear that he did not want to do all that driving, so he said he was going to send us in a ferry across the river and then we'd grab a taxi to the hotel. The trip across was quick and although the taxi driver on the other side attempted to hit us up for a very large fee, it went easily enough. But we were annoyed that OG was so lazy (on top of his constantly trying to change our plans) that he could not do the job he had apparently agreed to do. And our small questions about whether these drivers were actually the guys recommended by Abdul grew (the first guy had actually never said Laura’s name to us). Laura tried to get in touch with Abdul, but we could not seem to call him from Luxor.

Tuesday: B’lal arrived promptly at 9 AM and we headed to the Valley of the Kings and some nearby sites. The morning went well, although we were in a different car than the one on Monday. One of the back windows in this car did not exist and the other one did not roll down. We didn’t have any ideas about where to eat lunch, so we agreed when B’lal suggested a small nearby restaurant. The prices were a little steep, but the food was quite good. We saw a few more sites in the afternoon. B’lal asked us several times when we wanted to go on a day trip to Abydos and Dendera (as had OG), which was odd. When Abdul had set this up, we assumed that we would pay one driver at the end of the week. We asked B’lal what he wanted and he said it was up to us ("as you like"). Then he mentioned something about repairing his car, so we paid him for this day. (We needed to get more cash to pay for Monday, so that would have to wait.) When we handed him Tuesday’s money, he thought it was for both days. No, no, we said, this is for you for today. He was clearly shocked. "This ... is for today?" Yes, this is for you, for today. We still weren't sure he believed us. Also, wasn’t this all explained (and agreed to) beforehand (by someone)?

Wednesday: We had arranged for a 9:00 AM pick-up. However, Laura needed more time to blog, so I went down at the appointed time to ask if we could leave at 10. I was introduced to a new, third, driver. Could he come back at 10? He didn't like that. How about 11? Well, 11 is a bit late, I said, we would prefer 10. He muttered something about taking his son to the hospital. (If you had this prior appointment (which I wasn’t convinced even existed), then why did you agree to work all day doing something else?) We settled on 10:30 and I was left wondering what the fuck was going on with all these drivers.

At 10:30, we discovered that there was now a FOURTH driver, who we quickly learned was the young guy who had taken us across the river in his boat on Monday night. On the way to the Valley of the Kings (Day 2), he pulled over and OG got in. WTF? OG immediately went into a sales pitch, suggesting things we could do, like spending time with an Egyptian family and learning about their lives. We had decided to not reply to these suggestions, to act like he wasn’t even talking (just the same way we ignored the many touts outside the various sites). He was again pushing us to go to Dendera/Abydos as soon as possible. The next day seemed fine for that, so we agreed. He told us that the price for that day would be twice the daily rate we had previously agreed on. Laura laughed and told him flat-out: No way. But don’t you know how far away Abydos is? Yes, we do, and it doesn’t matter. Everyone agreed on a fair rate for these days, and some days, like Monday, were very light and some other days would be longer. He grumbled and said he needed our full names for some paperwork that needed to be filed before we could go. This was the first time we had heard of this, so we balked. He told us this was simply for security (and some other reasons that made little sense) and that we needed to trust him and not be so suspicious. As you may have heard, this pissed Laura off and she unloaded on him, explaining extremely clearly why we did not trust him even one little bit.

After finishing up at the Tombs of the Nobles, we said we wanted a quicker lunch than the day before, perhaps some koshari at a local cafe. But we needed a bank machine first. The ATM gave us nothing but 200 pound notes, which we needed to change into smaller bills. OG said there was no actual bank on the west side and suggested that we go into a shop and ask the owner to make change. This seemed utterly ridiculous. The stores are small hole-in-the-wall places and there was no way a guy was going to give us small bills for, say, 600 or 800 pounds. We bought three bottles of water in one place to get a little bit of change and OG took us to a gas station where an attendant (who was related to him) changed another 200 bill. We left the water in the car and went to have lunch.

Unbeknownst to us, while we were eating, there was a change of drivers. Ferry Guy and OG left (with our newly purchased water!) and was replaced by the annoying guy I had seen first thing in the morning. When we got out to his ar after lunch, I remembered the water -- and cursed loudly. Seeing our anger at not having the water (which was feeling like a last straw of sorts), Annoying Guy started in, with an extraordinary amount of fake obsequiousness: "I'll get you more water. Do not be angry. We will buy more water. Why do you need three waters? Madame, do not worry. I will bring water to your hotel." He was using the Arabic expression for "no problem" over and over. We insisted that losing the water was not the issue, it was the least of the issues. It was merely the latest in a series of annoyances that we felt should not be happening in the first place, annoyances that we thought we had avoided by having this prior arrangement. The driver ran off and returned with two waters and we drove off.

At the first place on our afternoon schedule, he told us to stay at least an hour because he wanted to go home and have lunch with his family. We were speechless. After we complained (why not eat before you go to work for the afternoon?), he acted hurt and put out and agreed to wait ("as you like" -- but it's only as we like after you try to change things around to suit your own schedule). By this time, the hassles with the revolving drivers were really getting to Laura and she was wondering if we should scrap the whole arrangement. We figured we could postpone the day trip and not have anyone the next day. Get some time away from these guys. Take a boat across the river, and take taxis to and from the sites, and return by river at night. We called B’lal and told him our revised plans, but we would see him on Friday for the trip to Dendera/Abydos.

Thursday: While having breakfast, we were told that B’lal’s father (!) was here to drive us around. Yes, ANOTHER driver, for fuck’s sake, on a day we said we did not want a driver. But rather than send him away, we said we would be ready shortly. He thought we were going on the long trip today, but we said, no, we had cancelled that the night before and were going to be in Luxor. He waived some papers that OG must have prepared for our travel, but we just shrugged our shoulders. Besides, we would have needed to leave three hours ago if we were going to those far-away sites. So into Luxor we went. And this day actually was pretty good. B’lal’s father said some interesting things about the area and did not try to sell us anything (well, only a meet-and-greet with a family, a felucca ride, and dinner at a "famous" restaurant). He took us where we wanted to go, in the order we wanted to do things, and was always waiting when we exited a site.

We headed back to the hotel around 4:30 (after he passive-agressively asked us if we knew there was a ferry). We were debating whether to ask him to return around 6:00 and take us somewhere for dinner. He was hired for the day, but when did his day actually end? We weren't sure about that, so we figured we should get a separate taxi for the evening. During the drive, there was a series of phone calls where Laura spoke to B’lal on his father’s cell phone (and could hear practically nothing) and then when OG wanted to talk to me about the two days we had yet to pay for (so was he in charge of this circus?). There was a fair amount of confusion before he said that we could pay whenever we wanted to (then why did you even call me?). While I was on the phone, Laura was busy paying B’Lal’s father for the day. When he saw the money, his eyes nearly popped out of his head. Like son, like father. And, suddenly, everything changed.

His attitude towards us completely changed (maybe we weren’t divas after all), and he began apologizing for anything and everything. "Oh, I am sorry, I did not realize. So sorry." We figured now it was okay to ask if he or someone else might take us to a restaurant for dinner. He said he would be back at 6:00. Which he was. On the drive to the restaurant, he was joking, asking Laura if she had a sister that B’lal could meet. He said B’lal would take us back to the hotel afterwards. And during that drive, B’lal also began apologizing for any troubles we have had. We agreed on an early morning pickup time for Friday and said goodnight.

We don’t know who we will see behind the wheel on Saturday for another day in Luxor. But we know that we will refuse to go anywhere with either OG or the Hungry Guy. I never want to see those two clowns again. On Sunday, B’lal will drive us to Aswan, and we will stop at a couple of sites along the way.

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