Yesterday, I spent nearly 7 hours at the Khan El Khalil market. The market has several sections, including a section for tourists, a spice market, cotton market, papyrus market, silver/gold, and perfumes/oils/essence. It was very interesting, especially in the less touristy sections. I finally found a place to buy cheap safron (100 grams, which is a large bag of the spice for 25 piastres (that's 1/4 of an EGP or roughly $0.045!). Certainly beats the $4 for an ounce!
The markets were filled with amazing smells, colors and shapes, with pushy but friendly salesmen everywhere. Given that I will be travelling for the next 6+ weeks, I figured i'd only pick up items that really blew me away, saving room in my bag for future momentos. Unfortunately, I did not find much that I was really excited about.
One thing to note, for starters, is that the number system used in the markets here (and for time, license plates, addresses, etc) is Arabic. You will rarely see the western numeral system. Thus, I figured it would be a good idea to brush up on the Arabic number system. Here's the numbers 0-9 in Arabic:
At the markets, I ran into several shop owners who offered to show me their products. Mostly, I accepted the invitation, but did not purchase much. One such fellow, Ali ("Ali, not Mohammed Ali" was what he would always say), showed me around the markets for nearly 2-3 hours. He introduced himself as a man shopping in the market, but soon it became quite clear that he was a merchant. I must tell you that he was an excellent guide and someone I enjoyed chatting with for several hours. Unlike the prior few days, during which I met "tour guides", he was a merchant, and thus did not expect to be paid for the guide, rather through purchase of merchandise. Unfortunately for him, his business was in oils/essense/frangrance, which is just not something I wanted to buy in bulk.
When he finally brought me to his store, he suggested that I buy four bottles of essence of "Acqua Di Gio" (as he saw it; did not smell much like the real thing, nor did it last like the real thing). He asked for $1000 EGP, which is roughly $200. I said that was out of my league, and that I only had $50 EGP to spend at his store. He countered with $900 EGP. I still said, I have only $50 EGP. Needless to say, our conversation went back and forth for a while, until he finally pushed me over the edge. Around $250 EGP, I said to him that he was now wasting my time, given that I would not spend more than $50 EGP at this shop. I got up and began to walk out. As I did that, he agreed to $50 EGP. At that point, I had been so disgusted by the "negotiation" that I walked out entirely, with no interest in looking back. Yes, it was an intense discussion, filled with weird "Jewish-eque" guilt that frankly I did not need. Of all things I was looking for at this market, essense/oil was the last. Ali and I had several wonderful conversations prior to our "business", but clearly we were not on the same page. Here's some photos of the market and Ali's shop:
All in all the debate with Ali was well over 1 hour, with him trying several incentives to entice me to buy his products. I learned quite a bit about myself and about salesmanship during this debate, especially relating to understanding the psychology of the salesman. Ali, knowing full well that I was an American staying at a nice hotel, decided that I could spend lots of money, but wanted to feel like I was getting a deal. However, he read me wrong... I mentioned to him several times that I was a rich American (his term, not mine), but that I was now a student and had little money to spend. I also said several times that this was not something high on my wishlist. Furthermore, I told him that I liked him, and wanted to spend the $50 EGP (he had shown me around for 3 hrs). I would've taken a tiny token, or even left $50 for the companionship during those prior hours. Unfortunately, we did not understand each other.
A few notes on Egypt that I have picked up: Everyone seems to be pretty nice and interested in your money (not stealing it, just outwitting you in a deal). I noticed this immediately with the cab drivers and restauranteurs. However, these people fail to realize the mindset of the American. In a country like Egypt, the difference between paying $5 EGP and $1.50 EFP for a bottle of water is practically nothing. It's not worth the argument. To the Egyptian it is. I recall going into the Felafilo restaurant down the block and getting a Felafel sandwich for $0.60 EGP and being laughed at for paying too much. I don't know about the rest of you, but i'm glad to pay $0.11 for a Felafel. Of course, a $0.05 Felafel is cheaper, but its not the end of the world for me. I guess i'm a sucker...
The price of an item in any market should be close to the intrinsic value that the buyer assesses to that product. Thus, an American will always pay more than an Egyptian for things in Cairo. Fundamentally, I have accepted paying $1-2 USD for a bottle of water. Sure, i'll pay $.20, but I can handle the $1 purchase as well, without feeling taken. Here, that difference is much larger to the locals, and thus they pay much less. My $25 EGP cab ride to the market would probably cost $5-10 EGP to a local, but i'm ok with $25 EGP (the cab ride is roughly 30 minutes in awful traffic - well worth $5 USD to me).
Last night, after being in the heat for the bulk of the day, I relaxed in the hotel, talking with a handful of locals at the Hilton restaurant downstairs. The restaurant has great local entertainment, including belly dancers and a guest singerplaying some good local stuff. It was nice. I turned in around 1am.
This morning, I woke up, had breakfast and set out for a quick walk of the neighborhood. Afterwards, I came back to the hotel, sunbathed and swam by the pool, and generally relaxed. I need to check out shortly, and will then have a few hours (ok, many hours (like 9ish) to hang out before having to travel to Cairo Airport. What a dumb flight time (4:45am). It should make for some interesting times at the airport.
All in all, I had an interesting experience in Cairo and truly enjoyed meeting the locals. While its not my favorite travel destination, I would suggest that others come here and experience it for themselves. I can honestly say that after 4 days here, I can walk like an egyptian (and avoid traffic)... Tomorrow, back to Jerusalem for my last Shabbat there...