By Joyce Carta
In the West, we call it "tipping" or "service." But those words don't fully express the breadth of flexibility and purpose of the practice known as "baksheesh." Egypt appears to run on baksheesh and the protocol of the practice becomes evident quite quickly once in the country.
Basically, there are three kinds of baksheesh. The first is baksheesh as "alms giving." One of the 5 tenants of Islam is the giving of alms to the poor. The giver is made more holy by the action. We encountered surprisingly few opportunities in the streets for this kind of baksheesh. Either the government provides well for the potential beggars or the people are more industrious and thus embarrassed to spend their lives in this fashion.
The second type is baksheesh as "for services rendered." This is the closest to the western tipping practices. Except it goes further. There are people at the airport whose only job appears to be opening doors. Of course, they require baksheesh. And every bathroom has an attendant, who expects a few piastres for keeping the place clean (supposedly). One is continuously passing out a few piastres here and a few there. Thank goodness the group had the central tipping kitty administered by the tour guide, who knew the proper amount to baksheesh.
The third kind of baksheesh is "for the granting of favors." Want to see what's in the tomb which is posted as closed? A few piastres will see a key miraculously produced. Want to see an excellent photo location? Just 25 piastres. How about having a light in that museum display case? Don't forget me when you leave. Want to see a forbidden mummy? Only another 50 piastres The amazing thing is that you don't even need to ask for the services. Upon identifying a mark, even the museum guards will follow you around and provide services and grant favors. Interestingly, after getting over the initial adverse reaction to the practice, it becomes expected and even pleasurable. In the Museum of Islamic Art, for instance, we really appreciated the guard who turned on lights and pointed out features in terribly broken English. Without him we never would have enjoyed some beautifully illuminated manuscripts. It was a pleasure to give him 2 pounds as we left. And the smile on his face was rewarding also.
Hoarding Money. This is another practice we just don't seem to understand. Although small change and bills are continually necessary for baksheeshing (yes, it can be verbed), obtaining change is a skill all of it's own. Small bills and the rare coins are hoarded and even fought over. Otherwise reasonable members of our group would be more than pleased to lend someone a 10 pound note but that 25 pilaster note? Well, no way, Jose, you find your own 25er.
There seemed to be almost a conspiracy to keep the small stuff from us. If, for example, we bought something for 4.25 pounds and handed the clerk a 5 pounder, we would be given a pound note rather than the 75 piastres. And making or getting change was impossible some places. At the Mosque of Ibn Tulum in Cairo we needed LE 6 to get in. With only a 10 pound note, I was rebuffed at the ticket kiosk, "No change! No change." So Phil wandered out to the street, found a sympathetic cabbie and came back with change. We almost passed out when we looked into the money drawer. It was overflowing with small change. They just didn't want to give it away!
We found that spotting banks with short teller lines and buying candies one at a time in grocery stalls was the best way to collect the small bills.
We'll also note that changing money in Egypt is extraordinarily easy. There is but one government set exchange rate, and no exchange fees. So one could change as little as $10 at a time, although that would necessitate daily trips to the bank. And as the people have extremely high values, there is very little security at the banks. In fact, at the Egyptian bank in Aswan the teller packs up all the money and the calculator in his briefcase and takes it with him when he goes outside for lunch.
The problem of not having small change can be eliminated if you pay a visit to Office Depot and buy a big box of cheap ballpoint pens to take with you. Everyone wants them and they get better and faster results than cash. Cleaner to handle, too!