What do you think of when you think of Egypt? You think of the Pyramids. And you think of camels. Now before our trip I made it a goal to make sure that I got a chance to ride one of these bad boys. My enthusiasm however was stunted a little bit before we even went to Egypt because I had heard all these horror stories about peoples’ not so joyful camel riding experiences. Specifically, that the camel drivers were going to rip you off, make you pay extra to take a picture, make you pay extra to get off the camel, things of that nature. But nevertheless my intent was still there and I had the opportunity to ride on the camels twice – both being two very opposite experiences.
My first camel riding experience was in Aswan. When we mentioned to our guide at the time that we wanted to take a camel ride at some point he told us, “The camel drivers in Cairo are thieves. They’ll charge you a ridiculous amount. Pure thieves.” This statement pretty much supported what I had heard at home before we went on the trip. But he told us that he could take us to a place in Aswan that would give us an opportunity to ride the camels at a more legitimate rate. Now our guide was doing this out of the kindness of his heart, since this wasn’t on the normal tour itinerary, so he asked us not to mention to anyone on the boat that he was doing this favor for us.
We took a quick boat ride across the Nile from Aswan to the base of the Tomb of the Nobles (you can see it easily from Aswan). The motorboat ride cost us $60 round trip (however, our guide was with us so you’ll probably have to pay more unless you’re really good at bargaining/speak Arabic). Once we arrived on the opposite bank we took a quick 3 minute walk up to the base of the tombs and, low and behold, sitting there was a group of camels. Our guide was able to get us 30 minutes on these camels for only 30 Egyptian pounds a person (which is about $6). In Cairo, our guide told us he’d heard of some camel drivers charging 500-600 pounds to some poor unsuspecting tourists.
My excitement was at its peak as I hopped onto the back of a feisty, male camel. As he stood up, I almost lost my balance as I wobbled upward. The camel driver I had was an elderly man who didn’t speak very good English. Now I’ve never ridden a horse or anything like that, so when part way through the ride my camel driver gave me the reigns, I thought he wanted me to hold them momentarily while he tied his shoes or something. No, he was giving me control of the camel, which at first almost ended in disaster. My driver started saying things in Arabic and I really couldn’t tell if he was giving orders to me or the animal I was riding on. Definitely at one point, my camel got seriously pissed at something and started sprinting (yes, it started fucking sprinting) away from the group. I had NO idea what I was doing and it took me a little too long to realize what the camel rider was yelling in Arabic was essentially to pull back on the reigns to get the camel to stop. I pulled back so hard, that the camel stopped so suddenly, I almost flew head over heels off the damn thing (my crotch actually slid forward into the horn of the saddle which was extremely painful, but the only thing that stopped me from flying off). Once the camel calmed down, and I figured out how to get the reigns to make the camel go where I wanted to go (he was a feisty one throughout, but I did like his spirit) it became a much more pleasant ride. My mother and sister both had teenage boys leading their camels and these boys were more than happy to take several photographs of us (they seemed to really be enjoying playing with the digital cameras). At the end of the ride, we were on cloud nine. The ride was so much fun, and the camel drivers were absolutely great. We paid them the agreed 30 pounds a person, and we gave them each a hefty tip (which they accepted with great appreciation. This is something I’d like to point out now and go back to).
Our second experience was not so enjoyable. When we arrived in Cairo (I’ll explain more about Cairo in the next post), we were all running on about 3 hours of sleep since it was New Years Eve the night before. Being in Cairo we were going to have a new guide, and on the very first day we were supposed to see the Pyramids of Giza. We arrived at the Pyramids, and our guide essentially told us we really should ride the camels. All of us weren’t totally in the mood since we were so tired, and we had done it already in Aswan so we didn’t feel the need to go a second round. But this guide of ours just kept pushing it, and pushing it. We finally figured out that this guide was pretty much getting paid off by one of the camel drivers. The guide was quoting $40 American for each of us for 30 minutes (versus the $6 in Aswan). Then he dropped it down to $30. At this point, we decided, if we could get it down to $20, we’d do it (I mean it was a camel ride next to the Pyramids, so we guessed we’d probably regret passing up the chance). He gave us $25 and were like “Fine, whatever, we’ll do it” as much out of wanting him to stop pestering as actual enthusiasm.
So we board our camels, but of course this time around I know what to expect/know what I’m doing. My camel driver was a chatty fellow who didn’t have the same kind demeanor as the fella in Aswan. My sister had a kid no older than 5 pulling her camel along, which was actually quite disconcerting. We get to a point where the Pyramids are behind us and the camel driver offers to take a picture. So I give him my camera and he takes some shots of us with the Pyramids. When he comes back, he doesn’t give me my camera back – he holds out his hand. I literally am like “Are you serious?” He says “C’mon give me a tip”. I’m not going to win this one, so I start pulling out money (the guy even says to me “Give me American dollars). I give him 10 Egyptian pounds (which is like $2) and I tell him “Give me my camera back, now“. He gives me my camera back, and I look over to my mom and sister and motion to them to put their cameras away or we’ll be quickly losing more money.
We ride along a little bit further and the older man and the young boy leave (inexplicably) and we’re left with a teenage boy who ties all our camels together and has the camels start running back. In the midst of all of this running, the bouncing causes my mother’s camera to pop out of her pocket. We scream at the kid in front (who doesn’t really speak English either) to stop the camels. We check the saddles of the camel (quite thoroughly, keep this in mind), but don’t see any camera. We spend the next half an hour scouring the desert for the camera on the ground. It was bizarre because we could see the tracks where we had come from and the camera shouldn’t have been buried by any sand in the 30 seconds the camels were running. We’d almost given up on the camera and were getting ready to head back with out it when I have the head camel driver (who had come back to help find the camera) check the camel’s saddles a second time. This time the camel driver “finds” the camera relatively easily. Now, I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but we find it rather suspicious that the camera was discovered so easily in the saddle after my mother, sister and I all looked through it pretty thoroughly. Once again, he holds onto the camera, even though I motion to him to give it back, and smiles “We’re all happy now, yes!” We get back to our Cairo guide, who has a big smile on his face hoping that it’ll charm us to go easy on him, and I try to get the camera back again. The camel driver says “Are you happy?” I reply, “I guess”. He puts out his hand and says “Show me”. So I give him 50 Egyptian pounds and he shakes his head. Once again, with no one to back us up (the police standing there couldn’t care less to help), and our Cairo guide just standing there, there no way to win this one. So I give the guy a second 50 and he gives me the camera back. I look at my family and they gave me the same look that said it all. We wish that our memory of camel riding was isolated to the experience in Aswan. The drivers there were humble, kind, and a pleasure to be around – the total opposite of the drivers in Cairo.
After that, it was only the fact that the Pyramids were so amazing to see in person that saved the day for us. So if you’re ever in Egypt, heed this warning: BEWARE THE CAMEL DRIVERS AT THE PYRAMIDS. One way to get around getting screwed is to have one of your party walk along with the camels and take pictures (but you’ll really owe the one person who doesn’t take the ride). Or do like we did the first time and find a place to take the camel rides in the non-touristy areas. But in the end, you can’t get around it. We got some pictures of us in front of the Pyramids, riding on camels, so we’ll choose to forget the ordeal we went through and just appreciate that we have them.