Con Man of Cairo

1 Face of Cairo gizaThe Carlton Hotel looks like a nice place. Its vertical crimson sign proudly displaying its name against the exterior wall. There was an awning of similar color; tattered but an awning none-the-less.  If ever there is a mark of a classy establishment it’s got to be the awning; nowhere else I had stayed on this trip had one.

The van I had traveled the desert spluttered towards the doorway like an emphysemic nomad; weather-beaten, ill-tempered, and unhealthy.  Where it was going next I had no idea. The driver stopped talking to me shortly after his jubilant outburst following freedom from the hard-blowing Sinai sands.

I am not sure if he was a little embarrassed by his lack of survival skills or if something else was cooking and he just wanted rid of me as quickly as possible. Of course it would be the latter and this would be a lesson learned and re-learned many times during my stay in Egypt.

The word “Carlton” was emblazoned in thick gold lettering, on a slant, upon both glass doors. The “A” on one side was missing but the Carlton on the right-side door was complete and proud. I opened that one and entered a lobby of dark polished wood; from floor to wall-panels to beams supporting the ceiling.

It wasn’t a dingy dark but a well-lit pleasant entryway. To be honest, I was kind of surprised.

I figured I had done well.

My happiness was enhanced even more by the broad beaming smiles of two men behind the reception desk. They would become known as “Smile One” and “Smile Two”.

There was a bar and restaurant off to the left side. Kind of like Cairo’s version of Bennigans with booth seating and coat stands secured to the table partitions; all in the same darkened wood as the lobby.

I would come here and have a beer and a bite a little later in the evening. Right now it was time to get a room and take a shower. I was encrusted with a layer of post Sinai dust and new arrival Cairo grime from which I was keen to be extricated.

“Smile One” grabbed my backpack and, with key in hand, shuffled up the stairs in the direction of my awaiting room. I had been assured all was ready and that I would be very pleased.

As the door was flung open with pride I found before me a four-poster double bed all freshly made up with what must be Egyptian Cotton sheets. But as they call them here; sheets.

Again I was surprised. The room really was pleasant and a big double window opened up letting in plenty of light. It even provided a portal with a view out over a big pile of rubble on which kids played and adults screamed at them to get off.

There was a private shower and a basin. All the floor was horizontal and the ceiling followed suit. There was a chair and a dresser and a mirror. Not too bad for $15 a night and if a chocolate mint appeared on my pillow at dusk I would be ecstatic, but that wasn’t about to happen.

The tepid water of the shower did wonders. Even if the room wasn’t the cleanest I had ever seen, the removal of my own personal grime made everything appear pristine.

I was ready to wine and dine myself in the lounge area on floor one.

Haze of Cairo

There were was no more than a handful of people in the bar when I arrived; no-one at all was in the restaurant section. In a pair of khaki pants and white linen shirt I looked conspicuous. Everyone else, all five of them, were local and I received the once-over; twice.

I took a seat in a booth and looked forward to the ice-cold beer I was about to enjoy. The beer that would wash away any remnants of the desert stubbornly hanging on to the walls of my throat like unwanted barnacles.  This was my first night in Cairo and this would be my first beer in Egypt.

A waiter came over with tray in hand. On it was a bottle wrapped in a stained white cloth; similar to how a sommelier might deliver a carafe of fine wine.  He bent down at the waist and placed the clothed Heineken in front of me.

“From the gentleman at the bar” he advised.

Feeling flattered, uncomfortable, and obliged, I returned the favor; letting the waiter know he should get the man a drink and I would pay for it. I watched as the waiter told my new friend and with a smile he thanked me. Then refused the offer of a drink and instead added two packets of Rothman cigarettes to my tab.

He waltzed over, sat down on the opposite side of the booth, lit up, and through a ring of smoke that hovered like an ethereal fog of welcome, he began to tell me the story of his entire life…and his wife’s.

She had passed away last year, he told me, of cancer; however I wasn’t to be concerned or feel bad because she was sitting right there next to him in the booth, he introduced her to me.  Apparently she was very happy we had all met.

What!

He began to laugh; then, while laughing, he pointed as if to emphasize even further the prank he had just pulled on this unsuspecting traveler.

When he collected himself he began explaining in more detail the story of his wife’s passing, the loving relationship they had once had, and that he missed her terribly. He always felt like she was with him and that was a great comfort.

I stayed and listened and as the evening wore on his story subjects changed; I was intrigued. He explained that he is a doctor and comes to this bar most nights after work. He doesn’t drink but likes to see old friends and possibly meet new ones.

I, apparently, was now a new one.

With the enthusiasm of a man happening upon a great idea he jumped to his feet and announced he would be taking me out to dinner at the Marriott. It wasn’t far and he would have his driver take us.

Sure enough, right outside the double doors of the Carlton was a car and driver. It kind of looked like a taxi to me but I was assured it was his personal transportation.  We made one stop at a gas station where wads of rolled up money changed hands through the front passenger window.  A half eaten gyro sandwich accompanied the money and it was given directly to me.  Presumably to curb my appetite. As we sped off the gyro went out the back window and returned to where it had come.

Things were getting weirder.

The Marriott in Cairo is a gorgeous place and by far the fanciest restaurant I had eaten at for a long time.  Huge crystal chandeliers hung from ornately painted ceiling giving rise to the notion that inspiration could only have come from the Sistine chapel.

Everything was fresh. The carpets, the flowers, the crispness of the table-cloth. Everyone there was suitably dressed and behavior was at a premium.  Plenty of smiles and laughter to go round.

We ordered drinks, appetizers, main courses, and desserts. The bread basket was always full and the conversation had returned to a normal pool of topics for those who had newly met.

He seemed keen to assist in my endeavor to travel Egypt and wanted to help out. He promised me a first class train ticket to Aswan so that I wouldn’t have to take the bus. He didn’t like the bus and no friend of his should have to take the bus either.

I was having a good time and even his repeated requests for money did not dampen the mood nor did it set any personal alarm bells off; youth, oy!

Throughout the meal people had been approaching us and greeting the doctor with short bursts of conversation before moving on. There was really a sense of mingling and community going on. Almost colonial in nature.

Right before dessert arrived the doctor excused himself and made his way to the phone bank in the hallway. He had some business to take care of he told me. He would be just a minute.

 After 15 minutes the waiter brought the check.

The slow rumble of discomfort began to invade my stomach as it began to knot; just slightly.  I took a look at the check and it was easily a full weeks worth of three squares a day for me.

In the hopes I had gotten it all wrong I walked over to the phone bank to take a look and see if the doctor had really split. To my relief he was where he had said he would be. Conducting a conversation via pay phone; presumably business.

He waved and I went back and sat down.

That would be the last I ever saw of my friend the doctor.  As 15 minutes turned to 30 to 45; it sunk in that I had been conned and I replayed the night in my head.

Maybe he was practicing. I certainly wasn’t a big target if financial gain was the motive. Could he just have been incredibly hungry? But then he could have simply eaten the gyro sandwich.

I took a taxi back to the Carlton; a very similar looking vehicle to the one I had arrived at the Marriott in.  Smile One and Two were laughing as I burst through the double glass doors. Since they had known the doctor I asked them about him and in another equally naive show of stupidity I followed the first question up with an inquiry regarding the first class train ticket; had the doctor left one for me?

They almost doubled over.  Everyone was in on it including the 5 at the bar who were once again giving me the once over, only this time with a sneer.

The doctor was a petty con-man. That is the only information I got. Oh, apart from the fact that he is not, and never was, a doctor.

I went to bed to bed and rested. Tomorrow I would face off at the dreaded Mogamma Building. The epicenter of Egyptian con and corruption.

For more on this journey click on Sands of the Sinai , The Mogamma Odyssey , The Big Baksheesh , and Felucca on the Nile.

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70 thoughts on “Con Man of Cairo

  1. Oh no..! Well, that’s what happens, right? Good it was just a dinner.. Lesson learned and then it’s just way too easy to be extremely suspicious about any local approaching.. At least that’s what happens to me.
    I enjoyed the read and btw my stomach has also just rumbled in discomfort, just imagining it! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so well written Tim! Your stories are so captivating and you somehow manage to get yourself into these “story worth telling situations”!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love reading your blog, such amazing stories and adventures they really sum up what travel really should be about, and wonderfully written too. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This story does two things really well… one is to of course warm travellers .. and the 2nd thing being that shit happens when you travel.. but later make for great travel stories. Losing money is alright, you can always earn more… it’s just important to stay safe.

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  5. When you said the two guys were Smile One and Smile Two, it reminded me of Thing One and Thing Two from The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. You handled the situation so well that it seems more like an annoyance than a con. Some people–not me–would be wary of traveling after that, but not you. The pro tells another great story!

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    1. Would take a lot more than that to dampen a journey for me and I would suspect for you to. When you are traveling in places completely unfamiliar it is amazing how your tolerance level increases.

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  6. What an interesting story, despite the con man involved. Very captivating indeed and I learnt a new word in “awning”. I always see it but did not know the name. How could everyone be involved in such a petty yet unsettling scam?

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  7. Tim, I don’t know if I could have stood another adventure after the two you’d already had in Egypt. I’d be all adventurer-ed out at that point, but you maintain your sense of humor and move on to enjoy your trip. I’m curious to know what happens next in this saga. I loved the image you painted of the weather beaten van as an emphasemic nomad. Smile one and smile two I picture as tall, skinny twins. There’s this air of you being an unwelcome foreigner and I’m curious to see how that plays out too.

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  8. Great story. Well-written. I wanted to scream at you not to get into the car when I got to that point. I didn’t expect you actually wind up at the Marriott, but when you did I didn’t expect you’d get stuck with the bill. You tell the story with humour now, but I bet it didn’t feel so funny at the time.

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    1. Thanks Donna; you are right, it is funnier now but even when it happened and I was kind of ticked off I still managed a laugh. So many more ways that night could have turned out.

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    1. You got it Jeri. It sucks to be conned but I love the fallout from it. Great story and an excellent retrospective comedy of con. If everything went smoothly our lives fabric would most certainly be a little dull.

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  9. I am planning with my family to visit Egypt, but I have decided that I will not stay in Carlton Hotel. It was a story to tell us about such people who are there to entertain and then leave us in trouble. You have a lot of experience in Life and we can use your experience as a lesson. Unfortunately, we come across many such people everywhere in world.
    Apart from this story, I feel that Egypt is worth visiting with his thousand years old heritage.

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    1. It is absolutely worth a visit for the very reason you stated. It is a land of myth and fable and well worth it even if just to stand at the base of the great pyramids.

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  10. Wow I can’t tell you what mixed feelings I have about your story! First and most importantly, I’m so sad for your trouble, though I have no doubt you are far wiser for the experience. That said this story has brought back a flood of memories. I’ve wanted my whole life to visit Egypt. A while back I was primed to finally make it happen – I even managed to organize a personal meeting with Zahi Hawass in Atlanta (before he was deposed as Minister of Antiquities of course) and my trip would have been one of those exclusive affairs with a small group and he would have met us in Cairo, blah, blah. Anyway, 2 months before we were set to leave there was a little rumble in Egypt that you may have heard about. The tour was cancelled and from that point I pretty much wrote Egypt off my Bucket List. I’ve since substituted Machu Picchu as the “trip of a lifetime” on the list, but in the back of my mind there’s still a flicker of hope that some day I’ll make it. Look forward to reading more about your adventures in Eqypt!

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    1. Please don’t feel sad Marquita as the experience made for a good story and I can find a lot of humor in it. I really hope you are able to get to Egypt as it is one of those places that sits in the memory banks of our minds since childhood. Getting to see it is as amazing as it should be. That said, Machu Picchu is also an amazing place so I wish you all the best in visiting them both.

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  11. Good story Tim. It has a little suspense to it, since the reader knows you’re going to get screwed but is waiting to find out how. It is kind of sad to think how distrustful you have to be to avoid stuff like this.

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    1. Thank you so much Lenie. I was trying to convey the humor in the situation more than the distress. I have gotten many more laughs out of this than I have moments of regret or “woe is me”.

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  12. What a story! How fun to think you were being graciously entertained by a friendly stranger and what a change of mood to discover that you had been had. Great teaching experience: if it looks too good to be true, well you know the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Oh my! Wasn’t expecting that ending. How awful in one way, but great fodder for a blog in another way. And I am sure you felt totally used, but something tells me you will be more leery next time. Beautiful area of the world to which I haven’t been. I could see and feel it through your words.

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  14. Tim- Cons are not just located in Egypt. People in need of money pray on travelers. We were looking at one of the tombs in Europe. My husband had put a wade of toilet paper in his back pocket and I had his wallet in my purse. Well a pick pocket decided that they were going to after his wallet and to their surprise they got a wade of toilet. I will never forget the look on that person’s face. I think people think Americans have money whether they look like it or not.

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  15. Absolutely horrible Tim. I could stay right with you in the story because, my husband and I have stayed in the Cairo Marriott. Maybe it’s because we always have our guard up when traveling anywhere, even in the USA, that we are not usually (operative word) scammed or conned. In Egypt we opted for a private guide for our entire 10 days. That gave us the freedom to say “no” if we had ever encountered a situation like yours. I will say even with this kind of protective situation, even our guide took us to places where he got “something” out of it. Kind of like a business, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” It’s a shame your situation wasn’t something like that but instead this sham you experienced. Karma will take care of the good doctor.

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  16. Pretty interesting story. It sure points out that fence we must walk as strangers in wanting to blend in and enjoy the company of locals or other visitors but then having to be cautious and untrusting of any opportunity that comes in front of us. But like I always say, if you live through it, they make for great stories…as this did.

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  17. As Jacquie said, very well written, but very disturbing. We were conned at the Johannesburg Airport in South Africa two days ago — only to the tune of $20 —- but still! If they could take a seasoned traveler such as yourself in short order, I can’t imagine how a neophyte traveler in Egypt would fare. On the other hand, I suspect that species of tourist in Egypt is becoming rather scarce these days.

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  18. Wow that really stinks that you were conned that way, and for others amusement just make it that much worse. Nobody will want to stay at that hotel! I don’t trust anybody anymore, not even here in the states, especially being female. To easy to be taken average of. May the rest of your trip be better. 🙂

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    1. This is all non-fiction but I can understand why you might think otherwise. Knowing that Smile One and Smile Two knew this man was a con, acted more as a source of entertainment for them rather than a note of caution to be forwarded on to their guests.

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  19. What a horrible experience…but I have to say that it is beautifully written, Tim. Must have left you feeling gob-smacked…I know that is how I might have felt. Hope the rest of the trip was much better…but I trust I’ll get to read about that:)

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      1. hi tim; you always have such great stories. are you sure you never ran away with a carnival or circus? lol and it seems no matter how smart or careful we are we’ve all been duped at some point. as my dad would have said all you can hope for is that you had the money to lose. take care out there my friend, max

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