The Big Baksheesh

Baksheesh: A small sum of money given as alms, a tip, or a bribe.

Egypt - Giza2The request of “Baksheesh” while in Egypt comes frequently and often for no apparent reason. Baksheesh, like a Tip in the west, is an amount of money paid on top of the agreed upon price. A way of showing your appreciation for excellent service.

The mere fact that you are enjoying your day, walking around, seeing the sights, should not constitute a cash payment to all locals of that city.  In Cairo however, and the rest of Egypt, that is precisely the interpretation.

The requests inevitably become white noise and after a while they are treated with the same attention to detail you would assign the annoyance of a fly-by insect; you know it’s there but with a wave it will be gone.

This became rote within minutes of exiting the dark wood lobby of the hotel.

At first I simply set out on foot. In complete denial of how the heat, dust, and noise would affect me. My goal, as always, was to take in my environment then settle on a plan of action that would ultimately have me standing toe to toe with the famous Sphinx while contemplating the many theories regarding his loss of nose.

Walking in Cairo is interesting; my head was swiveling as I took in all the madness. Given the last couple of days though this was all beginning to take on an air of familiarity. The chaos was my new normal and I found myself inwardly enjoying the crazy. 

My route took my past mosques, into markets, alongside the Nile, and to a park that became my place of peace. It was here I made a promise to myself.

I would never stop traveling. 

Sitting on the banks of the Nile I watched as cruise ships plowed the water and created a wake that came to greet me as a surge of excitement. On board were travelers just like me, only older, but just as adventurous. Who knows what their past was like. They may have crossed the Sahara on foot for all I knew which would certainly trump any extreme journey I had entertained to that point.

I would never stop traveling…only when I’m older I will do it all again but in style.

I could see me looking out over the bow of that ship. I could hardly wait. One thing was for sure; I had a lot to see and do first. It did not occur to me how much the world would change over the course of the next few decades. It did not occur to me how very fortunate I was to be traveling at that time and it did not occur to me how very fortunate I would need to be in order to make that dream come true.

 I am still happily working on it.

By late morning the heat was becoming more a suffocating smog rather than a light haze so I ponied up and grabbed a taxi.  The driver maneuvered through the pre-lunch post-prayer road treachery and spilled us out of the city confines into the beige topography of the desert.

It was immediate.

City buildings, shops, markets, houses…desert. The fingers of which permeated only slightly. Remarkable given the fact that it could, if conditions were right, swallow the entire place and vanish it from the face of the earth. But it was gentle and stayed on the outskirts allowing the city to encroach more and more as years crept by.

Giza sat there before me. Three colossal pyramids upstaged only by the Sphinx who sat front and center.

I exited the taxi and made my way over to the small brick wall that was acting as a kind of photo opportunity base. From here you could capture everything the archaeological area had to offer. Compose it in one frame and forever more have a keepsake of your time.

“Me take your photo sir?” “Baksheesh, yes?” 

“Yes”, I nodded as I handed the boy my camera for a full portrait of me outranking the Sphinx; snatching the lead spot. Behind me was the small brick wall and a pair of camels. Behind them was the Sahara, Egyptian history, and an incredible testament to craftsmanship.

In front of me was Cairo and the awareness that the craftsmanship over my shoulder had been lost, or forgotten, to the passing of time.  Tilted buildings, some crumbling, and others slightly more than rubble…for as far as the eye could see.

“Smile Sir”, I am going to take your photo in 1, 2, 3…

Egypt - Giza Sphinx Baksheesh

…and with the “ee” of three still sounding in my ear and the expected smile beginning to spread, he bolted like a bat out of hell, camera in hand and squealing as I began to give chase.

A gallibaya is a traditional long shirt worn by men in Egypt. It descends from the shoulders all the way to the ankles. I never realized someone could run that fast while wearing one but this kid could.

I chased him over the wall and down into the shadow of the Sphinx. He weaved and side-stepped and clearly knew the terrain well. I had a fleeting thought that this was not the first time he had pulled this stunt.

Being a lot bigger helped in the pursuit but to any onlookers it must have made me appear like the potential perpetrator of a crime rather than the victim.  It was a good distance before my hand grasped his shoulder and brought him to a stop; sand and dust kicked up all around us.

I was sweating and breathing hard. He, for a second, was motionless. Then, all of a sudden, he held his head up high and smiled the smile of foiled mischief.

He handed back the camera with one hand and with the other opened his palm and demanded…

“Baksheesh” “Sir, I took picture, baksheesh, it is normal”.

For more on this journey click on Sands of the SinaiThe Con Man of Cairo , The Mogamma Odyssey , and Felucca on the Nile.

55 thoughts on “The Big Baksheesh

  1. We did have a hell of a lot of this in Egypt and as you say, for anything and everything. I guess you have to see it both ways, they take advantage and yet it’s all part and parcel of visiting Egypt. I love your thoughts on travelling too, I have come to the same conclusions, travel however you can. Do it one way whilst you can and as you get older, richer or poorer, more or less able, you adapt to do what you love and in the way you can enjoy it the most.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh wow well I did not expect to learn a lesson like this – certainly staying away from all of that. At least you have a great story behind a pretty cool photo 🙂

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  3. The boy’s got some nerve , you gotta hand him that 🙂 I never had too much hassle in Egypt strangely enough, especially Cairo and the Pyramids were a lot better than I expected! Luxor however, grrrr! Going to Morocco soon, expecting some interesting encounters there too 🙂

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  4. Every time I ask someone to take a picture with my camera, I’m nervous something exactly like this will happen. Glad you got your camera back with the cool picture too. I can’t believe he asked you for a tip though! I’ve never heard of “thank you for not stealing my things” tip before.

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  5. So he still ended up taking that very cool photo AND he gave you a great story out of it – sounds like he earned his baksheesh, haha! Very glad you caught him though.

    It is incredibly frustrating constantly being a source of money requests – and your’e right, it does become white noise after a while. I do always however try to maintain my politeness when responding to everyone, at least then I hope the tourist comes across as mostly respectful at least in these interactions, although it is very difficult to keep this up after a few hours!

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  6. Great story, and good that you have the photo you so nearly lost! I guess we can be quick to condemn the foiled thief yet I sometimes wonder how we’d behave having lived in his shoes. Well done for catching him, bet he wasn’t expecting that!

    We once asked a local to take a photo of us in Chefchaouen in Morocco, and as he began to take steps back for a better view I started to worry he was going to run off with our camera. I scoured the ground for stones to throw when the time came, yet instead he took several pics and handed back the camera with a cheery grin and wished us a good day. I felt so guilty for assuming the worst!

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    1. After traveling for many years I know exactly that feeling of guilt for misappropriating criminal activity to the most innocent. I have had other occasions where the outcome was not as good as this story but try my best to put myself in their shoes; realizing that if I were unable to catch a thief it would not be the end of the world.


  7. Tipping in Egypt is infamous, and can really take away from any spiritual experience at some of the archaeological sites. Don’t ever show that you’re giving in, or you will never hear the end of it. Definitely sharing this on Egyptian Sidekick!

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  8. The nerve of him to hold out his hand for a tip after you caught him! This photo truly does say a million words 😉 When I was in Egypt I didn’t mind at all giving tips to the kids that took my photos on the camel or at the Sphinx – but it did irritate me when my luggage was constantly ripped from my hands against my will! A few times there was a tug of war scene with me and a porter.

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  9. Glad to hear you got your camera back! 🙂 Reading this brought back memories of my first (and so far only) trip to Cairo in 2006 – definitely a crazy place, but one that I surprisingly enjoyed despite all the negative advice I had been given before arriving.

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  10. You had a hell of an adventure in Egypt. Between the dude conning you out the meal and now the dude trying to steal your camera, I may have to think again about going to Egypt.

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  11. God are you going to have any money left after this trip? Who don’t you pay in Egypt? My first thought was, “Tim what were you thinking?” The kid sounds like the Egyptian version of the Artful Dodger in “Oliver Twist”. But the pictures are beautiful so majestic. I’ve been staring at the pyramid thinking, “Men build that stone by stone with out machinery .” If it weren’t for exquisite setting I’d say you could pretty much have the same interactions and exchanges standing on the corner of 48th street and 8th avenue in NYC..hand your camera to a kid there and see what happens. : )

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  12. I can just see the mischievous smile on your young thief’s face. And then he had the nerve to ask for baksheesh. A great story Tim, and since I can’t travel right now it gives me a chance to do so through your eyes.

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  13. I had a similar situation in another Middle Eastern country. Every week in this small city, they would have a public whipping of a criminal. The crime was usually some minor robbery or a minor theft that had occurred. I soon noticed that the people they were whipping each week were not citizens of the country, but immigrants that were brought in to do manual labor.
    I soon discovered that after a crime was committed by a citizen of the country, the police would soon arrive. They never apprehended or arrested these citizens, and always commented that it was “just a misunderstanding.” It seems that there is a double standard in many of these countries who is tried and punished for crimes.

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  14. Tim, well done that you managed to save your camera from the little thief. He seemed so friendly as well. I’m surprised you didn’t beat him or haul his sorry backside to the nearest police station, but maybe he did it to feed his family. Who knows. And even if you had carted him off to the cops, would they have in turn demanded bakshish before they even put pen to the boy’s chargesheet. Very interesting experience at the Pyramids no doubt haha! Vijay

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  15. Great story, and you make it so easy to imagine exactly what you’re seeing and doing … but I have to tell you I expected he would take off the minute I read you handed him your camera. The truth is this doesn’t sound that different than New York – you ever drive in Manhattan and have someone rush up and spritz your car window and demand payment? Same scam, just a different location. Looking forward to the next installment! 🙂

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  16. You’re such a good story teller. This Egypt one was pretty special. It would have been a shame if you weren’t young and in good shape and lost your camera and its stored pictures. What a great picture you shared. I’ve always wanted to visit Egypt. This hasn’t persuaded me otherwise.

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  17. This reminds me of when we arrived in Southern China, via an old beat up van, to adopt my daughter. We were immediately surrounded by the village children with their hands out. My bleeding-heart husband gave them all money. Our escort screamed at him to stop. He just couldn’t. They truly looked like they needed it. Your post took me back to that day nearly 20 years ago!

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  18. Oh God Thanks that you managed to get that camera. Bakseesh after that! OMG!
    I have seen many running in Thorpe (Jalabiya) , its really quite shocking to see the speed, that we can not expect.
    But the picture is really nice , I was thinking, all camels, surrounding and Sphinx are in true match. All over dust.
    Now I know why many of my friends always do not like to go to Egypt. But I still want to see pyramids.

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  19. Great picture and I am glad you got your camera back. Are you really surprised about the tip? After being in Cairo 35 years ago, I could not believe the change. When I was there you couldn’t see condos in the background of the Sphinx. Go back in 35 years and you will also see so many changes from what you are experiencing today.

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  20. This makes me think of my mom telling me about being in Tijuana and the little kids who follow tourists everywhere repeating, “One dollar, one dollar, one dollar…” Then there’s the first time I set foot in Times Square and was accosted by Hello Kitty and Tickle Me Elmo. We should have known better, plus we never carry more than a few dollars in cash, but still.

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  21. While I’ve never been to Egypt, one of my favorite photos is from our trip to St. Lucia. A group of us (who were staying at a resort) had enlisted a local for a guided tour.

    At the end of one leg of the tour, we were greeted by an adorable young girl holding a puppy. She flashed a big smile at us and said “Money? Photo?” So, we paid her for the privilege of taking her photo. 🙂

    As soon as we handed her the cash, she ran over to a woman who was closely watching from afar. Rather than a scam, she had quite a lucrative business going on.

    Thanks for stirring up that memory.

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  22. Yes, those demands for baksheesh in Egypt were unrelenting. They insist on providing services for you that you didn’t ask for, and then demand to get paid for it. I also am always afraid of what happened to you occurring whenever I hand my camera to a stranger to take my photo.

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  23. I’ve not been to Egypt, but a friend of mine lived in Cairo for a year at uni. She is pale but with dark hair and often dressed in more traditional garb to get out of the constant cries for tips wherever she went.

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  24. Hahahah I’m sorry I know this is a serious problem but the way you described it had me in splits. Baksheesh is a big issue even here in India, and it’s important to be firm, especially when it isn’t required. Carry a selfie stick the next time.

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  25. This piece has been written with so much heart and humour. “Baksheesh” is quite common in India too, but I am yet to come across this sort of endearing mischief (in retrospect, of course!) in the taking of a tip.
    Have I mentioned this before–I’m so glad to have found your blog and your fine thoughts and writing. 🙂

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