Something's on the nose

Cairo traffic is crazy ... but accepting help getting across may come with a price.
Cairo traffic is crazy ... but accepting help getting across may come with a price. Photo: Phil Weymouth/Lonely Planet

Stephanie Clifford-Smith finds that accepting help from a stranger comes at a price.

I consider myself a savvy traveller. I've heard about, or encountered, just about every trick in the book - but not this one. I blame jet-lag and Ramadan-induced hypoglycaemia. My husband and I hadn't been fasting but Cairo's restaurants were full of those who had been and we couldn't get in anywhere. Here's what happened ...

It's about 7pm on our second day in the Egyptian capital and we've headed downtown to find the restaurant district. We're standing on the kerb waiting for a break in traffic when a Cairene joins us.

"Traffic is crazy. Sometimes I think it's easier to just close your eyes and start walking," he says. "Come on, cross with me."

He seems nice so we follow his cue. Safely on the other side, he asks what we're looking for. Having been lured off track by exactly this question before, we just say "downtown". OK, he says, just down there, turn left and you'll find plenty of places to eat. Then he disappears. We follow his directions until another guy asks where we're from.

"Oh! My brother lives in Australia. He has a shop in Dandenong ...very nice place. Here, let me give you my card. One minute, just in here."

Before we know it we're being bundled into a perfume shop, told to sit and offered tea. "Yes, please," they say, "as friends, not for business".

We know what's happening and we want out. A quiet young man asks how many sugars we take while Dandenong guy asks us if we know about essential oils. I say yes, we've bought some just today. Another guy, the chief shark, Emet, takes over. "Where did you buy the oils? What did you pay? 200? 100?"

"Don't know, can't remember."

"But it was just today and you can't remember? Ours are only two pounds. Very pure, no alcohol. How much you pay?"

He starts daubing me with perfumes that seem as good as the others but much cheaper. My husband sniffs a few and mumbles that I'm actually going to have to buy something to get out of here.

"Just buy a little to test my quality. You will be back for more."

I'd paid 200 Egyptian pounds ($40) earlier for a small bottle and he's quoting just two pounds. It turns out he means two pounds a gram.

I then notice the guy who'd helped us cross the road come in and he knows the others. He's not surprised he's bumped into us again. He's part of this operation and he's waiting for his cut. Emet and I agree I'll pay 50 pounds for half a small bottle of jasmine oil, which I don't need but I can't see any other means of escape. I hand over 100 and he thanks me as though the deal is done.

"No, you said 50 pounds, I need change!"

"I said 50 grams, that's 100 pounds."

I dig my heels in but it's when my hitherto quiet husband stirs, Emet looks nervous and relents. "OK, you get very good deal, I'm giving it to you half-price. I'm a Muslim, I'm not a liar. Good deal for Ramadan."

We leave, gobsmacked that we've been caught in this trap but way too hungry to care.

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