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Saturday, 30 January 2010

Recollections - Egypt as a Tour Leader

I’ve talked about Greece so I thought I’d have a go at Egypt now – especially as I decided to stay here.

Egypt is a very different place to Greece. Greece is part of Europe. Egypt is dry, hot, dusty and depending where you go you are either in part of Asia (Sinai) or Africa. Either way, you are now in the “Third World” and in part of the Middle East.

Tourism is handled very differently here. The Government is very aware of the potential tetchy situations that may arise because of other conflicts in the Middle East and is anxious to ensure they do not disrupt the tourist industry. Tourism is the main earner and the Government seems to know which side the bread is buttered and any potential terrorist activity is to be thwarted at all costs. You will often find regulations that cause problems, delays or hassles for Egyptians are miraculously wiped away if they start to pose the same problems for foreign nationals here. Many of us are, of course, immediately recognizable as foreign because we have different skin colour and features. It doesn’t always work – I have a friend who was in Egypt for quite a few months working who was from Dominican Republic. He was always treated as an Egyptian because he looked Egyptian. For example, sometimes while I was working for a Dive Centre in Makadi Bay the staff bus would be stopped and all the Egyptians asked for ID and to explain where they were going. He was always included in this group and had to make sure he always had his passport with him. As someone who is very white by local standards I was never asked any questions – nor to produce any ID.

Most of this is done in the name of “security” and of “protecting the foreign guests”.

This is understandable, I suppose, when you think back historically and find out just what a dent in the tourist industry was caused over the years by various terrorist activities in Sharm el Sheik, Luxor and Cairo. This is something the Government can’t afford, financially or politically, to allow to happen again.

Anyway, I digress. I wanted to talk about my experiences here as a Tour Leader.

When I arrived to start my posting I flew into Luxor. The plan was to spend 1 night on a Nile cruise boat to see what they were like as I would be receiving guests having a twin-centre break from one of these cruises. I would then spend 1 night in one of the company’s hotels in Luxor. In between I would see Luxor as the guests see it by doing the extended tours of the East and West Banks.

I have to say that Luxor is a really wonderful place. It is very lively and colourful. The monuments are a joy for anyone with even a small amount of interest in the history of the Pharaohs and Ancient Egypt. It has been described as the largest open-air museum in the world with 85% of the world’s ancient monuments assembled here. It does not disappoint.

However, the journey from the airport to the cruise boat was an eye-opener. After a long day travelling I opted to sit and look out of the window rather than trying to engage in conversation. This way I had a good look as the passing scenery. The Nile Valley is very lush and green (unlike Hurghada built on the edge of a desert it does actually rain here). The sugar cane, maize, rice and other crops are lovely to behold. However, you also have to be prepared to see the abject poverty in which the people are living. The ‘houses’ are often nothing more than animal shelters with the people living in the open air on the roofs. There are many donkeys on the streets of Luxor pulling the carts along with the various wares from the farms and other items for sale in the city. It makes it a very colourful place.

When I transferred to Hurghada we had to come in a convoy. This was, apparently, part of the tourist protection. Every convoy had armed police interspersed among the coaches and other tourist vehicles, plus 1 at the front leading and one taking up the rear. No-one was allowed to overtake the lead car. Also, if you were on a coach full of English or American guests you had your own armed bodyguard along (not all nationalities got one of these – depended on the political tensions at the time). The drawbacks to the convoys were that tour companies were not free to set their own departure times and you could have 300 or more coaches descending on Luxor or Cairo (same system applied to Cairo) at the same time causing problems for the attractions and overcrowding in some. Also, in the convoy itself, every vehicle was racing and jostling for position to be the first to arrive – in some attractions only the first so many could get into the ‘extras’ like the tomb of Tutankhamen in Valley of the Kings. This meant the driving was much worse than normal and the lead car would often be clocking up speeds of over 120km/h with the coaches following suit. There were always spare coaches at the back in case any broke down – passengers would simply transfer to the new coach and the operator could sort their own coach out later. However, the convoys proved to be very dangerous with extremely poor driving practices (yes, difficult I know, but worse than usual) and there were quite a few accidents, some of which were fatal. As the convoys were originally started in order to prevent tourists being killed it seems ironic that it was the convoys themselves that ended up doing the killing! Anyway, thankfully about 6 months after I arrived the convoys were stopped. So far they have not been re-started and I don’t believe there are any plans for this at the moment. The new ‘free travel’ arrangement seems to work well.

However, again I ramble on!!!!

I arrived in Hurghada and, as is usual for this line of work, proceeded to enjoy the main excursions on offer as part of my resort orientation. I visited Cairo and went inside a pyramid, went into the desert in a 4x4, experienced a semi-submarine, a snorkelling trip and so on. I’m sure you get the picture.

After a week in Hurghada becoming oriented it was time to start work proper.

At that time I was the ‘sole rep’ for Hurghada and El Gouna. I had to look after 3 hotels in Hurghada and 3 in El Gouna. This involved lots of driving (see earlier blog) but also gave me a wealth of insight into the travelling public. Here are my experiences.

It pays to remember that, unlike Greece, Hurghada and El Gouna do not have very many repeat guests. Over 80% are new visitors and many of these think in terms of a holiday in Egypt being a “once in a lifetime” experience.

It is also necessary to realise that the accommodation here is a very different proposition. There is very little self-catering. Most accommodation (and all my guests were in this type of accommodation) is in hotels. I’m not talking small either. Some of the hotels have 1000 rooms. My hotels tended to have around 300 to 500 rooms. SOME guests would be on bed and breakfast and a very few on half board (options only available at 2 of my hotels) but the majority were on the “all inclusive” package which is found everywhere here for all nationalities. It is, in effect, the norm for tourists to Hurghada. This covered all meals and, between certain hours which varied a little between the hotels, all alcoholic drinks as long as they were made with local alcohol. Now remember Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country. They make alcohol here but I don’t think anyone tastes it. If it looks the right colour when it’s finished and the chemical tests show the right alcohol level it’s bottled and sold. Some of it tastes really bad but, on the other hand, some isn’t so bad in small quantities with a mixer. Some of the local lager beers are actually quite OK and a couple of the local wines are really quite palatable but these wines are not normally available in hotels offering ‘all inclusive’ unless at an extra charge.

I found that there are several distinct groups of travellers – I wonder which one I fit into!

First, and perhaps for me the easiest to deal with, are the ‘savvy’ travellers or ‘experienced’ travellers. These travellers know what to expect. They have done research into the culture, the country and the accommodation. They have travelled enough to know that nothing is going to be like it is back ‘home’. They know how to behave and what is or is not acceptable. Some will have money and some will be less well off but either way they have done enough research to make sure they have enough with them – not just for the things they want but also for emergencies. They are usually well-insured.

They are easy to deal with because they don’t complain very much. When things don’t go according to plan they tend to chalk it up to experience and carry on – one more thing they’ve learnt in their travels.

However, easy as they are to cope with, they are not the rep’s favourite guest. As a rep you are not only supposed to ensure you guests have a good time. You are there to SELL EXCURSIONS. These travellers do not buy much. Those with less money are savvy enough to get themselves where they want to be. I had guests disappear for several days at a time. One couple used public transport to do the tours they wanted in Luxor and sorted out their own entrance into the various temples and tombs. Another couple made their own way to Aswan for 2 days fishing on Lake Nasser.

Fortunately, those with money will often opt for comfort so will buy from you. They may even pay extra for the more comfortable options such as visiting Cairo by flight instead of enduring 6 hours each way on a coach. But, in general terms you do not really see much of these guests. If they do complain then you can bet the complaint is justified and you really need to do something about it.

Next we have the well-to-do or ‘money no object’ traveller.

Fortunately, these are few and far between. They have money (in England we would refer to them as “new money” as they have earnt this. Well done for making this amount of money but the behaviour sometimes leaves something to be desired). They want everyone to know they have money and are constantly finding ways to tell you how much they have or are worth. They have made the money the hard way and are used to being brutal and getting whatever they want. Their behaviour is usually rather impolite and they tend to treat everyone around them as though they are somewhat lesser beings for not being so well off. This group expects, but doesn’t find, perfection.

These travellers will do a small amount of research before arrival, mostly checking out the hotel online and anything previous travellers may have written on sites like TripAdvisor. They rarely do any research around the country itself or the culture. Travel companies these days are very careful not to show a hotel’s star rating in the brochure. This is because there is no international standard for these ratings. However, hotels are proud when they are awarded 3, 4, 5 or even 6 stars (6 is possible in Egypt) and display this prominently on their web pages. Thus these travellers will immediately start to compare the hotel with hotels of the same star rating that they have experienced in the “First World” (OK, I made that up but, if we have a “Third World” stands to reason that somewhere there has to be a “First” and a “Second World”, or so my sense of logic tells me). Naturally they don’t compare. These travellers will then make a point of bringing every ‘discrepancy’ in perceived standards to the rep’s attention and actually expect the rep to be able to change everything for them.

This group may or may not book excursions. They do have the money to spend but haven’t got where they are now by parting with it too willing so selling to them is not easy. However, if they do book then you can certainly expect more complaints because nothing will ever quite match up to their expectations of perfection. We have to remember here, also, that each person has a different idea of what is perfect so where this group finds imperfection others find interest, enjoyment and local colour.

You will certainly know these guests have been and you may well be happy to see them leave.

Then there are the First Time Travellers. There are not many of these coming to Egypt. This group needs a lot of help but is usually very courteous and make you feel like you really want to take care of them. They are typically in their 30s and have never before left the UK. They have done some research but it didn’t make too much sense to them because they never travelled before. They have saved hard to come and are probably visiting in the low season when it’s cheapest. They will usually be on a budget but will have come prepared to spend some money on excursions. As a rep you tend to see these guests quite a lot during their stay. They have hundreds of questions for you from how to behave, what to wear where, how to get to places and even who to speak to in the hotel if they need certain things. They tend to be very accepting that things are very different to ‘home’ and sometimes don’t complain even when they should. These guests can be hard work because you have to ‘hold their hands’ a lot of the time but they also tend to be very nice people. You feel you want them to have the best time ever and you are often sad when they leave. They will usually remember you as part of their first experience abroad and will certainly thank you as they go.

A group of travellers that is fortunately a very small group is one I call “the miseries”. This group is made up of people who seem to like to have a really bad time. They pay a lot of money for a holiday and all they do is moan about everything the whole time they are away. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why they come away at all if everything is so bad. You will get many complaints from this group. Most of the complaints will either be not justified or about things that you cannot change so you will give them even more to moan about when you can’t do anything for them. But that is what they like anyway so perhaps you’re doing them a favour by giving them an extra reason to be miserable.

Another small group to whom you won’t be able to sell anything normally is the ‘quick tripper’. This group is usually financially well off and has money to spare which they don’t mind spending. If they want something that is ‘extra’ at the hotel they will have it and won’t complain when they have to pay at the end of the stay. If you engage them in conversation you will find they usually head for an extended break to exotic climes at least once a year but because the weather in the UK has been so bad they have just come for a quick ‘sun break’ to ‘recharge the batteries’. You usually see these people during the winter in the low season. Low season breaks in Hurghada are so cheap that they don’t even make a dent in these people’s pockets. They do not usually buy excursions but simply want to sit by the pool and soak up the sun. I have known people in this group who, after they arrived, never left the hotel until it was time to go back to the airport. The hotel, on the other hand, loves these guests because they do spend a lot of money on extras and a la carte meals which is all extra income.

Also unlikely to buy anything is the Specialist Activity Traveller. This guest has come for a week or fortnight indulging a favourite pastime. It is usually a sporting pastime like diving, windsurfing, kite surfing or many other watersports for which this area is famous. Reps are unlikely to have any problems with these guests and, more commonly, won’t see them at all until they are on the coach going back to the airport. This group have usually pre-booked everything in the UK with their preferred sports centre and have already arranged all their transfers. The focus is the sport and excursions are not even part of the equation. For divers there is the need for something to do on the last day but they usually already have that organised as well.

Last, but not least, we have the cheap Package Holiday Traveller. This is the ‘bread and butter’ of the travel companies like the one I worked for and a huge target audience for excursion sales. Depending on family (i.e. school attendance) and financial circumstances they come at any time of the year and have selected this holiday because it appears to give them the most for their money. This is the largest group and, like all large groups, there are good and bad. Some will have done research, others not. Most will have travelled before but the majority only around Europe. Many will be focussing on what they get for their money – especially the “all inclusive” benefits.

So much for the groups. That leads into the sort of complaints that arise. Of course, there are different complaints all the time. As I’ve said before, some complaints are justified and you really want to help. Other complaints, though, are either not justified or they stem from something the guest has done or not done or, perhaps, from a lack of knowledge of how things are in the destination country. I don’t want this to become a FAQ spot for complaints. However, there are a few that were so common I think are worth mentioning.

The first complaints here are all about food. The food in Egypt is very different to European food. There are dishes that even in a cosmopolitan country like the UK we don’t tend to find easily (if at all). Egypt is also a land of meat-eaters. There are plenty of dishes without meat but they don’t consider this too important. They tend to be without meat because the meat is too expensive and not because they don’t eat meat. They have hardly heard of vegetarianism in most of Egypt (Cairo is an exception) and as for veganism you might as well forget it. Some hotels do have a vegetarian corner but making them understand this means NO MEAT AT ALL is hard work and you often find that the green beans have very small pieces of meat mixed in with them even when they are intended to be served as a vegetable. The hotels offering the all inclusive package realise this and try to cook to European tastes. They tend to end up with what I call “international non-food”. Meals are open buffets with lots of choice but…..

There’s not enough choice/nothing to eat – these guests need to get real. There are usually pasta, rice, potatoes, at least 2 other vegetables, 2 or 3 meat dishes, 1 poultry, 1 fish, live cooking station, bar-b-q station, salad cart plus deserts and breads etc. What they mean is that it’s not what they eat at home so they won’t eat it here. It also means they can’t find burger and chips in the hotel.

There’s nothing for vegetarians or vegans – see above. However, most hotels are becoming more aware of these requirements and are quite happy to cook something specially for these guests at no extra charge if asked.

The restaurant times are not convenient – well really, how long do you need a restaurant to be open? In most hotels the restaurant is open for 3 hours for breakfast (some open 2 hours earlier for the ‘early light breakfast’), 2 or 3 hours for lunch and 3 hours for dinner. If those times don’t suit there are various snack outlets open for most of the rest of the time. In short, there is always something to eat somewhere between 7am and 10pm or even longer in some hotels. Do you really need to eat outside these times?

There’s no fresh fruit – this really depends if you know what you’re looking at. I was actually rude to one guest who made this complaint to me, possibly because I was becoming bored with hearing it. On the evening in question the guest complained there had been no fresh fruit available at dinner. I had just eaten my own dinner in this hotel and had eaten fresh fruit instead of desert so I know it was there. When I pointed this out to the guest he insisted there was no fruit. I then proceeded to name the fruits. I think there were guava, fresh dates, cape gooseberries, Sharon fruit and something else. I seem to remember thinking it had been a good selection. However, the guest replied by informing me that this was not what he meant. He meant there had been no fresh fruit that he recognised and he had expected that if the hotel knew the majority of its guests would be English they should serve fruit that English people would recognise. My reply was to let him know that he was able to purchase all the fruits on offer on the buffet back at home from his local supermarket – that I knew for a fact they were available at Tesco, Asda, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Safeway at least, if not more!!

We never get pork or more frequently there is no bacon at breakfast – these people need to do some research before they leave home. They need to know they are visiting a Muslim country and, if they don’t already know why that’s important before they leave, they should find out. I really got tired of having to explain that in Islam pork is forbidden. Some thought that although it’s forbidden for them to eat they should still prepare it for others and it could feel like batting my head against a brick wall explaining that it was also forbidden to touch the meat of the swine or even to keep pigs.

The water is out of date – of course everyone is advised to only drink bottled water and this is included in the all inclusive package in unlimited amounts. Also, coming from Europe everyone is obsessed with dates on products and aware they shouldn’t use things past the ‘use by’ date. So they receive the bottle of water and check the date. Thing is, though, it’s a bit different here. The date on the bottle is the production date and then in small print about as far away from the date itself as it’s possible to get there is a statement that the water should be used within 12 months of the production date. Most guests were happy once they were shown this and read it for themselves.

I’ve been really ill, it’s the food – yes, it probably is but not in the way they mean. They want you to believe that the food is infected and made them ill so what they had was food poisoning. In truth the food has made them ill because they have grossly overeaten on the all inclusive buffet. If you think what people normally have at home it’s usually a light breakfast, if anything at all, a light lunch and a main meal in the evening. Plus most people do not drink alcohol at every meal or every evening. Now put these people in a hotel with unlimited alcohol and food and watch. See the size of the breakfast, the lunch and the dinner they eat every day. Watch them at the bar, not only in the evening but throughout the day, and just see how much alcohol they consume. I don’t have any problem with this but they must realise when they change their lifestyle so much the short-term effect is bound to be an attack of the runs!! So, yes it is the food but there’s nothing wrong with how it’s handled or cooked and you DO NOT have food poisoning. Just don’t eat so much.

I didn’t get all my meals – this is because in most hotels the all inclusive starts at 2pm on the first day and ends at 12noon on the last day. Effectively, depending on flight times, people may have to buy their own lunch on the first day or their own dinner on the last day. They complain that this means they have not actually received a fully all inclusive holiday as advertised. I would refer them to the brochure. The small, yes, I agree, extremely small, print in the back does warn about the start and finish times of the all inclusive leaving you to work out for yourself that you may need to buy a meal.

There were, of course, complaints that did not revolve around the food. Again, it is a long list but here are a couple of the most common…..

The rooms is too small, we fall over the bed as we go in – this was a common complaint from groups who had booked 3 in a room (was a complaint in Greece as well). The rooms tend to be OK for two people but cramped with a 3rd. Also, the 3rd bed is often a camp bed and this is another cause of complaint. Much as I always had every sympathy with these guests and often questioned the practice of allowing 3 to a room in some hotels where we knew the rooms to be very small, there was little I could do. At best I could refer guests to the somewhat microscopic print in the back of the brochure which pointed out that where there were 3 to a room the 3rd bed may be a camp bed and rooms may feel cramped.

There is too much aircraft noise – yes, in some hotels there was. However, again I would refer to the brochure. The brochure clearly stated that the hotel was only a 15 minute transfer from the airport and, admittedly put a positive spin on this. However, logic says that it’s impossible to be that close to the airport and not have some disturbance in the form of airport noise. Just think of the people who live near Gatwick or Heathrow and have this disturbance when they are up to half an hour away. It is true that in the winter the planes are told to come in very low and 1 guest did say he felt he could shake hands with the pilot as he flew overhead.

There’s too much noise from the Mosque – again, not much I could do. Guests who had done their research were not surprised and the call to prayers 5 times a day quickly fades into background noise anyway.

I can’t spend my money - yes, a BIG problem for one guest. His bank at home had accurately advised him that the best way to bring his money to Egypt was in cash. It’s true. Using a credit card involves all sorts of commission and other charges back in the UK. If you change your cash into Egyptian money in the UK you get a much worse rate of exchange than you do if you change it here. So “bring cash” is very good advice. Sadly, this man lived in Aberdeen and the bank gave him all local notes. They were nice and new and had “Bank of Scotland” on them. He wasn’t to know these notes are NOT ACCEPTED here but perhaps his bank should have known better. This guest had actually emptied his account to bring enough cash because he was intending to go on just about every excursion available. In his case this really did ruin his holiday but nothing I could do for him.

And last but not least the thorny question of lost luggage. Have you ever heard the complaint, “my luggage hasn’t arrived”? This happened almost every week for some poor guest. We did, of course, try to get the luggage out here as soon as possible. Guests normally arrived on Friday. If they were lucky we could actually get the luggage here the following Wednesday so, on a 1-week holiday, they could enjoy their luggage for a whole day before repacking for the return journey. The worst of this was that it was guests who had actually paid us for an extra service that lost their luggage. They had all taken advantage of, and paid for, the “day before check in” so were effectively paying us to lose their bags!!

And, on that note I think I will have to leave it. I hope you enjoy these anecdotes.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Recollections of Greece

Before I decided to stay in Hurghada, Egypt, I was working as a Holiday Rep or, as they call them here, in Egypt, Tour Leader. This was a total change of career for me quite late in life. I had spent most of my working life in an office as a PA/Office Manager working with Chief Executives and Managing Directors – even an MP who was also a Junior Minister. After a lengthy career I decided on a change and started to work with the homeless. Initially I worked with general homelessness as a Support Worker meaning that I supported clients who were homeless through addiction or family strife or refugees – don’t get me started on how the UK treats the refugees once they have their legal papers, save to say they end up homeless on the street. Eventually I decided to specialize in working with women and became the Manager of a Supported Housing Unit. As you can imagine, this is not without its stressful moments so there came a time when I decided I really needed another BIG change. There were also personal reasons for needing this and for feeling I had to be a long way away from home.

I searched the internet and noticed a holiday company was looking for Reps. I applied, went to the interview and got the job.

As a Holiday Rep, one of the jobs is to deal with guest complaints. There are some common threads and it can become very wearing having to deal with the same complaint from new people every week/fortnight. Here are just a couple of memorable examples of some of the things I had to deal with during my time on the beautiful Greek island of Lesvos.

Lesvos is a paradise for bird watchers and hikers. This is especially true in the spring and autumn months during the migration when large numbers of relatively rare species can be seen passing through. Then there is, of course, the resident flamingo population on the salt flats. There are many areas in the interior of the island that are totally unspoilt and provide amazing opportunities for enjoyable hikes with breathtaking views from some of the higher vantage points.

This is an island where more than 85% of guests were “repeaters”. In some cases they had been coming to the same island every year for over 30 years. They know what to expect, always stay in the same hotel and have often become a friend of the family who own it. This means that complaints about the accommodation tend to be few and far between.

Most of the accommodation is either Bed and Breakfast or Self Catering (although personally I couldn’t cater for a sparrow with the sparsity of cooking and kitchen facilities provided – generally only 2 rings, no oven, no toaster or grill, 1 saucepan, 1 plate per person etc. etc. I’m sure you get the picture. Good thing eating out was so cheap.)

As a Rep I was supposed to sell lots of excursions. That’s why we have the welcome meetings really. You can imagine that with so many repeat guests, most of whom had been to the island several times, there was little they hadn’t already done. Happily for me, though, I was able to sell a lot of car hire. Even that was fraught with difficulty at times because the big holiday companies tend to be contracted to the big car hire names which are expensive and there are very many local car hire ‘bucket shops’ offering vehicles at half price or less. If something goes wrong, though, the service is not so good (I would say that, wouldn’t I) – I have seen clients waiting at the roadside for over 12 hours for the bucket shop hire company to come and collect them after the vehicle has broken down.

Some complaints, of course, are totally justified. For example, if you’ve paid extra for a sea view you do expect to be able to see the sea and no matter how impressive the garden is it’s not what you paid for. In that case I would willingly do everything I could to make sure the guest was moved to a room that matched their booking confirmation. After all, the guest is not at all interested in the hotel’s point of view – namely that the travel company I worked for did NOT pay the hotel any more for a sea view room (even though they charged more for this in the brochure) but other companies did so they got the sea view rooms. However, even here there needs to be some caution. We have to remember that travel brochures are written by marketing professionals with sales in mind and vetted by lawyers with potential suits in mind! The wording is very careful and can often lead you to expect something it doesn’t actually say. Nonetheless, I think one of the best was a guest who complained about a lack of sea view having paid the supplement.

He was on the ground floor in the hotel. The hotel, without prompting, offered to move him to the next higher floor (there was only 1 higher floor). The guest went to look at the room (which was identical to the ground floor room) and decided he didn’t like it so would stay downstairs. He complained to me so I visited his room to see whether or not he DID have the sea view. From his raised terrace I could clearly see the sea. I checked with my HQ (aware I would be judged on customer satisfaction as well as excursion sales) who told me that if I could see the sea then the guest could not complain or have any money back. The guest was very unhappy with this. He agreed he could, in fact, see the sea. Even sitting up in bed he could see the sea through the patio doors. But the road along the sea front was lined by trees and the hotel was on the far side of the road (there were no hotels on the beach side). This meant he did not have an UNINTERRUPTED view – which is what he expected. He claimed his view was spoilt because the view of the sea was broken up by the trees.

Pedanticism cut in again with other complaints along the lines of:

‘The brochure says it’s only 300m to the sea but it’s more like 800’ – the guest was thinking of HIS walk from Reception to the sea but the brochure was correct in that the distance from the nearest point of the hotel property to the sea was only 300m. Another is ‘according to the brochure we should have a balcony but we don’t’. In this case there was a balcony (technically speaking). It was what is called a “French Balcony” which is effectively a big (double door-sized) window that opens inwards with railings outside and up close. There is no way you can go out through these ‘balcony doors’ and you certainly have nowhere to sit but it is, technically speaking, a balcony and meets the conditions of the brochure for legal purposes.

One of my hotels in another part of the island was really lovely inside with private courtyards and frontage onto the beach with a narrow but busy road at the back. This road was used by delivery vehicles from very early in the morning and was also home to a night-club which was open until the early hours. I think the space between the night-club closing and the deliveries starting was only around 2½ - 3 hours! The rooms were also very small and sometimes an odd shape. This is because the hotel was actually a converted olive press and the rooms were at one time the olive storage areas. I would always do my best to move guests who complained about the noise but there was not much I would do about the size or shape of the rooms.

This Greek island can be very cold in winter with snow and hailstorms which is why it is not a year-round destination. In contrast, it can be unbearably hot in summer with temperatures well over 40o on occasion. For most guests, therefore, air conditioning is considered a real necessity. Although it is true to say that all the accommodation I was visiting (except the Reps apartments!) DID have air conditioning those guests new to the island were always very ‘put out’ to find they had to pay for it. It is normal in Greece for a daily charge to be made for the use of the air conditioning unit in the room. You need a control to operate it which you have to collect from Reception and the appropriate amount is added to your bill every day until you return the control unit. There seems to be no sense to the cost. Some of the cheaper hotels will charge you up to €5 per day whereas the more expensive hotels may only charge €2. It was included in only one of my hotels. It was sometimes also included if you rented an apartment but the company I worked for did not have any guests in apartments. The need to pay for air conditioning was a regular complaint from those who had not previously holidayed in Greece.

In one case, guests did put a strongly worded complaint to my employer about me because they had to pay for the air conditioning. They had effectively tried to ‘steal’ this service. They were disgruntled that it was not included in the holiday price (they had taken a late booking and were getting a week bed and breakfast with flights and transfers for less than £200). They went to Reception and asked for the control unit. They then went back to the room and played around with the unit (they had to stand on the dining table to do this) until they found a way to override the control unit. They then returned the control unit to Reception claiming the system was not working. Reception sent an engineer to fix it. It was working so Reception returned the control unit to the guests. Guests once again gave the control unit back claiming it might be working a bit but not satisfactorily and they’d rather do without. They then manipulated the unit manually every day and left it on effectively all day. They claimed, to Reception, that it wasn’t on but from outside you could see and hear the fan going and from inside the housekeeping staff could feel how cold the room was. At the end of their stay they were asked to pay for the air conditioning and refused. I was asked to go and speak to them. My job was to get them to pay before they left. It was a long conversation where I had to adopt the ‘broken record’ technique with “I understand what you’re saying but you do have to pay it now before you leave and you can take it up with Customer Service when you get back to the UK”. Guests also used the same technique with “there’s no way we’re going to pay for this”. They did pay in the end when I pointed out that we could refuse to allow them onto the airplane unless the bill was settled. They really didn’t like losing and wrote the letter of complaint calling me ‘rude’ and ‘aggressive’ (you may agree!!).

In one hotel I had a guest who claimed to be an Engineer with expertise in Air Conditioning Systems. He told me in conversation during one of my visits that the air conditioning unit in his room was not working properly but neither I nor the hotel should worry – he’d fixed it! When he left the hotel complained to me that this guest had actually broken the unit which then had to be returned to Athens to be properly repaired.

As a Rep, it’s not only your job to support the guests and make sure they have a great time. Sometimes, it’s your job to support the hotels your guests use. Believe me, some guests can really cause problems. At one stage it seems one hotel or another called me regularly on my day off asking me to call in to sort something out. Here are the most memorable.

At one hotel a particular lady guest would come and see me during every visit. She would always ask me lots of questions about all the excursion, ask for recommendations and eventually, having taken up most of my visit time so that no-one else got to see me, tell me that she and her husband would be going on this or that excursion and they would see me together to book the next day. After all, the holiday was a present from him to her for a special landmark birthday. The next day sure enough she would come and see me, but without him, and we would start the whole conversation again. Early in their stay I did receive complaints from another guest about this couple. The guest was in the next room and claimed to have been kept awake all night on one occasion with lots of shouting and banging. The next day this lady was seen with plasters and bandages so you can work out for yourselves what conclusions were jumped to. The lady in question was known to like a few drinks so who knows? Anyway, we get to the weekend and it’s that special day. This lady is thinking lovely excursion, romantic dinner, candle-light and everything else. The husband is thinking laze by the pool, chill out, few drinks and bed. Somewhat a mismatch I think. The husband won! They did NOTHING on the day itself which greatly upset this lady. I already mentioned she liked a drink and the next day, which was also my day off, she decided to drown her sorrows.

In a state that I think could be described as ‘non compos mentis’ this lady then left the hotel headed towards the main town not too far away. At the entrance to the town the road is really narrow between two houses with just enough room for two cars to pass. It was here that she decided to sit/lie down in the middle of the road. You can imagine the chaos on what is quite a busy main road from one end of the island to the other. Her husband, realizing he was totally unable to get her to move, left and returned to the hotel on his own. The local Police were called but couldn’t move her and eventually the hotel called me to come and talk her into returning to the hotel. She did eventually return to the hotel and no charges were brought but I can’t say that she achieved anything by this display of rebellion.

A few days later, after another argument with the husband, this same lady went into town to conduct a bar crawl on her own. The next day the hotel called me again because she had been complaining to Reception that her handbag had been stolen the night before containing all her money and jewelry. She also claimed that someone in a bar had tried to sexually assault her the previous evening. I offered to help her make a statement to the police but she declined and asked only for a statement from me saying she had reported the stolen property to me. The husband didn’t seem to remember the handbag or even is she had one matching the description she had given.

It’s funny how alcohol seems to play a role. Here is another example where alcohol was definitely a factor.

I was called to this particular hotel because two of my guests (a couple) were screaming and shouting at each other and fighting in the public courtyard disturbing the other guests. It seems this was punctuated somewhat by visits back to the room when one of them would throw the other’s belongings out of the window. These belongings would be retrieved and returned to the room and the roles would be reversed.

By the time I got there the actual fighting had stopped and all possessions were now in the hotel room. At this point the man was in the room. He was refusing to leave the room in case the lady took it over. He was not letting her in under any circumstances. The lady was in the courtyard and had the key to the room which she was refusing to hand over. Now, the key was very important – it had embedded into it a device that you pushed into a socket in the room and started the electricity. This means the man may have been in the room but without any light, hot water, television, phone, fridge, air conditioning or anything else. She, on the other hand, had the key but nowhere to go. The only thing they agreed on was that they couldn’t finish the holiday together. They agreed that one should stay in the hotel and the other should move – they just couldn't agree who should do what. He insisted on staying saying he had paid for the holiday so it was his right. She wanted to stay because she didn't/couldn’t work (health issues) and had no money except what he gave her so couldn't afford to pay to stay elsewhere. Just getting to this point had already taken a couple of hours. Eventually the accommodation issue was resolved about another hour later and the lady left the hotel. There were problems with her retrieving her belongings from the room, the man insisting I stay with her while she packed to make sure she didn’t take or damage any of his things and the lady insisting the man leave her some privacy to pack on her own.

During my various conversations with both parties at this time they both confided in me to a large extent and it certainly seemed that the amount of alcohol enjoyed by both was a factor. Nonetheless, I was very relieved to have found a satisfactory conclusion to this issue even at the loss of most of my day off. I left the hotel with the man still in residence and the lady accommodated elsewhere.

The next day I called at the hotel even though it was not on my visit list for that day. I just wanted to check that the man was OK then I was going to call on the lady to make sure she was also alright. When I got to the hotel I found that they were back together and both in the hotel!!! About 3 hours after the lady left the hotel they had both decided that it had been a big mistake, they had both made a mountain out of a molehill and they really couldn’t live without each other.

I thought that was the end of it but there’s more. A couple of months later I received a phone call from this lady. She was back on the island on her own and asked me to go and have a drink with her. She had come with another holiday company and I knew the Rep who was responsible for her this time. He told me the booking had been for 2 people but only 1 had turned up.

I did go and meet her. She said she had left this man and wanted to stay and work on Lesvos. What she really wanted from me was help to find work which I was not able to give. During the conversation I let her know I was aware her booking was for 2 people so how come she was alone. She explained that the day before the holiday she had taken her partner’s passport, put it in an envelope, gone to the post office and posted it back to him second class knowing it would take at least 3 days and there was no way he could get a replacement in less than 24 hours! I met her a couple more times and she did find work as a waitress in a restaurant though she struggled with this because of her health problems (with her hips).

She didn’t keep the job for very long though. About 4 weeks later I was on airport duty helping my company’s guests who were leaving to check in for the flight. While I was there I spotted this lady in the check-in queue and, guess what, she was with her partner. It seems he’d come to the island especially to win her back and take her home!

Part of me wants to say, “so romantic” and hope that it will be a case of “happily ever after” but I wonder.....

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Your Guide to a Successful Red Sea Diving Holiday

When I first came to Egypt I was working as a Tour Leader (that's what the Holiday Reps are called out here). I got to meet many people - some of whom were making a lot of their own arrangements and only using the holiday company for the flights and hotel. Very often this worked well but sometimes something would happen and they would be totally unprepared. Therefore I've come up with this guide. It's biased towards diving but may be useful to non-divers. Certainly, if you are going to undertake any sports here it's worth checking your insurance cover, especially if the sport may result in injuries requiring specialist treatment (e.g. decompression chamber for divers where a basic 3 hour treatment with assessment and aftercare will cost you around £8,000 as a minimum). So read on and if it all goes pear-shaped please don't say "no-one told me"!

So you’ve decided on the Red Sea for some sunshine and, of course, to visit one of the best dive sites in the world. But, before you even think about booking this holiday here are some hints and tips to ensure you do not have any unpleasant surprises after you arrive.

Package Tour or Independent Travel?

Whether you decide to take the easy option and book a package tour, or put your own package together, here are some things to consider:

• Just where EXACTLY is the hotel in relation to where you want to dive. For example, you can book a hotel that the brochure says is in Hurghada to find it’s not in Hurghada town at all. It IS in the Hurghada area, so you can’t complain to the tour operator, but it may be up to 40km away from Hurghada itself. You will still get wonderful diving locally – it’s all brilliant here – but you may find that there is little or nothing to do outside the hotel when you’re not diving and possibly no public transport except the hotel limousine service which can be very expensive.

• Will your tour operator or airline give you an extra luggage allowance for your dive gear? Not all do and those that will are not as generous as they use to be so ask up front. If you are given extra then remember to take proof that you are a certified diver with you to the airport when you check in. You will be asked for this and if you don’t have it then you will have to pay a large amount for excess baggage. It also helps to make sure you have confirmation of the extra luggage allowance in writing and have this with your ticket when you check in.

• Is the transfer from the airport to the hotel included? If you are on a package holiday it will be but if you are traveling independently check it out. Most hotels will offer transfers at very reasonable rates to guests pre-booking accommodation.

Which Dive Centre will you choose?

There are so many dive centres you are spoilt for choice. Just about every hotel has its own “Dive Club”. This competition means you are also likely to find some very good deals. However, beware! Cheapest may not necessarily be best. If you are booking a package holiday you may have the option of pre-booking your diving through your tour operator. This may be the easiest way to book but there are still some things to consider BEFORE parting with any money:

• Check the internet sites for other people’s reviews. If all the reviews are bad, perhaps complaining about poor safety standards and service, then look again and choose another dive centre.

• Where EXACTLY is the dive centre. You need to consider how far away it is from your hotel AND how far away it is from the dive sites you would like to visit. If you have done your research (there are lots of good web sites to get information about dive sites in the Red Sea) you will probably already have a good idea what you want to see. You need to make sure your chosen dive centre is near enough to these sites to make daily diving feasible.

• There is an organization in Hurghada called the Chamber of Diving and Watersports (CDWS). Please check out their web site while doing your research. They are responsible for ensuring that all dive centres meet the local standards and legislation. In particular, have a look at their “Blacklist” and make sure your dive centre is not listed here. If it is, then the dive centre is operating illegally and if anything goes wrong you will be on your own. If you are considering booking your diving through your tour operator make sure they tell you which dive centre they use and check them out.

• Before confirming your dive package check exactly what is included. For example, if they are not within walking distance will they provide a transfer. Most do, but you need to know if you have to pay extra for this or whether it’s part of the service. You will also want to eat lunch on the boat and have something to drink during the day. Again, find out if this is included in the dive package price or, if not, how much it’s going to cost you. If you have booked an all inclusive accommodation package will your hotel give you a packed lunch every day to take with you?

• You know what you want to dive and they confirm they visit these sites but are they included as normal dives or do you have to pay a supplement. Most centres will charge an extra supplement for night dives, early morning dives and wreck dives. In addition, all visits to the National Marine Parks incur an extra charge which helps to maintain these areas.

• All divers visiting the Red Sea have to pay a daily environmental tax. It’s not much but over a week it mounts up. Again, check with your dive centre how much tax you have to pay each day and whether or not it’s already included in the price they’ve quoted you or is it extra.

• And then there’s all that equipment you need. Perhaps you’ve decided that persuading your tour operator to let you have an extra allowance is just too much hassle, or perhaps you’ve found that the dive equipment takes the full allowance plus most of the extra you’re allowed so you can’t bring any more than a single change of under clothes, so you’ve decided to rent when you arrive. You’ve taken full advantage of the offers available and have booked “full equipment”. Do ask exactly what is meant by “full equipment”. It’s normally just the basics and will not include a depth gauge, dive timer or torch. Sometimes it does not include a weightbelt (although weight is always included).

• How qualified are you or are you travelling alone? Then, again, check with your chosen dive centre how this might affect the cost. Most dive centres have a minimum number of logged dives below which you have to join their dive guide irrespective of what qualification you have. Similarly, if you are travelling alone and need a buddy they may insist you dive with the guide rather than finding you a buddy from among the other guests. In some centres the services of the dive guide are included in the price but in others there is a charge for guiding. It pays to know in advance. You also need to ask yourself how long is it since your last dive? MOST (not all) dive centres in the Red Sea will insist that you undertake a Scuba Review if you have done less than a certain number of dives and have not dived in the last 6 or 12 months (varies from centre to centre). Be honest with them when you book and make sure it's included in the price. It should only take half a day and some dive centres will let you do this on the boat so that it effectively becomes your check dive. Please don't moan about this - remember that diving is considered a dangerous sport and this enhances your safety as well as the safety of those you will be diving with.

• Finally, in the event of an incident what about recompression. Ask how far away they are from recompression facilities and how they would get you there if needed.

Why can’t I do 50m wearing my gloves and my knife?

Whatever your recreational diving qualification at home allows you to do you need to know that diving in the Red Sea is regulated and monitored by the CDWS on behalf of the Red Sea Governorate. At the CDWS site click on Scuba Diving and from the drop down menu select Rules and Regulations. Scrolling down to the bottom of the page you will find the “Rules on Gloves and Knives” and “Depth Limitations”. Please don’t take it out on your poor dive guide when you’re told the dive has to be to a maximum depth of ….. He is taking into account the qualifications and experience of everyone in the group and he is only following guidelines and doing his job. As for those gloves and knives – you really don’t need them in the Red Sea. Why not leave them at home and save a bit a weight, not to mention the problems associated with taking sharp knives anywhere by air these days.


Yes, every article has a boring bit and this is it. Are you insured? I am sure you are already savvy enough to make sure you have travel insurance but what about the diving insurance? If you have booked your diving along with your holiday through your travel agent and bought their travel insurance they will probably tell you it includes diving. However, you need to check WHAT DIVING IS COVERED! Most holiday policies cover SCUBA diving to a maximum depth of 10m with an instructor. If you’re a qualified diver looking to do 30m on the El Mina then this insurance is not much good to you. There are many companies offering specialist insurance for divers. They all offer good cover so really the most important is:

• Make sure you have insurance
• Make sure it covers dives to the depths you expect to be reaching
• Make sure it covers multi-day diving
• Make sure it covers the use of a recompression facility if needed

Now you’ve done your research, asked all the questions, had the answers, made a decision and booked your holiday. All you have to do now is find the patience to wait until your holiday date arrives. For me, that’s always the hardest part – it doesn’t come quickly enough! And finally you arrive – ready for some of the best diving ever in the world with nothing to worry about except the magnificent dives you’ll be doing.

Welcome to the Red Sea – enjoy.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

On the Buses!

Ok. I’ve had a go about taxis and about driving in general in Egypt. It seems like a good idea to round this off with my thoughts on buses here. In this I am speaking from experience. As I no longer work for a travel company, I no longer have a car available so my options are walk, taxi or bus. Taxis we’ve already covered!!!!!

I have used the buses here for local travel around Hurghada and for longer trips such as Cairo (about 7 hours) and Safaga (about 45 minutes).

There are two kinds of buses here. There are the ‘big’ buses run by specialist bus companies. These buses operate the longer popular routes such as from Hurghada to Cairo, Alexandria or Luxor. These tend to be old coaches which still have functioning air conditioning. There are several companies to choose from so you have to research first which one will give you the best value for money and the most convenient travel schedule for your needs. They tend to stop in different places in the destination city as well so you may want to take a more expensive ride if it stops nearer to where you really want to be at the other end. On the long journey they mostly serve you with a ‘doggy bag’ containing cakes or bread and something (don’t get excited – this doesn’t come anywhere near a full mean) and a carton of drink (a very small one!). Some provide water as well. The idea here, just like at home really, is that before travel (anytime from a few weeks ahead to a few minutes ahead) you call in at the office and book and pay for your ticket which you need to keep safely until you get on the bus. They have rules about luggage but you can certainly take at least 1 large case and 1 small case (that would probably pass as hand luggage on an aircraft) with you. Tickets are ‘first come, first served’ so if you leave it until the moment you want to go and you plan to travel at a popular time you might be unlucky. I found this is actually quite a relaxed way to travel as long as you don’t let yourself have nightmares about the general standard of driving (see previous blog). You get a relatively comfortable seat – at least as comfortable as a flight – some light refreshments and you can sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery or not off to sleep.

For between 1/3 and ¼ the cost of these buses you can take your chances on the shared minibus service. These are operated by individuals and there is no chance of pre-booking a ticket. They don’t have a schedule either. Basically, they all operate from a single ‘bus station’ on the outskirts of Hurghada. When you need to travel you make your way there and look for the section where the buses will go to your desired destination. All the destinations are marked but are in ARABIC, so it pays to know what the word looks like in the local lingo. Many of the drivers speak little or no English so it also pays to know what your destination sounds like! Remember, not all place names are the same. For example, Hurghada locally is known as El Gardaka, Alexandria is Iskandria and Cairo is Cahira. Once you’ve found the right area of the bus station you will be directed to a vehicle which will be the next one to leave. There is no set time for it to leave. It will be a Toyota minibus, very old with a rather special and innovative air conditioning system called windows. If you’re lucky the windows will actually work and you will be able to open or close the one nearest you to suit. If you are VERY lucky the door will also work. In winter they travel with the door closed but in summer don’t be surprised to find they tie the door back to be permanently open. This assists with the air conditioning. These vehicles take 14 passengers and you simply wait until it’s full. Once there are 14 of you off you go. There are no rules about luggage but space is very limited and any luggage you take will be placed on top of the vehicle. There is a ‘kind of’ roof rack but nothing is secured in any way and relies on gravity to stay put. If you are in a hurry and want to leave right away the driver will be happy to oblige as long as you pay for all the empty seats. If you want a private journey you have to pay for 14 seats. If there are already 5 people on board (including you) then you pay for 9 seats and so on. These mini-buses are the same ones used for local travel around Hurghada. While they are fine for around town spending 6 or 7 hours in one can be a killer.

For some of the closer destinations you may be directed to an area where you will find a number of old Peugeot 504s parked up. These are 8-seaters, including the driver, and when you first see them you can’t help wondering how they manage to make it out of the car park let alone to your desired destination. They operate in just the same way – wait until they are full then off you go. Again, if you are in a hurry they will go immediately if you pay for the empty seats. Some have air conditioning but don’t count on it. In some of these even the windows and doors don’t work properly. Even if your window works their may be only 1 window winding handle for everyone so you have to ask the driver to pass it to you if you want to open/close your window. Really, your Egyptian experience isn’t complete until you’ve travelled in one of these. They are the same vehicles you will find working as official airport taxis from Hurghada International Airport although the airport taxis do tend to have fully operational windows and doors.

Whether you end up in a mini bus or a Peugeot have a good look around you. The key word here is 'accessorize'. In fact, more than that. Let’s say accessorize, accessorize, accessorize. They have covers over the dashboard with tassels hanging down, things hanging behind the mirror, air fresheners hanging around (thank goodness), all sorts of mirrors attached all over the place, photos of family in fancy frames stuck on the dashboard or roof and decorated sayings from the Qu’ran all over the place. Some more than others but they all seem to love the accessories.

In either case, mini bus or Peugeot, as a foreigner you will often be asked if you want “special”. By this they are indicating that they will provide a private service just for you and you need to negotiate a price. Beware; this could be more expensive than taking the more comfortable coaches I have talked about earlier.

Getting around Hurghada by bus can be lots of fun. The buses are old Toyota minibuses just like the shared taxis service above. However, they tend to be a bit newer. In fact just recently some very new ones have been appearing on the local bus routes! These are often also accessorized and are run by individuals. Again, there is no schedule but there are plenty of them and they do run 24 hours a day. If you don’t understand Arabic you probably need to take your first couple of bus rides with a local. Many of the drivers either don’t speak English at all or have a very limited amount of English.

There are formal fixed routes for the buses and they have to display their route number. However, some only display this number in Arabic – well actually not in Arabic. It’s one of life’s conundrums that in Europe we use Arabic numbers so it’s an inverted logic that of course they don’t use Arabic numerals in a country where they speak Arabic. Instead they’ve opted for Persian numerals. The only numbers you can rely on that look like Arabic numerals and mean the same are 1 and 9! Fortunately, most of the buses also have the route number in Arabic numerals for you to understand and, in Hurghada at any rate, are colour coded. For example, those buses running route 6 have a grey band and those running route 5 a red band and so on. Be warned, they have NOT translated the destinations and the fares for each destination into English.

Bus travel is extremely cheap – typically about 1/20th the cost of taking a taxi to the same destination. For buses you need to have some very small change available. I’m talking about bus fares from LE0.25 to a maximum of LE3.00 so they won’t thank you for trying to pay with a LE20 note.

You need to tell the driver where you want to go and try to give him the correct fare if possible. Most locals know the fares and can advise you before you get on the bus. The vast majority of bus drivers are honest and will charge you correctly. However there are a few out there who definitely try it on. I’ve seen guests from a hotel get on the bus just outside the hotel. They’ve taken a LE0.50 journey and they’ve been asked to pay €5 each.

The other catch is that if you don’t know where the place is you need to get to you won’t know when to get off the bus. Unless you can make yourself well enough understood with the driver that he knows he needs to tell you when you get there you have to work it out for yourself. Even if he does understand he needs to let you know when you arrive he will most likely forget.

Do allow plenty of time for bus journey compared to other forms of transport. There are proper but stops but don’t be fooled. They are used but they are not the only stops. Generally, as I mentioned before in a previous blog, Egyptians don’t like to walk. So, they get to the nearest point on the bus route and just wait. When they see the bus they signal that they want it to stop. If there are free seats the bus stops and they get on. It’s quite possible that the bus will stop every 10m or 15m for someone new to get on or off. When you want to get off you just call out to the driver who will pull over straight away to let you out.

Driving is, well, driving in Egypt and air conditioning it windows and doors – in summer the door will be fixed open because health and safety is not a common concept in Egypt. There is often a ‘helper’ on board to take fares – usually an older child or a young teen. They don’t use a proper seat once the bus is full but perch anywhere they can. Sometimes, if the door is open they stand on the step and hang on to the roof-rack! During the summer at busy times some of the passengers travel this way too. I have seen buses with up to 3 people hanging on in this way.

This all seems very daunting at first but you do get used to it. Seems normal to me now!!!!!!!!!!!!

I hope you find this useful.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Driving in Egypt - Your Wits or Your Life

Driving in Egypt

Following on from my diatribe about the taxis in Hurghada it struck me I had rather a lot of thoughts about driving here in general.

If you are from Europe or North America you will already know that tour operators DO NOT RECOMMEND car hire in Egypt. Sometimes you sit at home after you’ve booked your holiday and wonder why. You think it surely can’t be that bad.

When I first came to Egypt I was working as a Tour Leader/Holiday Rep for a British holiday company. It was made clear to me at the beginning that I would have to drive. I looked after 6 hotels – 3 in Hurghada and 3 in El Gouna. I had to travel twice a day from the southern end of Hurghada to the northern end of El Gouna, a distance of about 55 km. Obviously, walking was not an option and the bus service was not reliable enough. Hence I was given a car. Before I came it was stressed to me that arriving and then changing my mind about driving would not be permitted.

I have to say, I really wondered what all the fuss was about. I am English and am used to certain ‘rules of the road’ being obeyed by all (or at least 90%) at home. However, I have driven in many countries where British people generally consider the standard of driving to be a little less than desirable. I had just completed 6 months on the Greek island of Lesvos where I had also had to drive around 140 km per day. The driving there was crazy enough – surely Egypt couldn’t be any worse.

After nearly 21/2 years I have to admit I am now undecided whether or not it’s worse, but it’s certainly very different. My first impressions were that driving here was like a cross between go-karting and dodgems with no rules.

There IS a driving test that has to be passed before you get a driving licence. However, it is nowhere near as thorough as the test in Europe. Here you are asked a couple of very simple questions about the rules of the road (yes, there are actually rules and they are written down somewhere but you’d never guess from observing the way drivers behave here). This is a verbal test. If you answer correctly you get to do the practical straight away. For the practical you go to a disused piece of tarmac where you find half a dozen traffic cones spaced out in a straight line. You have to drive forward slaloming between the cones. Once you reach the end you have to put the car into reverse gear and do the same coming back. As long as you don’t knock any of the cones over you walk away with your driving licence. That said, if you know the right people and don’t mind making sure they’re alright you can get your licence without ever being inside a car. A couple of my friends have licences and have never driven!

It’s also necessary to understand how things work on the roads here once you have the licence. Here’s a quick guide:

In theory speed limits do exist here. There are periodic checks by police who operate hidden cameras along popular main roads where speeding is predominant (usually not the inner city where it poses more of a threat though). You can tell when they are doing this because somehow word gets out and everyone is crawling along. The fine is quite expensive (only the equivalent of around 15GBP/$12US but if you only earn 200GBP a month it’s a lot) so most people do try and avoid getting caught. Some go to extreme measures to avoid the fine. Typically, there is a roadblock about 1km down the road from the hidden camera. The camera transmits your licence plate to the police at this roadblock. However, nothing is saved. If you never arrive at the roadblock you effectively get away with it. The police know this and are very clever about where they set the traps and roadblocks (no turn offs between one and the other). I have seen people get stuck in the desert trying to avoid the fine. They realize they’ve been spotted and turn off the road attempting to go round the roadblock over the sand hills. Those lucky enough to have a 4x4 usually make it but the saloon cars don’t! You need to realize here that Hurghada sits right on the edge of the desert and is effectively a town built on an area of reclaimed desert. Speed can be a particular problem in the inner city. In the main streets here it is not unusual to find cars and buses travelling at speeds of around 120kmh. It is rare to find speed controls in these areas.

Everyone in Egypt has to be first – or at least they drive as though they do. Many of the roads in Hurghada, even in quiet residential areas, are effectively ‘dual carriageways’ with a barrier (a very high kerb) down the middle of the road. There is space for two lanes, sometimes 3. Drivers here have no hesitation in hurtling at breakneck speed up behind other vehicles and squeezing through the gaps effectively creating 3 or 4 lanes of moving traffic.

The problem with this system is that there have to be u-turn areas because you are not able to simply come to the end of the road and turn left (driving is on the right here). So, even if your destination is to the left you have to turn right. You then need to seek out the u-turn to change direction. Egyptians are impatient and worried about the cost of fuel (less than 1/10th the cost in the UK) so always like to take the shortest route. They feel able to ignore the nicety of following the direction of flow. They WILL turn left and go against the flow to find a u-turn opening where they will rejoin the correct side of the carriageway. Fines for this are very heavy but I have never heard of anyone being caught even though everyone does this.

We do have traffic lights here. These are actually well designed and have a countdown visible to drivers. When the light goes green there is a green counter counting down the time until the light will be red. Then there is a red counter until it goes green. I’m sure you get the picture. However, you need to understand these are not meant to be obeyed. They are only part of the street decoration. Most traffic lights also have a pedestrian light. Just like Europe, if it’s red you are not supposed to cross. Here you cross when it goes BLUE. But, in the same way that drivers ignore the lights, so do the pedestrians. Crossing the road here can be quite hazardous and requires particular vigilance (as a Tour Leader I once had to attend hospital to see a guest who was crossing the main tourist shopping street and was knocked over by a car!). Once you get the hang of it, though, you are usually able to weave a path through the fast-moving traffic.

In Hurghada the lights are mostly placed at roundabouts. This is another area where rules apply but are not followed. This can make negotiating a roundabout very confusing. I found the best method was just to concentrate on where I wanted to go and to go for it!

Driving is on the right but overtaking can be on either side. If a vehicle is in front of you and you want to pass it you check out which side has the wider gap and simply speed up and pass through it. Also, driving is on the right but if the road is more than one carriageway wide drivers tend to stay wherever they like (after all, Egypt is proud of being a free country). They even sit very often right in the middle, neither in the left-hand nor the right-hand lane, allowing vehicles to pass them on both sides at once. I suppose this could be thought of as being considerate to other road users.

There are some controls for the car that are also used differently here.

Horns are an absolute must and are used continually. If you were to disconnect someone’s horn they simply wouldn’t be able to drive. Horns are sounded whenever there is anyone or anything within visual distance. They sound the horns at traffic, pedestrians, anything at all that moves. Even, if there is no hazard involved the horn still has to be exercised in case it gets fat and becomes unfit for purpose. They have the horns customized to play songs and catchy tunes.

In contrast, lights are an optional extra. They are not always used at night. Some drivers, though these are very few, do use dipped headlights at night. A few more use sidelights. However, the great majority of drivers within city limits drive around at night with no lights at all. This means they can use the lights alongside the horn when they want you to know they are around. Crossing the roads at night can be a problem because you can’t properly see some of the cars that don’t have their lights on until they flash and beep at you.

Indicators are required but not to show that you wish to turn. They are mostly used only in 4-way mode when slowing down. Drivers here have to slow down often because most of the roads have ‘sleeping policemen’ embedded in them. I’m sure this is because the authorities know what the standard of driving is really like and want to slow people down a bit. It works to a limited extent. However, slowing down means using the 4-way warning lights. At least this does make sense and is useful if you are the one behind.

So, it’s easy really. Just get used to the idea that everyone is living in a free country and doing exactly as they want on the roads and join in. You’ll soon get the hang of it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OR perhaps better to think again and decide NOT to hire the car after all.

Oh, and if you DO decide to hire that car, remember the road is also shared with donkey-drawn vehicles and free-roaming goats in certain areas of town. They, of course, have complete right of way.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Taxis - Love them or hate them!!

I was on my way home from work yesterday when I decided I've had just about enough of the taxi drivers here.

In order to understand you need to know that I am English and I live in Hurghada, Egypt. It's also important to realise that work is only a 10-15 minute walk away from my home so I hardly need transport to get there and back. The walk each day is good for me.

Anyway, the behaviour of the taxi drivers here is absolutely appalling. If they spot that you are not Egyptian (although they sometimes behave the same way with Egyptians if they think they are rich) they slow right down and try to come alongside you. As they approach they beep their horns several times. If you are waiting to cross the road they stop right in front of you so you have to walk round them. If you are waiting for a bus and the bus is coming they stop right in front of the bus so the bus cannot see you signalling for it to stop and pick you up.

In short, they are just very obstructive and rude.

I think this is because most Egyptian people don't seem to like to walk anywhere. They seem to think it strange when European visitors DO walk. An Egyptian would rather take a taxi any day.

They also believe that all Europeans and Eastern Block visitors are rich. As this is a tourist area in a third world country I suppose that most of the time they might be right. Surely visitors from the first and second worlds (whatever they are - but if you have a third world it stands to reason there have to be first and second worlds) have more. It is true there is abject poverty here with no State help but when they talk about what money the tourists have they only see the numbers. They don't realise the cost of living is so very much higher elsewhere and the money doesn't go very far - in fact many tourists here save hard to afford the holiday.

If you do actually want a taxi the bad behaviour does not stop once you get in the car. They have meters and by law here are supposed to use them and charge you the fare shown for the taxi (NOT per person) in local currency. However, many run round all day with the meter running even while empty - this makes it difficult to know if they are looking for a fare because the hire light is out!! In this case when you get to the destination they will charge you the amount on the meter but, unless you were very observant when you got into the taxi, it will already have had 4 or 5 times your actually fare clocked up to you are paying way over the odds. If the meter is not already on and you ask them to start it running they will tell you it's broken and that there is a fixed charge for your journey. You now have to negotiate a reasonable price for your ride and you will certainly end up paying more than the correct rate.

And don't get me talking about the way they drive - I'll save that for another day. Suffice to say here that it's a good idea to have made peace with your God before you get in the vehicle.

I just wish they would learn some manners. Perhaps it wouldn't be too difficult for them to run empty with the meter off so you know they are for hire. It would be nick if they didn't toot their horns at you all the time - where I was brought up that was considered to be extremely rude! And, of course, it would be great if they would let you cross the road without stopping in your path; or not try to prevent you getting the public bus. I know I'm dreaming but we're all entitled to a fantasy from time to time.

One thought - if anyone has experience of driving here you will understand if I ask the question, "can they still drive if you disconnect the horn". Maybe more another time when I have a gripe about driving here in general.

At least that's one thing off my chest!!

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Zoo World

Have been playing the Zoo World game through Facebook. When I started I never thought it would catch on. I have accepted a lot of new friends who can be my zookeepers and we've started chats and messaging outside the zoo game. Seems to be fun but I admit I'm getting addicted. I wonder if you can get therapy to withdraw from computer games!!

More musings tomorrow.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Getting Started

This is my first ever blog. I never even commented on anyone else's before. I've tried keeping diaries in the past. I always seem to be able to keep them going for about a month before there's a gap of several years. I'll just have to see how this goes.

Anyway, this is a good place to get things off my chest (metaphorically speaking) - a place I can come to and write about all those things that annoy me to death like never finding a policeman when I need one then seeing hundreds when I don't.

I suppose I'm doing this for myself really - a personal blog. So, please excuse me if I bore you to death. If I amuse you then I'm really happy.

Thank you for visiting.