Egyptian markets

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Travel Hacks: Navigating Egyptian Markets

21st May 2019
Egypt is a diverse country in North Africa with millenniums of stories consisting mainly of sand, the sun, and you guessed it, ancient monuments. It is considered quite the frontier of travel, often appearing in travellers bucket lists however also often considered a step too confronting to travel for those faint of heart.
If you like everything to run seamlessly and travel in a bubble, well, probably don’t read this blog. If you want to challenge yourself and step well outside your comfort zone, come on through friends.
Upon arrival in Egypt, you’re met with Cairo, which, according to Wikipedia, is a 5000-year-old city consisting of 4 distinct periods and all the history that goes with it. Cairo is pretty confronting; there are literally thousands of empty half built apartments and legitimate scenes of Need for Speed on the way to your hotel. Once you’re there, however, it’s time to sit down, order a Stella and plan your time in Cairo.  The Pyramids are obvious, so I am going to delve into my experience at the Khan el-Khalili market.
Khan el-Khalili is the biggest and one of the oldest African souks (read: market) that has withstood a rather tumultuous history. The markets are quite daunting for western travellers, and when our tour rep was told of our intentions to journey to Khan el-Khalili by ourselves, we were met with astonishment and a slight portrayal of reluctance. Don’t worry Bol Bol, we got this.
The following story consists of a mid-'20s travelling couple (Me, Thom and my girlfriend Elle), zero Arabic and a hint of Spanish (…which to my surprise is a well-spoken language in Egypt- who knew?)
Upon arrival in the famed Khan el-Khalili, our first test was to play chicken with four lanes of angry Egyptian traffic. After our unlikely survival, we sat down and pre-gamed with an unreal mixed grill, 6 litres of hummus, green apple shisha and an Egyptian coffee at a cool little café out the front of the mosque. I can’t tell you the name purely as I cannot read Arabic however on Google I’d give it 5 stars, check it out if you’re close.
From there, we embarked on a quest through the labyrinth of Liverpool FC soccer shirts, pyramid and pharaonic paraphernalia and gigantic shisha pipes. Instantly you’re navigating a million people feeling like an absolute outsider, everyone asking where you’re from, chanting “Aussie Aussie oi oi” and courteously charming their way into your travel bumbag.
After 30 odd minutes of stumbling around, we walked into a shop with 100EGP dresses advertised. This dude (Ali) was straight out of salesman school - he only focussed on quality of the garments and the queen-like regality of Elle. Never mentioned the price. He tried to then upsell to two Egyptian dresses, one for Sunday night and one for Monday night
“Surely Queen Nefertiti goes to parties?”
After some intense selling and him never really budging on price, Elle settled on a price 70 Egyptian Pounds (EGP) higher than advertised. Fish, meet hook. This man could sell ice to an Eskimo.
“Let me take you away from the markets to show you the old markets, the real stuff.”
Ali literally took our hand and guided us through a million alleys, progressively less touristy and only locals barking prices in Arabic at each other. Here we are, the real stuff. We arrived at the spice markets where Ali proceeded to test our knowledge on the various spices he crushed in our hands and define what they were and what they were suitable for. Features and benefits, features and benefits.
“Don't buy here, though, buy in Aswan but don't pay more than $xx.”
By this time we had noticed people were shouting “Alibaba!” and he was introducing us as his son and daughter. Once again, fishes, meet hook.
Ali led us through the perfume district to a random AF door in the wall, told us to sit down and whether we wanted sugar in our peppermint tea…. here we go again, fishes, meet the hook.
This shoebox of a store featured walls of oils reminiscent of a Harry Potter potion class. Ali delivered his spiel about the different oils while justifying their currently non-existent pricetag through descriptions such as Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent, Coco Chanel etc. etc. During the myriad of tests, we realised it wasn’t actually his shop, he was the designated ‘closer’ of the market, and he was requesting the owner (Anwar) to fetch us the teas. Anwar quipped that he wasn’t a maid, to which Ali clapped back with “do you want a sale or not?”
Once Anwar returned with our teas, upselling commences, Queen Nefertiti compliments resumed, the door closes, the sun sets, and business is done.
We initially headed into Khan el Khalili purely for the experience and not wanting to buy anything. However, we walked out with an Egyptian dress and 8 bottles of oils. Hook, line and sinker. 
While there were the odd jeers from the crowd, the overwhelming majority of people were so welcoming, which created an exciting and pleasant atmosphere.
There are a few key points I recommend when travelling to the markets, however:
  • Be personable and form a trusting relationship
  • Bargain with a smile on your face (start at 30 per cent and work your way up)
  • Consider the value of what you are buying relative to Australia, not relative to Egypt. 
  • Take cash, as cards aren’t readily accepted
  • Be mindful of your security and have your cash and personal items secured on you at all times
  • If you need to use an ATM, confirm it is in a secure location and withdraw in lump sums to avoid being hit by multiple atm withdrawal fees. 
  • GBPEuro and USD are accepted everywhere, however, change may be given in EGP. 
With the above in mind, throw on your Birkenstocks, pack your travel bumbag and get down to Khan el-Khalili for a ripping good time. 
If you’re keen on an Egyptian adventure, be sure to visit the experts at Travel Money Oz for plenty of travel tips, and to stock up on Egyptian Pounds for your trip. 
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