There are few situations more guilt inducing for a healthy young man of a middle class upbringing than being asked by a sickly old man to move your poolside lawn chair so that he can continue his job of laying bricks. It made it all the worse that he kept referring to me as "Mr. Adam" and "sir" as if at any moment I might throw a tantrum because he interrupted my sunbathing.
Moving on from my lawn chair, I now sit at a table with a sole fly alternating positions between my left knee and right shoulder. Two of his friends must have witnessed what an enjoyable time he's having walking up and down my bicep and have come to join in the fun. The flies here are at the top of their game. They are bred to be fearless and adventurous; they'll sit on your face taunting you. Attempts at swatting them have only ended with me slapping myself in the face. Even in Tanzania whenever I try to show off by catching a fly in my bare hands like my dad taught me I end up just grasping at air and getting laughed at by the boys. Now I know that flies are just a part of African life and the quicker one accepts it the better as they are everywhere. There are days when in order to ward off the flies in Dar es Salaam I'll eat with my right hand while waving my left hand over the food for the entire meal. The mere concept of a person chasing a sole fly around the house with a fly swatter is laughable to Africans. I remember seeing those commercials about starving African children with a fly sitting on their eyeball and thinking how can they be so malnourished that they don't even blink to get the fly to move? I still can't understand that but I am willing to cede my body to a fly if it will just sit nicely, behave itself and stay away from my face. I do think there is some sort of reverse racism with bugs as last week I woke up with nine mosquito bites on my left forearm, which went nicely with the other five already on my body. Innocent, my roommate, sleeps with no shirt and no mosquito netting but claimed to have not a single bite on him at the time. I thought it might have been due to the fact that I wear the same clothes everyday but I've only been doing that for a week while Billy, who says there is no truth to my racist bugs theory, has been alternating between the only two shirts he owns for the better part of the three years he's been in Africa.
Due to this fact Billy will never over pack like I did this trip, it wasn't over packing in that I packed five pairs of shoes and both my hair dryers but more that I did not anticipate how much room I would need for Egyptian purchases. Then again who could have foreseen I'd buy a life-size evil cat made of stone? Billy chastises me each time I buy any non-necessity so his criticism on my cat statue has been incessant.
After haggling in the Caribbean, Egypt and other African countries I'm comfortable proclaiming myself as an expert in negotiating. If you are ever planning to travel to a foreign country and buy something other than food, you should read this next part.
1. Never act as if you're truly interested or excited about a product because if you do the shop owner knows you're more than likely willing to pay a premium for it. Even if you just spotted that one thing you've been looking for, whether it be a life sized Egyptian cat or something else, don't show anything more than a passing interest.Billy and I have been joined by Melissa a fellow University of Miami alumnus. She has an eager to please attitude and a nice predisposition as well as a propensity to apologize for absolutely everything she does. I have yet to learn to look both ways before I cross the street, a rule mastered by three year olds the world over, and so when I attempted to stride confidently into an oncoming horse driven carriage in Aswan, Melissa grabbed my shirt preventing me from being trampled. She then quickly apologized and attempted to justify her outrageous action.
2. Play the shops and their prices against one another by comparison shopping everything but the most unique items, understand that there are very few truly unique items. That painting of elephants was most likely created in bulk and not by the shop owner, no matter what they claim.
3. Always have them tell you their price first. If nothing else, it prevents you from offering them a ridiculous prize which they'll happily take.
4. Never take their first offer as they'll always come down.
5. Once you've got a fair price in your head just repeat it and make them come to your price. Do not start splitting the difference like they will as this is what they want you to do. An example of a conversation I had at an alabaster bazaar in Luxor: Shop owner "I'll make you a special price of 500 just for you." I say "250." He says "400." Now this is the key as he expects you to go to 350 or 300 but instead I just say "250" again. He (it is almost always a man) will make a big show of how you're insulting him and how unfair you're being but don't let him put a guilt trip on you no matter how many kids he claims to have to feed tonight. Eventually he'll come down again but generally he will stop before he reaches your price. This is when you defer to your most useful tool.
6. Walk away, if he lets you go, then that last price he offered was as low as he will go and you can take it or leave it but you know it was a fair price. What usually happens though is that he will give chase and drop to your price or at least very close to your price. Make sure you actually step foot outside the shop so they actually think you're leaving.
The final night of the cruise through the Nile I arduously defended the masculinity of men who order gin and tonics, cosmopolitans, or light beers to an Australian female bartender who claims all she drinks is absinthe; eventually I realized it was 2:00 AM and I’d been in the middle of a stupid conversation for an hour so I stumbled into my room, intoxicated from my girlie drinks. 5:45 AM the next morning Melissa, Billy and I met our chain smoking guide Hossam at for a hot air balloon ride. Once we had reached a safe height where I was confident the captain would not throw me off, I launched into a complete lie about my owning a hot air balloon driver's license in the U.S. and that “yes, I realize you just got done telling us not to ask to drive but that I would love to compare this engine to my dad's Honda KX-430 model.” I thought I had lost all believability when I told him not to worry about the Egyptian certification because I also have an international license but to the surprise of anyone on the balloon who could differentiate between an utter lie and the truth I was shooting six foot flames into the belly of the balloon seconds later. It took the pilot approximately twenty seconds to realize I had absolutely no clue what I was doing but that was long enough to scare the hell out of half the passengers and grab one of my all time favorite pictures.
Later that day on the way down the steps from one of the seemingly endless parade of temples we visited I noticed these Muslim girls looking at me. I mentioned this to Melissa and she said that I didn't look that much like Brad Pitt, an allude to a backhanded compliment given to me during a conversation with some Russians. These gentlemen were in the early stages of getting removed from the airport because they were convinced the Kenyan Air staff hated their Russian blood and would have let them smoke in the midst of the airplane cabin during takeoff if they were American and looked like me. As I skipped down the final flight of stairs back towards Hossam and his omnipresent cigarette, I had already wrote off my prior thoughts to narcissism when one of the scarf adorned teenage girls asked to take a picture with me. Flattered and feeling vindicated, I assured her that I would be happy to. Soon an onslaught of similar looking girls with 500 dollar Nokia camera phones surrounded me, each taking an individual photo with me. I then strutted back to Billy and Melissa rather self satisfied when a girl asked Melissa to take a picture with her. My ego was further deflated when two nights later I witnessed a group of giggly Asian girls taking pictures with what had to be the lankiest man I've ever seen. He looked like a forty year old going through puberty. Eventually they even convinced him to stand behind one of the smaller girls with his arms above her head and his fingers outstretched like the Nosferatu version of Dracula.
We leave for Tanzania and the island paradise of Zanzibar tonight.
Adam Weise splits his time between Milwaukee, WI and Austin, TX. The organization described in the writing has become the House of Blue Hope, which Adam and Billy now sit on the board of. Adam is also a co-founder of Ex Fabula, a Milwaukee storytelling group.