I fell in love with Egypt the instant the turquoise Red Sea surf unfurled across the white-hot sandy horizon beyond my tour bus window. The clear, vibrant ocean inspired me in a way that the muddy, vessel-clogged Nile was unable to. I had only 48 hours to consummate my affair with the brilliant blue-gold mirage that became Hurghada. That meant one thing: Shopping.
The “capital” of the Red Sea stretched for some 25 miles (40 km) along its shores. Hurghada, population about 40,000, was founded in the early 20th century, and remained a small fishing village until the 1980s when Arabian, American and European investors transformed it into the leading beach resort on the Red Sea.
I quickly discovered that this tourist town lacked the chaotic market charms of Aswan and Cairo. The colorful shamble of stalls, spices and water pipes had been traded for Western-style boutiques run by beautiful, designer-clothed men of fashion magazine caliber. Disappointed, cranky and dribbling with sweat from the 10-hour bus ride, I headed back to my hotel. Fatefully, I paused outside a tiny store to admire a T-shirt.
“Lady! Lady!” I heard the familiar, demanding call, and began to trot out of range as a handsome Muslim man zeroed in on me. Like a jinn, he had materialized out of the very heat itself on the otherwise deserted street. “Come back! LADY!” He was frowning terribly at me now. “Later! I promise!” I called past my shoulder. At this point nothing and no one would have wanted to get between me and my air-conditioned hotel room.
Now, I really did have some souvenir money to spend. And I am one of those tourists who experiences an absurd amount of enjoyment wearing a smart T-shirt with the name of my favorite destination on it. The cheaper, the better. I am also a Canadian, and we alwayskeep our word (or at least feel terribly guilty when we don’t).
So the next evening, freshly showered, I stepped back into the empty T-shirt store. “Lady! You came back! You promised that you would come back and you did!” Mohammed was obviously pleased to see me, and more pleased to make the sale of a blue “Red Sea” T-shirt.
I was happy to chat with a local, and happier still to pay US$ 6 for the well-fitted cotton shirt. Social and financial transactions apparently complete, I made a move for the doorway.
“Please, I want to give you a gift.”
“Oh, no, I am very happy with the shirt. It was fun meeting you. I don’t need a gift!”
“Please come to my other store.”
(NO WAY! My inner Lonely Planet screamed, with my mother’s voice chiming in shrilly.)
“You kept your promise, you came back to me and I want to give you something very special to remind you of me.”
(I’m sure you do.) “I cannot, my mother and friend are waiting for me in the hotel. We are going out for dinner soon.”
“Look, it is just there (pointing directly across the street). It won’t take long. I want to give you a special present: Egyptian perfume.”
(Ah! My way out!) “That is so kind, but I really don’t like perfume. I never wear it. I am allergic (sneezing to punctuate).”
Needless to say, he was more the artist of persuasion than I. He took me gently by the hand and led me across the uneven road, down three stairs, and into a miniscule shop that time had all but forgotten.
Faded cushions lined the walls, their once-rich red-and-gold pattern blending softly in the dim light of a single dangling bulb. Shelves displaying thousands of tiny glass vials lined the dusty, mirrored walls.
There was an incredible array of intricate, twinkling glasswork: colored birds, marching elephants, soft, wheeled chariots, filigree slippers, lacey fish and pharaonic cats.
Larger cylindrical vessels of shimmering potions delicately emoted sultry sweet and spicy scents. The relaxing and mystical essences of “Cleopatra” and “Nubian Princess” enveloped me. After a demonstration of his best wares, Mohammed asked me to pick out a vial, and he filled it with my favorite perfume.
I missed the next clue innocently enough. The offer of a beverage is a positive and friendly gesture in Egypt, one we had been encouraged by our tour guide to accept. As Mohammed had left the shop door open and I was in plain view of the street — indeed, of my hotel — I felt comfortable enough to further this little adventure, and accepted a cold drink.
After my first sip, however, Mohammed took the cup from me and kissed the spot that I had drunk from. Then he sighed and put his hand over his heart. (Hmmm …probably time to say goodbye.) Standing up, I thanked him for his hospitality with great finality, but was again stymied when he brought out a large glass bowl filled with clear jelly.
“Your face is beautiful,” he said. “But it is burned. You must let me put this on; it will feel better. It will make you look 10 years younger!”
My face was in rough shape; five months of Canadian winter had made it a pasty tapestry on which the Egyptian suns had wreaked havoc. Without waiting for permission, he dipped his fingers into the solution and began gently smearing it on my cheeks.
It felt extraordinarily cooling and rejuvenating. Again I thanked him for letting me try it, and asked how much it would be to purchase just enough for my face.
“No, no! This is my gift to you. It won’t take long, only 10 or 15 minutes to dry.”
The entire procedure did take only 10 minutes — 15 times over! It was a two-part process. First, an incredible facial massage as, inch by inch, Mohammed dedicated himself — apparently mind, body and soul — to the rejuvenation of my derma. Then began the process of drying.
It acted as a face-lift, stretching my 33-year-old skin back to its teenage years, pulling my eyes from round to almond shape, and fixing my mouth so that I couldn’t speak without hearing my cheeks crackle. And best of all: It gleamed as if my entire face had been vacuum sealed into shiny plastic. The resemblance to aging U.S. comedian and fashion commentator Joan Rivers was uncanny.
I surreptitiously tried picking at the edges to strip the mystery glue off (an impossible mission in a room of mirrors and under Mohammed’s ardent observation), but it gummed under my nails. “Don’t scratch,” crooned Mohammed. “I will peel it off when it is dry.”
“And…when will that be?” I muttered, in polite exasperation. He smiled sweetly at me and answered, “Ten or 15 minutes — Egyptian time!” And so it was: I had been officially scammed.
I was stuck — literally — unless I wanted to walk to my hotel and up five flights of stairs under the curious gazes of locals and tourists alike. My vanity cost me another hour.
As my face stretched tighter and tighter I was sure that I finally heard a soft “puck” as my eyelids popped up and away from my eyeballs under the strain. Mohammed lovingly took my hands in his and entertained me with stories about the fantastic life we would have together, with his businesses and my beauty, in the wonderful city of Hurghada.
He had waited all his life for me. He was 35 and unmarried (unusually old in his culture not to be married) and knew that when I kept my promise and came back to him that I was “the one.” The fact thatI was married, wearing my wedding ring and had shown him a photo of my husband were all just mere bumps along our certain path to eternal happiness.
“I will send your husband 2,000 camels for you and he can be very happy then.” I may have been in trouble if camels had any use at all in Western Canada.
As I used my overstuffed purse and one knee as a barrier between us, the final stretch (no pun intended) loomed ahead as Mohammed finally began to sponge off the corners of my mask, followed by a facial peel.
My face felt amazing — softer and cleaner that it had in days of accumulated sun and insect blocks, and sand. My face-lift grimace was quickly replaced by a genuine grin. I’d been had, and how!
After refusing to let me pay for the tea or the treatment (and the perfume was a very “special price”), I promised him that I would return the next evening with my mother and friend before we left for Cairo. (Of course, being Canadian, I kept that promise.)
I then ran giggling back to my hotel room, absolutely exhilarated at the experience and feeling that all was good with the world. I thought I’d heard ’em all: every taxi/tuk-tuk/trinket/bait-and-switch/factory-outlet/teahouse scam known to the Western traveler. How much I have to learn as an intrepid explorer; how lucky for me that my lessons have so far been gentle.
My only regret? That I didn’t have the courage to have a photo taken of myself at the time.
If You Go
Egyptian Tourist Authority