One of the #RTW98 series of posts looking back on the ‘round the world trip that inspired the creation of TripTuner 20 years ago. It’s a story of personal growth and change, with impressions of fascinating places and people around the globe. If you’ve ever considered extended travel, taking a sabbatical or gap year or just wondered what it may be like, this is for you.
“General Baksheesh” had all the ingredients to strike a commanding authoritarian presence: a distinctive uniform and beret, sidearm at his hip and a pair of AK-47 toting subordinates ready to execute his commands.
I wasn’t expecting to see armed guards when visiting Egypt’s famed Pyramids, 20 years ago on a solo gap year trip. But there was heightened security (for reasons all too familiar to us now) and a visible tourist police force presence at all main attractions.
It’s an alarming if not unnerving sight. The soldiers’ mere presence makes you concerned for your safety. Then you realize paradoxically that they’re there for your safety.
Still, it’s a little uncomfortable to be 6,000 miles from home standing alone in front of armed men with whom you can’t really communicate.
Fortunately, after 6 months on the road I’d developed a cobbled together, sometimes successful technique for “breaking people down” – getting past the stoicism and awkwardness of confronting total strangers with whom you share nothing except a common humanity. The recipe: deference, non-excessive smiling, culturally appropriate hand gestures and a sense of humor.
General B was standing with his thumbs in his utility belt, pretending to scan the area (which was completely desolate). Behind him, a bored man squat beside a camel. Business was slow – not many takers for camel rides in the 140 degree afternoon sun. But I gotta do it, right?
Nodding sideways at the General with a forced smile, I shrugged my shoulders pleadingly and motioned to the camel. Like Caesar giving a thumbs up, he nodded to his comrades to left me through. Camel man leapt to his feet and helped me climb aboard the scratchy haired dromedary.
After a short ride, we returned to General B. As if on queue, he stomps out his cigarette, holds both hands in front of his face making the universal “want me to take your picture?” sign. I’ve seen this move before. All deference for the tourist soldier dissolves. But I’ve got to get that shot, and he knows it.
“NO BAKSHEESH,” I declare. “Baksheesh” is the term used by a service provider when requesting a tip or other monetary inducement to action that, in normal circumstances, would be considered ordinary and not worthy of remuneration (a.k.a. a shakedown).
“No, no baksheesh” the General shakes his head solemnly. I shoot him a look of disbelief and calmly but firmly insist: “NO BAKSHEESH.” General B repeats: “no baksheesh, no baksheesh.”
Reluctantly I hand him my camera for the cliché yet must have photo: me, on a camel, in front of a pyramid. He snaps a few shots and walks towards me to return the camera with outstretched arms, as if presenting a special gift.
Putting my camera away, I look up to see him waiting for my parting glance. He leans his head to the side, shrugs his shoulders and turns his palms upwards. With the pleading face of a puppy dog wanting a treat, he lets out a long whiny cry:
Now you know how he got his name.