I've Moved!

My new blog is called Reflections from a Global Nomad, in order to acknowledge that we no longer live in Maadi and that we are, in fact, global nomads, not staying in one place longer than two or three years. Please join me at http://DeborahReflections.blogspot.com

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Tale of Two Tour Guides

I've posted before about my first trip to the cave churches at Mokattum. I recently made another visit, with a friend, her parents, and their tour guide. There was such a stark difference between this tour guide and the one that took me up there before that I just had to write about it.

On my first trip, either the tour guide or the driver was able to go straight from CSA to the cave church complex, using the most direct route, with not a single wrong turn.

On my second trip, we got to Garbage City with no problems, although I think we went the long way. Once we were in Garbage City, however, the driver immediately took a wrong turn. After stopping to ask directions two or three times, we finally made it to the cave churches.

Once you enter the cave church complex, there is a map carved into the mountain wall. On my first tour, the guide had the driver slow so we could see it as she explained it to us. On my second tour, we drove right by it, and the tour guide looked surprised when I pointed it out to my companions.

Not far after the map, there are a few small churches carved into the mountain. On my first tour, we got out of the vehicle there, went inside the churches, had some of the carvings explained to us, then proceeded to the arboretum, where we were told about the miracle of Mokkatum, and to the zoo. On my second tour, all of this was skipped.

Just past the arboretum is the area where the largest church is located. On my first tour, we saw the church and had the carvings and natural rock formations pointed out to us by our guide. On my second tour, the tour guide located a monk to tell us about the church while she translated. The monk did a wonderful job telling us about the miracle and a few of the carvings and rock formations. He also touched on the life story of the artist, about whom my first tour guide had told us as well. My first tour guide and the monk both took us to a large auditorium, also carved into the mountain, and told us about the carvings in there. The second guide rolled her eyes every time the monk talked about the miracle, how Jesus had changed his life, or how happy he was that he was able to read the Ingil (Bible). She really hated it when he peppered his remarks with "Hallelujah!"

After leaving the cave churches, both tour guides took us to the recycling center. For the first guide, it was a standard part of the trip. For the second, it was the second destination we had requested of her employing tour agency. She had to ask the monk how to get there.

At the recycling center, our first guide gave us a knowledgeable tour of the facilities, including an explanation of the processes by which the women there make their cloth products and their recycled paper products. She pointed out how this center provides an income for some of the poorest women in the Cairo metropolitan area. She said nothing either good or bad about the quality of their products or their prices.

Our second guide translated while two women who worked at the recycling center gave us a knowledgeable tour. While we looked around their two showrooms (one for cloth and one for paper), she told us that the quality was poor and the prices were high, not like the shops in Giza, where we should go. I pointed out that I had purchased their products before, had been very happy with them, and had seen them for sale in Maadi shops for much higher prices. She insisted that the products I had seen in Maadi shops couldn't have been from the recycling center; the quality isn't good enough. (I know they're the same; the tags on the shop merchandise said where the products came from.)

While driving through Garbage City, our first tour guide asked us not to take pictures. She explained that the people who lived in that area were ashamed of their poverty and their living conditions. The garbage collectors are in the lowest socioeconomic class in a country in which class matters a great deal. When pictures are taken of them, they feel like animals in a zoo, being ogled by their betters. This tour guide also told us that although it is mostly Christians who live around the cave churches, there is a significant Muslim population in Garbage City.

Our second tour guide neither encouraged nor discouraged us from taking pictures. She said that the garbage collectors are not that poor; they are happy. She also told us that there were very few, if any, Muslims who live in Garbage City. It is almost exclusively Christian. Although the monk had told us that 10% of his neighbors were Muslim, the tour guide said he must be wrong, because no Muslim would live among such filth. It's against their religion.

Our first tour ended at the recycling center; the second tour continued to the factory and showroom of the Luxor Alabaster Company, which is located just outside of Garbage City. My friends and I were fascinated at the stunning pieces in the showroom, which is huge, probably ten times larger than the small shop they have here in Maadi. I have purchased several of their pieces, two for myself and many others as gifts to send home. I always have been happy with the quality of their work, and their prices are reasonable, although it's possible to find lower prices at the Khan. Our tour guide, however, insisted--repeatedly, in front of the factory owners and workers--that good alabaster comes from and is worked only in Upper Egypt, in Luxor ... which is where this company obtains its raw alabaster and where its other factory is located.

As I'm sure you can guess, by this point, I was openly glaring at this tour guide and contradicting her fairly often. When we returned home, we gave the tour guide exactly her fee and not a piastre (the Egyptian equivalent of a penny) more, which we know good and well is a calculated insult here in Egypt. My friend did tip the driver, whom she's used before and really likes. I, personally, had already given my tip to the monk at the cave churches. He earned it more than the tour guide did.

For the last several days, I've been trying to figure out the difference between these two tour guides. It was obvious that one was very familiar with the cave churches and recycling center, whereas the other had never been to either. It also was obvious that one saw the people of Mokattum as people who deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. The other saw the garbage collectors as deserving of their status, the monks as crazy fools, the women of the recycling center as inferior, and the men of the alabaster factory as incompetent. Both tour guides were Muslim, so it wasn't just that a Christian viewed these people more sympathetically. One tour guide did have a higher fee and a higher level of professionalism to go with it, but that's a result of their differences more than a cause of them. I guess it just comes down to character. One had good character; the other was significantly lacking in that regard.

It just goes to show--you find all types in all cultures. Arrogance, incompetence, and spitefulness exist in all societies. Fortunately, so do dignity, integrity, and kindness.


  1. Interesting story. On my trip last year, this was definitely one of the best parts of Cairo. I believe we were told it was OK to take pictures, and I feel like the people lined up to have pictures taken.

    I don't remember seeing the map; I'll have to check that out. I LOVED the ten commandments in Arabic, though. So cool.

    You may have an e-mail from me in the near future, as I'm planning a move to Cairo in 6 months or so. I've subscribed; great post!

  2. Glad you all didn't "tip" that second tour guide. I can't believe the nerve of her! I hope she gets spat on by a camel!

  3. Nate-Thanks for the compliment. Feel free to email with any questions or whatever; I'll do my best to help.

    Villette-I also am not harboring good feelings toward her. I just wonder if she's ever been in the presence of very wealthy Egyptians, who probably would treat her the same way she treats the people of Mokattum.

  4. "Although the monk had told us that 10% of his neighbors were Muslim, the tour guide said he must be wrong, because no Muslim would live among such filth. It's against their religion."

    Has the tour guide ever SEEN Cairo? I mean, ALL of Cairo? I cannot believe how disrespectful the tour guide was.

    I would love to see the cave church, I think I've read of one of the churches (does it have black pillars? or something miraculous about the pillars?) but I did not know that it was in a cave. Very cool.

    Have you been to Luxor and Aswan? In Luxor the coptic Christians (way back during their founding years) escaped to the half-buried pharaonic temples and made churches inside them. In Edfu and Philae they didn't make a huge presence but in the Luxor temple they really basically built a church inside it. Its very cool and I recommend that you take the Nile Cruise that is offered by many companies with complimentary tour guide. Its so amazing. But I would recommend going soon or waiting until next winter because Aswan becomes and oven in the summer.

  5. Molly-

    I was so angry at that tour guide I could barely see straight. The cave churches are amazing, and I would suggest that you go see them if you can. You can find a bunch of my pictures of them at picasaweb.google.com/AmericanExpatDeborah/MokkatumChurchComplex#. I think I got that address right.

    I don't recall black pillars, but there were a couple of formations in the rock ceiling that the monk told us they found when they were blasting out the mountain for the churches. One of them I couldn't really make out. The other was a very clear, very smooth carving of ... I think it was the Virgin Mary ... that looked like it was done by man. The monk said it was natural. My understanding of the history of the complex is that Christians had secret churches there at some point, then they were forgotten and re-discovered during the creation of the current complex. It's possible that the carving was part of an older church. Some of the churches are caves; the biggest one is sort of a cave, but it's so open in the seating area that it doesn't feel like a cave at all.

    I haven't been to Luxor or Aswan yet. I very much want to go, preferably via a Nile cruise, but not until next winter. With it hitting 90 here the other day, I do not want to go south until the dead of winter. It's pretty much an oven all year, isn't it, just on the "broil" setting in summer?


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