In the West, we call it “tipping” or “service.” But those words don’t fully express the breadth of flexibility and purpose of the practice known as “baksheesh.” Egypt appears to run on baksheesh and the protocol of the practice becomes evident quite quickly once in the country.
Basically, there are three kinds of baksheesh. The first is baksheesh as “alms giving.” One of the 5 tenants of Islam is the giving of alms to the poor. The giver is made more holy by the action. We’ve encountered surprisingly few opportunities in the streets for this kind of baksheesh. Either their needs are provided for off the streets or we just haven’t been on the same streets that they habituated.
The second type is baksheesh as “for services rendered.” This is the closest to the western tipping practices. Except it goes further. There are people at the airport whose only job appears to be opening doors. Of course, they require baksheesh. And many bathrooms have attendants, who expect 1LE (the current going rate) for keeping the place clean and distributing a tiny amount of toilet tissue. One could be continuously passing out small change here and there. Which is why our guides will collect a tiny amount of cash to take care of those essential services you’ll probably never see being rendered.
The third kind of baksheesh is “for the granting of favors.” Want to see an excellent photo location? I’ll be delighted to assist and of course will be just as delighted to accept your baksheesh. How about having a light in that museum display case? Don’t forget me when you leave. The amazing thing is that you don’t even need to ask for the services. Upon identifying a mark, even the museum guards will follow you around and provide services and grant favors. Interestingly, after getting over the initial adverse reaction to the practice, it becomes expected and even pleasurable. In the Museum of Islamic Art, for instance, we really appreciated the guard who turned on lights and pointed out features in terribly broken English. Without him we never would have enjoyed some beautifully illuminated manuscripts. It was a pleasure to give him 2 pounds as we left. And the smile on his face was rewarding also.
Hoarding Money. This is another practice we’ve run into in that past that we just didn’t understand. Although small change and bills are continually necessary for baksheeshing (yes, it can be verbed!), obtaining change is a skill all of it’s own. Small bills and coins did used to seem to be in limited supply. We still recommend insisting on getting a supply of 10LE notes when you change money initially…and keep the supply in an easy to access pocket because you never know when a situation will call for a tiny baksheesh!
We’ll also note that changing money in Egypt is extraordinarily easy. There is but one government set exchange rate and currency exchanges at the airport and all the major hotels. We’ve also found that USD is FAR easier to carry and change than travelers checks and consequently don’t recommend the travelers checks. These days the ATM machines are more plentiful and will also give you a good rate.