Compulsory Cake

Four of us traveled together in Egypt and Jordan — Jen, myself, Brother Michael and Compulsory. This is the story of how Compulsory got her name.

As background, Jen loves to dole out nicknames. A while back, some free association led Jen to call Compulsory "Cake" — in short, it involved basically chopping up and shortening Compulsory's given name. Cake takes it in stride, which is nice for us.

On our first day in Egypt we eventually made it to the El-Giza Train Station where we had to wait quite a while for an overnight train to Aswan. There is not much to do at the El-Giza Train Station but there is a cafe where you can sit for as long as you can put up with the surly waiters wanting you to keep ordering absurdly overpriced cups of tea. It was at this cafe that we experienced one of the classic Egyptian "scams."

It's not so much a scam as it is a particularly annoying petty way of getting fleeced for mostly insignificant amounts of money. It involves a slice of cake.

At first I saw the slice of cake with my tea and thought how nice it was that a cup of tea came with a little bit of cake:

Tea With Compulsory Cake, El-Giza Station, Cairo, Egypt

So when it came time to pay the bill, we were a little surprised that the cost of our tea was 15 Egyptian Pounds. For comparison's sake, it should be noted that our 12-plus hour first class train ticket from Cairo to Aswan only cost 109 Egyptian Pounds. Our guidebook suggested that a typical price for tea was somewhere between 2 and 4 pounds. Even we — after being in Egypt only a day — knew that this was a little high.

To be fair, 15 Egyptian Pounds is $2.57. And I don't think anyone would scoff at paying that much for tea and cake at, say, Starbucks, but this was Egypt, where the minimum wage is 35 pounds a month — and besides, none of us even asked for cake.

Jen, having read about the practice in advance, knew not to order tea (guidebooks hip you to this particular scam, but I missed that part), but there wasn't much we could do if we wanted to sit at a table in the El-Giza Station cafe.

Tommy the tour guide appeared later and sat with us and shrugged his shoulders when he was asked about the cake. He said that the best thing to do is not touch it and tell the waiter take it back. So when some of our group ordered another cup, Tommy tried to make it clear to the waiter that the cake was unnecessary, which precipitated a bit of bargaining.

"It's compulsory cake," the waiter explained before eventually agreeing to knock off five pounds for not serving the cake along with the tea.

Ten pounds is still a lot for a cup of tea, but like I said, there wasn't much else to do at the El-Giza Train Station.

But the upside of all this was that Cake got a new nickname: Compulsory, which Tommy took to calling her after her given name proved a little too much of a tongue twister for him.

See also the Big Map: Egypt/Jordan, December 27, 2010-January 11, 2011.

Posted: January 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: National Geographical | Tags: , ,

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