"Where are you from, Alaska?" the friendly stranger inquired.
"No, I'm from Wisconsin," my wife replied.
"You lie. You're from heaven," he said, clinching his set-up, perfectly.
And so it went, again and again during our first few days in Egypt.
Colleen, who admittedly is a knockout, drew plenty of attention from the persistent salesmen who have spent many years honing their approaches to engage tourists who flock to see sites such as the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx and the Temples of Luxor and Karnak.
We had been warned that vendors at the attractions are tough to deal with, but we had few problem, really. I think it's all how you want to consider what is going on.
These are people who are very polite and just want to take every opportunity in an exptremely poor country to make a buck or two in the competitive tourism business, which makes up more than 25 percent of Egypt's economy and has been hit hard in the past five years since political turmoil and the rise of terror attacks.
"Are you from this planet?" said a man selling ... I forget what it was this time. Tiny pyramids? Coins? Papyrus, maybe? Postcards?
Colleen laughed, and we kindly said "La Shukran" (No, thank you), a phrase that can politely and quickly end a sales pitch if you make it clear that you simply aren't interested in a purchase.
We made our way to an outdoor cafe outside the mosque at Khan el Khalili for a pre-dinner cup of mint tea.
The cool evening air, the warm tea and bustle of the market square outside the important religious complex offered an invigorating feeling. Colleen and I have been fortunate to travel to many places in the world, and we were delighted to have finally made it to Egypt.
A journey on the Nile . . . and more
We came for a cruise with Viking River Cruises, and the first couple days were spent in Cairo exploring the rich historic places there.
Our Egyptologist, Mohamed Osama, has been giving tours of his country for more than 20 years, and he provided us with important information crucial for effectively navigating the complex customs. The Viking Cruises' itinerary starts with two full days in Cairo, and here is what to expect when you are there.
On our first day, we went to Saqqara to see the vast archaelogical complex and a set of pyramids, including the famous Step Pyramid. The site is the greatest archaelogical site in Egypt, according to Mohamed, covering 90 square miles and boasting 16 pyramids.
This is where we first set foot into the Sahara. It's also where I first learned about how the bribe culture works in Egypt. The famous sites all around the country are subject to rules that can be as rigid or as flexible as the security guards determine.
Dip into you pocket for 5 Egyptian pounds (about 50 cents), and the "no photos" regulation inside that pyramid suddenly disappears. I was happy that a guard in Saqqara wanted me to take his picture. Well, he kind of demanded it. No problem. I love to get interesting pics of locals when I travel.
OK, sir. Let's get you and your Kalashnikov rifle posing "just so" in front of that pyramid. Perfect! Thanks a lot.
Wait. Why is he coming over and low-talking me while rubbing his fingers together down down his hip? What is he whispering? "Tip, tip ..."
Ah-ha! That was no free photo. I dig in a flip him a five-pound note.
Lesson learned. I still like the picture though, of the stern-looking man who calls himself "The General." I asked, and his real name is Ahmed, just like every other man in Egypt who isn't named Muhammad or Abdul or Omar.
Not really an exaggeration. Hey, it's the largest Muslim country in the world.
Yup, they've seen my wife again. Yes, I am lucky. No. I don't want a necklace. "Shukran."
We are at the Great Pyramids of Giza, to see the three famous structures that serve as the most iconic images and symbols of Ancient Egypt.
I rode a camel, which surprised me with the herky-jerky manner that it rises from its knees after I got into the saddle. I thought I was about to tumble off face first into the desert sand -- or a pile of camel dung. I hung on for a fun 15-minute ride as Colleen took pictures and video, but the camera was soon in the hands of our camel handlers, who possess all kinds of tricks to give you cheesy shots at the temples that I would never use. (OK, I'll show you one here just as an example.)
Tips. Tips. Tips.
It's a society built on hustling for gratuities. You'll have to get comfortable with that idea before visiting Egypt. Luggage handlers expect a tip.
Anyone at a tourist attraction asking whether they can help you out by taking picture of you and your friend in front of the Sphinx. That's gonna be someone wanting a tip.
Going to a public restroom? You'll most likely find someone who will hand you a piece of toilet paper or towel for your hands. That's a tip (one Egyptian pound is sufficient).
On our second day in Cairo, we went to the Egyptian Museum, located across from Tahrir Square. The entry to the museum is part of your Viking Cruises included excursion for the day. But you have to pay a camera fee per device that you plan to use inside the museum.
This fee is about $5. Be warned that if you pay for a camera and use both a cellphone and a camera, you are expected to have a ticket for two devices. You might end up having to pay a "tip" (bribe) to get your camera back if you are caught breaking the rule.
Also, in some areas inside the museum -- King Tut's jewelry room and the mummy room -- photos are prohibited. Plus, you have to pay an extra fee to get access to view the mummified remains of humans ($12). We skipped the mummy room and still had plenty of good stuff to view, including mummified pets and other animals on display in Room 53.
Showing some love
The city of 20 million people is constantly busy, and the population continues to boom throughout Egypt, so you can see how hard it must be to scrape out a living here.
Our group of 29, all from the United States, later in the day visited the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, which is located at the Citadel in Cairo and is considered an important religious site in Egypt. It was completed in 1848 and inspired by the design of the Blue Mosque in Instanbul.
As a Westerner, I was unsure of how I would be received, but it has been wonderful, and I have felt safe the whole time. (We are provided with an armed security detail, and the government is aware of our travel routes and schedules.)
Colleen and I have been stunned (and humbled) to be asked to pose for pictures with other tourists as well as residents who we have happened upon. It's been a delight, for real.
The influence of America is sometimes quirkily present throughout the city. Billboard ads line the highways pushing such delicacies as Twinkies and Lay's potato chips.
Though, some of those influences lag decades behind current trends.
When certain residents notice that we're obviously American, I've heard calls of: "Waaaaaasssup?!" "Hi-Ho Silver" "Hey, Arnold Schwarzenegger" and "Jack and Rose from Titanic!"
Kodak Film signs hang from storefronts enticing your to come in a develop your film. So much is wrong with that sentence.
But you also hear "Obama!" and see products like TGI Friday's, Hardee's and Papa John's all over the city. As well as a KFC and Pizza Hut location just steps from the missing nose on the Sphinx.
The best thing I've heard so far, though, is "I love America. Americans are good people," from many who implore us to tell everyone that Egypt is a good place to come visit.
I will my new friends. I will.
Thanks for reading and always travel happy!