Things Nobody Tells You About Living in Cairo Part II — Sandstorms, Photography and Money

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This is the follow-up to our first post, Things Nobody Tells You About Living in Cairo. Before deciding to go to Cairo to learn more about living in Egypt, there was a lot we didn’t know, despite a lot of googling and reading blogs. We didn’t know what the bawaab does, how fast the internet is in Cairo or what it’s like to travel in Egypt as a woman.

Sandstorms Make Cairo Look Like Mad Max

Discover Discomfort - Living in Cairo - Sandstorm view from apartment window
A view from the window of one of our apartments. No filter applied, daylight white balance, at 2pm.

This will sound naive to anyone who lives in a desert region, but it was new to us. Sandstorms happen often in Cairo and can be fatal due to high wind and poor vision on the roads — though this is partly because of poorly-enforced safety standards. For example in the above photo, a poorly-secured construction site, there was a cleaner working on the top floor while the wind was blowing.

Discover Discomfort - Living in Cairo - Guy walking in Sandstorm
Get down from there, guy!

The photo above captures a newsworthy but still fairly common sandstorm.

Sandstorms are somewhat seasonal and happen year-round. They cause sudden temperature drops or increases, depending on the temperature of the wind blown. The most serious sandstorms happening during khamsin, a period during the spring, particularly in April, during which a hot and dry wind blows across the entire region. The khamsin wind gets its name from the Arabic word for fifty because the winds last for around 50 days. Khamsin affects Egypt in particular, but also affects other countries in the Levant (Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Syria).

Basically, don’t visit Egypt in April, and avoid it in March or May if you can. Beyond May it starts getting very hot, anyway.

This hand gesture means “wait” in Egypt

This gesture is from a Youtube video describing it as the “Egyptian Gesture for Wait“. It’s fun to do, and I encourage you to try it everywhere, especially in Italy, just to see what happens there. (PSA: Joking. Don’t do this.)

It might surprise a lot of Egyptians to learn that their neighbours in Israel (a state around half everyday Egyptians don’t even acknowledge) also use the same hand gesture to mean “wait”, just with a different accompanying word/phrase, rega (רגע).

A few ways of saying “Wait a second!” in Arabic in Egypt while using the “wait” hand gesture:

  • sanya waHida (تانية واحدة): “one second”
  • lahza (لحظة): “moment”
  • istanna/istanni (استنى): “wait

All of those work. Combine them if you want, with min faDlak/ik afterwards for a tiny bit of politeness. But the hand gesture works alone too.

Egypt is Cheap for Foreigners and Expensive for Locals

Egyptian Pound's historical value chart since it was floated in 1960. the Pound's value has been halved many times, falling from US$3 to US$0.06.
The Egyptian Pound’s historical devaluation from its height of US$3 – when it was the most valuable currency in the world – to the current ~$0.06.

Egyptians consider the Egyptian Pound the same way Europeans think of the Euro or Americans think of the Dollar.

Cairo is in the midst of an economic crisis. Egypt was always somewhat cheap, being a less-developed country, but it’s particularly cheap now with the dismal valuation of the Egyptian Pound, at 18LE to the US Dollar.

What’s important to remember is that the household income for many Cairo families is between 2,000 and 4,000 LE a month, and often towards the lower end. Egyptians consider the Egyptian Pound the same way Europeans, the British and Americans consider the Euro, Pound and Dollar. For example, most Americans would take umbrage at paying more than $10 for a sandwich for lunch. In Cairo people are similar, and indeed rarely pay more than 10 LE for a couple of (smaller) sandwiches.

At the same time, prices for goods in LE have increased dramatically — severalfold — since the pound was floated and devalued in 2016. Life has become very expensive for Egyptians, and many families cannot afford more than the most basic life necessities. Most westerners eat (or at least can eat) meat and fresh vegetables daily — often for more than one meal a day. It would be anathema for them to think otherwise. For many Egyptians, fresh vegetables are expensive and meat is a luxury, to be used in limited quantities in meals.

So bear that in mind when you think of Egypt as “cheap”.

That said, these are some prices of typical things from a visitor’s perspective, in approximate USD/Euro cents:

  • A breakfast sandwich of ful (spiced fava beans), egg and ta’meyya (like falafel): 5 LE, or $0.25 (we’d usually get two each, and felt greedy doing so)
  • Syrian style shawerma (like a doner kebab): 25 ($1.25) — a definite luxury for a local, but an affordable dinner for us
  • Pack of chewing gum: 1.25LE (6 cents)
  • Bag of 5-10 pieces of baladi bread from a street-side vendor: 5 LE ($0.25)
  • 30 minute ride in an uber across a couple of inner-city suburbs (5-10KM, 3-7 miles): 20 LE ($1)
  • 1 month membership at a good gym: 300 LE ($15)
  • Metro ride halfway across the city: 3 LE (15c)
  • Local private bus (microbus): 1-2 LE (5-10c)

The exception to these low prices (for foreigners) this is how expensive tourist stuff is. There is a local price and a foreign price, and the difference is large.

  • Pyramids: 160 ($19) vs local price of 5LE ($0.25)
  • Cairo Tower: 200 ($21) vs local price of 35 ($2). (Note: don’t go to Cairo Tower. The view is boring, and the tower is basically built as a middle finger to America.)
  • Museum: 80 ($8) vs local price of often free

It makes sense — make the attractions available to locals. However, the prices for many of these things are still large for many of those trying to survive, especially considering the transport required to get out of town to the nearby attractions.

Cash is King, but Currency Traders are Fair

Egypt is an extremely cash-based society. Expect to take out cash many times from ATMs or to change them at the many banks that offer the exchange service. You absolutely need to become familiar with the money.

While some higher-end restaurants and hotels accept credit cards, Egypt is not the kind of place where you go and split bill among several cards. By “higher-end” we don’t mean busy, either; we mean the kind of place that is more upper crust. It might be a cafe that offers cappuccinos or a restaurant that offers wine, for example.

The best thing we found out is that nobody tries to rip you off with the exchange rate — not even at the airport! The rate they offer is extremely close to the one you’ll find on Google Finance, and the buy-ask spread is very narrow. For example, when the exchange rate was at 17.8, we’d see exchange booths buying USD for 17.76 LE and selling USD for 17.84 LE. This was a huge comfort. Unlike most of the developing world where you get the best prices on the black market (i.e. some guy with a wad of bills on the side of the road, who may give you the wrong amount of money), you just go to exchange booths in Egypt and it’s all very above aboard.

In a world where prices were always semi random, it was nice to not be ripped off on currency, especially as more than anything else, we know how much Egyptian Pounds should cost. From Google.

A few good Egyptian money terms:

  • filoos (فلوس): money. “ma3leish, ma3indish filoos” means “Sorry, I don’t have any money.
  • fakkah (فـكّـة): change. “ma3ak fakka?” means “Do you have change?
  • gineeh (جـنيه): Egyptian Pound. “khamsa ginee” means “5 Egyptian pounds”.

It’s Almost Impossible to Buy EgyptAir Flights Online

Our credit cards almost never worked online when buying flights online from EgyptAir.

It didn’t matter what we did. We tried the following:

  • Different credit cards — all from world-class banks (both Australian and US) like Chase, Commonwealth and Charles Schwab
  • Buying tickets when physically in different countries (e.g. in Australia), or from Egypt
  • Using a VPN to pretend we’re somewhere else — US, Europe, UK, Egypt, didn’t matter
  • Buying direct from the airline, or using any of half a dozen intermediaries like Expedia or Kayak
  • Calling the phone numbers on the website… none of them worked.
  • Calling the local offices, with phone numbers from the website or Google… none of them worked.

It was just impossible. EgyptAir’s online/remote customer service is completely non-existent. None of the phones worked!

We scoured TripAdvisor for solutions and found many people with the same problem, with no solution.

After entering all our details into the annoying EgyptAir website eight times we had to fly to Egypt using a different airline (Emirates).

The only way to buy EgyptAir flights reliably is in person. In Egypt, when we had to fly from Aswan to Sharm el-Sheikh, the only way we could buy tickets from EgyptAir was to go to a customer service desk in the city of Aswan, which was (shockingly, after the absence of support through phone or online) a great customer service experience. Just very inconvenient.

Of course, you can solve this with a local credit card, if you’re a resident. Regional cards might work too. If anyone else solved this, please tell us!

All Egyptian Food is Amazing and All Restaurants Deliver

We knew middle-eastern food was great, but we didn’t expect every single thing we ate to be this good.

Living in Ciaro - Food
Koshari, a weird blend of rice, lentils, chickpeas, macaroni and tomato sauce. It’s actually not our favourite, but it’s the most photogenic, because kofta looks like… well you know.

We’re blessed to think in US Dollars and thus able to afford the many varied foods that Egypt has to offer. Kebab and Kofta are staples here, and we consider ourselves very fortunate to be able to eat them every few days (more than that isn’t really good for your stomach).

Our favourite thing in Cairo on cold days became how much we could order over the phone. Yes, we did try to get out there and speak to people in local eateries on most days. But because of the crazy sport situation in Cairo, it’s not practical to get to most parts of the city. You can order a lot using two apps: Uber Eats and Otlob. But you can order so much more in Egypt simply by calling any restaurant and asking them to deliver. They don’t even charge a delivery fee (but tips are appreciated!)

Unfortunately, you absolutely have to call them on the phone — you can’t text them. It took me about a month of living in Cairo and learning Arabic to work up the courage. When the food arrived, it was like magic.

Discover Discomfort - Living in Cairo - Food Delivery
Our fist delivered meal. All this for EGP 135 (about US$7) delivered.

Photography in Cairo is randomly illegal

We have gotten in trouble just a couple of times, but have heard of other people being nearly arrested for taking a photo of the wing thing.

The summary is: in tourist places, make sure photography is permitted. Buy a permit if you need to. Don’t try to cheat, because you’ll be asked to leave. And if you’re not sure, be clandestine or just don’t take photos.

Here is a more detailed list of things we’ve been told you can’t do:

  • Don’t take photographs from windows, for arbitrarily enforced security reasons by bawaab.
  • Don’t take photographs of random buildings as many are political, underground political or military installations. (You may not have seen or been able to read the signs saying what the building is.) You will be approached quickly by a guard and told to delete the photos.
  • Don’t let any guard at any site smile and hold your camera for you unless you have small change on hand for a tip (5 LE is fine). You don’t have to do it.
  • Don’t take photographs of people without their express permission as they may believe you will use the photographs against them, and might cause a scene. Women, especially, don’t like being photographed. Keep 5 LE notes on hand for sometimes-expected tips (we haven’t done this, although have been offered tips for photos of us!).
  • Don’t take photographs of places of strategic significance, like airports or military facilities.
  • Don’t take photos in the museums, tombs or pyramids. It’s mostly not allowed.
  • In places where photography is allowed, expect pay a huge price (usually 300 LE, sometimes more than 10x the entry fee) for a permit. If you don’t have this permit, expect to be spotted taking illegal photos and escorted out with your camera, and for all your photos to be inspected by strict guards. We saw it happen several times in the Valley of the Kings.
  • Don’t take photographs of — or even near — police. They can and will ask you to delete all your photos.
  • Don’t use a big camera, a tripod or other equipment in the street.
  • Don’t bribe anyone to let you take photos (it’s not going to end well for you)
  • Don’t take photos of public demonstrations, protests, riots and the like if you’re an Egyptian. That’s definitely not going to end well.

Just get a permit. And don’t bring your drone to Egypt.

Definitely Don’t Bring Drones to Egypt

Do not bring drones into Egypt. Drones are basically illegal in Egypt. They’re a security risk. You can get a permit in theory, but they’re hard to obtain. Think: you can get a drone permit if you’re a major media production agency or film studio.

If you try to bring a drone into the Egypt and they catch it, they might confiscate it (it has happened, from what we’ve heard). We were lucky when we arrived; the scanner was very crowded so we were waved through. We still don’t dare to use it, obviously.

If you’re bringing a drone, keep it in your checked luggage. The remote, too. We’ve read about some cases where on the way out, guards found a drone in hand luggage. They asked to see the memory card. After confirming the drone hadn’t been used, they asked for it to be put into checked luggage.

Men Hold Hands in Cairo More Often than Couples Do

Couples usually don’t hold hands in public in Cairo. It’s not illegal to hold hands; in fact, I doubt it would be frowned upon. But we saw few people doing it. For couples, the traditional form of men and women interacting (apart from no touching at all) is for the woman to thread her arm through the man’s, or to hold on to it.

However, we do see some unusual ways in which people touch in public or display affection in Cairo. Here are some of them:

  • Men kiss each other on the cheek twice. This is common in the region. Similarly, but differently to Europe, men and women never kiss each other at all in public — definitely not on the mouth. (Again, a married couple kissing would not be illegal, but may be frowned upon and attract unwanted attention from bawaab, police and so on).
  • Men may embrace each other, but men and women don’t often embrace, unless the woman is a foreigner. It’s not bad or embarrassing when they do, but a local man sometimes feels uncomfortable.
  • Men often hold hands, but it’s nowhere near as common as India or Pakistan. Women hold hands too obviously.
  • When joking around, there’s a lot hand slapping, like high-fiving. Kind of like an aggressive handshake where you slap each others hands and laugh. “Yeah man! Woo!”
  • When greeting a woman, let her initiate any physical contact, such as extending a hand to shake it. This applies whether you’re a man or a woman.
  • All handshakes are extremely limp, whether with men or women. They’re basically just holding hands and moving them slightly.

Go See the City Before Prayer Time on Friday

Discover Discomfort - Living in Cairo - Empty Metro before Noon Prayers
This metro is normally packed… except before noon on a Friday.

Friday is the first day of rest in Islamic countries. And in Islam, the Friday noon prayer is the most important prayer of the week. Before the noon prayer, the city of Cairo is basically a ghost town.

If you’re looking for that perfect Instagram shot with empty streets, go at dawn on a Friday. No matter how busy the place you’re going to (except for the caveat below), you’ll have it to yourself.

One caveat: Mosques are busier on Friday. If you want to visit a famous mosque, better to go on any day but Friday.