Lessons from a Survivor: 11 Tricks for Life in Cairo
Cairo is a city of extremes. Much as her people love their food extra salty and their tea super sweet, Cairo herself is vibrant yet stagnant, rich yet poor, inflexible yet accepting, all at once. She is not an easy city to live in or an easy city to love, but once she seeps into you she’s there to stay.
Take me, for example: I was supposed to be here for six weeks. It’s now been well over six years. So, here are a few tips and tricks for living in Cairo from an agnabeya (foreigner) who has stayed way too long but never wants to leave.
Flashing lights mean “get the &$@# out of my way!”
We’ll start with a tip for literally surviving this city: if a driver flashes his lights at you it doesn’t mean ‘go ahead,’ as it does in the US. It means you’d damn well better get out of the way if you want to keep all your limbs attached.
Waving away your fare doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay
While we’re on the subject of roads: yes, your cab driver wants you to pay him. Unless you rely exclusively on Uber, Careem and Ousta, you’ll eventually encounter a driver who waves away your fare when you try to pay him.
He’s just being courteous and trying to show Egyptian generosity – you still have to pay him. Offer again and he won’t turn you down.
Splurge on a maid
Yes, it’s weird. Yes, it’s going to make you uncomfortable at first if you’ve never had household help. And yes, you will most definitely be glad you did it.
Cairo dust is insurmountable. You just can’t beat it. Believe me – I’ve tried; you’ll only exhaust yourself to tears. So embrace the fact that Egypt has a service-based economy and let someone else do the dirty work. Even if it’s just once a week, you will revel in coming home to a clean, tidy apartment with no dirty dishes in the sink or laundry waiting to be folded.
Still feel weird about it? Consider that you’re giving someone a job and helping them get started or support a family. There are also organizations which pair people searching for household help with trained refugees needing a job (check out Refuge Egypt).
Literally. My first time in Cairo, my roommate and I ordered one single Cinnabon just to see if we could actually get just one Cinnabon delivered. Yes, yes you can.
Restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, laundry and dry cleaning – absolutely everyone delivers, and usually for $1 or less. Forgot that one ingredient for your cake? Call the supermarket downstairs. Want some fresh fruit for breakfast but don’t feel like leaving the house to shop? Call the man who sets up a fruit stand on the corner. He’ll bring your order right to your door.
Keep track of what you spend
Really, this one goes no matter where you live. When you’re living a middle or upper-class life in a third world country, however, it’s easier than you might expect to spend way more money than you anticipated. After all, that super cool gadget was really only $10… and nine more purchases later, you suddenly spent $100. Which, if you get paid in local currency, is probably a significant portion of your salary.
Keep track of what you spend so you can see where your money is going and plan accordingly – so when your friends ask you out for coffee at the end of the month, you can turn them down because you want to spend the afternoon home with your cat and not because you’re flat out of cash.
Everyone is late. Always. Even you
Just go with it. Anticipate it. I’m tempted to caution you to try not to be late when it really matters, but… that’s because I can’t stand being late. Consequently, I’m inevitably waiting anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours for whomever. The only things that happen on time are performances at the Cairo Opera House, classes at the American University in Cairo, and iftar. Anything else, well, let’s just say if you want the party to start at 9, tell people 8. They’ll start getting ready at 8 and most will arrive by 9:30. Maybe.
Quick lesson in Egyptian timing: when an Egyptian says, “I’m on the way!” it usually means they haven’t taken a shower yet, “I’m almost there!” means they just got in the car, and “I’ll be there in 2 minutes!” means you should expect them in 15-20.
Nagging is the best way to get something done
Whether we’re talking Vodafone’s customer service or your colleague who was supposed to send you that data last week, the best way to get something you need done is to keep asking. And calling. And texting. And showing up at their desk. If it’s something that isn’t getting done out of laziness, make it easier for them to just do it than to have you nagging constantly.
Unless it isn’t getting done because they want a little baksheesh. If that’s the case, you’re going to have to just hand it over… or wait a month. Or smile and play the ‘I’m a foreigner and am completely oblivious’ card and they might do it anyway… if you look sufficiently not Egyptian.
Rain is gross
There’s a reason all the cabs are taken and no one is on the street when it rains, and it’s not because they’re afraid they’ll melt. It’s because when it rains in Cairo, especially if it hasn’t rained in weeks or months, it rains pollution. Yes, you heard me right. With some sand and dust in there, too. And if you have any love at all for that white sweater, or your cup of tea, don’t take either of them out in the rain.
I once took a sweater home to my mother to clean because I had gotten caught out in the rain and had no idea what to do about the tiny black spots all over that poor sweater.
Bonus: since it doesn’t rain very often, you won’t have to deal with this much. Extra bonus: since it doesn’t rain very often, no one has bothered to set up a drainage system. So after a good rain the streets will be full of puddles of dirty rain, dust, dirt, sand, garbage, cat and dog waste… trust me, you don’t want to go near the stuff. Just stay home.
Accept that you aren’t in Kansas anymore
(Ladies, this one is for you; I can’t say to what extent guys will identify with this.) Don’t hate yourself when you realize you’ve grown accustomed to ignoring everyone around you on the street – even when you aren’t in Cairo. It’s not your fault, and it doesn’t make you a bad person; it’s just part of the thick skin you need to survive here. You’re still in there, and you can still be the happy, smiley, generous person you are whenever you choose to be.
Being a woman in Cairo can be hard. If you wear blinders when you’re out and about it doesn’t mean you’re somehow different from who you used to be, it just means you need different armor here than you might need elsewhere.
Whether it’s a weekend in Fayoum or Sokhna or a quick hop across the Mediterranean to Lebanon or Europe, reasonably frequent access to ‘out’ will let you come back and put up with the insanity of Cairo for a while longer.
Can’t afford the flight or the time off work? Book yourself into a nice hotel for a night or two. Let them pamper you and forget about traffic, dust, and noise. Or, if home is your sanctuary, stay in. Just get out of the city for a while. Then you can go back again.
Make Egyptians your family
Egyptians are lovely, funny, welcoming people who will love to show you their idea of a good time. Take them up on it. Meet people at work, through friends, through a FB group or class at AUC, and go out with them. I’m not talking just to Sequoia and Cairo Jazz Club. Hang out at Borsa or the little café’s behind the Khan. Try their favorite neighborhood hole-in-the-wall shisha joint. If you’re in town for Ramadan, go home with them for iftar – and expect to be fed so much delicious food you’ll be full for days (or at least until the next iftar).
This is all it comes down to, and how you will survive in the end: the Egyptians who become your family. It’s the friends who drag you out of the house at ungodly hours and bring you home after sunrise, and with whom you learn the real workings of the city and downtown’s haunts. Your adopted ‘mom’ who foists food on you and makes you fix her computer, then buys you a new laptop bag that matches her new laptop bag (and/or buys you new clothes or randomly gives you spending money when she hands it out to her actual children). The ones who speak to you in a fascinating mix of English, Arabic, and random other things, tease you for your Arabic, and refuse to leave you alone when you’re having a bad day.
WE SAID THIS: Egyptians will make you a part of their community. Let them. Embrace it. You will love them for it, and you’ll walk away from your time in Egypt – whether it’s 10 days or 10 years – with fantastic stories and a soft spot in your heart that will always pull you back to the Mother of the World.