Cairo, Egypt Report of what it's like to live there - 07/19/11
Personal Experiences from Cairo, Egypt
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. I live in Cairo before as well as San Salvador and Caracas
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington or New York. You have to connect in Europe, so about 4 hours to the connection (Rome, Paris, Frankfurt) and seven or eight to the US East coast. Since the revolution in January 2011 there are no direct flights, but once demand picks up it is likely that airlines will return to their former schedules, which included direct flights to New York and DC. The direct flights took about 12 hours from Cairo and about 10.5 to Cairo.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Affiliated with the US Embassy in Cairo
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Most people live in apartments, although there are some villas in some of the farther away suburbs. The apartments are generally large. A traditional apartment will have a huge living room/dining room areas with smallish bedrooms. Also, closets in some places are scarce.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Most things you will want are available here. Some are imported/expensive. You can find delicious Europeans meats and cheeses at pricey boutique stores. At the local grocery non-imported dry goods are fairly inexpensive, and the local vegetables are delicious in season. You can buy imported vegetables too, but for import prices. Toys, both electronic and brand-names like Legos, Barbie, etc. are expensive here. Anything that is for a sport that isn't soccer or has lycra as a major component should be purchased before you come. Some specialty sports items are hard to find and will be expensive.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
My own mattress, kid/baby stuff like car seats, strollers, high chairs, big toys like kitchens or slides (all more expensive here).
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are a lot of restaurants. There are good Italian and some Asian restaurants. It's harder to find good Indian food. There are a lot of restaurant chains: Fridays, Chilis, McDonalds, KFC, Applebees. Too many to name. The prices are usually reasonable. The chains are about the same prices as in the US. There are some very expensive hotel restaurants, and some very reasonable restaurants. You will find plenty for every budget.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
There are some organic vegetables in some markets. However, I'm not sure if everybody's definition of "organic" is the same. You can find tofu, but maybe not at the local market. You would need to find an Asian specialty store. I have never tried to find gluten-free food. Restaurants often will not have good alternatives for vegetarians.
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
It depends what part of town you are in. If there are a lot of trees/grass near your area, people water constantly and you will get some mosquitoes. Some people get tiny ants that get into things.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Egyptian mail is ok for letters going and coming from abroad, but do not use it for anything internal. They have a good express mail service for overseas mail. I used to receive letter mail from the US in about 10 days. Do not try to receive packages. Duty on most items is 100% and picking them up from the post office is never a good experience. Many employers offer some kind of pouch service as well.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
This is something that is changing. Only diplomatic families can sponsor a visa for a household helper that is not Egyptian. You are responsible for either proving they are working for another diplomatic family or cancelling their visa and providing them a ticket home at the end of your stay. Local help is available, of course. It is harder to find an English speaking Egyptian household helper, because English speakers will usually be able to find a more prestigious job. You may have to try several before you find a good situation, so if you need childcare right away, try to have someone help you with referrals before you come.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes. In most neighborhoods where expatriates would live you will find something. You may have to go through a local hotel, but there are also sporting clubs, Gold's Gym, Curves, etc.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
I find the foreign transaction fees to be high using ATMs here, but they are available and people use them safely all the time.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
A lot of English-language Christian services of many denominations are available. Outside of Christian and Muslim services, it will be harder to find.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
You can find internationa English-language papers, but they are a bit expensive, especially when they are all on line. There are local magazines and papers in English at very reasonable prices. Local cable TV service has a lot of popular shows and movies in English with Arabic subtitles at reasonable prices. What you will not be able to do is access "watch it now" and other streaming video sources through Netflix and Hulu. There are local video rentals through expatriate clubs and in local stores.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
None. Most shopkeepers, cab drivers, and offices will be staffed with at least a few people who can speak enough English to complete whatever transaction you need. However, you will have a much richer experience if you try to learn some spoken Arabic. It makes people happy if you try.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It would be hard if you have mobility issues, because very few buildings are wheelchair accessible, and curbs not only don't have ramps but are also extremely high. I think it would be hard if you were missing one of your senses as well, because you need to be alert to dodge traffic, bicycles, potholes, etc.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
All are affordable. The Metro is fast and convenient depending on where you want to go, but avoid buses and mini-buses, which once you see them, you will know why. Keep track of your purse/pockets. Taxis are everywhere and are affordable and the newer ones have meters and air conditioning! It will cost $1 for a short ride and around $6 for a longer ride (30-45 minutes).
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Any car would be fine unless you plan to do a lot of desert driving and then you would want a 4-wheel drive. The driving is difficult, crowded, and often counter-intuitive, so many people use SUVs so they will be sitting a bit higher. Most parts are available here for Japanese and American cars. I see a lot of Chinese and Korean cars on the road, so I'm assuming those parts are available as well.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
It is available, but ask for the speed that is one level above what you think you need, because it will always work at the minimum of whatever range they are selling. We spend about $40/month, but you could get cheaper/slower service if you want.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
The local service providers are all about the same, and fairly reasonably priced. You can use a univeral or quad-band phone with a local chip or buy one locally.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
It is available, but as with human medicine/care ask for referrals from friends.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
If you are a diplomatic family member, you can work in the local market, otherwise, your employer will have to apply for a work permit on your behalf and many are willing to do so. There are many positions as English language instructors, editors, report writers, consultants, journalists, and other types of jobs, but it is very much about networking and knowing people who will refer you. It is more difficult to find jobs at higher pay levels, since there are so many expatriates available.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Suits for office workers. Slightly less formal in summer just because it's so hot.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
This is a touchy area since the revolution. Because Cairo was so incredibly safe before the revolution with a huge police presence and a populace willing to step in if problems arise, you will hear people discussing security as a huge concern. However, in terms of random crime, Cairo is still safer than most cities, despite the reduced police force. It now makes sense to lock your car door when you drive and pay attention to your bag/wallet when you are out, just like in any other big city. In terms of security issues related to the revolution/protests, those have also been minimal since the change to an interim government, with some disturbances in the central square which cause traffic disruptions and localized disputes, some of which end up escalating to fights. While most demonstrations have been peaceful, there is always a concern when huge numbers of people congregate in one place. You should check the news before you go someplace to make sure to avoid any protests. Also, you can check the US Embassy travel information. It is a bit alarmist, but it has useful information on where you should be careful outside of Cairo. It is unclear how safe it is on more deserted roads like those heading toward Taba (on the way to Gaza) and other areas. In general, we feel very secure in our neighborhood and everywhere we've wanted to go. The most dangerous thing is still the traffic.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Doctors and equipment can be excellent. Medical support staff are less so. Make sure you have someone with you if you are going to the hospital or if you think you will be unable to speak for yourself because of anesthesia or other reason. The best hospital in Maadi is Al Salam, and they have a "patient advocate" that you can ask for if you are unsure of what they are telling you. Be watchful of hand-washing and clean gloves. Also, be careful if you get manicures/pedicures, that the equipment is clean. Hepatitus C is prevalent here. You can get doctor recommendations from the consular office at the US embassy, but your best bet is to ask your friends.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
The air quality is terrible. There is a high particulate matter content from teh desert and extreme pollution from traffic and minimally regulated factory output. Bring air filters and keep the windows closed.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's dry and hot in the summer, and dry and warm the rest of the time. It gets to be about 50 fahrenheit in the winter in the evening, but you never really need more than a jacket or sweatshirt. If you're wearing a suit, the jacket will be enough. If you are outside the city in the desert, it can get cold at night. It only rains two or three times a year.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
My kids attend Cairo American College, and we've had excellent experiences at both the high school and elementary levels. The school also has an on-line school program which they used during the early months after the revolution began in January 2011. For elementary school, it was great in terms of how much they were able to provide on line, but of course it's more labor intensive at that age for the parents. The high school kids were able to do a lot on their own. In any case, as disruptive as last year was, the kids didn't miss out on school contact. Other schools include Maadi British International School, American International School, British International School Cairo. Make sure to check out the location in relation to where you are going to live. They all have buses, but kids can spend a lot of time in the bus.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Cairo American College is very straightforward about saying they cannot accommodate special needs kids. Some of the other schools, like Maadi British School and The American International School do accommodate some special needs, but I don't have first hand experience. You should contact the schools directly. They all have web sites.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
There are a lot of good pre-schools. Some of the more popular in the Maadi area are: Small Talk, Small World, The Irish Nursery. My child went to Small World and really enjoyed it. He was more than ready for Kindergarten when he started, and he thought it was fun while he was there.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There are sports available through just about all of the schools -- soccer, swimming, and track at a minimum. Also there is a soccer league and a t-ball league in the Maadi neighborhood regardless of the school you kids attend or where you live. There is also a softball league for adult men and women and a rugby league for kids and adults.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge and of all nationalities.
2. Morale among expats:
Most people have kind of a love/hate relationship with Cairo, but overall, it's an enjoyable post. There are a lot of perks -- nice housing, good weather most of the time, lot's to do, but things are loud and crowded and dirty, so it's easy to let it get to you.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
The houses are made for entertaining, with big living rooms and dining rooms. There are catering services available and temporary help is available if you want to have big dinners/parties. There are many expatriate social gatherings and you will likely be invited to gatherings of Egyptian coworkers and other groups.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's a good city for families, singles, and couples. There are good restaurants for all price levels and groups. There are night clubs for people who can handle late nights, sports leagues, an active Hash House Harriers, diving groups, scouts, art/dance/music lessons for adults and kids. It's a regular big city.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
There is a big contradiction in this area. There is a large and thriving gay community, although it has to remain completely underground. Occasionally, the government decides to crack down. In the past there have been raids on clubs, where all the foreigners were released, but local people were arrested. Occasionally, they will decide to deport gay expats. They don't seem to care about women as much as men. I don't know if things will change with a new government, but I'm guessing they won't. So, I would say as long as you discretely live alone or with a partner, have a mixed group of friends, and don't have big parties, you will probably have a good time.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There is a lot of harrassment of women in the streets no matter what you look like or what you wear. Some cafes will be completely uncomfortable for women. In terms of race, there are some nationalities that face some discrimination and dark-skinned people will have a harder time than light-skinned people, but in general, if you are nice people will respond accordingly. Most people are pretty accepting, but you might find people who say negative things about Israel/Jews.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
I like to go to the Red Sea. There are some big resorts there, but there are also quiet camping places that offer better snorkeling/diving. The coral reef is fantastic. Also, seeing the historical monuments and floating on the Nile are pretty great. Right now, it is amazing to watch the government and the people try to sort things out and form a democracy. It's a pretty incredible time.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
The pharaonic sites in the Cairo area include the Giza Pyramids/sphinx, Sakkara pyramids, the Egyptian Museum. The Islamic architecture is also amazing including the citadel, the "City of the Dead" and the Khan El Khalili (old market) area. You can inexpensively take a felucca (traditional sailboat) ride on the Nile. There is an opera house with some interesting offerings, a beautiful Agha Khan Foundation sponsored park that overlooks the city, and a lot of expatriate and locla social and sporting clubs. That's just in Cairo. Alexandria has another slew of interesting historical sites, there are oases and wadis to visit, and the Red Sea, as well as a ton of other historical sites you can see with a Nile cruise in Upper Egypt. If you can't find things to do here, you aren't trying.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
All kinds of Egyptian crafts: alabaster, blown glass, engraved copper table tops, mashrabiya wooden screens, wool carpets, cloth items from quilted items to tent fabric and table cloths.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Egypt is full of ancient antiquities which are stunning to see. Besides the Pyramids of Giza and the Temple of Karnak, there are hundreds of other incredible pharaonic places. Pluse the Islamic architecture and history is amazing. Even with that, the people of Egypt are its biggest asset. It's not the most efficient place, but people are easy to get along with and open to foreigners.
11. Can you save money?
Yes, if you don't buy too many imported things.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter clothes, bicycle (unless you are a child or willing to drive your bike out to the desert to ride), expectations about traffic/promptness, short shorts or other revealing clothes.
3. But don't forget your:
Extra sunglasses, snorkel and mask, easy small camera you can use to capture the odd things you see every day.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Cairo: The City Victorious, by Max Rodenbeck, and The Cairo Guide, by The American University in Cairo Press (with the Cairo map book). For fiction, Naguib Mahfouz of course, but there are too many others to list.
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Try to watch one of Adel Imam's recent movies in translation. Also a recent movie called "Taxi" in Arabic, but likely can be found with subtitles (I saw it on a plane). Do not think you will get a real idea by watching "Cairo Time" because I haven't seen anybody here that looks like Alexander Siddig, and I didn't think the movie gave any kind of impression of what it is like here. You can get a lot of ideas about antiquities by watching the myriad National Geographic and Discovery productions on various places in Egypt.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Egypt is a pretty conservative place and people tend to dress up more than in the US. So, while you can wear long cargo shorts around your foreigner-prevalent neighborhood, you should wear long pants everywhere else -- men and women, and keep the sleeveless to a minimum unless you have something to cover your shoulders in transit.