Cairo, Egypt Report of what it's like to live there - 02/01/13
Personal Experiences from Cairo, Egypt
1. 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?
US East Coast. Trip is typically 4 hours to Germany, 8 to the east coast, then a short hop (1 hour) to my family's area. Husband's side is in Texas, which ends up being about 30 hours of travel.
2. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
(The contributor is affiliated with the U.S. Government and has lived in Cairo for three years, a first expat experience as an adult.)
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is almost entirely in apartments, but generally quite spacious ones. As in many developing countries, the quality of construction is often "quirky", and it is pretty much guaranteed you will have issues at some point. Most USG personnel live in Maadi (a suburb south of the main downtown area) or Zamalak / Dokki (both centrally located downtown). Maadi is close to the Cairo American College (the elementary/middle/high school), the Maadi House, the "American Club," and the USG Commissary. In addition, there are a variety of expat groups, clubs, churches, etc. in Maadi, not to mention coffee shops, restaurants, shops, etc. Zamalak / Dokki have great access to restaurants, shops, and cultural events (e.g., the Cairo Opera House, El Sawy Culture Wheel, etc.). It is definitely less suburban than Maadi, and is generally popular with singles and couples without kids. There are three main USG work areas in Cairo - the embassy, USAID, and the Naval Advanced Medical Research Unit (NAMRU). The embassy is located in Garden City - downtown - and the commute from Maadi can take anywhere from 45 minutes to hours, depending on traffic. The embassy runs a shuttle for staff from Maadi to the embassy. There is also a metro that runs from Maadi to downtown, which some people use as an option. It may be faster, but it can be crowded and hot during the summer (it has also periodically been off-limits for security reasons). The commute from Zamalak / Dokki to the embassy is not long - maybe half an hour at most, and in theory you could actually walk. USAID is located in Maadi (along with a few other USG offices). The commute for the folks living in Zamalak / Dokki is the same as described above, just in reverse. That said, the commute for folks living in Maadi is wonderful - 15 minutes at most! Folks at NAMRU are pretty much stuck in traffic no matter where they live - sorry!
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
USG personnel have access to a US military-run commissary, making groceries and household supplies very reasonable. For other expats, groceries and supplies are a bit more costly, but still reasonable, assuming you aren't living exclusively on imported items. Produce here is quite good, and something is always in season. Mangoes and local bananas are amazing (Egypt grows something like 60 varieties of mangoes), oranges are good, watermelon is great, strawberries are good, etc. As in most developing countries, you should treat your produce if it is something you eat "skin on" (i.e., not oranges, bananas, etc.)
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Not much really - about the only thing we have shipped that we can't get here are quality shoes, some clothing (both shoes and clothing sold here is either poor quality or expensive imports), car parts, animal food (the pet food that is available here is generally of poor quality).
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Pretty much every fast-food joint you can think of is in Cairo, and they all deliver. The cost for Egyptian fast-food is minimal (not even a dollar for a large helping of Koshari, an Egyptian favorite), and the cost for western chains is reasonable, particularly as the Egyptian pound weakens against the dollar.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Minimal insect problems - mainly fly issues.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
USG personnel have access to the APO system, making mail here easy (though sometimes a bit slow).
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Domestic help is available and affordable. Prices seem to range depending on the origin of staff, with Philippina staff being the most costly and Egyptian and Sudanese being the least.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
AECWA (the American Association) maintains two gyms - one at the embassy and one at the USAID building. In addition, they maintain a pool at the Maadi House. Beyond that, there are multiple gyms and exercise studios all over Cairo, including Gold's Gym and others.
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've used both with no issues in Cairo.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Christian services are available in a variety of denominations and languages. I can't speak to other religions.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Cable with English-language channels is readily available for about $40 USD/month. Many USG personnel also choose to get AFN as their only TV access. English-language print media are also available.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Far less than you would expect. Egyptians are very welcoming of any effort to try to speak Arabic (most realize that it isn't an easy language), and I have found that many people speak at least the basics of English. It helps to have basic "taxi Arabic" - things like left, right, straight ahead - and to know your address. It also helps to learn the basic bits of politeness! I know many expats who have been here for years, never leave the expat bubble, and have gotten by with almost no Arabic to speak of. Despite my efforts, my Arabic is very weak, but a few after-work classes have given me enough to get by with the basics.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Having a physical disability in Cairo would not be easy - accessibility is non-existent, even in the USG buildings (obvious ADA violations).
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Trains in Egypt are fine - I've taken the train between Cairo and Alexandria multiple times and have taken trains in Upper Egypt as well. However, depending on political issues, the USG may place restrictions on where you can go by train. Local buses are off-limits to USG employees, and I know of only a few non-USG expats that are willing (or brave enough) to take them. Taxis are affordable and generally safe, although there has been an increase in robberies in taxis since the revolution. Most folks get names of taxi drivers from friends, etc. and use those drivers. Many expats prefer only the white taxis because they are metered, but I've had no significant issues with the older unmetered black taxis, provided I know what the fare should be to where I am going and negotiate it out prior to getting into the cab. Regardless of where you go in Maadi, the fare should not be more that 5 Egyptian pounds, so I don't even negotiate on that.
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?
Pretty much any car will work. We have a small SUV and like the clearance it gives us over the Cairo traffic and potholes, but I know folks who have sedans and are comfortable with those as well. As most other folks note here, traffic and driving in Cairo (and Egypt in general) are pretty wild, so whatever you bring, expect that it will get banged up a bit while here. That said, body work is really cheap! Car parts can be found for most cars - Hondas, Toyotas, Kias, and Hundais are all very common here. In terms of restrictions, USG personnel have never been allowed to be on the roads outside Cairo after dark - it simply is not safe from a driving perspective. Immediately after the revolution, USG personnel did have other restrictions on their driving in Cairo proper, but most of those have been lifted. However, there are no-go areas for driving outside Cairo for USG employees, including the entire Sinai, and some areas in Upper Egypt.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
High-speed internet is available through a variety of companies and generally works without too many hitches, though it is never as fast as it claims to be. Also, Egypt has a fair-use law, so you can experience a massive slow-down if you hit the limit (so far, we have not had a problem with this).
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Cell phones are easy to get if you choose to - the three main companies are Vodafone, Mobinil, and Etisalate. Many folks (myself included) brought an unlocked phone from the US and bought a SIM card here.
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?
There is no quarantine for incoming animals, nor is there a quarantine for animals going from Egypt to the US. There is long waiting period for animals going from Egypt to the EU, related to the rabies testing, but not an actual quarantine in the receiving EU country.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
There are plenty of vets in Cairo, and the cost is not exorbitant. But unfortunately, the care these vets provide ranges from middling to poor. I am only aware of one dog kennel (far from where most expats live) and a few cat boarding facilities (most with rescue groups that offer boarding as a way to raise money for their work). The one thing that is easy to get is a pet sitter - because domestic staff is easy to find and cheap, it is not an issue to get someone to take care of your animals while you are away. That said, many Egyptians are afraid of dogs, so just make sure whoever you hire is actually comfortable with your animal and has references. Another issue for dog owners is the Government of Egypt's means of controlling the street dog population - it uses meat laced with poison that is left on the streets for these animals. Beyond being a horribly cruel way to cull the population, several expats have lost their dogs when the animals have inadvertently gotten into poison on their walks. Some expats with dogs use muzzles to ensure that their animals do not inadvertently get into poison-laced food/trash on walks.
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?
The key problem for most folks in terms of jobs on the local economy seems to be the pay scale. Unless folks come in to Cairo as "out-of-country" contractors, employers will typically try to hire them on at a local pay scale, which is incredibly low. Among the USG community, many spouses choose to work in the mission, but these positions are generally poorly paid and "scut work" in nature. The embassy doesn't seem to have an interest in making better use of the skill sets that family members bring (or in reimbursing them at a US pay level). Other family members find employment at either CAC or, in a few cases, at the American University in Cairo.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
The dress code at works depends on individual offices and supervisors, but the basic accepted dress code throughout Egypt is "not revealing." It is best to avoid short skirts, shorts, sleeveless tops, tank tops, etc.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Since the revolution, security has become more of an issue. But Cairo was abnormally safe for a city of its size prior to the revolution and has now really just shifted to a security level one would expect for city of this size. The key factor is that the police force is relatively ineffective. So, when something does happen, there is little that can or will be done about it. In the expat areas (Maadi, Zamalak, and Dokki, primarily) there have been increases in issues such as purse snatchings, etc.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo has a large medical staff, and there are clinics in both Maadi and at the embassy. Beyond that, the physicians in Egypt are not necessarily bad, but the paraprofessional medical providers are lacking (e..g, nurses, etc.) As such, for basic care, Egypt may be fine, but for any significant care (and any type of surgery), it would be better to receive care outside Egypt. Pharmacies are plentiful, and medications are readily available, so that is not an issue. Most health concerns are those you might find anywhere in the developed world (and developing too, in some cases): stomach viruses, respiratory problems, etc.
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?
Pretty bad - most folks develop the "Cairo cough", and things are worse in the fall (September / October) when the fields outside Cairo are burned. Pollution from vehicles and dust are both significant, but that said, charcoal is not used much here, so that, at least, is not an issue. Outside of Cairo, the air quality is better, particularly up in Alexandria and other parts of the North Coast.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The climate is nice: low to no humidity except for a few weeks during the summer. It is hot during the summer, but the evenings cool down nicely. Frankly, summer here is better than it is in most US southern and east coast states. Winter is cool, but most Embassy housing now has heaters for those who get cold easily.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
CAC is the school that most members of the American community send their kids to. That said, people also send their children to the Lycee Francais and to the British School, also in/near Maadi. Beyond that, I can't contribute much, not having kids.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
CAC makes no accommodations for special- needs students. I have been told that the British School can / will make some.
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?
Preschool and daycare are both available, but again, with no children I cannot comment extensively on them.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Sports programs are available through the schools. (For adults, there is an active softball league, a runners club, two clubs for bikers - road and mountain - a rugby club, and a hash-hound-harriers group, to name a few.)
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community in Cairo is very very large. Beyond the USG community (which is huge), there are substantial communities from the other embassies, a huge US military/contractor community, and a huge oil community. In addition, there are faculty at CAC and the American University in Cairo, along with other donor groups.
2. Morale among expats:
Moral here is mixed. Really, it depends on who you spend time with! Many USG personnel prefer to spend their time only in the USG community. For many folks, it seems like Egypt is their first (and possibly only) developing world post - these folks often seem to be generally negative (i.e., it's dirty, people are like home, etc.). It's true that life in Cairo has its quirks, but It is a fascinating place. Egyptians are a generally nice people (who love kids), and life here is relatively easy in terms of amenities. That said, as in many places, the people who thrive here are those that can laugh at the quirks of the developing world and those who make sure to get away for breaks on a regular basis!
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?
As noted previously, there are plenty of restaurants and movie theaters in Cairo. Other than that, much entertaining / social life is in homes, although many expats living downtown also take advantage of the city's bars and clubs.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
As a couple with no children, we have enjoyed Cairo. Most of our friends do have chdilren, and they probably have somewhat more mixed feelings. They do enjoy parts of it, but do find that it is limited in terms of open green areas for the children to play in safely. Again, most housing is in apartments, so there are very few yards. Maadi House and the CAC campus are where most families go to let the kids run. From our perspective, there are plenty of things to do - diving, spending time with friends, desert camping, trips to Alexandria, etc.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It isn't the worst, and I've known of G&L expats who have thrived here. But open G&L behavior is still pretty much taboo in the general society.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There is prejudice against the Sudanese population here (and other African immigrants), and there can be tension between the Coptic and Muslim communities. Gender issues also crop up, and since the revolution, there has been an increase in sexual harassment. That said, I have experienced worse (and more) harassment in other countries, including in the US. At least once here, I have told someone "hissing" at me that it was "haram" and he backed off - I don't think he had ever been called on it before. Thanks to the wonderful American TV shows / movies we export, there is a definite perception that American (and other western women) are "easy" and comments will come along with that perception.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Diving in the Red Sea, seeing amazing sights, interacting with Egyptians (and living through a revolution - though that may not be a positive highlight!)
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Cairo itself has a variety of sights to see, including pharonic monuments, amazingly beautiful Mamaluk, Fatmid, and other architecture, fascinating Coptic history, the Khal el Khalili (market), concerts, etc. There are also all the other things you would expect in a big city - restaurants, movies, malls, etc.). Outside Cairo, the Red Sea is world famous for its diving, and it is very easy to get dive certified while here. While USG personnel are no longer allowed to go to many sites in the Sinai (such a shame), you can still dive out of Sharm el Sheik, Hurghada, Safaga, etc. and off live-aboard boats. There are also trips to the desert (camping, dune surfing, visiting the oasis and desert ruins, etc. ), trips to Luxor / Aswan / Abu Simble, and trips to the north coast including Alexandria, etc.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Alabaster, Khayamiya (Egyptian applique), jewelry, fanous (lanterns), and travel.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Weather, sights, people.
11. Can you save money?
Most definitely - particularly as the Egyptian pound continues to weaken against pretty much every other currency out there.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
In a heartbeat! We have loved it, and would have no issues coming back here again, even with all the post-revolution changes---assuming, of course, that things don't go downhill more than they have to date!
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
tank tops, short shorts, and plunging necklines.
3. But don't forget your:
sense of humor and dust rags.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Anything by Naguib Mafouz, Breakfast with the Infidels by Nabil Shawkat.
5. Do you have any other comments?
Egypt is a country in flux at this time, so things could change for the better or worse at any moment. That said, Egyptians are nice people - they have the good grace to laugh at their quirks, and will laugh at yours as well if you give them a chance. Folks who come here often complain about how pushy vendors are here, but I've found that if you are firm, pleasant, and show a bit of humor, you really won't have any issues. Don't expect Egypt to be like "home" (or like most western European cities) - it isn't. But it is a fascinating place with much to offer if you give it a chance.