Cairo, Egypt Report of what it's like to live there - 01/30/16
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. Several other postings worldwide. This was my first in the Arab world, though.
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?
East Coast US; it took three flights until they added in some direct flights from Europe to my home city toward the end of our posting. While we were there, there was one direct flight from Cairo to New York on Egypt Air (US Gov't wouldn't pay for it, but we took it when paying on our own) and otherwise we had to connect in Europe. There were usually multiple options daily on several different airlines; about a 5 hour flight to Europe and then an 8 hour flight to the US.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We lived in Maadi and I would definitely recommend this for families. The commute to the US embassy was pretty bad (20 min with no traffic which rarely happens, usual commute was 40-50 min due to average traffic, rarely an hour and a half on a really bad traffic day like when it rained). However most kids go to school in Maadi and there is a broad range of shopping, restaurants, and social activities there - mostly walkable.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Almost everything costs less than in the US. You can find pretty much anything you need locally if you are not picky about brands, although it may take visiting a few stores to find it. If you are with the US government, the commissary is fantastic.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Would not have brought as many dry goods, since we could get them there for less than we paid in DC.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
This is a highlight. The food is super cheap (there was a place that sold really good falafel sandwiches for about 28 cents each) and very good; it's similar to Lebanese cuisine. It's a great place for vegetarians. Mint lemonade and sweetened hibiscus tea are terrific and are ubiquitous. We ate out frequently and never got sick. For a big cosmopolitan city, other ethnicities of food are a bit limited (there is no Vietnamese place for example), but you will find great French, Italian, Korean, and Thai places. Seafood is rarely good in Cairo.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Very few; we saw a couple of spiders but that was it.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We used the US embassy mail. Our first year it took about a week, but the second year was substantially slowed due to various problems.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
It goes by ethnicity. Filipina maid/nannies cost about US$5/hour, and Egyptians are about US$3/hour. You will have no problem finding someone - since the revolution, there are fewer expats, so the people who worked for them are desperate for employment. The quality of work seemed to be adequate but not as good as in some other places we have lived.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, there are multiple gyms with reasonable costs. They're adequate although not up to US quality.
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?
We used credit cards at some restaurants and at the Carrefour, and used cash everywhere else. There are ATMs everywhere and are generally safe to use, although we tended to stick to the ones inside banks.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are several Christian denominations, and even occasional Jewish services at the synagogue downtown.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It helps to know basic directional words and numbers for taxis and shopping. That's about all I learned and I was fine. Most educated, wealthy Egyptians speak English. Where I missed out not speaking Arabic was in interactions with people other than these. Like anywhere, you get more out of it if you speak the language. However, I still was able to have a fulfilling time without it.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
YES. Sidewalks are rarely useable, curbs are crumbling, elevators break all the time.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
There is Uber and it generally works well. Taxis are ubiquitous (it rarely took more than 30 seconds to get one) and are super cheap - often only a dollar or two. The taxis you get on the street rarely have seatbelts and the drivers do not always have that much knowledge of driving or of the streets of Cairo, but most people have a list of specific drivers they call; we usually used one who was reasonably priced and had a nice car with seatbelts. We were not allowed to take public transportation although our non-government friends often took the metro; per them it is unpleasant (crowded and stinky) but fast and cheap. There are a few boat taxis on the Nile but you usually have to arrange them ahead of time; however they were expanding these when we left.
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?
There are a lot of large potholes and speed bumps, so it would be easier to have something with decent clearance, although we had friends who were fine with sedans. The most common brands are Hyundai and Toyota. It's pretty likely your car will get dented, although repairs are cheap.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, excellent quality and very reliable, reasonable price.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Mobile phone service was great (better than in the US) and super cheap - I paid about US$12 a month including data.
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?
We brought our dog. There is no quarantine. Vet care is dreadful, similar to the medical care - our dog was ill and we tried all of the recommended vets, and they were all pretty bad.
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?
I worked locally. It depends on your field. You likely will not earn much, but it's a chance to experience life there at a deeper level. It's a big city with a lot of opportunities.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Lots; mostly with refugees, orphans, or stray animals
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
A bit dressier than in the US.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There is very little street crime - less than in the US. I walked around alone at night holding my wallet and mobile phone in my hand. Otherwise... Egypt seems to always be in flux and it depends what is going on politically when you are there. While we were there, there were times when there would be small bombs every few days in our neighborhood. It seemed to be always at night and in a place where there were no people - more designed to scare than to actually hurt. The police tend to be the target, not you.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Local medical care is dreadful. Even common specialists like obstetricians or orthopedists are well below US or European standards. The hospitals are dirty and the staff there are poorly trained. I would consider this to be a major drawback of this post.
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?
On the worst days, my lips would taste like dirt after I had been outside for a while. Most people get a cough for two months or so the first winter they are there. However, you sort of get used to it, and many days are not that bad at all, with bright blue skies. There are two months in the spring (usually March and April) when there are dust storms and it is sometimes very hazy. For me, it was an acceptable tradeoff to have sunny weather. We had some air filters in our apartment but rarely felt the need to use them.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
People with dust allergies will have difficulty. People with pollen or mold allergies will be in luck since there's not a lot of either of those around due to the dry climate.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Amazing. It only rains a few days a year, and when it does, it's only for a few minutes and is a big exciting event. There are a few other cloudy days but it's almost always sunny. Two months of too hot/humid in July/August, nice weather September-November, a little cold December-February (I even wore a winter coat a few times, but you can still sit outside at a restaurant), nice again when there are no dust storms March-June.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Our child was in preschool while we were there. Most people with school age kids seemed fairly happy with CAC, although the consensus was that it's gone downhill somewhat since the revolution. The campus is big, and very nice. Some families sent their kids to MBIS, a British school, and were happy with it. I visited and found it odd that it was right next to a big, very dusty quarry - would not want my child breathing that during outdoor time.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I can only speak from personal experience. At Small Talk, they were very accepting of having kids with special needs there (some fairly severe), but it was not apparent that they did anything special to help them integrate into the classroom. At Kompass, there was at least one kid with substantial special needs, who had an aide and did well.
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?
Yes. We had experience with two different preschools there. The cost was not bad (coming from a Washington DC perspective). We did not like Small Talk (crowded, chaotic classrooms with poor integration of multiple special needs kids) but loved Kompass, a Montessori school with great teachers, great outdoor space, everything very carefully thought out and well-planned, and even excellent lunch served.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, if you're not picky about which ones. We were not able to locate a good gymnastics program, for example, but soccer was great.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Variable. Some people loved the adventure and the chance to know people from all over the world, and others complained about the dirt and the instability and the traffic.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Eat at an outdoor restaurant. Go to a music performance at Cairo Opera House or the outdoor theater in Al Azhar park. Get dressed up and go to one of the many balls. Pub quiz.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes, I think for everyone. There is a lot of nightlife, and lots of other families with kids and if you are at the US embassy the pool club is a terrific resource (for example they would show kids' movies on the lawn weekly while the adults had dinner). The one substantially lacking part is that there are not a lot of options for outdoor play for kids (only at clubs) and outdoor exercise activities (there's a nearby canyon where you can mountain bike and hike, but it's pretty dusty with a lot of trash and stray dogs, and it's a bit too hot and sunny there a lot of the year). I found a track to run on but definitely would not have enjoyed running on the street. There is a beach 90 minutes' drive away.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
This would not be a good place to be openly gay. It is frowned upon in local culture.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Western female friends I had who had darker skin tended to be harrassed more than those with lighter skin. As a lighter skinned, clearly Western-appearing woman, I encountered essentially no harrassment the whole time I was there, except a couple of trivial incidents with preteen boys. There are different standards for Egyptians and Westerners, so dress that would not be considered ok for an Egyptian can still be ok for a Westerner, as long as you use moderation. Short sleeves and capri pants or skirts that are mid-calf are fine. People tend to be more on the dressy side there, so you will feel better if you are as well.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Camping in the desert (currently no longer allowed unfortunately), the friends we made, the cheap/safe/delicious food (none of us had food poisoning even once), going to outdoor balls, time spent at the pool club, really enjoyed our compound housing. And the sunshine (even with the bad air, which wasn't that bad most days).
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Shopping in the Khan al Khalili, driving through Garbage City, hanging out at Family Park in Rehab if you have kids (there are events there every few weeks with live music and food trucks), Al Azhar park, music and other cultural performances.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
chess sets, lamps, local musical instruments, custom wood furniture, tablecloths, wall hangings. In the Khan al Khalili back alleys you can find bizarre things like antique diving helmets and typewriters.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Most things are super cheap. You can do most of your daily errands on foot. The people are for the most part friendly and interested in interacting. Cairo is a huge expat city and it is easy to have friends from all over the world (there were kids from 35 countries in my daughter's school). The food is great. It is among the sunniest places in the world and you will spend a lot of time sitting outside. If you are US Government, the commissary is amazing and the swim club is a terrific social outlet with lots of fun activities, especially if you have younger kids.
10. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I didn't need to buy all of those baggy long sleeved shirts! Most likely your regular wardrobe will be fine.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Nagib Mafouz is always mentioned, but the Cairo of his books is pretty much unrecognizable compared to that of the present day.
4. Do you have any other comments?
One more point to consider is driving - I felt like we pretty much took our life in our hands every time we drove on one of Cairo's few highways, to the point that we sometimes decided not to go somewhere because it just wasn't worth it. Everywhere else, it's actually sort of fun (there are no rules), but also pretty stressful. You will frequently have to squeeze between other cars with only an inch or two on either side, and the traffic is variable and unpredictable. Some people had drivers, but most people drove themselves.