Cairo, Egypt Report of what it's like to live there - 06/12/18
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've lived in Brazil and Morocco (as a student) and in Mexico and Qatar as a professional.
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, DC is home base. Flight takes about 18 hours with one stop-over in Europe.
3. How long have you lived here?
2 years of a 3 year assignment
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
U.S. Embassy job
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We live in a large leased apartment in the Zamalek neighborhood. It's a 3 bedroom apartment, though the third bedroom is tiny and the window placement makes it not fire-code compliant so we use it as storage. Zamalek is about a 15-minute commute to the Embassy, which is less than 3 miles away, but with traffic it can take up to an hour.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Cheap cheap cheap. Even fancy groceries with delivery is cheaper here than what you'd pay stateside. Egyptian produce is gorgeous and fresh, you just have to be vigilant about washing everything really well. I was surprised at the lack of dairy though. Egyptians don't really eat yogurt (I know!) and cheese can be pricey because there isn't much variety available locally so it's all imported.
On the local economy you can get some European brands for cleaning supplies etc but quality isn't always very good and there are tons of knock-offs. We buy most of our household chemicals at the commissary.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Clothes and shoes for my kid. Protein powder (I'm picky). Dye-free OTC medicines for my kid (she has dye sensitivities). Good quality hair products.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
We have a regular rotation of passable Thai, great Indian, great Lebanese, and middling "American". Food delivery is super super cheap. Zamalek has tons of restaurants in walking distance from where we live including high-end Italian, delicious burgers, sushi, coffee, etc.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We had an ant problem when we first moved in but the Embassy took care of it in our first few months at Post. We do have them do a full fumigation treatment when we leave the country on R&R annually which seems to keep it at bay.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
APO. Mail delivery here is...whimsical at best but not from the fault of anyone in the mail room. The Egyptian government often suspends dip mail service or delays shipments in customs inexplicably so we've had several incidents during our 2 years here where we went for 2 months plus with no mail delivery.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help varies in cost. Expats on the local economy often employ undocumented domestic help which can be as inexpensive as $2-$3 an hour. For Embassy staff, most of us pay in the $5-$6/hr range for legal domestic help. Many domestic workers come from the Philippines or Sudan but there are also Egyptians in the mix. Lots of people here employ a nanny/housekeeper and a separate driver.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are plenty of gyms and sports clubs that people join. Gezira Club in Zamalek is popular but expensive and unless you live really close and go basically daily, it's cheaper to just pay the day-rate if you want to go in and use the pool. Lots of Mission staff members join Maadi House club in Maadi for pool use and to be able to access the gym at the Embassy compound. Membership isn't super expensive.
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?
In the neighborhoods where the Embassy places families (Zamalek, Maadi, Dokki, Mohandisseen) credit cards work fine and are safe to use. ATMs are common and I've not heard complaints about them. We usually just cash checks at the bank branch that's inside the Embassy. The fees are about the same.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get by with mostly English in Zamalek and Maadi, but for venturing farther afield you'll need at least a rudimentary understanding of Egyptian Arabic.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. I don't know how someone in a wheelchair or who couldn't walk up/down stairs could live here. There are no sidewalks or where there are they are broken with no curb cuts/cars parked on them. Most apartment buildings require you to walk up a half flight of stairs before reaching the elevator (if there is one).
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We're not allowed to take any form of public transit here, so no busses, mini-busses, trains, or metro. Taxis/Uber are pretty cheap. Taxis mostly are metered now which makes the process much easier. Uber is frustrating because no one knows how to read a map (really) and few drivers understand GPS so even when you drop the pin exactly where you are standing, the driver will call you and ask you to give them directions from wherever they are. I usually just take regular taxis because those drivers are at least professionals and I've found that they know their way around the city a lot better than the kids who drive for Uber.
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?
We have a Prius and it's fine for driving in Cairo, though we scrape bottom on many of the gigantic speed-bumps throughout the city. People drive all kinds of cars here and since we're not allowed to go into the Western Desert or really do anything "off-road" pretty much any car is fine. Our apartment doesn't have a parking space assigned to it which was problematic for our first year. We had to pay what we refer to as the "parking mafia" in our building to park the car on the street. But after we found out they had been sitting in the car with the air conditioner/heater on, smoking in the car, and driving it around without our permission we made arrangements to park it elsewhere. But for the year it was parked on the street we never had issues with it getting more dinged than it would have anywhere else. It's definitely not in perfect condition but because we don't drive a ton and because people are used to driving in narrow/weirdly designed/bumpy spaces I've found drivers here to be pretty good at avoiding parked cars. :)
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
hahahaha no. Internet here is hilariously bed. It's like a dinosaur stuck in molasses in slow motion. Ours was installed the week we arrived in our permanent apartment but it's laughably slow. It works, don't get me wrong, but we often have to turn off wifi on our phones/laptops to be able to stream on the AppleTV. Whatsapp/Facetime/Skype video calls are terrible quality and inconsistently cut off.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We have Vodafone and it's fine. The plans are impossible to understand so we still have pre-paid phones and every time I go to renew the balance I feel like they switch me to some new incomprehensible plan. But the phones work and the service is pretty cheap. The new telecommunications tax takes 40% of what you pay though, so 200LE (around $14) used to get you about 180LE in credits and now only gets you 160LE.
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?
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?
We both work at the Embassy, but I know some spouses telecommute, some work on the local economy as teachers. I don't know what local salaries are like but I imagine they are not great.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Lots of volunteer opportunities are available within the church communities and for the various refugee organizations in and around the city.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Formal wear is a must for the Marine Ball. All other times business attire is fine for Embassy work, with varying degrees of formality depending on your job. I wear dresses, tunics with leggings, or slacks and blouses to work. Others wear full suits. It kind of depends on your job.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Of course. Terrorism is real here and there have been attacks since we've been here but nothing anywhere near to where we were. We avoid religious sites around the holidays, we aren't out walking in the streets away from our neighborhood at night. We lock our car and our house. With basic precautions, life here is as safe as it would be in any other mega-city.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Almost all complex medical conditions require medevac including broken bones, but the Embassy Health Unit typically doesn't approve it unless there is literally a bone poking out of your skin.
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?
AIR QUALITY. It's some of the worst in the world. We had months this winter when it was worse than Delhi and Beijing. The Embassy provides completely inadequate air purifiers for homes. We bought expensive Blue Air purifiers on our own and run them constantly. Our kid has had a cough for 6 months. It never goes away and her chest just rattles with it. I don't know how someone who has asthma could live here.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Environmental allergy sufferers will be miserable here. If the constant layer of dust and dirt in the air doesn't bother you the year-round pollen will, or the insane levels of automobile exhaust, or the residue from the nationwide burning of the sugar-cane fields. My eyes are constantly red and I have almost forgotten what it's like to be able to hear normally because my ears are always blocked and congested. Post-nasal drip will be your constant companion.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
I don't think so.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
hot in the summer, cool in the winter, comfortable in spring/fall.
Schools & Children:
1. 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?
Our daughter is in pre-school and we love it. It's an expensive one in terms of local cost but still costs us less than $300 per month for her tuition. She's in "school" from 9-2:30 daily and the structure and having all the other kids around have been great for her. The school does provide after care until 4 p.m. for an additional fee.
1. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Sexual harassment for women is a daily occurrence, especially for women of color and blond women (i.e. women who stand out from the generally dark-haired, dark-eyed crowd).
2. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
A private boat cruise down the Nile from Luxor to Aswan. All of the people we've met and friends we've made. The Egyptian Museum which is chaotic and badly labeled but is still so compelling. There is so much history and culture here it's hard to absorb it all.
3. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Yes. We had custom sofas made for pennies on the dollar, and have purchased a lot of really beautiful textiles and art. Definitely plan to shop here.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I love it here, but have constant doubts about what the air quality here has done to my child's lungs in terms of permanent damage. Time will tell, but even though we are really happy here I do wonder if spending 3 of her first 4 years of life here will cause lasting damage.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Shorts and tank tops.
3. But don't forget your:
Lightweight long sleeve cardigans (for women) and sunscreen!