Cairo, Egypt Report of what it's like to live there - 12/02/09
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 have also lived in Colombo, Sri Lanka and Tel Aviv, Israel.
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?
There are frequent flights to Washington, DC via Frankfurt and Paris with a travel time of approximately 15 hours, including layovers. In addition, there are direct flights on Delta and Egypt Air between Cairo and New York, although they are not recommended because tnhe planes used are not comfortable for a long trans-Atlantic flight.
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?
All USG employees live in apartments ranging from 2-5 bedrooms. There are 4 USG-owned buildings, and a number of private buildings in which the USG rents apartments for staff. Most USAID employees live in Maadi, approximately a 5-10 minutes drive from USAID. Most embassy employees with children also live in Maadi (due to its proximity to the American School) and have a 30-minute to 1-hour commute to the embassy, depending on traffic. Embassy employees without children generally live in one of Cairo's downtown neighborhoods (Zamalek, Dokki, Mohandeseen) and have a 15-minute drive to work.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
The commissary is very competitively priced. There are also plenty of local supermarkets (Alfa Market, Metro, Seoudi). Local products are cheap, but the imported stuff is marked up to two or three times what you would pay in the US.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Specific toiletries and skin care items, but other than that, you can find everything here.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Almost all American fast-food joints are available here. There are plenty of restaurants ranging from Egyptian street food ($1-$2 for a meal) to very pricey, high-end restaurants that have food at the same prices you would pay in the US for an expensive meal. Almost all cuisines are available here.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Domestic help is readily available. Egyptian maids and nannies are generally cheaper than Filipina maids and nannies, but the latter are reputed to provide better quality work.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, the embassy and USAID have gym facilities. There are also a number of private gyms, including Gold's Gym, Samia Allouba, and Curves.
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?
There are plenty of ATMs affiliated with Egyptian banks, as well as BNP Paribas, HSBC and Barclay's. I've never had a problem using an ATM. I mostly use cash here, but higher-end hotels, restaurants and stores take credit cards.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes, numerous Christian denominations have services in English. There are also Jewish services on major holidays, but they are mostly held in Hebrew for the benefit of the Israeli Embassy staff.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Al-Ahram Weekly, International Herald Tribune, a basic cable TV package (including CNN, MSNBC and some channels that show American series and movies) is available for approximately $20 per month.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Most people speak at least a little English, but knowing some Arabic goes a long way towards building relationships with Egyptians - they are thrilled beyond belief when foreigners can speak Arabic.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes! Sidewalks are either non-existent, or are frequently interrupted by trees, crowds, piles of rubble or trash, etc.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
The best way to travel to Alexandria is by train (about $15 round trip). There is also an overnight train to Luxor and Aswan. Cairo has a metro system which is extremely cheap (18 cents to anywhere on the metro), and there are women-only cars. It is crowded and dirty, but it can be a lot faster than traffic, and you can't beat the price! Taxis are abundant and cheap, and recently the government has been introducing metered cabs to avoid haggling over fares. USG employees are not permitted to take minibuses or public city buses (you probably wouldn't want to anyway).
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?
In my opinion, a small SUV is perfect for Cairo. It's big enough to handle the uneven, pothole-filled roads but small enough to drive down and parallel park on narrow streets. The roads and traffic here are absolutely insane (donkey carts on highways, cars parked on bridges to take wedding photos, no use of headlights at night, trucks piled to impossible heights with any number of things until they nearly tip over) but you can get used to driving here.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is available, though it's not necessarily high-speed. TE Data, Soficom and Link.net are the main providers, and cost is about $18 per month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
There are three major cell phone companies here - Mobinil, Vodafone and Etisalat. All are probably comparable in price and quality.
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)?
There are vets here, but I hear the kennels aren't so good. Most people with dogs have their housekeeper watch them while they're away.
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?
There are a lot of EFM positions at the embassy and at USAID, as well as some positions at NGOs and teaching positions. There is a coordinator at the embassy who works with EFMs to help them find jobs.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business attire at work, casual in public.
Health & Safety:
1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?
Very unhealthy! Cairo is extremely polluted on a regular basis, and more so in early October when farmers burn the rice fields in the Nile Delta, and in March/April when there are dust storms.
2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Egypt is a police state, so there is very little violent crime. Sexual harassment is a problem, though for the most part it is verbal only. There have been terrorist attacks at various tourist destinations in Egypt, but the government generally keeps pretty tight control.
3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The main health concern is the unhealthy air quality. Also, a lot of people get stomach bugs. The embassy health unit is excellent, and there are a couple of hospitals here that provide decent care. But for anything other than minor outpatient surgery, go to Europe or the US.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It rarely rains in Cairo, and when it does, it sprinkles for about 2 minutes maximum. Every day is sunny and dry, and temperatures can reach 100 degrees in the summer and go down to the 40s and 50s on winter evenings.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The Cairo American College (pre-K through 12) has an excellent reputation. There is also a British school and probably some other international schools.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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 number of preschools in Maadi, but not having kids, I don't know much about them.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
2. Morale among expats:
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?
Lots to do and plenty of places to go out to, from casual to swanky. Lots of family activities within the USG community as well.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Cairo is a good city for everyone, provided you don't have respiratory health problems. There is a lot to do for people who enjoy going out - tons of cultural events at the various embassy-affiliated cultural centers, plus at Cairo's own cultural centers; lots of live music concerts, art exhibitions, restaurants, bars (though very smoky), or just going to see any number of the sites representing Cairo's several-thousand-year history! Families seem to do very well here, as there are a lot of activities centered around the American School and the local USG club (with pool and playground and children's activities), and there are a lot of families with young children here.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Homosexuality is illegal in Egypt, and there have been arrests made of gay Egyptians. However, from what I have heard, there is an underground gay scene. Nevertheless, Egyptians in general are not open about homosexuality, and the topic is not discussed.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Women here, including Egyptian women who wear headscarves, are harassed regularly, though most of the harassment does not escalate to physical harassment. There are a lot of Sudanese refugees in Egypt who face discrimination, though I'm not sure if this discrimination extends to all people of African descent. Unless you are Muslim or Christian, religious discussions are best avoided unless you know people very well.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Lots! Contrary to popular belief, the Giza Pyramids are not the only pyramids - there are several more in the Cairo vicinity. There is also the Egyptian Museum, not to mention Coptic Cairo, Islamic Cairo, the Citadel, and the newly built and gorgeous Al-Azhar Park. Cairo is literally filled with history, and diplomats get free admission to all tourist sites. There are tons of places to go in Egypt as well - Alexandria for a more Mediterranean, Greco-Roman city, Sinai peninsula for diving and other water sports, Luxor and Aswan for amazingly well-preserved ancient Egyptian temples and tombs, various desert treks to oases, etc. You are also close to Israel and Jordan, as well as southern European countries.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Aside from the typical tourist trinkets, Egypt is known for blue glass, applique fabric wall hangings, pillowcases, etc. (khayamiyya), metal/brass work, intricately carved wooden furniture (mashrabiyya), gold and silver jewelry, perfumes and perfume bottles and alabaster.
9. Can you save money?
Yes - items on the local market are very cheap, and it's possible to attend local events and have a lot of fun for about $5.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, there is a lot to see and do here, and Egyptians are extraordinarily friendly. That being said, I think I will be ready to leave after two years, as the crowds and pollution are getting to me.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Tank tops and short-shorts, and sense of personal space (Cairo is a city of 20 million people).
3. But don't forget your:
Sunscreen, anything to filter the air, moisturizer, open mind waiting to be filled with vast amounts of information on Egypt's fascinating history, culture and language.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Lonely Planet Egypt, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (Lucette Lagnado) for a personal, nonfiction account of what Cairo was like in the 1930s to 1950s specifically with respect to the city's Jewish population, The Yacoubian Building (Alaa Al-Aswany) for a fictional story that represents real-life social class issues in Cairo, Taxi (Khaled Khamisi) for some semi-fictional vignettes on Cairo and Cairenes' views on life, anything by Naguib Mahfouz, Playing Cards in Cairo (I have not read this, but it comes highly recommended)