Cairo First Impressions

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So the first week in Cairo has passed and it has been filled with many different emotions and experiences…

Well, most of the week I was at work but in the evenings and weekend I went out with my colleagues and friends. To be honest, I have not yet been out on the streets alone. Always with someone local with me. This has made my life a lot easier. But I need to learn to get around by myself too. So far I have just been trying to get used to the life here. Here are my first most vivid impressions:

Seat belts are not cool. Every time I take Uber I find myself searching for the seat belt. I think only 1 out of 20 times they have actually had a functioning seat belt in the car. And even if they have one part of it, like the belt, they are missing the buckle. One time the driver started laughing out loud when he saw that I was searching for a seat belt. Nobody cares! Everybody is too cool to worry about their safety.

You don’t really go out during the day in the summer. Yes because it’s so damn hot! 40 degrees plus constant sun is nothing to laugh about. I have found myself very dizzy on the streets, even when I only go out before the sunset. When I visited one of the mosques and had to wear a scarf over my head in addition to long clothes, I was seriously wondering how these women survive wearing long clothes all over their hair and body. I felt there is no air and I will pass out soon. Most people wait until the sunset and then start living.

Beautiful sunsets

Some people treat me like a celebrity. Okay, being a white girl with light hair and blue eyes has some perks in Cairo. People are nicer to me in restaurants, they want to help me all the time and look and treat me like I’m someone super important. I have already given one small video interview, invited to a street wedding party, and people have asked me to take photos with their children.

Other people treat me like I’m a piece of meat. Okay, the attention also has a negative side. Even though I always cover my arms and legs, there are constant creepy stares from men, vulgar comments, cat sounds, kissing sounds and other gross things that make me want to just disappear from earth. So far I have felt safe because I have only walked around with my male colleague Khaled, but even with him, some men have followed me, tried to take secret photos with me etc. It will take me a while to become confident enough to walk these streets alone.

At a famous mosque

Arabic language sounds so beautiful but it’s SO difficult for a beginner. I seriously do not know how people learn it. I started taking classes and the alphabet itself made my head ache. I have learned a language with a different alphabet before (Russian) but this is a completely different planet. The letters all look the same to me, the sounds are so difficult and the letters change shape depending on where they are located in the word. This makes more than 100 different characters to learn!

Nobody cleans after themselves! This is driving me crazy, people litter like hell. Whatever is in their hand just ends up on the street. I am like a complete weirdo for even putting the little plastic ring around the water bottle in my bag, worried that wind will take it away when I place it on the table for a second. This causes so many environmental issues. For example the turtles in the sea are simply choking on all the plastic bags that people throw in the water.

The place next to the ice cream stand

You can get everything with some money and connections. Oh my, bribery means everything here. My Egyptian friends told me that most people never take driving lessons in order to get a licence. You simply pay for a licence. My friend got her licence without ever sitting behind the wheel, and she knows people who have got their licence as a birthday present. No wonder there are so many accidents around here. The rules are completely arbitrary and there is no point of trying to understand them as a foreigner.

Everyone smokes and forces you to breathe it in as well. Ah yes, inside restaurants, cafes, on the streets, everywhere. I think my lungs will be black once I come back to Europe. Both from the smug and the passive smoking. Smoking seems to be enshrined in the culture. You can get shisha from any random cafe and most people always carry a pack of cigarettes with them.

A street in Cairo

Everyone tries to guide you and help you, even when they don’t know the answer. I find it so funny! Apparently this is a normal thing in Cairo to never admit that they don’t know the direction or answer to another question. So you often have to ask many people for directions to know which person actually told the truth. Plus, all of them are super confident in the way they answer you. They are not doing it out of spite, they just find it so important to help, even if they don’t really know the answer. 🙂

Local food is so yummy and cheap! Okay, there are more expensive places as well, for sure, but when you order from very basic street food places, a falafel sandwich will only cost you about 0,2€. Also, I feel I have missed out a lot in my life for not having tried so much of this Middle Eastern food before. It’s seriously delicious and mostly not spicy at all, perfect for an Estonian!

Yum…

Many people try to take advantage of you. Everyone is trying to cheat more money out of you and do less work. For example, a plumber did his simple job for 3 (!!) hours at my place and even left the place for an hour in the middle, so he could complain later, that he worked such late hours and we need to pay him more money for it. Same thing for everything else. Really need to stay alert to get a fair deal. Or how my friend’s cat got lost and the founder refused to give the cat back until she was willing to pay a decent reward (basically catnapping I know, haha). Everyone is trying to earn some more. And can’t blame them considering the economic hardships many people are going through right now.

Give me fruit all day every day. Oh, the mangos here are so sweet and wonderful, and I tried a ripe raw fig for the first time of my life and I think it’s my new favourite fruit. Also, you don’t really want to eat very heavy food in this heat, so fruit is the best way to go.

There are stray animals everywhere! In the beginning I could not help but to stare and I still do it, but I have started to understand that this is just how things are here. Dogs, cats, all of them living on the street. People are often quite mean to them, kick them or yell at them, and it makes me sad. There was a cat in a cafe one day and she was so friendly. I petted her for a good 20 minutes and she was so happy. I think I might have been the first person ever to pet her. This view in Cairo is quite heartbreaking for a pet-lover like me

So many scared kittens and cats on the street

Crossing the street feels like gambling with death. I do not understand how they live without functioning crossings. The point is to simply start walking across the street, between driving cars, and hope that everyone will see you and not hit you. Alright, maybe I can do this when there are 1-2 lanes of cars, but some streets have like 4-5 lanes that I need to cross and I do not know if I will ever be able to do it alone. I did it with my colleague from WHO, held onto his shoulder, closed my eyes from fear and screamed like a little girl. I felt cars rushing by me from both back and front!

Most people are theoretically very religious but don’t actually live like it. Like a husband would have a woman in full covered niqab at home but it would still be okay for him to go and see a half-naked woman at a belly dancing performance. Or some would claim to be sober and clean but bring alcohol to boat trips. Or how it’s illegal for a local man and a woman to sleep around before marriage and the neighbours are keeping a close eye on them but the couple would simply find other ways to get around it. Or during Ramadan fasting, people say they are fasting, when in fact many lie and eat normally at home. People are people. Happens in every religion.

People at a mosque

I love the simple life here. There is no need for fancy things here. I feel the environment is much more authentic than in most European cities. Yes it’s a bit dirty, a bit rugged, but it’s simply fascinating and makes you appreciate life in a new way.

Until next adventures in Cairo,

K.

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6 Comments

  1. I passed by chance here, Not surprised from most of your notes. Yet all new comers to Egypt always complaining from road crossings and the way we deal with street cats, also they love Mango juices and food.

    But one thing i need to understand, why you feel the life here is authentic or spiritual? I feel it fake as you said most of people are lying or cheating whenever possible.

    Anyway, you can adapt to life here by time. Good-luck

    1. Hmm, not so much spiritual maybe (although I do hear the call for prayer 5 times per day from different directions) but more like authentic in the way that people seem quite casual, the food is simple, their lives are relatively simple. But as one of my friends here pointed out, I have not mixed with the upper-middle class of Egypt 😉 Supposedly they are vain and like everything that sparkles!

  2. I stumbled upon your blog and am really enjoying your perspective. Love the voice you are giving to the experience and look forward to reading more! Jeff, Atlanta, USA

    1. Hey Jeff! That’s so great to see that I have readers from across the ocean. 🙂 Thank you for your feedback! Hope I’ll see you back here soon.

  3. Hi There,
    I found your blog by chance, as I am looking for information about Cairo, where I have to go in a couple of weeks. Not as a tourist : my boyfriend has a conference there and we’re taking the chance to visit the city.
    I am wondering if we will be able to rent an appartment (airbnb) as we’re not married. Do you know if this is possible? (I am french and he’s algerian)
    As other posts I read about the city, the feedbacks are not really encouraging to visit, but we’re going anyway, so we will try to enjoy it.
    What would be your advise for a couple who wants to see “non touristic” areas, discover the culture and the food?

    1. Hi!

      Thanks for writing. I think you would be fine in an Airbnb but it depends on your landlord, as Airbnb people don’t have accept everyone and if your landlord is very religious then they might not be happy with it. Although I doubt that very religious people do Airbnb here, it does not seem too popular. Why not stay at a hotel? Hotels don’t have issues with such things and they are not expensive in Egypt. You can get a really nice place for much cheaper price than anywhere in Europe, plus the quality seems to be better than many Airbnb-s.

      Since you are only a visitor and you’re not staying here for too long, I think Cairo will be interesting but not too overwhelming. You don’t have to deal with everyday hustles and just get a small sneak peek into the whole life here. Cairo has many beautiful historic places to check out, as well as fun things to do (check out horseback riding and felucca on the Nile). In general, I would not worry too much about the “non-touristy” thing. Cairo in my opinion is not touristy at all. Especially compared to France. I only saw tourists at the pyramids. Other than that, you can go see the Cave Church at Garbage City (to get a really authentic look into the life of Coptic Christians), stroll around Zamalek for more expat-fancy kind of Cairo, go on felucca boat ride on the Nile, shop at Khan-el-Khalili and wander around Islamic Cairo and you might only spot a couple of foreigners and even they might not be tourists but expats instead. 🙂

      You will probably attract a lot of attention by looking foreign and many people will approach you and might even ask to take photos with you but usually it’s simply a compliment. Try not to look too touristy by wearing these huge backpacks and big cameras around your neck and you will be fine.

      In case you are staying for longer, I would suggest to take a day trip to Alexandria or a 2-day trip to the Red Sea. Egypt is really versatile.

      Have fun!
      K.

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