Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Wonder Years, Part 1: Arriving in Cairo

Arriving at the Cairo Int'l Airport at night
Cairo hits most people like a brick wall when they first arrive. Maybe it's just the dry heat that sweeps over you the moment you exit the airport terminal. Or maybe it's just the way this city attacks every one of your senses almost immediately.

Sometimes I wish I could bottle it up and take a jar home with me so that people could get a small taste of what every day is like for us here.

There is a lot to take in for a newcomer to Cairo. I should know, I had a very interesting first 6 months in Cairo where I bumbled my way around the city and mumbled my way through the language.

Here are a few things that you have to deal with once you arrive in Cairo...

Arriving at the Cairo airport. Nowadays most international flights arrive into the brand-new Terminal 3. You walk right off the plane into the terminal (rather than taking a bus from the plane to the terminal). There are bathrooms before passport control. And once you buy your tourist visa and get in line, they're pretty good at keeping the lines moving.

It wasn't quite so nice and inviting just 8 years ago when I arrived for the first time into Cairo. Although the *new* Terminal 2 in 2002 did allow passengers to walk right off the plane into the terminal, it was a hike to get to passport control. I followed my instructions and bought my tourist visa only to get stuck near the back of the line, where the wait felt like hours. 

I had four large bags, 2 of which were hard-sided cases I'd bought in the automotive dept at Walmart. It took a long time for all four of them to come out. And then there was the issue of getting them home.

Walking around the neighborhood. The best thing to do when you first arrive in Cairo is just to take a walk around the neighborhood. Find out where the closest little supermarket is. Look for the nearest fruit and vegetable stands. Check out the nearby pharmacy and stationary shops.

I was pretty lucky in that we had a little shopping area just around the corner from our flat. Well, by shopping area, I really mean an open air bread bakery, several fruit and veggie stands, a small pharmacy and a couple of little supermarkets. Granted these were all right behind a big mosque where there always seemed to be men coming and going (which I avoided at all costs).

But all in all, our neighborhood wasn't too bad. Most of what we needed was within walking distance from our flat. I can only imagine what would have happened if nothing was close by, and I'd had to take a taxi to go get what I needed.

Getting used to your flat. It takes some time to adjust to living in a city and to learn the nuances of renting a flat in Egypt. Things that we take for granted in other parts of the world just don't work the same or may not even exist here. 

Air-conditioning, for example, is a privilege and not a right in Egypt. So you won't find a flat with central air (or heating) in Egypt. Mostly what you'll find are window units in the bedrooms and *maybe* in the living room. I have yet to see an air conditioner in a kitchen in Egypt. You learn really quickly to invest in a couple of fans (if your landlord doesn't provide any).

Climbing stairs is also just a fact of life in Egypt. When I first moved to Cairo, we lived on the 4th floor walk up with no elevator in our building. This means we walked up four flights of stairs to get to our flat. And just because you have an elevator doesn't mean that it's always working.

Good water pressure is a luxury in Cairo. The farther your flat is from the ground, well, the worse your water pressure is. We were on the 4th floor of a 6-story building so our water pressure was terrible. It took me double the time to take a shower because the water just barely trickled out of the shower head.

*Furnished* flats in Cairo can often leave much to be desired. I sometimes think the landlords clean out their own houses and give you all the mismatched, run-down things they can find. Couches can be downright uncomfortable. Mattresses can sag way down in the middle or be as hard as rocks. Pots and pans may have seen better years. It's pretty simple to just buy a few smaller things to make your flat more homey feeling. For people who plan to live in Cairo long-term, bigger investments may need to be made to make your flat feel more like a home.

Learning how to use transportation. The good thing is that public transportation is available everywhere in Cairo. There are taxis, microbuses (vans), minibuses (little buses), autobeses (big buses), neighborhood trams (if you live in Heliopolis), and the Cairo metro.

There is one little problem that if you don't speak much Arabic, well, they don't speak much English. And definitely you should stick to taxis (who go from Point A to Point B directly) and the metro, rather than braving the complicated systems of the buses. I've heard that the trams can be a lot of fun, as long as you're not in a hurry to get anywhere fast.

So not only do you have to learn how to catch a taxi, but you also have to know how to say the name of the place you want to go correctly (or else you might end up at the wrong destination). One time the taxi took me to the Meridian hotel instead of Merryland Park because he misunderstood what I said (although I still stand by the fact that I said it correctly and he just only heard what he wanted to hear). Because you'll pay for the extra time that he takes driving you to the wrong destination.

Oh and you also have to know how much you need to pay. Once upon a time there were only these black-and-white taxis in Cairo that often required you to haggle with the driver beforehand (especially for longer distances) over the price. Nowadays there are these sleek, new white taxis with meters (hallelujah!) where you just get in and pay according to the meter when you get out.

Learning a little Arabic. You have to learn a little, use it a lot, and then try to learn a little more using the little you already have. But you can't really live in Egypt without at least picking up a little Arabic.

I'll be talking about my journey in learning to speak Arabic in Part 2 of this series. But for now, let me just say that it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

What is my advice for anyone coming to Cairo or just arrived?
  1. Study Egyptian Arabic, even just a little will help you get by.
  2. Go sightseeing in Cairo as soon as possible (i.e. the Pyramids, the Sphynx, the Egyptian Museum, the Nile). Allow yourself to be a tourist as least for one day.
  3. Find an expat community to be a part of. Trust me on this, you can't do this alone.
  4. Make Egyptian friends (preferably of the same gender). Let them teach you about their country.
  5. Get out of the house. Go walking around your neighborhood. Take the Metro downtown. Go to the mall. Join a gym.
  6. Do something familiar. Eat McDonald's. Bake a cake. Go see a movie. Hang out with an expat friend (preferably of the same gender and nationality).
  7. Stay in contact with people back home. Use Skype, email, Facebook, etc.
  8. Write it down. Whatever you're experiencing now will be lessons learned later.
  9. Get a mobile phone. You really can't live without one in Cairo.
The Wonder Years is a series about Erin's first 2 years in Cairo before she met and married her Egyptian husband. Stay tuned for more about her adventures in Egypt the first time around.

Don't forget to check out the rest of The Wonder Years series.
The Wonder Years, Part 2: Learning to Speak Arabic
The Wonder Years, Part 3: Seeing the Sights of Cairo
The Wonder Years, Part 4: Dealing with Culture Shock
The Wonder Years, Part 5: Making Egyptian Friends


  1. Hi Erin,

    I have just discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago and I already enjoy reading it.
    This is the first of a long series I hope......I can't wait to read more about it. Thanks for sharing this great experience with us all. Take care

  2. Hi Marie! I'm so glad you're enjoying it. I have 5 in this series planned so far, but we'll see how far along we get. =) Where are you from and where do you live now? Great to hear from you!

    Take care!

  3. Hi Erin,

    That sounds really good - looking forward to it. I'm from France but living in Ireland. And I'm engaged to an Egyptian man!
    Where did you get the idea of creating a blog?
    Enjoy your week-end!

  4. I started this blog 5 years ago when I went back home to KY for a year before coming back to get married and live in Egypt more permanently (for now). I wasn't very consistent in writing regularly.

    But earlier this year I started a blog for my son (All Eyes on Amir) to keep the grandparents and family back home updated on his development. And suddenly in June/July I got to thinking how much I enjoyed writing about life in Egypt but my son's blog wasn't the right place for some of the other ideas I had.

    So I revamped this blog into something more than just my online journal. It eventually became what you see today. And like I say in my About Erin page, every day is a new day. So things are changing.

    How about you? I see you have a blog too, right?

  5. This is a really good idea - this way your family can follow and many others can enjoy your ideas and experience.
    So have you completely stopped your blog "All Eyes on Amir"?

    I have a blog myself - just started it in April 2010. At the beginning it was more or less because I enjoy writting and this way I could share ideas and a bit of my life in Ireland with my friends and family back home.

    I have now created a Flashback serie about My Au Pair experience. People seem to like it (unfortunately it is mostly in French!).

    It is in perpetual change.........but the fact is I really enjoy it.

    Any new ideas on the way for you?

  6. Oh no I still write for other blog, just with my son being older (he turns 1 on Nov 21) he's not changing so often so once or twice a month is enough to keep everyone updated for now.

  7. Hi Erin, I'm browsing your fascinating blog. Just read your interesting article in EFAM & have shared it in on my fb for friends & fof to read. Here's the link:!/katherine.balfour1

  8. Thanks Katherine. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  9. What is an expat. I have been living in Alexandria for about two years now and I have yet to meet anyone not from Egypt.


Related Posts with Thumbnails