Letters from Egypt: Top Five surprises

Honking

Cars in Egypt, especially Cairo honk all the time. Day and night. If we woke up at 4 am in the hotel room, there would be cars honking outside. The honk to wake up pedestrians or other cars, taxis honk to attract the attention of potential customers, and often, it seems like they honk just for the fun of it.

Security

There’s a ton of policemen in Cairo, easily recognizable by their white uniforms. Most are in their early twenties. All have mustaches. Any ATM, bank or hotel will have stationed at least two policemen, usually with guns and a metal detector. Major tourist attractions will have much more (we saw a lot of policemen on the street, pluss five cars on standby by Midan Hussein). There will usually be assault shields (manned by black-uniformed police). Five-star hotels will have bomb dogs. Busy intersections have police officers directing the traffic.

And it does make you feel safer, I think. I was never afraid of being pickpocketed or mugged in Cairo. But I am not sure about the metal detectors. Nobody asks to to empty you pockets and try again when you beep. They just kinda glance up at you and resume their… watchfulness.

Curbs

The curbs to the sidewalks in Egypt are about 20 centimeters tall. I imagine this is the only reason taxi drivers don’t use sidewalks as shortcuts when the traffic is bad. The result if there are a lot of side streets is that pedestrians will constantly have to step on and off the sidewalk. Since people are lazy, most places, they walk in the street instead.

Abandoned buildings

All over Egypt, but especially on the Giza-side of the Nile, there are a huge number of what looks like buildings where they abandoned the construction before they were done. In many cases, this doesn’t stop people from living there. But the phenomenon is not limited to Giza. Alexandria, and even Dahab has a lot of these buildings. We tried asking a few locals what was up with these, but we didn’t manage to make anyone understand the question. I imagine this is the way it’s always been in Egypt.

Pedestrians

The thickness of pedestrians on streets like Sharia Talaat Harb, Corniche el-Nil (during Eid) og Sharia 26th of July was extreme. And pedestrians in Egypt are very aggressive. With the slow moving traffic of the inner city streets, they weave in and out between the honking cars without considering pedestrian crossings. Usually cars swerve organically around the flood of pedestrians if there is enough room.

There were also things I expected would be very different, but really didn’t live up to my fantasies:

Prayers

The minarets call out for prayer five times every day. You can hear the prayer calls anywhere in Cairo, and probably most other places in Egypt, too. However, I expected more people to stop up or more things to slow down during these times. In general, it seems like it’s just a backdrop for most egyptians most of the time.

Women’s clothing

Most women in Cairo, even in the central parts, seem to be wearing head scarfs. Beside this, however, most young women wear almost the same kind of clothes as in the west. We noticed a lot of tight-fitting clothing, for example. But most women cover up most of their skin.

Finally, there were a few minor surprises:

Cats

There are almost as many cats in Egypt as there are police officers. When we were sitting in the small outdoors lounge in our hotel, we saw five different cats within the same hour. In the breakfast balcony on our Dahab hotel, there were about ten. The cats don’t seem to belong to anyone, but people don’t mistreat them, either. They are usually tame, and will come up to you for bits of food or pets.

There are also many dogs that are … strays? no…. wild? .. no… independent, maybe. Most of these seem to be pretty healthy and wholesome, and they seem to like to stick around people.

Taxis

Taxis proved very useful for both long and short trips in Egypt. Usually, if you’re a westerner and you walk along a street, taxis will honk at you, slow down and say “taxi?” If you need a taxi, you just pop you head in the window and state you destination: “Midan Ramsees”. We have found it most useful to negotiate the fare before we get in. And whatever you do: You should always state the price first. So he nods and I say: “ten?” If the driver doesn’t agree, just say “maalesh” (never mind) and walk away. If your initial price was right, this often will have the driver change his price.

Copyright © 2006 Johannes Brodwall. All Rights Reserved.

About Johannes Brodwall

Johannes is Principal Software Engineer in SopraSteria. In his spare time he likes to coach teams and developers on better coding, collaboration, planning and product understanding.
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