A sharp-eyed but good-humoured overview of Cairo from expat, mother and New Yorker Victoria Ostrowski.
As of today, I’ve been in Egypt 4 years, 7 months and 20 days but who’s counting? Leaving York City to reside in Cairo was a huge adjustment, even though it was before 9/11. Undoubtedly, newcomers arriving today are uneasy, with most of their information coming from shrill and excitable news reports.
However, despite all the upheaval and chaos in the region, Egypt today is experiencing a renaissance of sorts: tourism is up by 23% for the year and is at the highest level since the tourism authorities have been recording it. Living here is as exotic, sunny and fascinating as it has ever been, and there are many luxuries like loads of staff that especially ease the way.
Having said that, I think moving to Cairo is a great challenge for most families. Earlier, I was an expat in Italy and remember wondering if it shouldn’t be reclassified as the third world: I was naïve. The key is to come with loads of patience, a very opened mind, managed expectations and lots of sun block.
Our first three years in Cairo were spent on the banks of the Nile in the World Trade Center Towers and their very rustic Bulac Abu Ela environs. Like us, most of the tower residents kept to themselves: very few were families, most of the rest were single and here for government or private business Living in downtown Cairo is a mixed bag. One positive thing about it is that you do feel like you are living in a city. Living directly on the Nile gave us breathtaking views but also a symphony of cars and boats crossing the river all night long.
Another plus was proximity to Zamalek. It is one of the most esthetically pleasing places in Cairo. It is located on an island and is filled with expats, embassies and affluent Egyptians. The once renowned Gezira Club is in the center of the island and it is one of the only places in the city where one can enjoy “fresh air”. It has tennis courts, a running track and a sizable gym. Zamalek is the home to many sophisticated restaurants that are actually good and up to international standards (sadly, unlike Maadi). It also has lots of art galleries and trendy, dynamic, interesting stores that carry everything from antiques to the latest Timberland products.
However, we definitely did not feel like a part of a community in downtown Cairo. Not like the one that touched us when we drifted up the Nile to one of Cairo’s suburbs, called Maadi, which has been for many years the neighborhood of choice for most expats. While family life in downtown Cairo is rather isolated, the expat community is very welcoming in places like Maadi.
In Maadi, the Community Service Association (CSA) is a wonderful resource for newcomers. They even give a £60 course to recommend the best places to shop and get haircuts and how to tip one’s help. Equally helpful is the Women’s Association, which welcomes new members, meets once a month at the Marriot Hotel in Zamalek, and frequently holds more intimate coffee mornings in three or four parts of town at the homes of members. You will become knowledgeable very quickly on where to go and what to do from these helpful fellow members.
There is also the Kattameya Country Club, which is a beautiful club for swimming, tennis and golf, with a good mixture of expats as well as Egyptians. It is an invaluable spot for anyone with children because it is such an escape from the city up there. The air seems fresher and the surroundings are picturesque, yet it is only about 20-25 minutes from Maadi.
Probably the biggest change for most expats is the fact that Egypt is a Muslim country which means having to adhere to certain rules even if one is not a Muslim. Alcohol and pork are prohibited, so only the wine and beer made in Egypt are sold. Sightings of pork are rare, although it can be found - it just may not be in a form you are used to. There are two main grocery stores in Maadi: Metro and Alfa and I find they have 88% of what one would find in a store in the US or UK. A little further outside of Maadi is Carrefour, which has a super market as well as household things in a warehouse setting. This is a big deal in Egypt. My suggestion is to come with clothes, as there are very few smart stores for children or for that matter, adults.
In terms of health, there are a number of wonderful doctors. All of the Embassies will provide a list upon request and of course there are as many personal opinions as there are expats. It’s a good idea to be very careful about raw vegetables, salads and particularly ice outside the home. Even at places like the Four Seasons, just say no to ice. Other than that, I think a little bit of common sense goes a long way.
And then there are the main reasons to come to Egypt in the first place. If you love ancient culture, you will think Cairo is Mecca. The pyramids and the sphinx are just 26 minutes away from Maadi [how far away from Cairo?] and the Egyptian Museum with King Tut’s tomb - among other treasures - is about 40 minutes away. It is daunting but awesome to be surrounded by such history. It is what makes living here so extraordinary. All along the Nile are historical spots that one must visit while one is living here. Luxor and Aswan are incredible places from a historical perspective. Luxor is the home to many famous tombs and Aswan is best known for its huge dam. Some of the loveliest Egyptian sites are in the South, or Upper Egypt, as it is called.
There are also a number of gorgeous resorts like Sharm el Sheikh and Taba, on the “Red Sea Riviera”. They have plenty hotels that will please even the most discerning expat and will fit every budget - from the Four Seasons in Sharm to well-kept and attractive bed and breakfasts.
Added bonus: Expats with an address in Egypt get to pay Egyptian prices which are usually 50% off of the regular price. This is a huge benefit because you will probably find you travel a great deal living here, thanks to so many Muslim holidays as well as Egyptian and the usual Western ones. There are particularly fine camping places at magnificent spots a few hours away, and still further away is a great camping location known as the White Desert. We are spoiled by so many days off, but that also means a lot of planning.
There’s even a relatively new concept in desert tourism; the eco-lodge. One example is the hotel Adrère Amellal (Siwi for the White Mountain), which was built in traditional Siwan style, with room walls constructed out of rock salt slabs, and palm wood and reeds used for roofing. All rooms, with the exception of the food preparation area, are electricity- and telephone-free, and that means no TV or radio noise. At night torches light passages and walkways and all guest rooms, lounges and bars are lit with candles: it’s all romance and ambience. Each guest room's veranda has a panoramic view of Siwa Lake and beyond it the rolling dunes that are the beginning of the magnificent Great Sand Sea: the best of the Sahara Desert on offer.
On the lodge premises, aged olive and palm groves shade many slow-bubbling hot and cold fresh water springs. A Roman well spills its refreshing waters into a mid size water pool and a swim is a must. Cuisine is exquisite and prepared from scratch daily and includes traditional dishes cooked in honey-glazed clay pots. All herbs and vegetables are handpicked from the organic garden.
This is very close to nirvana if nirvana is desert oasis life. One can make daily and night excursions to various sites on the edge of the Great Sand Sea. Beyond the sand's edge are the remaining vastness of the Sahara and the least explored tracks of desert in the world. Riding on, around and over mountain size sand dunes is thrilling and full of surprises. Swimming in a salt water lake, surrounded by dunes and at sunset is delightful and therapeutically rewarding. Evenings can be spent in the desert under the moon and stars, dining by candle light with silver and crystal on linen draped tables. The food is extraordinary and traditional Siwi singers and dancers perform for diners into the wee hours Siwa is an eye in a desert, a desert that we found to be very calming and Siwans very relaxed and patient.
What more could a girl ask for?