I recently decided I wanted to brush up on my Arabic skills and chose Cairo as my destination. Having had the tourist Cairo experience several times in the past I decided that this time I wanted a different Cairo experience with full cultural immersion. So in November 2017 I booked a one month course, packed my bags and made my way to my shared flat in a conservative neighbourhood. Now looking back at my time in Cairo without the safety of pre-booked tours and hotel reservations I have come up with a list of three things that can help prepare anyone for a visit to Cairo.
Obviously this is a given in any big city but when you factor in the city’s population and Egyptian culture, noises in Cairo create a playlist like no other.
- At first you may believe that people are constantly arguing but after some time your alert levels will decrease as your ears become “refined” you will realize Egyptian Arabic is strong, loud and just not as singsongy as Levantine Arabic. So remember that argument you thought you overheard on your first day in Cairo? It was probably just a group of friends exchanging a few jokes.
- People in Cairo use their car horns as a second voice. Taxis will honk at you constantly even if you wave them off. I think they want to make sure you are aware that they are driving by and just in case you change your mind and suddenly remember you do need a ride in the 20 seconds it takes them to pass by they will help you out by honking the entire 20 seconds.
- If you do recover your memory in those 20 seconds of honking and decide to get onto the taxi you will have chosen the best way to immerse yourself into Cairo’s musical scene- your taxi driver’s radio. Nothing will symbolize life in Cairo as much as Shaabi music. Shaabi music is a mixture of noises, lyrics and rhythms like no other so I strongly recommend listening to it before arrival just to get a preview of the mystical life in Cairo.
2. Crossing the street is an extreme sport in Cairo
This may sound like a joke but after some time in Cairo you too will be an adventurous athlete. It is best to stand beside a local and cross with them. When following this advice you should keep in mind that maybe your innate fear of moving vehicles might not be quite as strong in your fellow local person who is used to walking on the streets as there is a lack of useable sidewalks. Pedestrians do not come first which means that you have to make the vehicle your equal so when crossing the street and doing what the locals do you will also in fact be doing what the vehicle does. Did I practice any sports while in Cairo? Of course, every day! I raced through highways, leaped through roundabouts and even hiked bridges traditionally designed for cars.
3. Never ending haggling
While fear of vehicles might not be first-nature to the locals haggling is definitely an artform all Egyptians have mastered even before birth. As in most tourist cities, Cairo prices make a substantial hike the moment they are presented to a foreigner. It’s best to do as the locals do and although initially you might feel a bit rude and intimidated to practice the art, as soon as you realise that a large portion of your budget is actually being spent on hidden costs you’ll gather the courage to haggle. I remember a particularly entertaining taxi ride back to my accommodation. Despite having already agreed on a price before the ride began, my taxi driver decided that he would try to negotiate the price at every single traffic light saying “look at all the traffic madame”. Having not convinced me yet, he ended the ride by getting out to open the door for me before dropping his final plea, “Madam the extra money you give me will not be for me it will be for my father”. Having spent enough time in Cairo I decided, although I am sure his father was a nice fellow, that I would still only pay the agreed price. So it’s safe to say that in Cairo almost any situation is safe to haggle in. Although you probably won’t get the same price a local would, at least you’re saving money to help you start a fund for paying for things at tourist prices.
After spending a month in Cairo I feel that it is a city like no other and the greatest thing Cairo has are its people who give the city life by making the noises,streets and experiences. I left Cairo with an improved Egyptian vocabulary but also feeling wiser and overall a stronger person. Although this may sound a bit odd, the moment you spend enough time in Cairo you too will understand this experience. Cairo is character building once you witness firsthand how the city’s mixture of politics, history and culture have created powerful Cairenes.
Experience a 9-day trip through the heart of Egypt to awe at ancient wonders and explore the awe-inspiring sites like Giza, Luxor, Valley of the Kings, Aswan, Edfu and Cairo. Learn about the rich history and culture of ancient Egypt and go back in time as you walk through bustling markets and bazaars: Essential Egypt 9D/8N