6 Ways Egypt Confuses the Heck Out of Travelers
1. The Time Issue
Egyptians are not known for being prompt. One of the most perplexing aspects of Arab cultures for Westerners is their sense of time. When you’re meeting someone out on the town and they say 8, expect to see them around 10. When someone tells you they’ll get back to you at 1, it can be at 2, or 3, or maybe even the next day. “Give me five minutes” means “I need a little time,” “Give me an hour” means “I need a lot of time,” and “I’ll get it to you tomorrow” means you should plan for next week. And if they say “Insha’Allah,” all bets are off the table. The phase, meaning “God willing,” is the Arabic equivalent of an indefinite maybe, so there’s no telling when your get that damn TPS report to Lumberg.
2. What’s With the Traffic?
I live in Zamalek and work in Maadi, two districts in Cairo a little less than five miles apart. Five miles anywhere else would be considered close, but in Cairo it takes about an hour to drive each way. The traffic is an amazing spectacle. Six lanes of cars on a three-lane road, a broken down car/minibus every 300 yards, children on motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic, and not one second goes by without the blare of a horn. Driving through Cairo is an art form more than a skill. Driving here includes facial expressions (if other guy sees you’re scared he’s won the right of way), car/body language (lunge forward and hit the brakes to let them know you mean business), and the ability to read other drivers and cars. Honking is an easy one: honk when you pass, honk when someone can pass you, honk when someone is being a jerk (the American honk), honk to give someone the right of way, honk when your bored, honk if you love southern girls – just leave your hand firmly on the horn the entire way and you’ll be fine.
3. The Price of Beer
Beer is a tricky one. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw 50cl (22oz) Heinekens for $3 at a restaurant. I realized why they were so cheap when I took the first sip – it wasn’t Heineken. It wasn’t the Heineken I was used to anyway. Egypt has a Heineken licensee that brews and bottles the beer at a plant a few hours out of Cairo. They use the same type A yeast, the same process, the same logo, bottles and all. The downfall is the Egyptian water. The same water is used in Sakara, Stella, and Luxor, three of the major Egyptian brews. And I don’t know if it’s the water or some other ingredient, but I’ve never had hangovers from beer like the ones I’ve had in Egypt. There’s some headache-inducing special ingredient that makes my brain feel like it doubled in size overnight. It doesn’t matter if you only had one or if you drank 5 (I’ve done extensive testing), sure as Cairo traffic you’re going to have a pounding headache in the morning. The price of beer is cheap, but you pay the real price the next morning.
4. When is the Weekend Again?
This is more of a quirky difference than major stumbling block to cultural assimilation, but the workweek in Egypt is Sunday to Thursday. When you base weekdays on how many days you’ve been at work this difference can be pretty confusing. I’ve told people the wrong day of the week too many times to count. On the bright side, the change is in our favor. Starting the week on Sunday means you show up to an appointment a day earlier rather than a day late.
5. I Can’t Find Pork Anywhere!
Sorry fans of bacon, sausage, ham, pork chops, and all other things pork. It’s illegal in Egypt. The official reason for the outlaw was the swine flu outbreak in 2009, but it’s widely accepted that this was a convenient cover to outlaw the delicious meat in adherence to Islamic law. You can still find beef bacon on BLTs, turkey on chicken cordon bleus, and something called “turkey ham” which is just turkey with an odd pink tint. If you’re coming to Egypt and can’t live without a little pork in your diet, you can bring it through customs in your bag. Just be sure to freeze it and wrap it up well beforehand.
6. Asking for Directions
This might be the most import of all for tourists. It doesn’t matter if you’re a tourist, a local, or Barack Obama, never trust anyone when you ask for directions in Egypt. It’s not that they’re out to get you and ruin your day by sending you to the wrong place, but for some reason Egyptians have a problem with saying “I don’t know.” If you ask some guy on the street, he may not have any idea where the place is or even know that it exists, but he’ll give you directions to get there, and give them with confidence. The general rule of thumb is to ask at least three people and go with the most popular answer.
Have you experienced any of this in Egypt? What was the hardest thing to get used to in Egypt for you? Share your thoughts below!