I’m originally from a small North-East European country called Estonia with a total population of 1.3 million people. I have been studying and living in Europe for a couple of years now and I’m currently pursuing my master’s degree in Paris, France. As part of our degree, we are required to spend one semester abroad, either working or studying. Because Cairo is the regional center for the World Health Organization and my concentration fields are the Middle East and Global Health, I was immediately drawn to Egypt. Thus, I started my internship at the World Health Organization and lived in Heliopolis, Cairo, for 6 months. During this time I developed some serious likes and dislikes that I would like to share with you.
1- Hate: Environmental Issues
Cairo’s air is one of the most polluted in the Middle East and North Africa. According to a study published in Nature, Cairo ranks the 7th deadliest city in the world for air pollution. Practically, this meant that most of the days I did not see blue sky in the city. Instead, it was grey, smoggy and it was hard to breathe. Not to mention the effects it might have caused to my lungs and general health.
Secondly, trash is everywhere! It is 2018 and there still isn’t a working functioning garbage recycling system in Cairo. Sure, the Garbage City – also known as Zabaleeen – are doing their part, but it is completely normal to see piles of garbage just laying around in the middle of the city. There is a lack of environmental awareness, which starts from home; therefore, the streets remain unclean.
Most locals through their trash on the street while walking instead of holding it in hand or keeping it in the bag. Empty bottles, magazines, ice cream cups, wrappers – you name it! My Egyptian friend thought I am crazy when I kept a tiny plastic bottle neck wrapper in my hands until I found a bin – most people would have just thrown it on the ground instantly without even thinking about it twice. The amount of plastic bags used is drastic. Every time you visit the supermarket there will be an employee who will try to pack your groceries in 10-15 different plastic bags. I learned very fast that I just need to carry my own bag and tell them I’ll do it myself to save a bit of the planet.
2- Love: Huge Selections of Cheap Fruit
One of the great things about Cairo is the huge selection of fruit in every store. I had not even seen some of these fruit in my life before. I got to try many new flavors and the prices were super cheap as well. I paid only €0.50 – EGP 10.9 – for a whole kilo of grapes! And I did not even have to go to the supermarket to get it, because on almost every street there is a street vendor selling some delicious fruit. Just be sure to wash them properly unless you want to get a nasty stomach bug!
3- Hate: Unhealthy lifestyle
Despite the great access to fresh fruits, the Egyptian cuisine is based on high fat and high calory intake. According to a survey by WHO, more than 62 percent of Egyptians are overweight. Moreover, Egypt has one of the highest child obesity rates in the world. I’m not surprised here – almost everything is cooked in fat and fried in oil. Egyptians manage to mix healthy ingredients into a very high-calorie meal which turn out to become a very unhealthy meal.
As for the portions, it is huge. It took me a while to get used to the portions (that reminded me of American portions) because in Europe the dishes are two to three times smaller. Every time I went to eat out I took leftovers with me, I could never finish what I started. Nevertheless, I gained five kg living in Egypt. Moreover, with no pedestrian sidewalks, my level of physical activity was barely existent. Unless you live in one of the more Western and safer parts of the city, the only way to stay active is to buy a gym membership.
4- Love: The Perfect Holiday is Just a Couple of Hours Away
Okay, this is seriously my favorite part of living in Egypt. It is not specifically about Cairo per say because it involves other places around Egypt, but Cairo is a great gateway to many beautiful places in the country. I can’t even believe how versatile it is! In the North Coast, you can find the most amazing white beaches with blue sand. In Alexandria, you find so much Greco-Roman history and seafood. In the Sinai Peninsula, you find classic resorts and cheap hotels and the mountains. In Luxor, you find ancient temples. In Siwa, you find an oasis in the middle of a desert. In Aswan, you find peaceful communities living by the Nile. Egypt really has everything! It’s a perfect country to travel in. One of my favorite memories was climbing the Mount Sinai in the middle of the night, so we arrived at the top at the time of the sunrise. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done and my legs were like jelly by the time the hike ended, but it was so worth it! I will always remember it.
5- Hate: Animal Mistreatment
One of the most difficult things for me to witness in Cairo is the lack of animal care. I am so passionate about animals and I want them to be treated as humanely as possible. However, the level of animal mistreatment is just baffling. There are hundreds of thousands -even more- of stray cats and dogs living on the harsh streets of Cairo. By harsh I mean that their whole life is a constant struggle for survival. They are lucky if they do not get hit by a car, tortured by a boy or poisoned to death. Poisoning dogs in Cairo is, sadly, a common practice, so is trying to kill them in other ways like throwing puppies down the balcony or letting the dog die in the heat on the rooftop.
I saw dogs with missing limbs, missing tails, dead dogs, newborn puppies crying in the middle of the street etc. The story with cats is perhaps a little better but still horribly sad. There are some people who are trying to rescue as many animals as possible (adopting up to 30-40 cats and dogs) and those are some lucky souls who get saved, but unfortunately, there is a need for a bigger solution – neutering, and educating people on animal treatment. And work animals are not much better off either. Most horses and donkeys I saw were horribly undernourished and beaten. I myself adopted a cat who has now transformed into the most lovely fluffy little love ball and lives comfortably with my family in Estonia.
6- Hate: Corruption
There is barely any system. Things break, people cheat, nobody and nothing are ever on time – the solution for everything is money. You can do pretty much everything with money here. And you don’t even have to have a lot of it. I know people who got their driver’s license as a birthday gift. Everything works through connections and money. Both on high and low levels. Bribery, embezzlement, nepotism – you name it. I really dislike this kind of a system.
7- Hate: Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment was one of the biggest things I was worried about when moving to Cairo. And I was rightfully worried, I should have been even more careful. Just recently, Cairo was named the most dangerous city in the world for women, even worse than Delhi in India and Karachi in Pakistan. The study included many different aspects of living in the city as a woman, but sexual harassment is one of the major reasons for this “win”.
During my time in Cairo, I was part of this expat women group in Cairo – a group with nearly 6000 foreigners living in Cairo. And I read about so many women getting harassed daily and having the most horrifying experiences. A man visiting or living there simply cannot grasp it. It does not matter what you are wearing – whether you are wearing jeans and a sweater or a full-on niqab – they will harass you and some of them will grab you and even worse if they get the chance. Even my Uber drivers, who had locked the doors with me alone in the car, asked me for sex. In September, I also had a more serious and horrifying incident that required a couple of weeks of therapy to get over. After that I never walked alone anymore, I hardly ever went anywhere and I just stayed alone in my place. Even doing little chores like grocery shopping seemed difficult because I got home at 6 p.m. and then it was already too dark to go out alone. I felt really alienated and not free.
8- Love: History
Cairo, in particular, and Egypt, in general, are heaven for history lovers. Especially ancient history lovers.
There is just way too much to see, and they still haven’t even discovered many of the things. Best places for ancient riches are Cairo and Luxor. Cairo hosts many museums with Egyptian riches in addition to the Giza pyramids which is a short ride away. Luxor is known famously for its oldest and most Ancient Egyptian site. Sometimes it seems that they have too much of history that they don’t value it anymore – kids are climbing on 4000-year-old mastabas and some “museums” have just things lying around on the ground like they are 20 not 2000 years old. Weird! In Estonia, even the smallest coin will be kept like a major treasure under 10 layers of glass in the national history museum.
9- Hate: Traffic
Cairo has officially the craziest traffic I have ever seen. I know that some South-East Asian countries also have crazy traffic but people generally know that they just have to be brave and walk because the cars and scooters will know exactly when to stop. Traffic doesn’t work like that in Cairo. Nobody stops for you; you will simply get hit by a car if you are too slow or stop too late. There are obviously no crossings and hardly any traffic lights so I had to cross the road in the middle of this eight-lane madness. I honestly thought that if something is going to happen to me here, it will be me getting hit by a car. Being in the car is not much better – drivers are so nervous, constantly beeping and trying to cut others way. And the microbus drivers are just insane. They stop and go whenever and wherever they want to – even in the middle of a roundabout. I always got sick in the car because of all this stopping and going. No smooth driving in Cairo. And sometimes during rush hour, the traffic was so bad that I had to sit in the taxi for 2.5 hours in a row! That for the distance of just 15-20 km!
10- Love: Egypt’s Weather
So to finish this off with something more positive – Egypt is perfect for warm-loving creatures like me. Granted, the summers are too hot (about 42 degrees Celsius and direct sunlight) but the springtime and autumn are pleasantly warm for pool and sunbathing and winter is nice and spring-ish for us Europeans. Plus, there are always resorts to go to. In the summer, go to Alexandria – the Mediterranean will cool you down. In spring and autumn, go to the Red Sea. And in the winter go to Aswan or Luxor. I have been freezing ever since I got back from Cairo. Even right now my fingers are frozen while typing this post. Egypt is great for a nice warm holiday!
So that’s it. Brutally honest post about my personal experiences and opinions about life in Egypt. Obviously, Egypt has many lovely and friendly people and it is totally worth a visit even just for the weather and nature! But simply, to live alone in Cairo as a young woman – it seemed to be a bit too difficult for me personally. I was very glad to return to Europe.