This was first published on my personal blog in 2018.
It’s been just over a week since I got back, and I still don’t feel completely present. Everything feels distant, transient: I keep thinking I’ll turn around and see the bunched fruits of a sobya stall, and once I swear I heard the kids loitering at my void deck shout “Mansoura!” Today I thought there was Portuguese music playing (which, while not Egyptian, was constantly being blasted by my Brazilian pals) and my heart and feet stopped. Then I realized it was just Despacito, and reality rushed back in. But for one sweet moment I was back in Egypt, and it still feels so close. Talking to a friend who'd been on exchange confirmed this feeling, of being out of place when you're back home, after being so immersed in a country and its culture. Anytime now, I’ll head back there on a big jet plane.
In the meantime, since people have been asking me what’s Egypt like, I thought I’d write about the things that I’m so sure I’ll see again. This is not an exhaustive list, and I’ve tried my best to do the country justice, and not exoticise it. They’re the bits of Egypt that I see so vividly, and have amused me to no end because everything’s just so unusual.
Five-pound notes. Egypt hates its capitalists, its bourgeoisie. Or something like that. Egyptians, for some reason, have a system where small change is the way to go: bigger notes get you dirty looks, because not everyone can return you the change. This goes for most places, except for the bigger corporations. No one ever seems to have anything but small change on hand, I don’t know why, or how that works. In this world, five-pound notes are revered- especially for microbus fares. (A friend who owed me ten pounds had to part with two five-pound notes, and made me promise to appreciate them. I did.)
To demonstrate: once, even KFC couldn’t return me my change. I needed twenty-five pounds change, and was short of two, even though it had been a ‘big’ company. All the cashier could do was shrug and apologise. I know Michaela, in her early days, tried to pay for her microbus with a fifty-pound note, and the driver had had to drive around asking people for change.
Microbuses. The traffic and transportation system in Egypt is so, so different. (It’ll merit another mention later on in this post.) It’s probably one of the first things I’ve noticed: and sometime during my fourth week there, I realized I could count the number of traffic lights I’ve seen on one hand. (What!) Egypt’s public transport consists of the bus and the train, but for each type there are different categories.
The most common method of travel is the microbus (like a small van, seating anywhere from twelve to eighteen people), which is technically privately-owned. It can cost anywhere from 2.5 to 5.5 L.E (less than fifty Singapore cents) per ride, and is what comes to mind when I think of organized chaos. If you don’t understand the system, or the area, you probably can’t understand anything. Bus stations are discrete; to the outsider, smaller stations look like a coincidence of white vans. While some bus stations have some sort of infrastructure to identify it as a bus station, it’s equally common for these ‘stations’ to be at the end of the highway, or at some road juncture, or in a parking lot, etc. (Want to look for your destination? Keep an ear out. Bus drivers will be shouting out their routes to call for passengers, and it’s a cacophony of noise. "Mansoura! Mansoura!" "Tahrir, Tahrir, Tahrir!")
And for bus stops? Forget it. You need to know your geography. Taking a bus (even the government-owned ones) means knowing where it goes, and getting the bus to stop on the side of the road for you. Not every microbus will go to where you want it to, and you’ll only know where it goes or which buses to take if you’ve been there long enough. I’m still not great at getting the microbus to stop for me if I’m in the middle of the highway, so I tend to go the bus station. For the truly local, there are hand gestures that will specify your destination. I’m not an expert, so I couldn’t do this!
What I really liked about the microbus- even though it did stress me out sometimes, and I know so many people who hated it- was how informal everything was. People were almost nonchalant. I know the driver was nonchalant. Once, the bus I was on stopped in the middle of the highway- because the driver wanted coffee, and there was a little coffee kiosk. Even the routes were in flux. Some days there would be buses to Ramsis; some days there weren’t. I still don’t understand what the pattern was. There were no set bus timings, and no guarantee you could get your seat, or even any idea of how many buses there were journeying to X on that day. It was mostly a wild card- the best thing was to travel with a local, who could help you ask around. But even more, I loved that it relied on a system of trust, almost, and that it was a small community in that van. You paid your fare to the passenger on the right, and he would pass it to his right: the person on the most extreme right of that row would collect it, and then pass it on. Sometimes they’d give you your change immediately; other times you’d wait for the driver to return it to you. This doesn’t sound like much, but as a Singaporean who grew up in a society that tends to isolate itself and keep interactions to a minimum, this was a source of endless fascination. (Or maybe I’m just easily overexcited.) Sure, it was hard to cheat with your fare- and you didn’t really need to, since it was so affordable- but something about giving other strangers your money and trusting that they would deliver it to its intended was still really nice to witness. Not to mention, I’ve so many pleasant memories in a microbus, where sometimes my friends and I would occupy ¾ of the seats and blast our music (sorry, Egyptians!) and turn around in our seats to talk to each other. The breeze always came in too cold through the window, and there would be five conversations going on at the same time, and it was perfect.
Koshary. I have two Egyptian loves: my personal heater (because it was winter and I’m not built for the cold), and koshary.
It sounds disgusting. It looks not much better. It is the most amazing thing I’ve had, and I’ve had so much great food here. I would dream about koshary when I hadn’t had it in a few days. And it was so affordable- I could get a large portion for 20 L.E (SGD 1.60) and takeaway, and it would last me 4.5 meals. 4 if I was especially hungry. It’s a carbohydrate-bomb, and ridiculously filling.
Koshary comprises of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, beans, shallots, and you mix it all up with tomato salsa, a garlic-salt vinegar combination, and optional spicy sauce. It’s also entirely vegan, which is really cool! (When I was in Alexandria, though, I tried seafood koshary, which had the same ingredients, but was now topped with crabmeat, fish, and shrimp.) The best thing about living in October was that I had two giant koshary chains right across from each other- rivals, if you would. Tom and Basal remains my undefeated favourite, however. Crossing the road. In Egypt, crossing the road feels like playing a video game. As mentioned, there are virtually no traffic lights, and so it’s up to you to cross the street with a hundred cars barreling down. It is the scariest thing, because you’ve just got to trust that Egyptians have been doing this for far longer than you have, and will just drive around you. (They’re really slick drivers.) I remember my first day, and having to cross a road in downtown Cairo at peak hour was frightening, even though I was there with Ahmed. Once I’d mastered it though, it was so fun to do, especially when you had to guide the newbies who’d just arrive and were terrified of the road.
Juice places. On my first day, I needed to exchange money- but it was the weekend, and most places were closed. I told Michaela this, who told me to ask Ahmed to bring me to the ATM near his favourite juice place. And it was Egypt, which was a desert, and how was juice very ‘local’? So I remember scrunching my nose and judging him for a ‘favourite juice place’. The juice places I had in my mind were chains like Boost- overpriced, global giants, with nothing satisfying to offer. This was so far from the truth it’s kind of hilarious to look back at now. Juice places are abundant in Egypt, with a stall on every corner.
In my previous post, I talked about gushing about juice with two Brazilian girls. Imagine, the three of us being from tropical countries, and still being absolutely floored by the quality of the juice here. It’s not very specifically Egyptian, I know, but they know their juice. It’s hardly watery- it’s all fruit, and it’s all fresh, and it’s all cheap. (The largest, ripest pack of strawberries I’d see in supermarkets were thrice the size of the boxes you get here, and would cost about SGD$2. I was in love.) My go-to was sobya, which is a mixture of rice, coconut, and milk. I would get one nearly every day, and (like koshary) think about when I would next get it.
There are a ton more things, I’m sure, but these were the ones I recalled so easily, just because they feel so true to the Egypt I know. A few people I’ve talked to couldn’t conceptualise the country beyond its pyramids and some notion of it being medieval, rural: and I get it. I did too! Hopefully, this post helped you rethink and understand Egypt as somewhere not stuck in ancient times, but you know, somewhere more familiar.