Thursday, September 10, 2015

Living in Egypt, why I like it

Tomorrow I will be traveling, leaving Egypt for some months for a variety of reasons. It may seem odd to you, to choose to live in this country instead of my own. So, after almost a year and a half, I’m going to give you my impressions of life here. This is only my own view – every person who comes to this country (indeed any country) will have experienced a different Egypt. If I may digress just a tad, Australia is a huge country so the tourist who goes to the bottom end, to Sydney or Melbourne or even further south to Tasmania, is going to go home with stories so different to those of the ones who go instead to the top end, or the dry centre, that it would seem they all went to different countries. So it is with Egypt. The person who lives in Cairo, Alexandria or Luxor is going to tell tales of a different Egypt to my own experiences here in Hurghada. And here, the lifestyle differs depending on where you live and how much money you have – that’s common everywhere of course.

So, my life here and why I’m coming back. First of course is the cheaper cost of living for an expat. The exchange rate is favourable even now when the Australian dollar is reflecting its government and failing. So I can live relatively comfortably on far less than I could in Australia. This means more cash available for traveling and I am geographically closer to all the places I want to travel to. These are practical reasons why I will come back. Another practical reason is that my problems with allergies, caused mostly by pollen and moisture, are almost non-existent living in the desert.

While there is an active expat community (I believe), as an introvert I am happier to be mostly on my own, with only one or two friends. I can do that here without having family worrying that I am about to become a hermit (I always was). Because I am not stressed with trying to be more social, and I am no longer dealing with the fallout from my personal life collapse (this is somewhat of an understatement to cover the last few years, but those years are now firmly in the past) I have tapped into my creativity in a way that was impossible before. I have story ideas, novel ideas, drawing ideas, painting ideas that would never have found a fertile place to become anything more than a fleeting thought in my old life. I am fulfilled because I am doing the things that make me feel alive.

This country has many problems, and I have no idea how they can be resolved. I don’t know what the future will bring for Egypt, for the Middle East or the rest of the world. This blog is not about that. This is about what it is like to live here, in Hurghada, as an average person. Egypt has many faces, every country does. You cannot understand another country unless you live in it for several months, and even then you will have only a limited comprehension of its people, culture and way of life. This is especially true for a country that has a culture so very different to your own. So while I have been here for over a year, and I understand the culture more than I did when I came, I still have much to learn.

There are frustrations and irritations involved with living here of course. Expats (and locals) complain every day. I do too – bukra (tomorrow) has become a word I hate to hear. Bukra never comes, especially, as one friend who has lived here many years reminded me, if it is followed by insha’Allah. Egyptians do not like to say no, so they say this morning, this afternoon, tomorrow. You have to read between the lines to understand whether they actually mean that or if they are saying no. Of course you also have to deal with Egypt time, so even when they mean tomorrow, it may not be the day after today tomorrow, but one day next week tomorrow – or tomorrow in a month’s time. Conversations are circular, nobody gets straight to the point, and that’s frustrating too when you’re used to being more direct.

You have to be careful to wash vegetables thoroughly, you can’t drink the water from the tap and you have to be careful which bottled water you buy (and you don’t know that when you’re a tourist, but some companies simply fill up the bottles from the tap). Road surfaces are dodgy at best, unpaved and pothole ridden at worst. Building projects spring up overnight and building supplies are dumped in the street. I have become so used to this that I no longer even comment when I am walking a road I have walked many times before, and am confronted with a huge pile of sand or stone. I just climb over it like everyone else does. There is no workplace health and safety, workers balance precariously on air conditioning units five stories up, or walk about on wooden beams wearing sandals. When you walk past a building under construction you must look up, as items ranging from hammers to metal poles are dropped with little regard for anyone underneath.

There is noise, dust, shouting in the streets, unscrupulous taxi drivers, thieves, conmen. A group of men will come together in an argument that sounds like someone is about to die, and then it all breaks up with no apparent hard feelings. There is constant beeping from the cars and trucks on the road, a kind of ongoing conversation. Shop keepers sit outside their souvenir stores and try to lure you in, the better to cheat you out of as much cash as they think they can. So the more you look like a wide eyed tourist, and the more expensive your clothes look, the more expensive will be the items they are keen to sell you. They will also be far more likely to offer you tea and a place to sit if they think you are both naive and wealthy. But take heart, those of you who are reading this and realizing that the friendly man who was so nice to you and gave you tea also took you for more than you needed to pay – if you considered it a reasonable price then it was, and he got a bit more desperately needed cash to live on. Also the man who befriended you in your resort and offered to take you shopping so you were not ripped off – he gets a commission from the stores he took you to, and you were still ripped off. But you helped not only the shop keeper but the friendly man, and you got a tour guide so in effect you paid him for his time. And he is also a poor man in need of money. In every country in the world the tourist is seen as a walking wallet, and Egypt is no different.

So why do I like it? The noise, the confusion, the chaos, it may be frustrating but it is also brilliantly alive. The people are poor yes, but they embrace life, they live in the present and leave the future to God. They find humour in the worst of situations, they find hope where you would think none exists. They can laugh at themselves as quickly as they can take offense with each other. Life here is never boring, never dull.

When I first came I missed things that I had taken for granted my whole life; living in a house as opposed to an apartment, having a back yard to go out into, having green spaces to walk in, having grass everywhere, rain, flowers, gardens, a lack of litter. It took time for my eyes to see what is here instead. Here there is the fiery sunrise over the Red Sea, every single morning is a painters palette of shades of orange and red, even the Red Sea lives up to its name at sunrise. The call to prayer that floats over the town, a sound that is still exotic to me as well as being a useful way to keep track of the time. I no longer need to worry about finding a parking space, I walk everywhere or take a taxi, and never have to wait longer than a minute or two for a taxi. Of course it can be a lottery as to whether the driver is going to try to take advantage of me being obviously foreign, and sometimes they seem to be hell bent on taking me to heaven earlier than I anticipated, but there are ways around that. If you are a woman alone it is best to use a reputable taxi service or call a driver recommended to you. But I digress.

The desert – at first I dismissed the desert, wondering why people from beautiful countries such as Austria, Switzerland and Germany, would prefer the arid sameness of the desert. But it grows on you. The desert is timeless, peaceful, beautiful. When I come back I will be choosing an apartment that faces the desert instead of the sea.

There is a freedom to living here, a lack of the restrictions of western society. Here, I can focus on what is important in life and forget about the rest. Who cares if I haven’t had a haircut in three years? Who cares if my skirt is three seasons old? Does it matter if my shoes are not that attractive so long as they keep out the sharp stones and the dust? What matters is that I am dressed, clean, and have a roof over my head and food in the fridge. Everything else is western programming intended to make you spend money on things that do not matter.

The food: there is so much food that I love and will miss. So much that the next blog post is going to be all about the food I like, since this one is already too long and I’m only hoping that you are still reading! So, the next blog will be about the food, and the one following about the street cats, another reason I will be coming back. I will try to get them done and up over the next week, not forgetting Cassie on Monday. So keep checking, or better yet subscribe to the blog!


  1. That was fascinating, Sheryl. I really got a sense of a place I know nothing about, except for what I've seen in documentaries. I understand your attraction to the place, being a fellow hermit. It sounds almost alien to life in Australia. Hope your trip goes well.

    1. Thanks Grace, glad you liked it! Check out the food one next - and you don't even need to go out to get it

  2. Sheryl, thank you. Having lived in Egypt for 4 years (Sharm) I left, thinking it was time for me to move on. I have spent 8 months now back in Europe, and in 2 weeks time I will fly back to Egypt to settle in Hurghada. The reasons you have listed about why you love the place rings so true to me. I'm not much of a writer and I really feel you captured what I try to explain to people. I can't wait to get home :) Good luck with your future.

    1. Thanks for reading! My poor blog is suffering a lack of attention as my day job takes over. I am back in Hurghada now and happy to be here. Safe travelling, and best wishes.