Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cairo do's and don'ts

CAN women get away with earing a crop top and should you tip the toilet attendant? Find out in this must-read guide to Cairo.
DO pick up a couple of Arabic words. It's easy. “Say-eeda” is a one-fits-all “hi”. “Shok-ran” is thank you. “No” is a simple “la”, so try “La, shokran” when you’re turning down someone trying to sell you something on the street. It's their job, so give a polite rejection. To win hearts, wow them with your Arabic.
DON'T wear a crop top. Would you expect to walk down Bourke St Mall topless and not have people stare at you? If you're fair, you're going to stand out anyway. There's no expectation that women should cover their hair, but play it down by covering your knees (that goes for the guys as well – shorts are for small boys) and reining in the cleavage.
DON'T try to cross the road unless you're supremely confident. To the untrained eye, Egyptian drivers are suicidal. To Egyptians, more than a breath of air between cars is wasted space. Locals are happy to let you tag along across the road with them. Once you've started, never, ever go backwards.

DO use yellow taxis if you can find them. They are clean, have air-conditioning and meters and take the hassle out of bargaining. The black-and-white taxis, usually old Ladas, require some dexterity in haggling and there's no guarantee the windows wind down. Peak hour is around 3pm, so plan to get your travel done before gridlock.
DON'T miss the Egypt Museum. You'll find King Tutankhamen's gold death mask and all the paraphernalia buried with him, from cheetah skin shields to mummified bread and the pharaoh's knickers. Pace yourself. You might even want to visit a couple of times. Egyptian Museum, Midan Tahrir, Downtown, $10 adults, 9am-6.45pm.

DO visit at least one mosque. At the front door, take off your shoes and leave them in the shoe cupboard. All mosques have at least one caretaker and most are more than happy to show you the beautiful architecture and perhaps even a mausoleum or two. Egypt runs on "baksheesh'' or tipping and $1 is the standard tip when you leave the mosque. Hand over a bit more (say $4) if they offer to take you up the minarets, which have some of the best views in Cairo. Photos are usually OK, but check first. Some mosques will ask you to leave during prayers, but others are more than happy for you to stay. Women must go into the women's section at that time and should always carry a headscarf to cover hair in the mosque.

DO ask people, especially women, if you can photograph them first. Touts and even the tourist police up at the pyramids and Sphinx will expect a tip, but avoid snapping regular police and the armed services, no matter how dashing their crisp white uniforms.
DON'T drink tap water. Bottled water is cheap and will save you a world of pain.

DO tip the toilet attendant 20c when you use bathrooms. People sell little packs of toilet tissues in front of tourist attractions. Keep one in your bag at all times.

DON'T be afraid to wander the streets. Cairo is a great, and safe, city to explore on foot and there's always a taxi around to take you home for just a few dollars if you get lost. The street life and its buzzing markets continue all night and plenty of people to help out if you get stuck.

DO haggle. If you're not interested, don't say anything – not even “no” – to the seller. If you do want to buy something, say no first, advises long-time Cairo resident Cleopatra Guindy, guide with Soleils d'Egypte Tours, (02) 9526 8519,

DON'T touch the sites. They're deteriorating rapidly due to mass tourism, so if you want your kids to be able to see them, keep your fingers off, even if the guards encourage you to step over the barricading ropes for a closer view.

DO get plenty of small change before you head out each morning. Daily transactions are done in 10, 5 and 1 pound notes, as well as the smaller denominations of 50 and 25 piastres. Change of LE100 doesn't come easily and seriously diminishes your bargaining power.

DON'T go the “mad dogs and Englishmen” route and find yourself caught in the hot midday sun. Official Egypt closes its doors between 1pm and 4pm when the nation goes to lunch, which is the main meal of the day.

As a result, dinner is often served very late, especially on Thursdays, as Friday is the equivalent of our Sunday, and most people's day off.