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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Living in Cairo: Change

After living in this strange land for almost a year, I've gotten used to all of the odd and unusual aspects of Egypt.  All of those sights that would make any normal American stare don't even cause me to turn a hair.  But all of the strangeness is new to you, and so I'll share in (somewhat) weekly installments.  Enjoy.

Cairo (as are all third-world cities) is a strictly cash-based society.  Credit cards do exist (I think), and some places do take them, but for most every-day transactions, cash is king.  And so, every month, Brandon gets an enormous stack of money from the bank at the Embassy and brings it home for me to disperse to all of the people who think they deserve a chunk of it.

The problem with this scenario is twofold: 1. The money comes in 100 or 200 pound bills.  2. Change is against the local religion.  Try and give a 50 to the ticket man at the Metro?  He'll tell you to go start walking.  Go and try and change the 50 at a local snack stand, and he'll tell you that really that candy you wanted isn't that good anyway so don't bother with it.  And try and give it to a taxi driver for a 5-pound ride and he'll happily take it - but he won't give you anything back.

Any time someone comes to deliver anything - groceries, dry cleaning, food, medicine - they want a tip, and of course nobody gives change for a tip.  Or when you try and pay for dry cleaning with that same 50.

That leaves me with a large stack of 100 pound bills (exchange rate: 5.5 pounds to the dollar) and few people who want to give me change for them.  And so any time I have the opportunity to make change, I pull out the largest bill possible to pay for the most miniscule charge.  The desirability of a bill is in inverse proportion to its value, and so every time Brandon comes home from work, I fleece him for the all 1-pound coins he got in change at the metro.

One night at 9 o'clock we realized that the dry cleaners were bringing Brandon's much-needed suits for work the next day, and we had a 50-pound note for a 25-pound bill.  And so, not wanting to give a 25-pound tip, Brandon ran out of the house, found the closest store that was open, and hot-footed it home with change and a bag of frozen onion rings - that we have yet to eat.

However, I only just discovered that the CIB bank at the Embassy does give change, you just have to ask.  So last week while I was up for doctor's appointments, I marched up to the window and changed 1600 pounds into 20s, 10s, and 5s for a stack at least an inch thick.  I'd never gotten so choked up in my life to see money that was already mine.  I felt like I'd won the lottery.


Sam said...

As a person who receives a large portion of his income in 1 and 5 dollar bills, I will agree that holding a thick stack of cold hard cash is a wonderful feeling.

PaulaJean said...

Cash?? What's cash?? Although I still have one of the $100 bills I took with me to Cairo in January in case I got stranded where my credit card wasn't accepted.