1. Cairo is amazingly polluted. Not just dirty (which it undeniably is) – polluted. It makes LA in 1972 look like Alaska in 1654. Smog blankets the city constantly, and it feels like you’ve been smoking a half a pack a day.
2. People stash coins in their ears. For real. I have no idea if these are makeshift earplugs, or just somewhere for people to keep their spare change.
3. The shoe shine guys don’t shine your shoes while you’re wearing them, instead they give you a piece of cardboard to put your feet on while they do it off to the side. There are a lot of shoeshine guys, and a lot of people who take shoeshines. I’ve noticed there’s something about having busted kicks that doesn’t sit right with people in many, many different places.
4. Cairo is a truly 24 hour city. The secondhand clothes market ($6 for a purple pleather snakeskin jacket!) is rocking at midnight. People - kids, adults, whoever, are out on the street at all hours of the night. It makes New York look like Jacksonville.
5. As such, Cairo is a pretty safe place to just wander around – wherever, whenever. My general rule of thumb is that if there are kids and old people out, a place is probably safe, and there are always kids out.
6. This does not, however, mean that you will be left alone. Quite to the contrary. If you stand out as a foreigner, people will start talking to you every 10 feet. The problem is it is not the kind of approach you can just tune out and let bounce off of you, like street preacher or panhandler in New York. It’s a heavily interactive approach and as such requires a heavily interactive rejection. The only thing in New York I can compare it to are the Chabad (“excuse me, you are Jewish?”) guys, or maybe a real, real aggressive solicitor for Children's International. Or, if you can remember, about 10 years ago there were these Chinese massage guys who would grab you on the street and start rubbing your shoulder going “free sample, free sample.” Now, these approaches are not threatening or malicious, but they are constant and extremely, extremely, extremely annoying and make it completely impossible to just wander the streets in peace.
7. Out of all the people who talk to you, the kids are the best and pretty fun. With them you’ll end up playing soccer or taking pictures (I can’t tell you the amount of times we got approached by kids wanting their picture taken with us). Everyone else is trying to sell you something or rip you off. It gets to the point where people will flag down your cab, jump in, and redirect it to their shop. Seriously. And then be pissed when you don't buy anything.
8. And people are constantly, constantly trying to rip you off. Now given, this is a country where foreigners are simply expected to pay more than locals because they can afford more than locals. Everything remotely touristy has an Egyptian price and a (much, much higher) foreigner price. But there is the honest way to do this, and the dishonest way to do it. My first day the guy at the museum (the museum!) tried to shortchange me 100 pounds. The fastfood schwarma place charged me 3x what they should have. You have to argue over the price of a cup of coffee if you don't want to just pay whatever they happen to make up. It's this, not the "Entrance, 1 pound. Children, 1/2 pound. Non-Egyptian, 20 pounds" signs that makes me never want to spend a dime in that town again.
9. Even beyond this, Cairo is the most cynical city toward tourists that I have ever visited. Worse than New York, worse even than Rome. I've often written about how cities that no longer have to try and sell themselves to visitors degenerate into shameless rackets designed to simply milk every last dollar they can out of tourists. This is Cairo, and it's compounded further by the fact that, unlike New York or Rome, tourists have vastly more money than locals. In the Cairo mentality the purpose of visitors is to have them depart with their pockets as light as possible, and that is just the way of the world.
10. A big part of this is the culture of "Baksheesh," which is basically means "bribe/tip" (there's no real hard and fast line). "Baksheesh" is so prevalent they put it in the official guidebook they give you on the airplane. I initially thought "great, I can just bribe my way wherever I want to go." But as a smart person once told me you bribe someone to do their job, not to not do their job. Bribing cultures exist not so that you can pay to do cool stuff you wouldn't otherwise be able to do, they exist to get your money. Successful uses of Baksheesh including bribing some squatters to let us check out the abandoned mansion they were living in (right next to the Dutch Embassy!), and bribing someone who may or may not have worked there to let us up to the top of a minaret after-hours. Unsuccessful uses of Baksheesh include trying to bribe the construction workers to let us up to the top of an under-renovation skyscraper, and trying to bribe the guards at the pyramids to let us stay overnight and climb them. Perhaps the best "Baksheesh" anecdote is this: there is a rope a few feet away from something - the edge of an observation platform, the pyramids, whatever. The guard will then motion for you that it's perfectly OK to cross the rope and take pictures. Then you're supposed to give the guard (or whoever it might have been) money. They could, of course, just not put the rope there, but then there would be no Baksheesh. This is how bribing cultures work.