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Egypt: How to Arrive in Cairo Without any Money, 1980

September 9, 2010

Descending the Cairo Side a novel of the traveling life

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We flew into Cairo from Casablanca, worn out and dirty from months of living in a West African village.  During this trip to Africa my companion and I always seemed to be on the verge of starvation and we had little money.  But I had made arrangements to pick up cash at a bank in Cairo so I figured our troubles were nearly over.

Not quite.

I was aware that tourists didn’t need visas to enter Egypt, or, more precisely, that I could get one upon arrival at Cairo’s airport.  Not having even a single piaster to my name I reckoned I could cage a ride into town on one of the overcrowded public buses – conductors seldom if ever tried to collect tickets – go straight to the bank, pick up my funds and find a nice room at a great undiscovered hotel I had chanced upon during my first visit to Egypt.  Called the Garden City, the place was located about two blocks from Midan el-Tahrir – modern Cairo’s main square – and a block from the Nile River.  A perfect location at $5 or $6 dollars a night with meals included.  Archeologists and students were its principal clients.

Anyhow, I had forgotten one salient fact.   The visa that they gave you when you flew in cost money.  Five dollars or so.  We had no money whatsoever, except perhaps two or three Moroccan dirhams worth of coinage.

At the Immigration post the conversation went like this:

Immigration Man:  Please, $5 for visa.

Me: Sorry, I don’t have any money.  If you let us in we’ll get some from the bank and go straight to the immigration office on Tahrir Square and get our visas.

Immigration Man: No, not possible.  Give $5 now.

And so on.  We backed off, tried another guy and received the same result.  When I asked what were we supposed to do, the Immigration people shrugged as if they didn’t care – which they didn’t.  But they were not going to let us in the country unless we paid up.

We retreated to a hallway and discussed our options, which were few.  The only thing I could think of doing was to ask other incoming tourists to borrow some money and promise them a nice meal in exchange for helping us.

Half an hour of telling our story brought us only looks of disbelief and horror.  Imagine!  Hippies panhandling in the airport!

Finally an American guy with a backpack sauntered by.  I approached him and quickly explained my plight.  He didn’t believe me at first, but since he was a traveler he soon concluded that at least I deserved some sympathy.  Upping the ante, I said, “Look, if you help us we’ll turn you on to this really nice hotel no one knows about and pay for your room for a couple of nights, too.”

He agreed!  Against his better judgment, he said, but what the hell, what could he lose other than $10?

Joe, a tall lanky fellow with stringy blond hair, had never been to Egypt before and was planning to take a taxi downtown and look for a room at one of the backpacker hotels listed in his guidebook.  I told him about the Garden City.  He reluctantly decided to come with us there – after all, we were going to pay for the room.

And so we cruised in a taxi to central Cairo – the ride only cost a few dollars – and found the Garden City. Of course the taxi driver had never heard of it but I remembered the address.  We walked up the flight of stairs to the front desk. At this hour our only option for a room was one with three beds.  But the accommodation also had a balcony from which we could see the Nile.  It was a little more pricey – $20, I believe, but by now I would have agreed to pay fifty.

We made ourselves at home, exactly at sunset.

1) Sunset over the Nile from our room at the Garden City Hotel

We all went to bed early, exhausted both mentally and physically from our travails at the airport.  The next morning we showed Joe around Cairo.  Being a tour guide became part of the deal, but I didn’t mind.  Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t trusted us and our story?  I was grateful enough to pay for him to stay at the Garden City for a week with us.  He was a kindred soul who enjoyed our Bob Marley tapes and tales of life in Africa.

Just goes to show, sometimes you can disguise stupidity with luck.

2) A precarious dwelling in “modern” Cairo

3) The heart of the old city

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