Who are you?
My name is Sheryl Lee and I’m an Australian living in Hurghada, Egypt.
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
I moved to Egypt in 2014 following several visits over a four year period.My reasons for moving are varied but the catalyst was losing my home and having to make some tough economical decisions.
What challenges did you face during the move?
The challenges I faced were more to do with the trappings of my life before leaving than the process of moving. I had to sell or give away everything I owned and I left Australia with all I possessed in two medium sized suitcases weighing less than thirty kilos each.
Shedding possessions is traumatic, leaving behind everything you know is traumatic. The lesson learned, over time, is that possessions are not so important and can weigh you down. Eventually, after a grieving process, I found my new life to be freeing. Having dramatically decluttered my life I don’t think I will ever go back to having possessions I don’t need. Stuff is just stuff. Experiences are something you learn from, grow from, and have the memories of for a lifetime.
I had a rental apartment ready to move into when I arrived in Hurhgada, one that was close to shops and in a quiet area. As an Australian from north Queensland I was used to living in a house with a large front and back yard, in a quiet street. Never having lived in an apartment before I found it restricting not being able to go outside to my own yard. I had balconies though, and a view of the Red Sea, and I adjusted over time.
Expats have a variety of accommodation choices, depending on income. Some live in villas out of town in quiet suburbs, others live in apartments. The most important thing from my viewpoint is to be sure you are not living too close to the main street or the busy shopping streets if you like quiet. Egyptians stay up late, really late, and they are noisy!
Are there many other expats in your area?
Expats tend to live in the quieter areas so do congregate in the same places. There are many expats living in Hurghada, from the UK, Germany, Russia, France, Romania and other places in Europe. Australians are in the minority. I’ve only met one in the time I’ve been living here.
What do you like about life where you are?
The biggest positive about living here is the exchange rate. It’s cheap to live in Egypt unless you are in central Cairo. Cairo is a whole other experience, busy, noisy, crowded, polluted, and the traffic is your worst traffic nightmare multiplied by ten. Hurghada is far quieter with clear skies (unless there is a dust storm), few traffic problems, and a slower pace of life. You can relax, in fact you have to as the pace of life sometimes slows to a dead stop when you want something done.
I love that the focus is not on superficial things like what you wear or what you drive, at least not in the way it was in my old life. I love the call to prayer that floats above the city and is a useful way to keep track of the time. I love that I can walk almost anywhere I want to go and if I need a taxi I never have to wait more than a minute. If I don’t want to fight over the fare I can call a driver I trust and he will come, or arrange for someone trustworthy to come in his place.
I love that the average Egyptian is kind, and gets the most out of life no matter how poor he is. I love the pace of life, the warmth of the sun and the people. I love that the owners of cafes and restaurants I frequent know me by name and take the time to chat. I love that there is no mail delivery and the simplicity of my life. My bills are reduced to rent, power, water, internet and mobile phone. I have no credit card and only purchase what I can afford.
Egyptians, as I have said, stay up late, really late. Shops often don’t open until two in the afternoon but they will be open until two in the morning. Supermarkets catering to expats open earlier, however. I have become used to being able to get whatever I want whenever I want it without worrying about closing times. I have also adjusted to having tradesmen coming to repair things like the hot water system or the television signal at eleven at night or even later.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
Of course there are drawbacks. You can’t get everything you could in your home country and sometimes you can’t get things you think of as basic items. There is rubbish piled in heaps in the back streets. Street cats and dogs roam the streets and most expats will end up adopting one or more – I have three adopted cats. Groups of people, expats and locals, take care of the street animals by feeding them and having them neutered and vaccinated, but it is a big problem.
The roads are often in poor condition and drivers not necessarily able to drive (they bought their licence) or knowledgeable of the road rules, which in truth seem not to exist. Driving in Egypt is not for the faint hearted.
There are, as all over the world, people who will try to cheat the unwary. Egyptians do it with charm and grace, but you are still being cheated! Shopkeepers are masters of sweet talking, offering mint tea and chatting about everything under the sun except what they are selling until you feel obliged to buy something. It is important to be careful and to get recommendations from other expats or trustworthy locals as many people are cheated out of their money on big ticket things like villas, apartments and cars.
You would think the language would be the biggest issue when moving to a foreign country but I’ve found that here, at least, most people have some English and are keen to learn more.
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
Culturally there are adjustments, from simple ones like dressing more circumspectly (which you don’t have to do but I do out of respect for my adopted country) and remembering that Friday is the weekend, and during the month of Ramadan many food outlets will be closed during the day.
But my biggest adjustment was the way Egyptians go around in circles when you ask a question. It’s hard to get your head around it. You can’t ask a simple question and get a simple answer and that can be immensely frustrating. And beware of the phrase “bukra insh’allah”. That means tomorrow God willing, but what it really means is, tomorrow, or maybe tomorrow one day next week, or tomorrow next month, or even tomorrow, never. I’ve decided Egyptians hate to say no and disappoint.
What do you think of the food and drink in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?
The food is one of the big positives for me. I love Egyptian food, which has many similarities to Greek, Turkish, and Syrian food and it’s all delicious. And, even better, every restaurant delivers at almost any time of the day. Fancy mashi (vegetables stuffed with savoury rice) at one am? No worries, they deliver. Favourite foods are mashi, kofta, fattah (rice mixed with bread, tomato sauce and sometimes meat), and of course koshary. Sweets are wonderful too, my all time favourite being kunafa which is a kind of custard or cheese slice topped with tiny strands of pasta and soaked in a sweet sauce.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
For anyone thinking of moving to Egypt I say plan carefully. Be sure you are moving to a good neighbourhood and that you have people there you can trust to help you adjust and settle in. If you are a woman living alone it is important to ensure you are in a building where there is a reliable bowab (doorman) for added protection. I feel safer in Egypt than I do in my home country, but as with anywhere, you have to be sensible and take precautions.
I am fortunate in my work as I am an editor and author, so I can work from anywhere that has an internet connection. Red tape in Egypt is frustrating so if you plan to start a business or work for a business have someone you can trust to assist you. Egyptian red tape can be like a conversation with an Egyptian – it goes around in circles that are confusing and time consuming.
My life now is so different to what I thought it would be. Never did I think I would be living in a basic rental apartment in a seaside town in Egypt. Never did I think I would be happy living a simple life without frills, without my beloved high heeled shoes (oh, the angst when I parted with my shoes!). But I am. I write, I make my own work hours for my editing – far longer than regular work hours but far more satisfying. I draw and paint and have discovered a small artistic talent. I am at peace and that is more important to me than anything.
What are your plans for the future?
My future plans are to continue to build my editing business, to improve my time management so I have time to do my own writing, and move to a lovely seaside town called El Gouna, not far from Hurghada, once I am more financially stable.
My advice to anyone contemplating uprooting themselves in a similar fashion is to grab whatever opportunity opens up before you. It may not be what you thought you wanted or needed, but it may turn out to be exactly right for you and if not, you have an experience you can look back on that will have changed you for the better.
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