There are three things that really differentiate the way money is used in Egypt from how it is used in United States: bargaining, tipping, and an almost exclusive reliance on cash. All three present a problem for me.
First, I should explain that I really don’t like money. I like having it, of course. But I hate dealing with it. I don’t like to talk about money, I don’t like to make a big deal out of it. I’m the guy who, at a restaurant with a group of people, will throw down an extra fifteen dollars just to avoid a lengthy discussion of the bill. I just want to ignore money as much as I can. That’s not how things work here.
They say that the price of everything in Egypt is negotiable. When most people buy things here they name a price, the vendor names another price, and then the two parties work their way toward a price in the middle. There are plenty of exceptions of course, but with many, many things that’s how it works for everything from taxis to a kilo of cucumbers. I see it happen all the time. When I go to buy something, though, the process is a bit simpler: I say a price, get another price from the seller, and then say, “Um. Well. Okay.”
The next problem I have is with tipping, known in Arabic as baksheesh. I’m a generous tipper at restaurants and bars. I always go with at least twenty percent. But that’s not what baksheesh is. Baksheesh is giving people a little bit of money when they do something for you. It’s supposedly an integral part of the Egyptian economy. (I recently read a story that said that visitors to the Giza zoo give baksheesh to the zookeepers.) The problem is, I have no idea how to do it. Whom am I supposed to tip? When? How much? Furthermore, I don’t like the awkward process of taking bills out of my pocket and handing them to people. I usually end up foregoing baksheesh, which I’m sure is rude and unfair.
Finally, there is the problem of cash. Almost nobody accepts credit cards in Egypt. My paycheck, which I received last week, came in the form of an envelope of cash. Egypt’s is largely a cash economy. There’s nothing wrong with that, except for me because 1) I have very little self control when it comes to money, and 2) I am really, really good at misplacing things. I crumple up twenty dollars bills, shove them in my pockets and then re-discover them a few weeks later after they’ve gone through the washing machine. Then I get excited that I found a free twenty dollars and go spend it on some bullshit. Naturally, a cash economy does not suit me.
Why am I talking about this? What’s my point here? It’s simple: I am a stupid foreigner and will probably go broke in this country and in the process offend hundreds of service industry workers.