When I was a boy, it cost 10 Egyptian piasters to take a white and dark blue taxi from North Zamalek, where my family lived, to the Lycée Français in Bab-el-Louk. The ride took 10 minutes at most.
This was circa the mid 60s.
Today, that same taxi ride can take 20-25 minutes (if you are lucky) and will usually set you back 10 to 30 LE (a stunning increase, in my opinion, shaded as it is by the memory of the way things were during Nasser’s era), depending on whether the taxi driver (in the new, supposedly more honest white taxis) has turned on his addad (meter), and whether or not you are a tourist.
If you speak Arabic, as I do, but fail to notice that the cabbie has turned on the meter (or if he simply refuses to turn on the meter, which he will do if going to Cairo Airport, which should set you back no more than 100 LE, at current rates), you will arrive at your destination and realize that there is no official fare (unless you were smart enough to not set foot in the taxi without first agreeing up the fare, especially before going to Cairo Airport, or some other distant destination). When you ask how much, you will be invariably be told, “whatever it is that you think is right,” or some annoying variant thereof.
But if you think that, say, 20 LE is right, the driver will usually pull a face and begin arguing with you about the price of gas or that he needs to put 9 children through school or some other sob story.
In such instances, the best thing to do is say il-barraka-lillah (good things belong to or come from Allah), and be on your way with dispatch.
But if the meter was actually turned on, and the fare at your destination reads, say, 15 LE, you will find that no taxi driver in Cairo will have the 5LE change that is owed back to you, if you hand over, say, a 20 LE note.
This is Egypt’s hidden No Small Change tax that every tourist faces.
The same thing applies in Gouna.
More often than not, if you shop for groceries at Safeway or one of the other “supermarkets” (these are tiny affairs, compared to their American equivalent, with narrow aisles that are usually zahma, or crowded, especially on holidays), you will be given tiny Chiclets boxes as change.
Sometimes, if the checkout person thinks your’re a wealthy but clueless tourist, you will not be given change at all. This happened to me the other day, when I bought some items at the Ebeid supermarket that totaled 83 LE, and was wordlessly given back 15LE in change from a 100 LE note.
I had to ask for the missing 2 LE back, which made the cashier pull a sour moue, as he gave me two 1 LE coins to me in a manner that indicated a sense of deep contempt for my miserliness.
So why is this so?
Egypt suffers from massive inflation that has averaged, in recent years, 20 to 30 per cent annually.
The inflation rate is so high that entire denominations have disappeared — the millim (1/100 of a piaster), nekla (or 2 millimes), ersh (or piaster), shillin‘ (5 piasters), bariza (10 piasters), and reyal (20 piasters), have all disappeared.
The slang terms bariza and reyal, actually, are still used, but indicate 10 and 20 geneihs (a term for the Egyptian pound, derived from guinea, a throwback reference to the 79-year British occupation of Egypt), respectively.
Moreover Egyptian money slang has been hyperaugmented with the terms baku (ie. “pack,” for 1,000 EGP, as there is no letter “p” in Arabic), arnab (ie “rabbit, for 1,000,000 EGP), and feel (or “elephant,” for 100 million EGP) — that latter two unimaginable sums in the 60s in Cairo, when an engineer earned about 30 LE a month, and a luxe apartment overlooking the Nile rented for 50LE).
The bottom line is this.
If you are visiting Gouna, make sure you stop by one of the banks in town, and ask for change of a 200 LE note (this is roughly 20 US dollars). Ask for a few 20s, 10, 5s, and a generous dollop of 1 LE and 50 piaster coins. The bank cashier may or may not accommodate you, but all you can do is try.
This will save you from being forced to accumulate unwanted tiny boxes of Clorets.
On the other hand, this tactic will force you to carry around huge wads of usually worn out, dirty-looking money.
It’s for this reason that a Clorox handi wipe, or its equivalent, is essential in Egypt, if you handle money prior to, say, having a meal.
Nevertheless, such a precaution is the only way to fight back against the rampant Hidden No Small Change tax that will drip drip drip many pounds away from you if you stay any length of time in a touristy place like El Gouna.
You can thank me for this travel tip later on, that is to say, you can zabbatni, meaning “even me out,” a slang expression favored by many Egyptian parasites, in Gouna and elsewhere, looking to make a quick geneih in return for performing a (usually trivial) service, but know in advance that I absolutely have no fakka today.