“Fee Fikka?” means “Is there change?” and is a shockingly important question if you plan on spending time in Egypt. Among all the potential hurdles I found to worry about before I left for Egypt, I must say that getting correct change didn’t make my list—but as it turns out this is a consistently difficult task. I am not sure exactly what the reason is for this, but it seems there is a nationwide shortage of small change—which when coupled with generally small prices, makes for quite a struggle to hoard your small change.
To give you an idea of the problem, when I go to an ATM it dutifully spits out a bunch of 200 guinea bills. Don’t get me started on this—I really cannot fathom why someone along the line made the decision to print so many 200 guinea bills when so little costs nearly that much. Most days, the things I buy include one or two guinea-a-piece sandwiches from my holes-in-the-wall of choice, perhaps a 2 guinea giant bottle of water, and if I am really on a spending spree a 10 guinea coffee from one of the cafes with internet that we frequent, or maybe I will eat the most expensive meal out I have been to yet—which cost 70 guinea. A few times after going to the ATM I have found myself in a dilemma when I only have 200 guinea bills, and all I want is a one guinea foul sandwich that I effectively cannot afford, because if I present the 200 guinea bill, in all likelihood my friend at the sandwich table Hosni will chuckle and inform me that he doesn’t have change for my giant bill. Other times, shopkeepers try to accommodate me, which leads to me waiting in their store for about 10 minutes as they go up and down the street to their neighbors trying to make change.
The weirdest part of this problem is how inversely a lot of shopkeepers seem to value their money. More than once, I have noticed that shopkeepers would literally prefer to charge me slightly less than to hand over their small change—usually this is for items that cost a certain number of guineas and 25 piastres (cents, basically) and giving me proper change would require handing over a precious 50 piastre piece and a 25 piastre piece, so instead they give me a whole guinea back. The odd psychology of this has spread among us as well. For example, I would much more willingly lend a friend 200 guinea if they hadn’t been to an ATM in a while than I would break a 20 into 5s even if I had them. We hoard our small change now, and still it seems hard to keep it properly stocked.
Why, you ask? Well for one, the second you get in a taxi (and are clearly not Egyptian) you really need to expect that whatever you hand over is what you are paying. Negotiating cab fares is a constant struggle here, and asking for change (at least for timid me) feels like adding insult to injury if the cab driver is attempting to overcharge me—and mind you I make a habit of handing over a few guinea extra as it is. Secondly, I tend to use small change whenever I ride the tram, which costs 25 piastres. It is often quite crowded and the payment system can be slightly chaotic, so while I probably could get change, it is much easier to cough up the right amount. Also, it really can just be a lot more convenient to pay in correct change anywhere around Alexandria, so whenever I get a good stash I have a bad habit of reveling in it (read: using it), and finding myself a few days later with a wallet full of 200s.
Anyway, after classes tomorrow I am on vacation for a week, and I could not be more ready for a bit of relaxation. I am headed to a few places this break: Cairo, El Fayoum, Hurghada, and possibly a bit more tourism type stuff around Alexandria. I will be sure to post some highlights here when I get back after a week of relaxing in oases, metropolises and Red Sea resorts! Till next time…