Juliana Hotel - The Cheapest Karma in Cairo

Juliana Hotel
I realize it's unlikely most people my age would choose to stay at a Hostel in Cairo just blocks from Tahrir Square but that's just what I did. Backpacking across Europe, check. $12 a bed hostels, check. I realize it's not for everyone... but don't you want to, just once say you did?

We ended up staying at the Juliana Hotel and Hostel in Cairo Egypt, because of the high recommendations on the Internet. While I was fully prepared to say upon our return, that the hotel offered me exactly everything I expected, on the last day, our hotel reserved and provided arrangements to taxi us to the Cairo airport were either ignored, forgotten, or lost in translation. We were left at 4 AM in the heart of Cairo with no ride to the airport. After a somewhat amazing feat of endless running to Al-Tahrir Square, we somehow brokered a deal with the non-English speaking taxi driver, knowing hardly any Arabic, and using hand gestures to imitate an air-plane taking off. I still wonder was the failure to appear on purpose, or simply a mistake? You may be wondering why I'd even ask such a thing, but I have an odd feeling our predicament was the result of our hesitation to tip our driver on a previous excursion. Being poor students, we felt it was justifiable (this is a hostel after all) if we could wait and see how much money we had on our final day, and offer our driver a lump-sum tip at the end of our visit to thank him. Perhaps he disliked our innovative tipping strategy and chose to teach them two American girls a lesson in Egyptian karma? Or was it simply all a big mistake? Despite this rather unfortunate series of events, prior in the week, our driver did stand in as our man-proxy when local merchants or hucksters attempted to take advantage of our western naiveness, or wouldn't talk to us to us because of being women. We did want to tip him.
The view from the balcony.

The first thing to understand about the Juliana Hotel is that the reviews online are often authored in the Juliana lobby on a computer that "smile happy" Jimmy ("Jimmy?" did his mother hate him?) has set up. Personally, I can't say I'd necessarily give a completely honest review, if those whom I was reviewing are standing over me, or God forbid, necessary for my ride back to the airport. Since no one showed up that morning, we weren't persuaded to make such a obedient review, though I did witness several other victims, I mean guests, during the week who weren't as lucky. As karma would have it,  (and I bet Jimmy never saw this one coming) I just happen to own a website where I can post my unbiased review.
Hannu, our driver through Karma and Cairo.

Egyptian Breakfast.
So now that we got the ugly elephant out in the room and dancing in his pink skirt, let me say for the money, and despite the rather interesting experience at the end- Juliana Hotel is worth every dollar. It may not be what you want but they'll give you what you need. (They should use that as their mantra!) First some advice. If you're going to Cairo and your name isn't Liliane Battencourt, then prepare to fend for yourself. Cairo is a self-reliant place. Your taxi might not show up, people will lie to you, and it's up to you to become capable of getting yourself in and out of situations, and to and from places- even having a backup plan when your first choice fails. A handheld sat-nav (gps) and some basic Arabic are a necessity. If you're rich and staying at a 5-star hotel, touring with armed guards on a mini-bus, you'll have a completely different experience. These two faces of Cairo are for two different kinds of people- the Indiana Jones explorer, and the other... someone who doesn't mind spending tons of money for a faux experience. Egypt is expensive despite its 6:1 exchange rate on the dollar. Egyptians believe all English speakers are from either America and England, and that we're all rich and fat. If you're going to visit Cairo, I highly recommend learning enough French or Spanish (or other language) to communicate with the people in your group; because speaking English is like a giant blinking neon sign above your head that says "I own a Corvette, a five bedroom house, and eat three meals a day -therefore very, very, very rich." Let me clarify, because I certainly don't mean to stereotype, but this was the prevailing opinion I took home from meeting the people of Cairo. As a result, I used more French in Cairo than in Belgium because of this fact. Most less fortunate beggars can't speak French, so if you reply back to their overused "Welcome to Egypt, where are you from?" hook with "Je ne comprends pas" (I don't understand) they quickly go away. (Demographics suck, no?) Say anything in English, and prepare to make a new friend who wants to give you "a gift" for your "gift".

Clearly they don't understand the various meanings of can.
So lets say you decide to stay at Juliana Hotel. You can choose between either a hostel style booking with shared water closet (toilet) and shower, or a private hotel style room. If you go down to the lobby (a cubicle at the end of the hall) at 8 AM each morning, they'll bring you some breakfast consisting of a hard boiled egg, some Olive Garden style bread-sticks and tea or coffee. It may not seem like a lot, but you'll find it's more than adequate as your diet adjusts to the heat and the massive consumption of water. Some mornings it was too much. The Showlet as we dubbed it, is a wet-room shower and toilet combo that requires you to trash your toilet paper rather than flush it. Of course the habit does not change with ease. The rooms are overall clean, though there is some wood rot in the bathroom, and the grouting is rather scary in areas. You'll also likely wake up with mysterious bites from some elusive nocturnal Egyptian insect (or scorpion). The streets are loud, and the call to prayer at three, five and ten, feels like it's being broadcast from your balcony. Then again you get a good air-conditioner and four-hundred channels of television in Arabic all for the price of a happy meal. You really can't complain... plus it's an adventure!
Don't all hotels decorate with tinsel and white boards?

Where the Juliana Hotel really shines is its location. Sure the arm-rails to the stairs are falling in, and the the elevator only goes up, and then only on certain days; but you're two blocks from the Nile River, and less than a half mile from Al-Tahrir square. You can't get more Cairo than this. On the corner of the street is a blue gas station (that you'll become very familiar with) that sells nothing but gas, but across the street, and to the right (the opposite direction of Tahrir) is several authentic Arabic language only Egyptian street food eateries. You're also near the embassies, if that makes you feel any better about a hotel that had tanks parked out front earlier this year. It's also worth pointing out, if you absolutely must eat American, at Tahir Square, there's a Hardees. Yes a bloody Hardees. Nothing says revolution like country music and biscuits.
One Double Bacon Western Cheeseburger Please.

Where Juliana appears to make their money is on the excursions. Three hundred-fifty Egyptian pounds ($70) for an all-day driver who took us around to the pyramids, the Memphis museum, and eventually back to the Juliana Hotel. The bad part is there's several "upsell" destinations (which they don't tell you when you book) with which they stop at along the way, and where you're pressured into everything from camel rides, to papyrus paper paintings, and eventually dinner. Of course this is part of coming to Cairo, but as two poor students who just wanted to see the pyramids, it became a bit overwhelming and monotonous. Eventually, covered in sweat and tired from the day, we skipped the dinner to obtain our own meal once we found it it was 50 EGP a person. While that may seem cheap, (less than $10 a person) you can go around the corner from the hotel, and buy two huge containers of Kushari (true Egyptian street cuisine) for $12 EGP or $2 USD. Juliana, like much of Cairo, will nickel and dime you till you leave their country in poverty, if you don't stand up for yourself and know exactly what you want. Bring a huge bag of Egyptian-pound coins, (and exact change when checking in) and if you're a British or Australian who isn't accustomed to tipping for normal stuff, let alone everything, be prepared!
Was a perfect tasting recipe for Kashuri.

What you'll want most is water. Buy it soon, and buy it often. Take two to three times the money you expect that you'll need, even if you're a poor student staying at a hostel like Juliana. Never say anything in English- especially with regards to you being American. But if you want the adventure of a lifetime, and some amazing stories to tell your grandchildren, then hold your karma close, because there is only one place to stay in Cairo: The Juliana Hotel.


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