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Cairo on $2 a day

The average Egyptian spends no more than 11 "pounds" a day, barely enough to feed an average American.

Never having been asked that before and not sure whether he was kidding, I waved him off with a laugh. But then I heard him engage in a fierce conversation with the other waiter. The only words I picked up were “bongo” and “foreigner.”

Alarmed, I repeated to him that I didn’t want marijuana, which is common among the working classes, and he assured me I’d only be smoking tobacco.

The men next to me were eating lunch, and they promptly asked me to join them. It is a cultural obligation here to offer food to others. In a taxi, the driver might offer his passenger the last bite of a sandwich. Anybody eating on the street will offer what they’re eating to just about anyone who passes by.

It’s courtesy, but it’s also the basis of a social safety net that insures everyone eats and survives despite low wages and high unemployment.

The men ate a salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and a cheese called Old Cheese, which looks (and smells) as the name implies. They had bread and green beans on the side.

Finishing up my smoke, I paid 2 pounds and headed off down the street until I ran into an older man who approached me speaking perfect English.

“Don’t go this way anymore,” he said. “The people here are all right. The ones past the tunnel that way are stupid.”

After thanking him profusely for his advice, I bee-lined in the direction he’d warned me against. After a few blocks, I found myself in a poorer section of Shobra. With the grand, if faded, architecture behind me, I saw only poor concrete structures. Donkey carts ruled there, and many of the smaller side streets were unpaved.

With 7 pounds in my pocket, and one of those dedicated to the return metro ride, I went to find dinner. Inspired by the men sitting next to me at the cafe, I stopped off at a produce market. Two tomatoes and two cucumbers cost me 2 pounds. I found an Old Cheese vendor a few blocks later and paid 2 pounds for half a kilo.

That would be good enough for an evening salad. I rode the metro home with 2 pounds to my name. I was discouraged that my 11 pounds was really only enough to buy the food and drink.

Yet many Egyptians support a family on the same amount.

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