In most cases, fees for visitor visas obtained upon arrival at land border crossings or international airports still require cash payment in hard currencies. Since we have used up some of our US$ for Egyptian visas and are anticipating quite high visa fees for Turkey and possibly Bulgaria1), we are looking for ways to get our hands on more US$. Surprisingly, the difference between buying and selling rates for US$ is minimal at banks and money changers in Cairo. Taking our excellent exchange rates for cash advances on credit card into account, we see a great opportunity to cheaply replenish our US$ cash backup funds. On our last day in Egypt, we arrive in Cairo with a substantial amount of cash in Egyptian pounds in our pockets, specifically advanced on our credit cards to be exchanged into US$.
We walk into the bank closest to our hotel and with great satisfaction notice the posted exchange rate - just what we need. At least, that is what we think until our request for US$ is simply answered with "Sorry, we do not have any US$. We sent them all to the main branch." Two other banks close to the first one turn out to have the same problem - great exchange rates but no US$. Within minutes, our quest for cheap US$ becomes a quest to get rid of Egyptian pounds which are worth next to nothing outside Egypt. We go to all the banks in our neighborhood, seek out the main branches, widen our scope from US$ to British £ and €, all without success. Money changers are also of little help. Being offered Libyan dinars or Danish krones, however, has to count as an improvement over banks. The branch of the MISR bank at Midan Orabi provides us with our most memorable moments of the hard currency quest. First, an employee comes out of his glass-enclosed cubicle to secretly whisper to us that there are no "free-market" US$. While we are talking, our eyes fall on the huge safe which is located in the publicly accessible main foyer right opposite the entrance door. We watch as an employee opens the safe right in front of us without any kind of security guard around, walks in, and comes out carrying a pile of Egyptian pounds - a pile from his forearms to right under his chin. Without a free hand, the employee cannot close the safe behind him, which does not seem to be of great concern to him; nor does it seem to bother him that we are getting a peek of the safe's interior. He brings the money to a third employee who is sitting, behind glass walls, in front of an enormous, one-meter-high pile of Egyptian pounds, counting the bills by hand.
"The exchange booth at the airport can give you US$", we hear more than once from banks and money changers. The prospect of exchanging our money in the middle of the night just before our plane leaves does not inspire us with much confidence, but we have no choice. At the departure hall, five major banks are represented with exchange booths. Each one of them tells us that only after check-in and security is there a bank booth which has US$. Completely and thoroughly disillusioned, we turn away from the exchange booths, our minds racing: "Ask arriving travelers if they need Egyptian pounds? Make a big scene by complaining to someone, but who? Take one of the employees at the exchange booth hostage?" After walking away for about ten meters, we get called back: "How much do you need?" "We take all you have!" When the employee pulls out a bundle with thousands of US$, we are totally confused. "Why did we get called back?", we are left wondering as we walk away with our comparatively few US$. We still do not know. By the way, there actually is a single bank booth after security which exchanges Egyptian pounds into US$, but only into US$ traveler cheques each worth US$ 50. If you need anything in between, you are stuck.
1) When we arrived at the Bulgarian border, we learned that visa requirements had been changed a couple of months earlier, and we did not have to pay anything.