Friday, November 16, 2007

Egypt in the eyes of a foreigner: (Part 4) Traffic and taxis of Cairo

Hardly an hour in the territory of Cairo airport, I already had a few snippets of what was to be seen afterwards. Alexandra turned out to be from our school and accidentally was to stay in the same hostel for several nights as I was. We waited a little bit longer and our guide decided that we should go. We left the airport and started looking for his car. At the beginning I started looking up for a parking, to give up several minutes later, realizing there was no real designated place to park a car. I mean there was but cars were parked all over that place and its surroundings and the only place, which was kept free and controlled on subject of illegal parking was the immediate proximity of the main exit gate of the airport and the adjacent route, serving up a main venue for buses, minibuses and other four-wheeled vehicles.

His car – I however have doubts whether that might be called a car in any of Western countries – was situated amidst a patch of an admixture of asphalt and freshly wet mud in a place, which would be hard to find, considering no landmarks or any other orientation that one could relay to. The car itself was a Fiat, if I remember correctly, dating perhaps from late 50s or 60s. Yes, it was that old. twenty meters away from the car we came across another person, an Egyptian, who happened to be also with our guide. Thus four of us incrusted – for a lack of a better word describing our action – ourselves into the car with our luggage and were on our way to the city.

I and Alexandra engaged in a mundane conversation of sorts one has in such a situation; where are your from, what did you study, first time in Egypt, why do you want to learn Arabic, etc. We also had eventual interruptions of our Egyptian guides who were trying hard to figure out where we came from. Their scarce English knowledge turned out to be hardly sufficient to understand names of countries such as Armenia and Belgium pronounced in English. Luckily, Alexandra had already taken some classes of Modern Standard Arabic and could utter some phrases in Arabic, much to the delight of our guides, who never ceased to grin at her at any possible opportunity through the front and side mirrors of the car.

Another conclusion crept up: Egyptian men are very fond of European women, all the more when the latter show signs of caring about Egyptian culture or being able to speak some, however unsubstantial it might be, Arabic.

Alexandra spoke quite well Arabic. But then and there she didn’t revise much her Arabic and had problems expressing herself. Also, it turned out to be evident that her high Arabic – I call Modern Standard Arabic high Arabic, reminiscent of hoch Deutsch, high German – was badly understood by our guides, and this wasn’t because of her accent in Arabic or lack of vocabulary. As we were to find later on, majority of Egyptians either have hard time understanding high Arabic or are totally at lose. Only a few select, educated elite are able to read, write and even to speak in high Arabic, despite the large amount of newspapers circulated daily and available to everyone and despite the fact that all media emissions were conducted in high Arabic.

I have seen many bizarre things in my life and there was very little that I expected would truly amaze me. I thought I have seen it all. But I was up for a surprise. The traffic in Cairo streets.

Did you watch sci-fi movies such as 5th element or I,Robot. You have scenes of futuristic streets riven with ground and spatial alleys, pathways, and streets and in which traffic is going in all direction without any collision nonstop, with speeds considered normal in car racing. I wouldn’t exaggerate telling that what I witnessed resembled so much these fictional scenes that I felt somewhat in awe at the beginning. There was however a slight difference between those movie scenes and Cairo streets. It was that in movies some cars and vehicles also circulate in the air; this apparently wasn’t yet the case in Cairo. Traffic circulation happens only on the ground.

There are no first, second or third lines even on largest of streets (take Gamat El Dowal or Ahmad Orabi streets for example). Cars intermingle, change lines, stop and start, double and wink at each other at any possible moment in any possibly imaginable and sometimes unimaginable way.

There is no traffic lights, or to be precise, they don’t usually work. Instead you have police officers or dismissed military sergeants standing on major crossings and pathways and manually regulating the traffic. Needless to say that it doesn’t work efficiently, nor work at all sometimes. The policemen raises his hand to stop one line of cars, but it takes usually several cars to bypass his hand and continue their way before the line comes to a final stop, giving way for the other line of cars.

There is no regulated place of bus or taxi stops on streets. There are some bus stop places but you can stop a bus anywhere on a street by raising your hand. The bus however doesn’t grind to a total stop, in expectation of you to climb it up. It merely decelerates and it is up to you to jog along it and to jump on it. Oh, a mere detail. These busses, almost always and all of them, are jammed to an impossible level. There are always people hanging from open doors. One of these people is the hailer. He hails people to take the bus. He announces an approximate route, itself subject to changes if passengers so wish, and calls loudly and emphatically for pedestrians to take the bus. So taking a bus in Cairo amounts to spotting one, hearing carefully and trying to discern from a usually broken colloquial Egyptian the approximate route, then jogging along the bus for up to ten meters, during which others hanging from the door will make space for a footstep, and putting your foot and trying to hold on to something or someone at the same time. And this ride costs almost nothing - 0.5 pounds.

Taxi ride is also quite unorthodox, compared to what a Westerner used to lower standards (even) might expect. Let’s start by description of how almost 90% of Cairo taxes look like. It is a car, usually old and technically unsupported and abject-looking. It might date from late 50s – I had several of those, where the driver would come and open and close my door by hinging and unhinging it and where there were no mirrors, no lights, no panels of indication, but an old steering wheel, three pedals and a gear – up to late 70s the newest. In most cases you have a 70% chance that you will not be able to open or close the door; 80% chance that the front seat where you usually sit (only if you are a male) is dirty, shabby, and looks otherwise adamantly unwelcoming. And not to forget the driver himself. The taxi driver looks usually as if he were freshly released from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or such and has no real knowledge or awareness of anything but his steering wheel. He usually looks worn, unshaved, wearing crumpled and dirty clothes, sports a look, which is usually varying from outmost hostile to totally indifferent to sometimes bizarre sympathy. For this latter however you have to speak some Arabic or be a nice Western girl, preferably blond with all physical attributes present and evident.

Since recently, there are also so-called yellow-cabs, a flotilla of rather new Western cars, Skodas or Passats usually, but this is for privileged or insistent few.

Once you stop a taxi, which on busy streets might be a challenge, the game starts. You lean to the window of the taxi and tell in Arabic, most recommended, your destination address and preferably also the area name in Cairo where your destination lies. At this point the taxi driver, if he understood where you want to go, usually asks how much you want to pay. It is needless to say that this is subject to negotiation. If you are a good negotiator you might end up having a fair price; if you aren’t good at negotiating and you have to take many taxis, you will notice how quickly you spend lot of money on taxis.

The rule is that taxi drivers try to rip off foreigners. The better-dressed you appear the higher the initial price you are told. On average they ask, for example, 10 Egyptian pounds instead of three-to-five pounds. In the evening, the prices go even higher. You might be asked to pay 20 pounds for the route you paid 5 pounds during the afternoon. The key is to negotiate and to please. An alternative to it is what is suggested in majority of mainstream popular guidebooks on Egypt such as Lonely Planet or Rough Guide: have the amount you think is fair and jump into taxi once you think the taxi driver understood your destination. Go out of the car, throw the money into the open window and walk away as fast as you can. That is what is recommended. Apparently, those guides didn’t warn that some members of your family might be involved in next phrases and sentences that the taxi driver will not hesitate to shout after you if thinks he didn't rip you off. But that’s the European way. Throw and run, and no matter the humiliation.

Next, I will describe my first days in school.

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