Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Getting around Cairo.

   Getting around Cairo.
Over the past couple of days I have had the pleasure of getting to know the transportation system of Cairo, and by pleasure I mean nightmare, and by system I mean cluster f*#@. So lets talk about driving in Cairo. My immediate reaction to Cairo’s nightmarish mass of hardened steel and fleshy humanity, which the Egyptians tenderly refer to as traffic, was, “ZOMYGOD WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!” (We didn’t… but there is still time).
            Before I arrived in Cairo I had often shrugged off the assertions of how terrible Cairo’s traffic was, thinking, ‘I have been on Highway 880 during rush hour! I know what bad traffic is like, no one moves for 5 minutes then everyone inches forward for a while and stops again.’ HA! I knew nothing! Try to imagine a sea of cars, buses, tractors, motorcycles, horses, bicycles, and people (some walking, others begging, some sleeping), all trying to go in a unique direction and all attempting to occupy the same piece of asphalt at the same time. I forgot to mention, there are no lanes. Each driver, and I use this term liberally, is trying to get into, on-top of, around, or through the other at breakneck speeds and with no discernible indications of where they are going or why. There is a finite amount of width on the freeway, but seemingly by magic, the Egyptians have found an infinite number of ways to utilize every last free patch of pavement. If a car breaks down or gets a flat tire, it is left where it is and repair work is done and the traffic accommodates. Buses frequently stop in the middle of the freeway to allow passengers to get on or off. Hungry passengers may decide that freeway food is exactly what they want. Isn’t it lucky there is a food vender standing in that lane! There never seems to be a single cause for the endless traffic. There are just too many people with too many cars trying to go too many places.
Furthermore, I have been told by a knowledgeable source that very few of the drivers have any formal driver’s education, often bribing an official to get a license or driving without any license at all. More than once I have seen children, older than eight younger than eleven, driving cars and motorcycles! Because all of the traffic lights continually flashing yellow, what few traffic enforcers the city has are used to control the flow of traffic at intersections. I was told by another knowledgeable source that these traffic cops accept bribes, so if you are in a hurry a few Egyptian Pounds can speed up the traffic in your direction.
            To a foreigner Cairo’s traffic seems like utter chaos, but I think I am underestimating the capacities of the Egyptian drivers. While I have nearly been involved in the most horrific accidents imaginable, I have not actually seen one. By using their horns and flashing their lights to talk to each other, the drivers here have an amazing ability to avoid collisions by inches. From my observations I can conclude that depending on how a driver utilizes the honk or flash he means anything from “hello fellow driver, it would be wonderful to share whatever space you might allow me. May I respectfully ask you to provide me with an invitation to join you?” to “we are crossing a bridge, I hope you fall off of it and die slowly, and that your family members lose their jobs and their houses burn down!” It’s a delicate art to convey such subtle meaning with a honk!

Pro Tip: Taxis.
Though I do not consider myself an expert, let me provide a bit of insight on taking taxis in Cairo. I have, on occasion, had the misfortune of missing my bus to school and had to take a cab from my dorm in Zamalek, in the heart of Cairo, to the AUC campus in New Cairo, a total inconvenience. The trip is quite lengthy, anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour and a half, so the taxi driver may be reluctant to take the fare. If he does he will try to make sure your ride is worth his time. The cost for this trip should be around forty-five or fifty Egyptian pounds, just over eight dollars, however it has been my experience that the drivers tend to find themselves ‘lost’ or ‘confused’ about which international school you are trying to go to. In their defense there are quite a few internationals schools in New Cairo, and they are always very apologetic for their ‘confusion’ or ‘mistakes.’ These little detours or miscalculations about the desired destination normally run up the meter by around thirty to fifty Egyptian pounds, which, lets be honest is not very much in the long run, and even with a total of about seventy to ninety pounds the ride is still impressively cheap compared to American standards. In essence, the cab drivers ensure a worthwhile fare by adding a creative route tax.
If you are traveling within Cairo, taxi drivers are just as keen on taking advantage of you, as they are if you are going out of the city like to New Cairo. If they sense they can, they will avoid using the meter and quote you higher price once you have arrived at your destination, a practice commonly associated with Cairo’s black taxis. As a way to run up the fare, taxi drivers often take long and complicated routes to get you to your destination. This practice is most prevalent but no unique to black taxis.
            In order to diminish the amount of tomfoolery that your driver is able to get away with, let him know that you know the route to your destination, be vigilant when he gets near to your destination and, if possible dictate, the directions to him. If a driver recognizes that you are not familiar with your surroundings or that you are a tourist he will find a way to charge you more. So if you are new to the city or in a new part of the city pretend that you are not. Don’t let the driver assume you are new to the area or don’t know where you are going.
As a rule taxi drivers do not have change. It is best to have as close to exact change as possible or your ten pounds ride could end up costing you twenty or fifty or more. Have your cash ready and don’t pay until everyone is out of the cab and all your belongings are accounted for. Did I mention black cabs, don’t take black cabs, the white ones are much safer. Even Egyptians are wary of taking black cabs. Don’t do it.

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