*This entry was written on 10/25/2011, but backdated to when the events actually occurred.
In a city of approximately 10 million people, it’s no surprise that the traffic is as bad as it is. Traffic jams, often due to rubbernecking, have worsened lately, and the daily commute from school to home has increased from 40-45 minutes to over an hour, much of which is spent idling on the Ring Road, a notorious stretch of road so congested that it would benefit from a vehicular Netti Pot. Usually, a dusty Sherbert-colored sunset and some good tunes are enough to ease my nerves, but last Wednesday brought me too close to snapping. Whoever came up with that whole breathing-and-counting technique has never spent 3 hours sitting in a cab in Cairo.
Last Wednesday marked Open House for secondary students, so my day ended around 11. Last Wednesday was also one day before the deadline for the Pharonic Run registration, and I volunteered to drop off our money and registration forms at the office. This seemed easy enough; I’d pop on down after school, drop off the forms, and be back in Maadi lickety-split. Of course, then I found out that the office was only open until 2. With a mixture of desperation and charm, I convinced the man to wait around until 3:30 and called the school driver to pick me up at 2:45 to take me to Nasr City. My school is out in the boondocks (or cuts, as Ashley would say) in Katameya, which appears to be about a half hour ride from Nasr City where the office is located. If all went well, I’d even beat the school bus home.
I sat outside by the gate at 2:45. 3:00 found me biting my nails and angrily dialing the driver. “Forgive me!” he answered. “There is traffic, he’ll be there soon.” When I inquired as to who “he” was, I learned that our driver was sending one of HIS drivers to retrieve me. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I knew where I was going in Nasr City; all I had was a scrap of paper with the address and unfounded faith in our driver’s internal GPS. The new driver showed up at 3:15, and we lasted 5 minutes before hitting traffic.
The rest of the hour+ long ride into Nasr City consisted of me calling the guy at the office and delaying my arrival a half hour, an hour, and then finally putting him on the phone with the cab driver who would hang up and nod confidently to me, saying, “Meshi.” (Which means, “OK, I’m good” but actually translates to, “I am very lost. You will need to phone your contact at least 3 more times.”) I knew this because, upon hanging up, he would phone someone else, hang up, and then ask numerous passersby where he was going. I was very surprised when finally, close to 5pm, we arrived at the office, where I darted through the door smelling of sweat and hysteria.
I wanted to get done quickly, but the liason had no intent of letting me go so easily. He looked at my list of 8 names and carefully pronounced each one slowly. I jiggled my foot on the edge of the couch before speed-reading the list for him and asking to pay. I feel a bit bad, because he was a friendly and very helpful man whose character was magnified by the fact that he’d waited over 3 hours for me and still had a jolly and genuine smile on his face. We finally finished, and, receipt in hand, I turned to leave when he said, “You work in Katameya? I send my account manager to get your money, 50 LE. You give me the address, I send him.” It was one of those things you wish you didn’t know; the fact that he had someone who could’ve just picked up the money from me and I’d only have to pay less than $10 for him to come was something that made my whole situation ten times worse. As soon as he said this, I burst out laughing, thanked him, and hopped back onto the zebra seat covers to enjoy the hour-long journey back to Maadi.
A Note on Cab Drivers and Language
My cab experiences here have proven to be one of the most interesting – and trying – elements of living in Cairo. In fact, I saw an article on my newsfeed the other day about a book called Taxi written by a cab driver here. They make no money – I pay less than $1 on most cab trips around town – and most people don’t tip them well or at all. The book looked interesting, but beneath it, a woman – presumably an expat – wrote about how terrible the drivers are here. So I figured I’d teach you how to hail a cab in Maadi.
First, you have to step out into speeding traffic and wriggle your fingers. Generally, a cab will flash its lights if it’s vacant. We get the white cabs because they have meters, but the black ones are okay for very local trips if you know how much the trip should cost you. You lean over the window and name a place (street, address, building) and the cab driver nods his head. Yes, of course he knows how to get to the Grand Mall. You happily clamber in. He drives a few meters, then turns around and asks you if he should go left or right. If you don’t know, then your ride is punctuated with frequent stops to ask other drivers or people on the sidewalk. All that happiness you felt upon snagging a cab dissipates as you drive aimlessly around town, and soon, you hate your cab driver like you hate all things evil.
However, I’ve picked up a lot of Arabic in cabs. I can now say turn around “lef”, wait here “stenna henna“, here is good “henna quoiss”, stop “o-af”, and obviously the directions. My favorite phrase has been “yalla-bina“, which means let’s go quickly. I learned much of this from Sarah and Anna, my friends from England and Scotland respectively. Anna also finds that saying normal English words and phrases in an accent helps. “Grand Mall” is not helpful, but shouting “GRAN MOLE!!” in staccato will get you where you need to go. Getting to rugby from the Wadi this weekend was a nightmare; we drove around aimlessly for a while before calling someone at the game and having them put a security worker on the phone.
Last night’s cab experience wasn’t nearly as exciting as the experience that followed. We heard of a Halloween costume shop on Nasr Street, and I used my friend’s directions to get us there. I thought we were doing well, but after a few trips up and down the street, I realized we had no idea where to tell our driver to go. We got out – he didn’t even want the full fare, if that shows how miserable he felt driving 4 girls around who kept shouting “turn around” or mumbling in English – and decided to ask at a Mobinil (a phone/electronics store). The man we asked was busy inputting names into the queue so he gave us a number and told us to wait on customer service…to ask where a costume store was. I was laughing at this point, and after Ashley walked into a car mirror, we decided to just grab a cab and give up. If you ever come to Cairo, be prepared to do a lot of that.