The colour and chaos of cab rides in the Egyptian capital.
Traffic surges through a picturesque neighbourhood of Cairo, Egypt.
The young man gestures sharply as he steps out of the taxi. The driver barks a reply, lost in the noise of passing cars. On each side, cars jerk and slide through the Cairo traffic. The smell of petrol and exhaust fumes weaves about the towering apartment blocks, and the heat haze radiates from the concrete.
No one pays much attention to the argument: they've seen it all before. With an expression of disgust, the passenger peels off some ragged notes and thrusts them through the window. A last few words on each side, then the taxi pulls away, reinserting itself into the flow.
Haraami means "thief" in Arabic, and it's a word sometimes shouted at taxi drivers in Egypt. Foreigners also have reason to use it, yet it's difficult to avoid this form of transport. Locals pack the city buses to the gills, the underground Metro is good but limited in its destinations, and driving is a daunting prospect. The Cairo taxi is a challenge that must be faced.
There are no companies to call, just thousands of black-and-white vehicles plying the streets. Some are bright and new, some the worse for wear, some held together by wire and prayer. Aspiring passengers stand at the side of the road and signal, or yell their destinations to a passing driver. He will decide if he wants to take the fare.
All Egyptian taxis have meters - they just don't use them. The best passenger strategy is to have the correct change ready for the accepted price to the chosen destination.
But the Cairo taxi experience is worth any small quibbles over the appropriate fare. Narrelle Harris taught English to adult students in Cairo in the 1990s. She remembers her first impression of the Egyptian cabbie: "The day I arrived in Cairo, my taxi went the wrong way down a one way road to get out of the airport. That pretty much set the tone. It got a bit scary from time to time, but I was never involved in more than a minor bingle. Mostly it was scary-but-funny to see the way the drivers fudged the traffic laws, took bizarre short cuts and flouted the laws of physics."
Female passengers might also encounter marriage proposals. To ward these off, Harris talked about her husband and showed off a gold ring. "I found it was best to sit in the back seat. A lot of single women I knew would wear a wedding band, just to make life easier."
I also lived in Cairo, and had some memorable taxi rides of my own. The most notable was on the day of an earthquake which rocked the city. Travelling along a flyover, the driver pulled over, got out and kicked the tyres. A young student later got in, and explained in English about the quake. I'd had no clue. Which goes to show that a Cairo taxi ride feels something like an earthquake, to the point of disguising it.
Another time, an unexpectedly magnificent taxi pulled up. Rather than the usual battered Fiat, it was a venerable Mercedes-Benz. The wood panelling gleamed, the seats were comfortable leather. The grey-haired drier explained that he'd driven this gem since World War II.
The most interesting ride was in the company of some British teachers. We piled in, to be astonished by a female taxi driver behind the wheel. Wearing a higab (headscarf), she explained that she was divorced and this was her means of support. She was a little nonplussed by our questions, but she was the only Cairene woman taxi driver I ever saw.
And one day I got into a cab for a short trip, to discover an Australian behind the wheel. He'd brought his newborn child back to see his Egyptian family, and was killing time by driving a taxi. We had a good chat about Sydney, the unexpected conversation contrasting with the exotic setting we were in.
It may sound as if catching taxis in Cairo is a constant adventure. It isn't. Not all drivers will argue over the amount, and many will offer unsolicited gifts (cigarettes, for example) and be friendly company.
Of course, a ride with a haraami is far more memorable.
Harris agrees. "Most rides were uneventful and the drivers cheerful and professional. But of course it's the crazy ones, who proposed or who tried to rip you off, which make the best travel stories."
on 27 February 2008.
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