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January 10, 2010 / TildeWill

Egypt: Taxis

First, a few words about general road conditions in Cairo. The roads themselves seem well maintained, and have many of the usual markings one might be accustomed to, such as lane lines. The signage is a little helter skelter, some traffic lights have a countdown till the light turns green, one no parking sign may or may not look the same as the next. It’s like they’re still trying to figure out which one is best instead of just picking a standard and running with it. And those lane lines don’t mean much and traffic lights have to be enforced by police on the street with whistles. For the most part, traffic never stops flowing and if you want to cross the street you have to just go and pause between streams of cars waiting for the next hole.

The taxis are a whole new ball of wax. First off, most aren’t metered. You have to make sure you negotiate the price up front otherwise you’ll end up getting reamed when you get out like I did at the airport when I was too lazy to barter up front because it was 7am. And you really can haggle here. Many comedians will quickly point out that there’s never enough cabs in any big city. Not so in Cairo. Twenty-four seven you can find tons of fareless cabs on the streets.I think this is a great way to incentivize the taxi driver. You pay what you want, he gets what he wants, and you don’t have to worry that he’s taking the long way around to drive up his tip.

In the states however, you can be pretty sure that your cab driver knows the major landmarks and neighborhoods. Language barrier aside, many cab drivers in Cairo don’t even know how to get to the Pyramids at Giza. Basically you put any Ahmed who can drive and maybe has never left his neighborhood behind the wheel and call it done. We found ourselves parked by the side of the road lots of times as our cab driver asked a shop owner for directions.

Driving too is a Zen-like affair. It’s hard to explain, other than to say “traffic just flows”. No one has right of way, no one owns the space he’s in, let alone the space ahead of or around his car. If you need to come into my lane, I need to move in to the next lane, and maybe the car on the end has to slow down or speed up. Those who get how to drive in Cairo all talk with their horns and through an understanding that everyone just wants to make it work. People  who don’t get it just end up angry and pissed off about “being cut off” or that they can’t go any faster. The one’s that don’t get it make for scary drivers. The one’s that do have narrow misses all the time, but you never really feel frightened.

Riding in taxis is cheap, and certainly a good way to get around the city. It is a new experience and you can even talk to your driver who will be happy to teach you a few Arabic words. Your taxi experience will vary widely and will present you with new challenges, but in the end, it’s all a part of Egyptian culture.

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