Intolerants Rant: On the Move in Cairo
Let’s get practical, because part of being an Intolerant means not spending copious amounts of time waffling about. If you want to get from here to there, or there to here, or just there in Cairo, you need to figure out a way to move around in the least amount of time with as little hassle as possible. No easy feat given the traffic and the eyebrow-raising state of the capital’s transportation infrastructure. Urban transport in Cairo is satisfactory at best and if you’re not tied to a tour group the options are limited to bus, metro, taxi and walking. While some methods are far better than others, each one has its pros and cons with the cons, in particular, leaving you occasionally dizzy and banging your head against the wall in disbelief.
Come on, the challenge is half the fun, no?
There are the buses: Green, and the newer red, public buses roll around Cairo at a breakneck pace, but I’ve never taken one for the following reasons:
- I have no idea where the stops are (many are unmarked);
- Several of the routes aren’t clearly defined;
- Sexual harassment on buses is rife;
- A lot of buses (green especially) are an affront to the environment and should be pulled off the road immediately; and,
- There are green buses on the road that are the largest safety hazard known to man, particularly the ones that lean precariously to one side because the axel is broken, which means the vehicle will topple over at any given moment.
If you want an adventure however, by all means, get yourself on the bus. Oh, and kindly send me the memo to let me know how that worked out for you.
There is the metro: Cairo’s metro has been operational for a couple decades now and is a rather efficient way to get around certain parts of the city. There are only three lines at the moment, which limit where you can go, but they cover a broad expanse of the city and are being expanded as we speak. The best part of taking the metro is the ridiculous cost of a ride: short-travel tickets (up to 9 stations) cost 1 LE per piece. For the most part, the stations are clean and there are carriages for women only, which cuts down on the possibility of being exposed to harassment.
Regardless of your gender, you better be prepared to throw an elbow or two when you arrive at your stop as there’s still no understanding among metro users of the concept: passengers on the train get off before people on the platform get on. It’s a clash of the titans as you force your way through a throng of heavy set, animated, abbaya wearing women who are pushing back at you as they fight tooth and nail to get on the train.
PS – forget the metro during the unbearably hot summer months unless you want to be a cranky, foul smelling and sweaty mess by the time you reach your destination.
There are the taxis: Khaled Al Khamissi wrote an engaging book in 2006 about taxi drivers in Cairo. His novel is touted as an experiment in “urban sociology” as he offered insight into contemporary Egypt through the voices of taxi drivers he encountered in Cairo. If there’s one piece of fiction you must read before arriving in Egypt (aside from the Yacoubian Building), it ought to be Taxi.
Ultimately, taxis are the best method of transportation as they’re everywhere and they operate at all times of the day. They are a bit pricier overall, but in terms of comfort and timeliness a taxi is sometimes your best bet; unless you get stuck in traffic that is, which will happen. This is Cairo after all.
Keep in mind that there are white taxis, black taxis and yellow/blue cabs, all of which operate a bit differently from one another.
White taxis (with the black checkers on the side) are newer cars equipped with meters, AC, and run on natural gas. You often pay less using these taxis than if you negotiate with older black cabs or taxis that do not use a meter. They can be hailed on the street and used for half and full day trips if you negotiate with the driver beforehand. What’s key with these taxis is to ensure the meter is reset at LE 2.50 at the start of each ride and to double check before paying to verify that the amount is (more or less) accurate. There’s no guarantee it will be though because there are drivers who will try to pull the wool over your eyes. Give an inch and they’ll try to take 10 miles.
Welcome to Egypt!
Black taxis are of the old Peugeot or Fiat variety and look like they last saw the inside of a garage in 1975. Some visitors prefer them because they think they’re charming and “old Egypt.” I think they’re death traps. I’ve been in black taxis where the passenger door was falling off, where the windshield caved in, where I could see the road racing beneath my feet and where the driver had his hookah keep him company in the front seat. The majority have no meter and I find that negotiating with the drivers is exasperating. I’ve rarely gotten a fair rate with them and only resort to one out of desperation.
Yellow cabs (also referred to as City Cabs or Cairo Cabs) are available by reservation only. Similar to the white and black taxis they have a meter, which starts at LE 3.50. They’re quite reliable if you have a set destination and they’re great if you plan on covering large distances. The drivers are on time, almost all are respectful, they are not allowed to smoke in the cars and some companies (mash’allah!) even offer female drivers.
If you’re a single woman journeying alone you should almost always ride in the back seat as sitting passenger side sends mixed messages to the driver and everyone else on the road you pass. It’s also good to be aware that regardless of the type of taxi you take it’s very possible you’ll have at least one unfortunate experience, examples of which include:
- Waiting 10 – 20 minutes in a part of town you’d rather not be in as you struggle to find a taxi driver who will agree to take you home.
- Being told to get out of the cab halfway to your destination because the driver doesn’t have enough gas/there’s too much traffic/he changed his mind and doesn’t want to go where he said he’d take you.
- Getting into an argument over the cost of the ride (thanks to doctored meters or simply because he feels entitled to ask for more cash). The most common solution to this is paying through the window once you’ve gotten out of the taxi, however it will not prevent a litany of expletives from raining down on your retreating figure.
- Having an extremely reckless driver who plays “chicken” with other cars on the road and races down residential streets at more than 80km/hour.
- If you’re a woman, having the driver masturbate while eyeing you up in the rearview mirror (trust me…it happens far more than many women would like to admit).
Then there’s your own two feet, which will only take you so far as sidewalks are a joke and walking between gridlock traffic, rising exhaust fumes, randomly tossed garbage and the afternoon heat is highly intolerable and doesn’t work all that well in heels…or flats for that matter.
In the end you have to find the method that suits you best and be prepared to have one (or two or three) memorable experiences along the way. That’s the beauty of Cairo, she always has something hidden up her sleeve to slap you across the face with which either further woos, or alienates, you.
Yalla! Grit your teeth and go with it.