Tuesday, July 27, 2010

18 Million and 1

I woke up to a call on Thursday morning from my Brooklyn friend and fellow Red Hooker, Harry, who said that he was traveling for work and made arrangements to stop in Cairo for the weekend. I was excited to have my first visitor, but a bit concerned that I may have a hard time making him comfortable here. You see, Harry is an Ivy League educated, native New Yorker who likes the finer things in life… like sanitation. The whole Middle Eastern hospitality thing is much stronger for me here, so I felt more compelled to be gracious host. I was comforted by the fact that he’d be taking the obligatory cab ride from the airport to the Marriott in Zamalek. This airport to destination cab ride is a necessary orientation. Some of the lessons you’ll learn include the following:

Your first lesson almost always involves having to negotiate with your first Egyptian taxi driver and/or broker, if necessary. Rania told me to pay 60-80 pounds ($10-14) when I arrived. I paid 90 pounds. I found out later that it should cost around 40 ($7). Here, you may learn that some meters are “broken,” that there are a lot of “scenic” routes that metered cabs prefer or to agree on the fare before you leave in an unmetered car. If you’re lucky you’ll realize that the difference is only a couple of dollars and not let it get to you.

Within seconds of the car moving you’ll inevitably think. “Wow, I have worst driver in all of Cairo!” Not so! Your cab driver drives no differently than an old lady in the Burka. There is only one skill level of driving here and it includes the ability to drive as close, and as fast as you can to the cars around you while honking your horn as many times as you can. It’s usually not a “please excuse me honk,” or “the light’s just changed honk.” It’s an “I’m within milliseconds of killing you and your family” honk. On the bright side, people are really polite about aggressive driving. There is no road rage. On the contrary, if someone cuts another off while crossing six lanes to make a right turn in reverse, the cut off driver will tip his hat out of respect, nod his head and think, “Wow, nice move.” I learned how to drive, when I was is 16 on the streets of NYC and I’ll never, ever, get behind the wheel here. I witnessed three accidents in my first week. Humans have an innate ability to adapt to new environments, but I’ll never feel comfortable crossing the street here… ever. I walk three extra blocks crossing several smaller streets, so that I don’t have to cross the main street in front of the Museum to get to the Metro (subway).

Harry complained that his driver stopped to put air in the tires. I told him that mine stopped three times… once to put gas, once to buy cigarettes and once to buy a phone. He’s lucky that his driver didn’t stop for a car wash, something that’s not unheard of. It is common for driver to stop mid-fare to drink a mango juice or get a sandwich. What’s learned here is that it’s not all about you and as chaotic as things seem, time is abundant.

Another lesson learned from this initiation is not to slam a cab’s door. People are really sensitive about door slamming and American males seem to really like to slam car doors. Maybe they think it’s an insult or maybe they’re sensitive about wear and tear on their cars (a door slam has lead to an exchange of words on many occasions). You may use it as a tactical move to instantly find out if your driver really speaks English.

If you arrive at night, you may think that the car’s headlights are broken or that the bulbs are out, this might not bother you because, you’ve already accepted the fact that your seatbelt doesn’t work. I still don’t know why drivers don’t turn them on. I saw this expensive new Porsche 4x4 speeding through the streets of Zamalek, late at night, practicing this custom. Sarah says it’s because they believe that turning your lights on wastes gas, others say they want to extend the bulb life, and some say that they don’t want to be “rude” to the drivers in front of them. When I first noticed cars driving at night without their headlights on I felt sorry for them because I thought that they were too poor to afford new bulbs.

On your way to your destination, you’ll notice many grand structures, compounds, buildings and monuments. If you ask the driver, he’ll tell you that they are military compounds, military barracks, military academies, armories or presidential palaces. This is a reality check. Egypt is a police state and has been under a type of martial law for decades, but you don’t really notice it unless you’re an Egyptian that is being held indefinitely, “under suspicion,” and without trial. There are at least two cops on every corner… everywhere. Someone thought that it was a good idea to dress them in pure white uniforms, from head to toe, in one of the dustiest cities on earth. As a result, Cairo is very safe. I’ve never felt unsafe, even while walking home at 4 a.m.

Cairo is not a geographically large city. It’s about the same size as Brooklyn, but it hosts about 18 million people. This is evident when you start driving through the first very densely populated neighborhood and see endless 9 story buildings with other 9 story buildings built in their back yards. You’ll begin to realize the magnitude of the density when you see that this overpopulated “neighborhood” never ends… miles and miles of buildings on top of buildings with very few breaks, parks, fields or even outdoor parking lots to separate them. It would be like extending downtown Manhattan, during lunch, over the entire area of NYC and adding ten times the people. Throw in the fact the buildings and streets don’t get cleaned because it only rains twice a year and when it does, the dust doesn’t get removed because there is no sewer system (water accumulates in large puddles until it dries)… this is Cairo and for some reason, I love it here!

You’ll also, for the first time, notice the absence of traffic lights, which is deliberate. Cairo can’t afford to have an intersection with one street full of stopped cars, while the intersecting street is empty. Although there is a lot of congestion, traffic seems to move, slowly, but it does move. Rania’s mom told me that the streets of Cairo were built to handle half a million cars and that there are now five times as many on the road.

Harry’s taxi driver must not have given him one of the most valuable lessons, where the driver smokes non-stop through your ride. I say this because Harry complained when I lit a cigarette indoors during Caitlin’s going away brunch on the afternoon of his arrival. I humored him and put it out. Minutes later, six of Caitlin’s dozen or so guests simultaneously started smoking. Welcome to Cairo, I said. You’re in my town now.

Harry arrived and checked into the Marriot in Zamalek on Friday morning. Friday mornings here are wonderful. It’s how Sundays used to be in New York when I was a kid. Streets are quiet, almost spookily deserted, most shops are closed and there is a general calm that is so special that it makes up for the other 162 hours of Beyond Thunderdome. We met at the poolside cafĂ©, where an iced coffee costs about $9US (50 falafel sandwiches). Harry’s visit was quite delightful. We spent one day doing touristy stuff, starting at the Citadel we saw many 10th century super beautiful grand mosques and had a few productive haggling sessions in the souk. We also caught a concert at Al-Azhar Park, which was built by the Aga Khan and is one of the most tasteful, beautiful, and organized things to happen to Cairo in decades.

Harry said it best when he said. “It’s amazing that, in a city with so many people, you can turn the faucet on and water actually comes out!” As Harry was on his way to the airport, he found a cab that took only 30 pounds. I said goodbye as he entered it and slammed the door, which lead to the inevitable exchange of words. I could hear them arguing as they drove off into the traffic.


  1. You are so funny. I was laughing almost throughout this new blog. Keep your adventures coming. I love them!!!

  2. True friendship around the world:)

  3. Another great read! Although I must say, I disagree with you saying there is no road rage here...I have driven in Cairo for about ten years and, trust me, there is road rage like you wouldn't believe, or you'll never know, unless you get behind the wheel and become part of it!