Tag Archives: traffic

Transportation: A post in three acts

As the daughter of a doctor, I would venture to say that I feel like 20 percent of our lives are spent commuting. Sometimes mortals like to enrich this transit time by reading, listening to music, or bothering other commuters with forced conversation. In Cairo, however, this is not possible since chance of death or severe injury during transit jumps from 80 percent to 100 percent should one lose focus on self-preservation. Transportation in Cairo will never, ever, be relaxing.

Today I had the pleasure of using three different kinds of transportation, most of which have already been discussed here and yet not exhausted due to the layers and layers of stress and discomfort found in all of them, layers that continue to be peeled back like the proverbial modern Egyptian woman who wears tons of…layers.

Act one: Rebirth on the Metro

Always in a class of its own, my Metro experience today was particularly moving. Switching trains at Sadat in order to head south, I felt my personal will fade away as I was sucked onto the woman’s car in a mass of bodies. While on the train, I was held firmly in place by the bubbly behinds of the ladies in front of and behind me. It was an intimate experience. Between me and the door was a group of perhaps 12 women, women I thought I would either need to squish through or shove aside in order to get out. Apparently there was a third option. As the train reached my stop, I was reborn as we, the mass of woman, formed one being and squeezed ourselves through the aperture of the metro car. To carry the metaphor further, all of us were also hot and sticky as we parted our separate ways. Too much?

Act two: If you can’t see the bones being crushed, do they still make a sound?

After partaking in the most delicious Mexican food this side of the Arab World (including Lebanon and Jordan), we were faced with the task of making it back home from Heliopolis, a faraway land filled with the richer segments of Egyptian society. We had arrived by a busy 8 lane highway and we were to leave by the same 8 lane highway, but in the opposite direction. This meant we had to cross the first 4 lanes (hell), make it to the grassy median (purgatory), and then cross the next four lanes (hell) to safety (paradise). It was nighttime, only 70 percent of the cars had their headlights on, and they were all going fast, about 70 miles an hour if my feelings are right. The speed, nighttime, and invisibility of the cars heightened the terror of the what could have been a normal highway-crossing experience. We made it to the median safely, and as we finally breached the last stretch like little black ants, I watched the lights rush towards me and imagined hearing my bones crunched against cold steel as the truck behind the headlights made contact with my unprotected, human, body. But we made it to the other side and hailed a cab, only to experience near death again all too soon.

Act three: Misfortune and self-interest

We were speeding along back to Doqqi on one of the many Cairene overpasses that look eerily similar to the skeletons of concrete giants when all of the sudden, we heard a screech, glass shattering, metal impacting, and more screeching. And then we saw the car wreck in front of us as our taxi driver skillfully slowed us down just in time to avoid hitting anyone. He stopped the car, got out to help yell at people, and then got back in and nosed his way into traffic that had been further bottlenecked into one lane, down from three. No one was hurt in the wreck, which made me feel better about the fact that my first thoughts upon seeing it were a) I’m glad that wasn’t us b) I’m glad we’re close to the wreck so we’ll be able to get through faster and c) I hope the meter wasn’t messed up when he stopped the car. Cairo does something to your priorities.

I have yet to ride any animals in Cairo, the most prevalent of which are donkeys and horses, as opposed to camels. I have also not ridden any form of bus except for the yachts rented by AUC, so there is still ground to break in the depths of Cairo transportation.

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Have you seen a tall building in Cairo?

Walking in Cairo

I do not carry a purse, so whenever I go somewhere (i.e. a cafe),  with the plan to sit for a while, I immediately empty  my pockets and place the contents on the table to make sure nothing falls out and is lost forever. This system of keeping things in sight and mind had not backfired until yesterday, when I went somewhere new, a rooftop bar in Zamalek, and met a friend of a friend of a friend and enjoyed the company and the view. An hour later while reclining at home, my roommate got a phone call from me, and by from me I mean from my phone which was now in the possession of the friend 3 times removed since I had kept it out of mind though in sight. In other words, I left it on the table.

Obviously I was bummed that I would have to hunt down the phone, but I considered myself lucky since this friend worked close to where I live so I wouldn’t have to trek over to her neck of the woods in Maadi, an hour away by cab. She emailed me the name of the building, the street on which it was located, and the floor that she was on. It was a tall building–over 15 floors—and in an area I thought I was familiar with so I figured it would be easy to find. Once I got into the cab, however, it turned out that “Companies Building” on Shooting Club street (a long street) just ahead of the Department of Agriculture (in which direction?) before the end of the street (which end/how long before the end?) was not, in fact, a real address.

To make matters worse, prior to boarding the taxi I thought it would be a good idea to break my 20 pound note by spending most of it on hazelnuts. Thus, I wasted 15 of my only 24 pounds on hazelnuts so I only had 9 pounds on me when entering the taxi and was nervous the entire time that I would have disembark far from my destination due to lack of funds. As I sweated in the taxi cab and the driver asked me about my marital status, I stared like a hawk at the meter until it proved necessary to call my friend from his cellphone to get better directions. In her noble attempts at clarification, she told me that there was a gate, a big green sign that said “Companies Building” and that the building was brown-ish. Most of the right side of the street was gated and shaded by big trees which might cover up and/or camouflage a green sign, and everything in Cairo is brown-ish from the daily bastings of dust and pollution.

Cut to me getting out of the cab right as the meter turns to 9 pounds in front of a building the driver insists is correct, since it is tall and has a big green sign that says “Arab Development Bank,” which is not as close as it could be to “Companies Building.” I know he’s not necessarily tracking with what I’m looking for, but I get out anyways since I figure I could just walk until I find it.

Cut to me 30 minutes later, the saliva in my throat turned to pollution-mud, my face a mask of sweat, grease, and dust, and my heart heavy with despair as I trek back along the other side of a busy street under the merciless sun looking for “Companies Building.” Philosophical thoughts fill my brain: What if I don’t find the building and have to walk home without my cellphone? What if I die of heat/pollution stroke on the spot? What if my teeth start falling out because of stress?

I finally spot a sign that says, not “Companies Building” but something about USAID, the organization my friend works for, and enter into a gated compound down a dusty road/parking lost. I have found the promised land. The building is just as non-descript as was described but to me it looked like heaven. I climb a short flight of stairs, greet the men at the front desk and then head to the fifteenth floor. There is a man inside the elevator that pushes the buttons for me and asks what extent I am doing well…”good? very good? very very very good?” I answer “so-so.” and when I return the question he says he’s at 100%. Show off.

Two minutes later I’m sitting in the office of my friend with her colleagues shooting the breeze and drinking Nescafe in air conditioning. My soul is healed. Finally, after being in transit to this place for an hour and a half, I am able to leave in possession of my cell phone and renewed hope for society.

After exiting the building, I try to find a cab to take home. To my surprise, no cab driver wants to take me….I put two and two together and realize home must be closer than I thought. It was a mere twenty minute walk away. Things may take longer to get done here in Cairo, but they take especially long when you have no idea what you’re doing.

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Excuse me, do I have something in my teeth?

One of my favorite aspects of Cairo life is the fact no one knows where anything is, and thus at any point in time at any given place, someone is asking for directions. Every .25 seconds, another innocent bystander is accosted by a woefully lost human. Fully one million people are probably asking for directions at this very moment in the city.

Of course asking for directions is nothing special or specific to “overseas,” but I especially love observing the process in moving vehicles. For example, our taxi driver has no idea where he should take us as he’s going down the highway, thus he rolls down his window and shouts to the driver parallel to him “Pizza Hut??”. Without fail and without hesitation, the driver will answer back to the best of his knowledge, which usually is not sufficient. The process is repeated a few times over, often encompassing shouting to people we’re passing on the street or traffic police as we’re going around a traffic circle and so on and so forth until we finally reach our destination.

Cairo’s a big place and of course it’s not logical or possible to memorize every street, so until robots replace humans (soon hopefully!), this seems an appropriate strategy.

I don’t think other questions are as welcome in the midst of the daily commutes…but one day, in addition to the game involving making the fastest car stop, I want to ask something like the above title.

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Didn’t understand and wouldn’t like it if I did

I saw a movie, “ِAn Ant’s Cry,” tonight. The experience was costly in a lot of ways…money, time, broken expectations. The group met outside of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, in the middle of an unfamiliar district that was in a wasteland of hospitals and other hotels along the Cornish of the Nile. I though it a random place to meet for a movie unless, of course, the milkshake shop we planned to visit beforehand was close by. It turns out both were about a twenty minute walk away, but we were not informed of the distance beforehand, so it seemed we were walking down the middle of the street, cars zooming past us, heading towards an undetermined destination for an infinite amount of time.

We reach the movie theater and it turns out there’s not enough time to get milkshakes before the movie starts. At any rate, tickets are purchased and then comes the best part of the night: the popcorn. Oh it was quite salty and delicious and gone within 3 minutes.  It was just the thing a weary traveler needs after a trek along the dusty streets of Cairo.

The usher shows us our seats in the movie theater, a baby sits directly behind me, and the movie begins. At this point, I saw the movie as a barrier between me and my milkshake. The movie finally ended after an hour and a half of blaring music and shouting that was less than half-understood. We were rewarded for our patience with milkshakes, which were large and relatively delicious.

So I guess the story has a satisfactory ending, despite the fact I made a critical error tonight when I said “I just want to try you” instead of “I just want to try it” regarding a dessert one of our friends had invited us to enjoy. Ooops. Pronouns are hard to get right sometimes.

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Sitting on the dock of the bay and by that I mean houseboat on the Nile

View from a houseboat of other houseboats

One of the first things they tell you when you come to Cairo is to stay away from the Nile. Though it may look beautiful and refreshing especially in the summer heat, it is actually full of things that can and will kill you, like crocodiles and various diseases and bacteria mutated by pollution.

And yet, the river is still fun to float on (as long as you don’t touch it), either in boats, yachts, cruise ships, or house boats. One of my friends is currently living in a houseboat, and ever since I heard he was doing something ridiculous like that I had the urge to see what life is like out on the river.

Today we went over to his place to study, and I finally got to experience the buoyant life. The taxi dropped us off on the side of the road, and we went through a fence shaded by leafy trees and just down the slope there lay a row of houseboats….and they looked exactly like they sound: floating houses with little bridges to them from the shore.

We enter his houseboat and immediately feel a world away from all the exhaust, noise, and traffic of Cairo. The best part about it, of course, was the balcony that overlooks the Nile and provides a lovely view as well of all the balconies of his neighbors. So we sat on the balcony and watched the water and counted the empty containers we saw float by and felt the occasional wave from a passing boat blaring Arab pop music. I watched his neighbors as well—it’s hard to prevent that kind of thing since they were just right there about 15 feet from us. But I found the river life swell indeed.

I was also interested to know how waste disposal worked, but as far as I could determine, the toilet is completely functioning and probably doesn’t flush directly into the Nile. But I can’t be certain.

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