Saturday, March 20, 2010

Taxicab Confessions Pt. 3: Egypt

Let me begin by saying that a taxi ride in Egypt is an experience that will either change or end your life. The drivers in Egypt make Amman’s taxi drivers look like timid grandmas. A lot of this craziness can be traced back to public policy and basic economics—in Jordan, there is a 200% tax on auto imports in order to reduce traffic and emissions, but in Egypt there is no import tax and gasoline is heavily subsidized by the government in order to pacify the people and keep the Mubarak regime in power. As a direct result of these laws, the streets of Cairo are always clogged with traffic and the air is always clogged with smog. Most of Egypt’s taxis date from the 1980s at least—the default model is the all-black Lada, which is a Soviet clone of a Peugeot. All of these black cabs have mechanical meters that are useless because the Egyptian currency has collapsed so much since they were installed that the meters can’t go high enough (think of the old-school mechanical gas pumps in America that had to be shut down when gas hit $4/gallon in 2008; it’s the same problem, only nobody has done anything about it for 20 years). So before you get in the cab, you have to negotiate with your cab driver about where you’re going and how much you’ll pay. I got ripped off the first time I did this because I had no idea just how cheap Egyptian taxis are supposed to be (if you’re a good negotiator, which I was after my first mistake, you can get a ride almost anywhere for 10-15 Egyptian pounds which is about $2). But after you drive a hard bargain, the taxi driver knows he is getting a fixed price, so he wants to get you to your destination as quickly as possible. Therefore, he drives like a maniac through swarms of traffic, playing slalom with tour buses and tractor-trailers so he can make an extra dollar or two. Several times I had to pull my arm in the car because it would have been sideswiped if I rested it on the window (I don't know if it's from collisions or on purpose, but most of these cabs are missing side mirrors), and I flinched more than once when we tried to squeeze in between buses and one of them decided to change lanes. If you want a little safer ride, you can take a newer white cab with a digital meter, but you always risk overpaying if you get lost or stuck in traffic. Most of the locals just take mass transit, though, which is in the form of small white buses that don't actually stop to pick people up unless they're in a group--solo riders have to run alongside the bus and hop up into the doorway like hobos boarding a train.

Fig. 1: Egyptian Taxi

Anyway, my story comes from our third night in Cairo, right before I wrote my first recap of Egypt. Eight of us had piled into two cabs to go to an outdoor café by the Arab League building, but my cab driver couldn’t find the place we asked for even though I gave him written directions from the hotel concierge and he said he knew where it was before we got in. [Footnote: In metered Jordanian cabs, it’s pretty common for the driver to say that he knows where you want to go but then take you for a long and expensive ride as he asks drives around rolling down the window shabab (groups of kids) to help him find your destination. Since we had already negotiated for a fixed price of 10 Egyptian pounds, I figured that our driver would have to be a real dumbass to try the same thing because if he did drive around wasting time, it would be coming out of his end. Unfortunately, this guy was Simple Jack-stupid, because he drove around for half an hour when the ride should have taken about 10 minutes.]

Each time he stopped and asked someone where the café was, I asked if he had figured out where we were going yet and each time he said yes, only to get lost again. Finally, I told him to take us to a giant, can’t-miss traffic circle so we could just meet our friends and walk. Everyone in the cab was getting frustrated and fed up with this guy heading toward the circle and then turned down a street on another wild goose chase, so we had following exchange with him in Arabic:

Everyone in the cab, as he makes the wrong turn: NO!
Nick: (testily) No, we need to go to the circle.
Driver: What?
Nick: We must go to the circle. Please turn around.
Driver: (not turning around or slowing down) Why do you need to go to the circle?
Nick: (freaking out a little) Just turn around and go to the [in English] fucking circle.
Driver: OK, OK.

He turns the cab around.

Nick. (calmed down, but still speaking slowly and enunciating every word in the most condescending voice possible)
We need to go to the circle because you can’t find the café we want to go to, and we have to meet our friends now.
Driver: Why must you meet your friends?
Nick: Because they know where the café is, and you don’t.
Driver: No, no, no, I know now.

At this point, I put my arm around him and look right at him, which in the Arab world kind of means “let’s be real.”

Nick: (seriously) You are a good driver, and a good man. But you don’t know where this café is. And that is why we must go to the circle.

During that entire exchange, everyone in the back of the cab was just cracking up, because they were just as frustrated as I was with this poor driver but I was the one who had to deal with it. Also, when I put my arm around this guy and said, “You are a good driver, and a good man,” I didn’t actually mean it, so I overcompensated by saying it with almost as much drama as a bad Arab soap opera. Since I’m not normally an overly expressive or dramatic person, this probably looked and sounded hilarious to my friends. Combine my poor acting and bad Arabic with the absurdity of the situation and several nights of very little sleep, and this was the funniest taxi ride I had in Cairo.

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