Suitcase and World: Interlude. Traffic in Cairo.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Interlude. Traffic in Cairo.

I'm a city girl at heart and I've been to LOTS of cities....many a place where traffic is utterly chaotic and even as a passenger in a vehicle, heart stopping. I have had my share of white knuckle rides, closed eyed rides, speeding taxi drivers, swerving vehicles, and rides that literally took away my breath. I have been in many cities where crossing streets were a challenge. But then, I went to Cairo and it has set a new benchmark on my list of cities for driving chaos.

First off, the horn is indispensable to a driver in Cairo. Car horns toot incessantly....all day long and into the wee hours of the night! In fact, I think it would be impossible to drive in Cairo without a properly working horn. In the US, if someone honks their horn for more than a few toots or holds down the horn for more than a few seconds, drivers around them start getting annoyed. Not so in Cairo. As far as I can tell, horn honking is a an accepted form of communication and not at all a crude expression of impatience or aggression. I would need to spend more time to more accurately discern the patterns but I think Egyptian horn language is no doubt derived from the hieroglyphs. I managed to decipher some of the more commonly used horn phrases.

beep: Hi, just letting you know I'm in your blindspot/behind you/next to you.
beep, beep: Hi! Welcome to Egypt!/I'm waiting for you at the curb.
beep, beep, beep: Clear space, I'm switching to your lane/will soon be brushing by your right leg.
BEEP: I'm headed for you, please watch out! Soon to run over your foot!
BEEP BEEP: Hello? Excuse me. Did you hear me? I'm headed for you and you're about to get run over!
BEEEEEEEEEEP: HEY! Get out of my way. NOW!

While the use of the horn seems to be mandatory, use of the indicator seems to be optional. You're somehow just suppose to know that the guy in the far right lane needs to make a left turn. Must be an Egyptian form of ESP!

Using headlights for night driving also seems to be optional. Some drivers don't use their headlights at all - guess light from the street lamps is enough to illuminate the woman dressed head to toe in black? Other drivers either use their parking lights or else flash their headlights on/off as they need to. Now, imagine what it's like to cross the street in the dark! Made me wish I had brought along some reflectors to hang off my clothing/daypack!

Drivers in Cairo seem to always be able to fit at least one more car into any given number of lanes than is reasonable. Thus a three lane road can become a 5 lane road. Clearances between cars are measured in single-digit inches. Beep your horn three times and if there are sufficient inches, you can cut in front of the car in the next lane over. But it is a game of chicken to see who gets the inches. Not surprisingly, a lot of the vehicles have dented fenders and side panels - each ding a sign of the time when the driver lost the game. I honestly don't think that drivers in Cairo get perturbed when they get dinged by another car, they just wave off the episode and continue on their merry way - sort of like what happens when I bump into someone while riding in a crowded subway car. I either apologize or just say "excuse me" and move on.

....and the cars have to share the roads with donkey and horse carts. Tooting a horn really has no effect on either animal. Must be frustrating for the car driver :-)

In all our travels through Cairo, I don't remember seeing a single traffic signal or stop sign. I wondered how cars cross the intersections and soon figured out why there are so many roundabouts.

Lastly, if drivers are crazy then pedestrians are least I was each time I attempted to cross any street that had more than 2 lanes! Pedestrians do not have the right of fact, they have no rights. Pedestrian crosswalks are a rare sight and in a city that has few traffic lights, there is rarely a moment that a car is not zooming by. It took us a while to get adjusted to being pedestrians in Cairo but out of the simple need to survive, Lei and I quickly got accustomed to crossing streets. We would look left and right about a million times, nod our heads when we agreed to move and then holding on to each other for dear life, dart between cars to finally make it to the other side of the street. We often came so close to a passing car that I felt like I could reach in the passenger side window and grab the wheel!

But we had one insane experience that topped them all. It was the day that we were at the Cairo Antiquities Museum and we were attempting to walk back to the hotel. After a few death defying minutes, we managed to cross one major street - 4 lanes on each side with a fenced divider between them. We then strolled on the sidewalk, to catch our breath and prepare for the next crossing....a far bigger challenge because it was a roundabout that intersected several MAJOR streets. We knew the name of the street that we wanted to be on but we didn't know which one it was on the roundabout so we crossed and recrossed streets - even entering the center of the roundabout on at least two tries. I was feeling sick that day so I was not in any mood to be daring cars to not hit me. After a few unsuccessful attempts to find the street we needed to be on, I finally convinced Lei to take a taxi back to the hotel. The concierge at a nearby Hilton Hotel flagged down a taxi for us and about 10 minutes and 5EG (about 90 cents) later, we were back at our hotel.

I don't think that anyone who has been to Cairo will ever forget its chaotic traffic - I know I won't anytime soon!