Despite not hanging out much with people, i seem to have made something of a name for myself. And it didn’t even require carrying a doll around. I’m apparently now well-known as the guy who rides his bike to school. It doesn’t take much to achieve notoriety here it seems. I do know of only two other people in the AUC community who bike to the campus. One of them i met early on. He is new faculty, and i haven’t seen him since the orientation. The other guy is a researcher somewhere who often goes on rides with the Cairo Cyclists Club.
All the non-Egyptians at AUC, the other ALI (Arabic Language Institute) students, the teachers and others, seem to think that it is absolute madness that i bike in Cairo. Granted, they seem to have similar, though less strong, opinions about driving here as well. The traffic here is pretty chaotic, i have to admit, but i don’t feel that it is particularly dangerous. I haven’t gotten much sense from Egyptians what they think of it, though the notion of biking outside of Cairo (i did a 100km ride to El Fayoum a while ago, my first experience with the Cairo Cyclists Club) does seem to illicit some surprised reactions. In Cairo, i generally just get smiles and thumbs-up, and definitely fascinated stares and excited proclamations i still can’t understand whenever i do a track stand at an intersection.
Bikes in general are by no means uncommon here, but it is definitely uncommon to see a westerner on a bike, and uncommon to see a bike that isn’t a chinese or indian urban cruiser, generally in extremely poor condition. I’ve never really gotten many comments about my bike, except for once when it was locked to a parking meter (that part at least is familiar) outside of a popular take-away taamaya place (taamaya—تعمية is the word they use here for felafel) called Felfela (no relationship to felafel—felfela—فلفبلة means pepper, and they earn the name with some very spicy stuff). When i came out of the place, there were a couple guys looking it over and getting very excited. One of them kept asking me how much i wanted for it, and i had trouble effectively communicating that it was by no means for sale.
In any case, bikes are quite ubiquitous here, but you will very seldom see anyone on a bike, simply using it to get from one place to another. Not a lot of commuters, as far as i can tell, and no recreational cyclists outside of Maadi. Nearly everyone on a bike is delivering something: fruit, vegetables, groceries, prepared foods (like from Felfela), electronics, spare parts, junk, whatever. There are quite a few cargo bikes, as well. My favorite are the dudes (and they are all dudes—never seen a non-white woman on a bike here) who deliver giant trays of flat bread balanced on their heads. I haven’t gotten any good pictures yet, but there’s an OK one at the top of this post. This picture is not representative because the guy in it is carrying one of the smallest trays of bread i’ve seen any of them carry. Plus, there was no traffic on the road. Generally, they are carrying trays at least twice that size, and along four-”lane” roads (lanes, if there is any traffic at all, are completely meaningless here) in heavy traffic, weaving through traffic and over an occasional median, often while yelling at the cars to get out of their way. That’s talent! Especially considering the condition of many of the machines they are riding: bent frames, totally wobbly rims, nearly-flat tires, no brakes (haven’t seen any fixies here, either), missing pedal flats (just the pedal axle), and heavy as a tank. I once saw one of these dudes riding with his tray of bread, against the flow of traffic, without brakes, talking on his cell phone. AWESOME!
So, drivers here are used to bikes (as well as donkeys and other draft animals) being in the road, although they may not be used to people riding very quickly. They leave very little room for one another, which can be a little disconcerting, but they are generally skillful enough that accidents, when they happen, are quite minor. Probably the worst part about biking here, aside from the pollution, is that if the traffic is really bad, it makes it impossible to get anywhere. In gridlocked traffic, the cars take up every available foot of space, so if the cars aren’t moving, there’s generally no room for bikes—or even quite often for pedestrians—to get by. Pedestrians, by the way, generally walk in the street here because the sidewalks, where they exist, are often obstructed with trash or construction debris or alms-seekers or security booths or light poles or parked vehicles or deeply-cut driveways or puddles from dripping air conditioners.
In some places where parking is at a premium, the streets will quite literally be used as parking lots, with a two or three-lane road being turned into a very narrow one-lane alley. Drivers will pay baksheesh (something between a bribe and a tip), to dudes who make a living out of parking people’s cars. The cars are left in neutral so that these parking dudes can pack them in like sardines or move them back and forth to allow for parking cars two lanes deep on the side of the road. The cars are packed literally bumper to bumper, making it impossible for pedestrians to get from the sidewalk to the street without climbing over hoods, even further incentive to avoid the sidewalks altogether.
But, i digress. So, in this context, biking in Cairo is no more dangerous than simply trying to cross a street (although ex-pats like to waste a lot of breath fretting over how traumatic this experience is, too). People drive on whatever part of the street is most expedient, irrespective of lane markings or any notions of a shoulder. So, you just have to stake out your space on the road and not count on drivers ahead of you to pay you any mind. Drivers behind, however, will, in my experience, treat you with a fair amount of deference, and driving in Cairo requires such a base level of skills that you can generally assume that they WILL see you. Surely, you will get honked at, but drivers here honk at everything, to varying degrees. Some drivers may honk very rarely. They are probably not from here. Every so often, you’ll encounter a driver who will actually use his or her turn signal. This is always mildly surprising, and even a bit distracting. Usually, if you see a turn signal, it was activated by mistake or is broken, making it impossible to ever take them seriously. At the other end of the spectrum are the drivers who honk nearly constantly, in short little spurts, as if they were using their horns as sonar. Most taxis i’ve seen are set up such that the horn is actuated with either the turn signal lever or the one for the lights, making it much more convenient to honk and drive. At night, cars drive either without lights, with very dim lights, or with tiny little blue lights—just enough that they can be seen in the dark, which never completely engulfs Cairo, unless the electricity in the entire city goes out (hasn’t happened in my experience).