Grey Wool Knickers They breathe

October 18, 2007

Traffic in Cairo—الممور في القاهرة

Filed under: Masr —مصر — Tags: , , , , , , , — admin @ 1:32 am

I went a bit crazy for the short period when i wasn’t biking here in Cairo.   I promised Adrienne i wouldn’t bike for the first month while i got a sense of what the traffic was like. I also promised that i would wait until my helmet arrived in our shipment. It turns out, though, that our shipment went first to Dubai, then back to Colorado, then back to the Emirates and finally here. It took about two months for it to get here. So, i was taking cabs and walking everywhere, and occasionally taking the Metro, none of which were pleasant options. Actually, i rather enjoyed the Metro (and at the price of less than $0.20, who couldn’t love it?), but it was not very time effective for my usual commute to school. I had to walk a ways to the Metro station from home, through quite an interesting neighborhood, actually. The Metro station at the other end is right at the school, but figuring out how to get to the correct one of 8 exits was something that always eluded me, and if you go out the wrong way, you’ve got to get across at least four or five lanes of traffic (not that there are really any such thing as “lanes” here). Even getting around through the underground tunnels of the station was quite a trek. Cabs are also very cheap (less than $1 to get to school), but the traffic can be horrendous and walking is often faster. I have a congenital issue with my feet which makes walking distances rather uncomfortable, so there was really no decent solution other than biking.

Finally, at the start of the holy month of Ramadan, between the more concentrated work schedules of many people and the starting of classes for all state schools, the traffic was absolutely miserable. I decided then to finally venture out on the bike, sans helmet. I tried it first on a Friday, which is the sabbath here, when the streets are largely empty. I rode to school on Sunday in the full brunt of Cairo traffic and it was alright. I’ve been biking to school every day since then. I did have a bit of a mishap on the next day, though. I had had this problem with my cog being not terribly tight because my chain whip was in my shipment along with the helmet, and i couldn’t get it quite tight enough. So, i tried this incredibly stupid maneuver to tighten the cog, wherein i attempted to accelerate and lightly brake at the same time. Of course, doing something that takes a great deal of effort with one part of the body while doing something that takes a great deal of finesse with another part of the body is not the easiest thing to do. Before i realized what had happened, i was flying through the air and over my handlebars. Got skinned up pretty good and messed up my shoulder a bit. But, that’s all healed now, and i’ve regained my confidence in the traffic. By the end of the year, i’ll hopefully be at the same comfort level i was at in the States.

Traffic here is an interesting animal. There are traffic lights, but no one pays them any mind. There are also tons of traffic cops (in fact their are tons of cops in general, from innumerable branches of the state security forces—you can’t go a block without seeing at least one, usually just standing there, looking bored or hot or sad or asleep or all four). People do pay attention to the traffic cops. They don’t write tickets, but they do carry around little notebooks wherein they write the license plate numbers and violations and any offenders. When those people go to re-register their vehicles (which they have to do every year), they will have to pay extra for their traffic fines. Good luck contesting something with that system. Lots of people pay baksheesh (something between a bribe and a tip) to the traffic cops to avoid this situation. In fact, this is the only way many of them can make any money. They would otherwise be making entirely too little money to live in Cairo. It’s sort of like waiting tables. It’s expected that you’ll be getting a little extra beyond your meagre wage.

So, as i was saying , the rules of the road are very much fluid and applied—in those rare instances where they are applied at all—quite unevenly. There is no expectation that anyone will stay in their lane, except when traffic is especially light, although there are mostly clear lane markings. People use their horns more than they use their turn signals. In fact, many of the cabs i’ve ridden in have the horn activated in place of either the turn signal or the headlights, and many of those horns are goofy custom ones. Haven’t heard the Dukes of Hazard one yet, though. Although it is by no means universal, many people use their horns instead of turn signals, using them to indicate that they hope to inch in to the flow of traffic or that they are approaching on one side or the other. Some people honk so often (and for no discernible reason) that one is inclined to think that they just can’t stand to drive without the constant sound of horns. It’s like they’re bats using sonar. When traffic is slow, the cars take up every available foot of space. In some ways, this makes thing more efficient, but the constant weaving through traffic can slow things down further as well. In any case, gridlocked traffic can be just as much of a pain in the ass for bikes and even pedestrians as for the cars because they are packed like sardines.

As you may have heard, people often drive at night in this part of the world without headlights. It’s a bit disconcerting at first, but you get used to it. Most of the cabs (which make up a large portion of the traffic on the roads) have little blue lights where the headlights are so you can at least see them. These lights don’t actually illuminate anything, though. Many of the cabs have flourescent blue lights all over them, inside and out, and they sound like those annoying machines outside the Chinese import stores on Mission St. in SF.

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