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Monday, November 1, 2010

Living in Cairo: Taxis

If I'm not going somewhere well known or somewhere I know the way to, I'll take the last option: a taxi.  Taxi drivers in Egypt spend their lives frequenting busy streets in search of a fare.  We live a few blocks from two different busy streets, and so finding a taxi is as simple as walking to Bur Said or Midan Nahda and waiting for the right taxi to go by.

Formerly, there was only one option for taxis: black-and-white.  I remember one taxi ride where the car was so old that it had no window handles, no seat belts, all of the interior paneling was gone, and it never broke twenty-five miles and hour the entire ride.  The driver was also driving barefoot.

Black-and-white taxis are amazing examples of Egyptian maintenance: just enough to keep the forty- or fifty-year old cars running, but not much more.  The drivers also take whatever opportunity they can to personalize their taxis; no rearview mirror is without some twenty baubles hanging off it, and my favorite dashboard decoration is what looks like synthetic sheep pelt dyed pink covering the entire dashboard of the car.  Just a few days ago I saw a minibus driver with at least twenty hanging ornaments dangling from my windshield.  I only regret not having a camera on my phone when I'm being driven through the streets of Cairo.

The black-and-white taxis, at one point forty years ago, had meters.  The meters ceased to mean anything about thirty-seven years ago.  Now there is a system that is know by everyone except tourists, and the drivers work hard to keep it that way.  

Before entering the taxi, one tells the driver where the destination is.  If he doesn't know where that is he 1. says okay, and then starts asking everyone else driving around him how to get there 2. declines the passenger 3. asks the passenger if they know how to get there.

After sorting out the destination, the passenger gets in the back seat, if they are female, or the front if they are male and feeling sociable.  Otherwise the male sits in the back also.  The driver goes to the destination.  The speed of this depends on step number one.  I remember riding with a driver once who didn't know where the Pyramids were and we spent a lot of time driving through garbage-heaped roads asking directions.  If he had just asked me, I could have told him myself.

After arriving at the destination, the passenger disembarks and hands money through the window to the driver.  Depending on what fare he received versus what he thought he should receive, the nationality of the passenger, the time of day, the condition of the apartment that was the destination, the number of passengers in the taxi, the conversation engaged in within the taxi, how busy the road is that the destination is in, and perhaps how close it is to prayer time, the driver will argue the fare.

At this point, the passenger will either 1. haggle 2. give the driver more money 3. walk away.  I favor the third option.  Brandon favors the second.  When we were in Cairo previously as students, I was tight with our money and paid the barest fare I thought I could get away with.  Now that a pound or two makes no difference to me, I'm happy to pay a generous fare, make the driver happy, and avoid haggling.

Now, however, there is another option: the checkered cab.  These cabs have been introduced within the last few years and are natural-gas vehicles.  They have seatbelts (although often the buckle has been cut out of the seat), power windows, the original upholstery, air conditioning, and most importantly, meters.

Not only do they have meters, but the drivers generally don't quibble over the fare.  And if you tip them a pound or two, they drive off with a smile.  

Which is why whenever humanly possible, I ride checkered cabs.  Most of the anxiety of riding in taxis is gone when you know that there will be no argument and you're paying the same fare as an Egyptian.

Now if only they could take that idea and apply it to shopping.


PaulaJean said...

I agree that the checkered cabs are a big improvement over the black and whites! We often cite not knowing where the pyramids were as an example of Egyptian taxi drivers.

UnkaDave said...

I dunno, I get a picture in my mind of these guys trying to keep falefel on the table, trying to keep their old cabs running, not much safety net. Plus, I drive the Miata barefoot all the time. And, I'm think of painting it black and white-checkered, and hanging some stuff from the mirror.

Becky said...

Loved this post!