Gus Mattammal

Hello everyone!

I was going to do one update of Egypt, but Cairo deserves its own:

When you exit the Cairo airport, you step into a sea of cab drivers tugging at you. My guidebook warned of a scam where you tell them which hotel you want to go to, but they take you to a different one, one they get a commission from, and then the hotel manager covers the cab driver’s commission by screwing you on the hotel rate. The book advises to stick to your guns and threaten to withhold payment if you don’t get taken exactly where you want to go. Not wanting to deal with this, I opted for choice #2:

When I was in Greece, I used to wish for a toilet I could flush the toilet paper down. Nowhere in Greece, including the airport, was I allowed to do this because apparently the plumbing is not wide enough. (It probably is in the upscale tourist hotels, but I stayed away from those so I don’t know). Now I remember those toilets fondly because at least you didn’t have to inspect them for signs of life. Some Egyptian toilets have ecosystems. And, two nights ago a mouse chose to rejoin Allah, and he chose to do it in my room. I barely missed his little body when I swung my foot out of bed in the morning.

On the plus side, the place very conveniently located, the staff is very friendly and helpful, the room appears clean, and 3 nights including breakfast cost $25.

In spite of all the above, I wish I could spend more time exploring Cairo. The city is enormous, full of beautiful mosques, relics from bygone ages, and 5 times a day the city rings with the Muslim call to prayer. From up on the hill overlooking the city, you can hear all the different mosques at once, and it is a strangely haunting experience.

Today I’m taking the train to Aswan, and from there hopefully to Abu Simbel, and then back up the river to Luxor. Then I’ll cut over to Dahab, to climb Mt. Sinai for sure, and maybe get scuba certification if I have time. Then it’s back here on July 30 for a tour of the pyramids and the bazaar.

To wrap up, we have two new international readers:

1) Corene… I met her in Athens, the day before I left. We chatted one afternoon for quite some time before she left to go to Germany. She was born in Ireland, but grew up in Australia, and worked for a law firm in London after university. But, she got sick of the law field and is going back to school for an advanced degree in International Relations.

2) Michelle… from Cape Town, South Africa. I met her in Santorini where we spent a few hours one night sipping wine and watching the caldera while our other friend Jerry suffered a long conversation with an American girl who spoke and behaved the way pretty much all foreigners think all Americans speak and behave. Thank God it wasn’t me stuck listening to her. Michelle worked for a company based out of London but got to travel all around the world working for them. She has left that company and is considering working in Ft. Lauderdale or starting her own company in Cape Town (something to do with fashion, so of course I didn’t understand what she was talking about).

I hope everyone is well….


Executive Summary

If you have any one of the following: a large personal space bubble, aversion to extreme heat, dirt, insects, or loud noise levels, then Cairo is definitely not for you. That all you need to know, really. But if you’re interested in other observations, here they are.

The Egyptian Bus Network

The guide also warned that “few foreigners take Egyptian buses, and with good reason.” But hey, I figured, I am a veteran of public transport on 3 continents. How bad could it be?

Here’s how Egyptian buses work: there are a few places that have a small structure that looks like a bus stop. But mostly, a bus stop seems to be defined by a large group of people standing in the street looking toward oncoming traffic hopefully. If a bus you want is driving by, you start running on an intercept trajectory waving your arms. If the driver feels like it he will slow down. Not stop, mind you, but slow down. Then if you want to get on you grab onto something in the bus and haul yourself in, or at least on.

The bus I got onto was so crowded that I was hanging out the back. Incredibly, many others got on at successive stops. From my vantage point, I was able to count seats and get an estimate of the number of people in the aisle and hanging onto various parts of the bus. I can say with confidence that there were approximate 230 people on the bus, or about 15 more than on the completely full Boeing 737 that I flew in on.

To get off the bus, you yell something toward the front. I’m not sure you yell anything specific, but it’s clear you yell. Then the driver slows down a little, and you simply jump out the back. An alternative method is to wait until someone cuts the driver off, forcing him to slam on the brakes (frequent) and then use that moment to jump out the back.

In just a couple days I’ve already seen a woman fall out into the street trying to get off, and an older man fall inside the bus. When this happens, everyone starts yelling at the front of the bus and the driver stops for a second and looks apologetic while everyone screams things at him. Then when the ruckus dies down he slams on the gas and everything is as it was before.

One useful trick I’ve learned is that if the bus is taking off and you haven’t gotten on yet, you can run along the side and pound on it repeatedly with your fist. Usually, the driver will let up on the gas for an instant, which allows you to grab on.

Bus numbers are only in Arabic numerals, so I taught myself to read Arabic numerals and this helped a lot, until yesterday afternoon when I thought I was getting on #83 and instead got on #84. Somewhere in Giza (the opposite direction by several kilometers) there were only a few people left on the bus, and then we all came to a halt while the driver tried to figure out where I wanted to go, and I tried to explain, and it wasn’t working because he didn’t speak any English, and I don’t speak any Arabic, and finally a guy came up from the back of the bus and actually got off with me, walked me to a different bus, paid for my ticket, and rode with me until my stop. I guess I caused that much trouble. But Egyptians are very nice. Whenever I’ve been wandering around lost (frequent), someone has helped. Like the other day, when I needed to find:

The Egyptian Metro System

The Cairo metro is the only one in Africa or the Middle East. It was a joint project of the French and the Japanese, which therefore produced a system which operates with ruthless efficiency while encouraging rude behavior.

The way it works is, when the metro pulls up and the doors open, a horde of people stampede out the middle, while the people wanting to get in stream in through the sides like little salmon fighting their way upstream. The reason people do this is that the doors stay open for some apparently randomly chosen amount of time, and then the doors shut, often leaving some trapped in and plenty trapped out. That’s how it works during the off-peak hours, which are merely crowded. During rush hour, when it’s REALLY crowded, the process gets assisted by each person lifting a hand and helpfully shoving the person in front of them right in the back to keep them moving forward as fast as possible.

I’ve learned a couple of other useful tidbits, which is that the first couple of cars on the train are reserved for women only during rush hour, and you cause quite a commotion if you line up in the wrong place. Also, quite a bit of maneuvering goes on inside the train. The people who are getting off at the next stop strategically make a kind of a wedge formation in preparation for the doors opening. So if you just barely made it on the train, and you’re not getting off at the next stop, and you don’t elbow your way away from the door, you’ll get a lot of irritated jabbering in Arabic directed your way by people trying to line up to get off.

Fortunately, I’ve been staying near a metro stop, so I don’t have far to walk. I’ve discovered over time that there are some activities which really renew your zest in life. Earlier on this trip, I discovered that taking a cold shower (or jumping in the Mediterranean) after a long day of hiking in 110 degree heat is one of those life-affirming activities.

Cairo Streets

Successfully crossing a Cairo street, any street, is another one of those activities.

There are almost no lane markers on Cairo streets, and the few that exist no one pays attention to. Traffic lights seem to have some impact on traffic, but it appears to be minimal, and largely during rush hour. After 3 days in Cairo, I have not seen anyone, under any circumstances, use a turn signal. And, everyone drives really really fast at all opportunities. I feel pretty certain that the words “speed limit” don’t even translate into Arabic.

Crossing a Cairo street is like real life Frogger, only you’re on your last life. You signal your intent to cross by just stepping out into traffic, and then you try to interpret the signals thrown your way. Everyone hurtling toward you will issue at least one honk. That doesn’t mean anything except, I’m aware of you. Two short honks seems to indicate “I’m driving aggressively but I will probably swerve a little to avoid you.” Repeated short honking means, “I’m not stopping for anything, not you, not that bus turning into the street up ahead, nothing.” Any long honks mean someone (likely you) has upset someone else (some cab driver scamming some poor tourist from the airport probably) who had to swerve a little in response.

Matters are complicated by the fact that the drivers aren’t just honking at pedestrians, they’re honking at each other. I think honking also functions something like a turn signal: any time you turn the wheel, you honk so everyone knows. This is especially true at night, since approximately 80% of drivers do not use headlights.

Anyway, there’s a real skill to street-crossing. I’ve seen Cairenes make some breathtaking moves on these streets. Egypt has one of the highest road-casualty rates in the world, but frankly it’s amazing 10000 people a day don’t die here.

Happily, after 3 days I’ve only been hit once, and that was at low speed, when someone was turning through a crowd and then got to me while I had foolishly looked away for a split second to see if I was going in the right direction. For just one small bruise on the hand, I got to learn the potentially life-saving lesson of focusing 110% of my attention on street-crossing, and saving any other thinking, no matter how ostensibly important, for the other side of the street. Really, I more hit him than he hit me. That earned me the most long honks I’ve heard so far. Plus a number of Arabic words I probably shouldn’t say in front of Mrs. Muhammad.

So, after only a couple of street-crossings I return to my room at the Pensione Roma, run by an ex-pat Italian couple who are also fluent in French, Arabic, and are pretty good with English. As always, there is no A/C, but the room only has a view of the big building next door, which keeps the room pretty shaded and therefore tolerable.

© Gus Mattammal, All Rights Reserved