Monday, 16 February 2009

The Unpublished 4: Taxis of Cairo

This month's travel article that I've never been able to place takes us to the Egyptian capital, Cairo, where I lived from 1992 to 1994. The following piece is based on my impressions from those years.

When I lived in Cairo, I caught plenty of taxis.

There were no companies to phone, just thousands of black-and-white vehicles plying the streets. Some were bright and new, some the worse for wear, some held together by wire and prayer.

They all had meters but the drivers didn't use them, as they were set to unrealistically low rates from years before. Payment was instead determined by the generally accepted fare to the chosen destination, though its flexibility caused the odd disagreement.

But the Cairo taxi experience was worth any small quibbles over the appropriate fare.

I had some memorable taxi rides in the two years I lived in Al Qahirah. The most notable coincided with an earthquake which rocked the city in October 1992. Travelling along a flyover, the driver pulled over, got out and kicked the tyres. A young student later got in, and explained in English about the quake. I’d had no clue. Which went to show that a jostling Cairo taxi ride could mask tremors.

Another time, an unexpectedly magnificent taxi pulled up. Rather than the usual battered Fiat, it was a venerable Mercedes-Benz. The wood panelling gleamed, the seats were comfortable leather. The grey-haired driver explained that he’d owned this gem since World War II.

The most interesting ride was in the company of some fellow teachers. We piled in, to be surprised by a female taxi driver. Wearing a higab (headscarf), she explained in Arabic that she was divorced and this was her means of support. She was a little nonplussed by our questions, but she was the only female taxi driver I ever saw in the city.

And one day I got into a cab for a short trip, to discover an Australian behind the wheel. He’d brought his newborn child back to see his Egyptian family, and was killing time by driving a taxi. We had a chat about Sydney, an unexpectedly mundane conversation considering our setting.

One driver, in the fine traditions of Arab hospitality, even handed over the cassette of the music he was playing in the car, after a passing comment from me that it was good. That's the kind of service I call helwa (sweet).

Note: As this article is based on personal experience from some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current security situation before travelling to Egypt.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.