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"It is the journey which makes up your life."

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Cairo Travel Tip #1: Taxis!

For tourists (and despite my extended stay here, I think I will always be considered a "tourist," even by myself) there is one primary way of getting around Cairo--taxis. Speaking from personal experience I'd say that Cairo traffic is initially one of the most horrifying things about the city. Despite whatever markings, signs, or crosswalks exist on the street, nobody believes in traffic lanes, everyone uses their horns constantly, and headlights exist solely for the purpose of asserting one's presence. I'll go into all this in more detail in Travel Tip #2 when I explain how to cross a street in Cairo.

The taxis themselves are pretty horrifying, even after you've become more accustomed to life in Cairo. There is a very particular political situation in which the Egyptian government has refused to give out new taxi licenses for a very long time. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but I believe they are waiting until some particular technology (think basic, not high-tech) becomes widely available enough for them to reform the whole taxi system and bring them all up to par.

At the moment, however, taxis belch noxious gasoline fumes, the passenger doors sometimes swing open when the taxi takes a leisurely turn to the left, and few if any taxi meters function.

Nonetheless there are ways to mitigate the unpleasantness of taxi riding in Cairo, and this basically comes down to research, research, research. If you can't be or think like a native, the least you can do is know some of the basics they already know. A lot of tourist guides recommend that you negotiate the taxi fare before you get in the cab. This is all well and good for the complete novice, but you have to know how to do it properly, and a lot of guidebooks don't let you know all the gory details.

Many novices make the mistake of telling the taxi driver their destination, then asking "bikaam?" (how much?). This single phrase will give you away as an easy dupe, and be duped you will. The taxi driver will generally quote you twice the actual going fare for the destination you want. If you're not here for very long and/or you've got money to burn, this may be acceptable, but if you are a student or just don't want to be ripped off, you have to go about it a little differently.

Do let the taxi driver know your intended destination before anything else. Do your research and find out exactly where you want to go. Not a specific address per se, as these are often hard to come across, but figure out which midan (plaza) is nearest your destination, or which major landmark or intersection you can direct your driver to. Expect to have to walk a few blocks to get where you actually want to go. Also find out what the "common knowledge" fare to your destination is. Cairenes have unspoken understanding of how much fares are or ought to be, so if you have to, ask a policeman or student. Watch out for people that you can't clearly place in either of these categories because they may be rogue shopkeepers or beggars.

When you actually flag down your taxi, make sure you're on the side of the street on which traffic is heading towards your intended direction. You will be charged extra otherwise, because there's aren't always many places for the cab to reverse direction. When a cab pulls over, state your destination, then state the price you expect to have to pay. It's best if you use Arabic for this entire exchange because the cabbie will be less likely to try to bargain your price up. If you have a full cab's worth of people (four), expect to have to pay a pound or two extra.

Once you get really good at this, you won't have to negotiate price at all. The expert's version: flag your cab, state your destination, climb in, arrive at your destination, hand your cabbie the expected fare, and leave.

Here's a practice dialogue:
Taxi Driver: *pulls over, looks at you*
You: low samaHt, midan al-Tahrir? (If you please, the plaza al-Tahrir)
Taxi Driver: *nods*
You: Khamsa? (five LE?)
Taxi Driver: *frowns and points at your three buddies*
You: sab3a? (seven LE?)
Taxi Driver: *nods*
You: *get in cab, off you go!*


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