Friday, November 19, 2010

10 Tips for Surviving a Cairo Taxi Ride

You booked your ticket to Egypt. You made the long trip across the pond. You get off the plane in Cairo in a daze and finally make it through passport control, pick up your luggage, and come out of the terminal into the dry, dusty heat.

A guy walks up to you and says to you "taxi?" You nod your head and follow him. Bags get stowed in the trunk, on the taxi roof, or (if you're REALLY lucky) shoved in beside you in the backseat.

Now what?

Prepare for the ride of your life.

Traffic in Cairo is not for the faint of heart. At any moment you will be able to reach out of the taxi window and touch the car next to you. Limited personal space is just a fact of life in Egypt, and it is no different out on the roads.

The best thing you can do now is just to sit back and enjoy the ride.

I can still remember my early days in Cairo, trying to get from place to place without getting completely lost because (1) I didn't pronounce my destination correctly and (2) the driver didn't hear me right or (3) the person he stopped to ask directions from really had no idea how to get to your destination but he wasn't about to say that and sent us off on a wild goose chase instead.

It was terrifying then, and it still makes me catch my breath every once in a while.

That's what makes Cairo so fascinating.

But don't worry these 10 things that will help you survive a taxi ride in Cairo:

1. Take only white taxis with meters. If you've never been to Egypt before, you may not know the different between the old black-and-white taxis and the new white taxis. Here is the main difference between the two: Black-and-white taxis will charge you whatever they want to charge you. White taxis will charge you according to the meter (just make sure they don't start the meter before you get in.)

2. Know the landmarks around your destination. Street address and maps were fine before you arrived in Egypt. As far as Egyptians are concerned, they're just as well thrown in the trash here. You will have better luck arriving at your destination safely if you can send the driver in the direction of the nearest big landmark. Landmarks include major intersections, famous mosques, specific parts of town or a main street in that part of town. Your best bet is to ask someone (preferably an English-speaking Egyptian) how they would tell a taxi driver to get there.

3. If possible, take an Arabic speaker with you. Granted some taxi drivers may actually be able to speak some English but very few are truly fluent. If you can't get the driver to understand you, get someone who can explain it to him in Arabic and you're home free. And it certainly helps if you can pick up a little *taxi* Arabic yourself because there is no guarantee that even if they speak broken English to you that they'll understand you when you respond.

4. Work your way up to long rides across town. Depending on how long you plan to be in Cairo, the best way to get to know your way around Cairo is to walk. Once you get a feel for the area, it might be easier for you to explain it to a taxi driver later (especially when you're trying to get home.) If you're only in Egypt for a short time, I definitely recommend hiring a driver for the day (preferably English-speaking) so that you don't have to worry about getting into multiple taxis from place to place.

5. Don't catch a taxi that's been sitting there waiting. They usually want to charge you much more for a ride that it's really worth so don't feel bad for walking right past him or even ignoring him completely. You're much better off getting in a taxi that's just driving by rather than one that has been sitting there for a while.

6. Don't expect the driver to have change. This is true just about anywhere in Egypt. So if you don't have change, I recommend that you give him a little extra (max 5 pounds extra) or have him stop by one of those kiosks on the side of the road to see if they have change.

7. Know that taxi drivers usually work in just one part of town. This means that if your destination is across town they may be less familiar with that area than in their own. One solution to this problem is to take two taxis, one to get across Cairo to the part of town you're going to and then another *local* taxi to get to your final destination.

8. If you're a lady, sit in the backseat. Guys can ride up front with the driver (if they so choose.) But trust me, when they start to weave in and out of cars like they learned to drive by playing Play Station, you'll appreciate the distance between you and the back of the car in front of you that first time you come screeching to a halt.

9. There is no law against ignoring the driver if he wants to chat. There's no law against talking to the driver, but do only what you feel comfortable doing. Sometimes taxi drivers act like you got in their car just for them to practice their broken English. Ladies, please don't give them your name. You can make polite conversation with a driver as long as he doesn't get personal with his questions.

10. When in doubt, get out. Well, don't get out in the middle of nowhere. But, seriously, once you get in a taxi there is no obligation for you to stay in it. You might disagree with the driver on his requested fare. Or you might not feel comfortable with some of the questions he's asking or the way he's staring at you in his rearview mirror. You may be terrified at the way he whips in and out around the other cars. These are all valid reasons for you to ask the driver to stop and let you out. No explanation is required (unless you're like me and you want him to know that what he wants you to pay is outRAGEous).

The Cairo taxi experience is something to remember for the rest of your life.

But it doesn't have to be scary or overwhelming. Trust me, I've been taking taxis in Cairo since 2002. Some things don't change, even as other things do. They may have given all those black-and-white taxi drivers new white cars and a meter, but it doesn't change who they've been all these years.

They still drive like maniacs.

They still want you to yell out your destination to them as they drive past. It gives them the option to decide if they want to pretend that they can't hear you or see you... or not.

They still play hard-to-get for certain destinations (they'll raise their hand to say no) mostly in order to get you to pay a little extra.

They still need to be watched like a hawk. Maybe my blond hair and blue eyes somehow means *stupid* or *gullible* because they still try to overcharge me by keeping their meters running from a previous fare or just *forgetting* to turn it on altogether.

So sorry to disappoint them... this foreigner is neither *stupid* NOR *gullible*. I have lived here too long to be either.

Sometimes I wish they would all just go away.

But then again, what would Cairo be without its taxis?


  1. Hi,

    Thanks for the excellent contribution to the discussion.

    cairo Taxi


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