taxi 101

Lately, my friends and I have been starting to venture out into the various areas around campus on our own, with mixed results. Sometimes we get back to our dorms on campus successfully, and other times we end up lost for an hour. You basically have a 50/50 chance of getting where you originally intended to go.

Fun fact: Taxi drivers in Egypt usually don’t know the names of streets, major monuments, or how to listen to directions. So, organizing a taxi ride here is an art. There are quite a few things to take into account, but you usually only have a few seconds standing at the window to figure it all out. How much English does the driver speak? Is there a working meter? Will he charge extra to use it? Does he know where AUC is? The most common answers to these questions are: little to none, usually not, yes, and probably not. Throw in the fact that I know very little applicable Arabic, and you’ve got a deal!

A typical ride goes something like this. About 500 different taxis pull over, all vying rip off us (presumably stupid) Americans. I use my handy go-to phrases: “al-gameea al-amrekeya fee al-kahera gedeeda” (the American University in New Cairo), and “bikem?” (how much?). The driver will assure us that he knows exactly where that is, and quote us a price that’s about twice as much as we should be paying. After going through a couple more taxis and more negotiations, we settle on a cab. This is where things can go one of two ways. Either the driver actually does know how to get to New Cairo (which is semi-likely) and AUC (pretty rare), or he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, he never admits it, and instead will roll down his window while driving (usually on a busy freeway) to shout at other random cars, asking for directions in Arabic. We always end up at AUC…eventually.

The only time that I’ve seriously questioned whether or not I would be lost in Egypt forever was after our day trip to the Pyramids last week. When we first got in the taxi to return to campus, the driver seemed to know all about AUC, and even asked if we were going to the new or old campus. He had a functioning meter and stopped to get gas before we started out on the hour-long ride to New Cairo. Everything was going according to plan, until the driver spontaneously decided to stop following the freeway signs to New Cairo and turn in random directions. We noticed this almost immediately, and tried to tell him to turn around in broken Arabic accompanied by sign language. I had my trusty tourist Egypt guide book with me, and frantically flipped through the useful phrase-book, only to find words for “left” and “right”.

This is where disaster ensued. We had literally been about 20 minutes away from campus, and now had no idea where we were. After spending too much time trying to direct the driver back to the main freeway, we called up one of the RA’s, Joe, to give the driver directions in Arabic, which usually easily solves the problem. Not this time. The driver couldn’t tell Joe where we were or how he had gotten there. Joe couldn’t understand the angry jibberish that the driver was yelling at him. At one point, the driver told Joe that we were at the Mubarak Police Academy, which was true at that moment. As Joe began giving him directions to AUC from that point, the driver kept driving around, so by the time we understood the directions from the Academy, we were about 15 minutes away from it and had to start from scratch. The best part is that even when he did figure out proper directions, the driver didn’t follow them, instead choosing to continue driving around and shouting at random other cars for directions. We were completely lost for at least an hour, with us still trying to point out directions to the driver, the driver shouting to other cars, and Joe frustrated on the phone. Finally, one of the other cars happened to give the driver the same directions that Joe had given him, and we started to move in the right direction.

By the time we caught sight of the university, the meter had reached about 90 pounds (about 18 dollars). Normally, the hour-long trip should only cost about 50-60 pounds maximum (10-12 dollars). It wasn’t a huge difference, but we were not about to pay for the extra hour that it took us to get to campus when it was not our fault. So, we handed him 70 pounds (which was generous in itself for the treatment we received), and started to walk through the main gate. The driver, though, had a different idea. He got out of the car and started shouting that we were “crazy” and that he would call the “bolice”, which was funny because the campus security guards were standing right next to us. We argued back and forth for awhile, which lead the driver to point out that we now owed him 100 pounds, because his meter had been ticking throughout the argument. It was a ridiculous scene. We ended up just handing him 80 pounds and hurrying through the gate, listening to him yell after us until we got inside campus.

When it comes down to it, it’s really the luck of the draw with taxi drivers. Joe later told us that he gets at least 3-4 calls a day from lost students in taxis, but he’s always able to solve the problem in a few minutes. We just happened to get the one bad egg. Lucky us! But hey- as I said, we got back eventually. Besides that ride, we’ve been semi-successful when it comes to navigating the city. We’ve tackled the bus system from new campus to Zamalek, Downtown, Rehab, and the huge CityStars mall on our own. For someone who’s known to get lost in Los Altos, California, that’s not too shabby!

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