Craig's Travels
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Big Crazy

September 2006
In a recent cab ride on the way home from downtown the other night, our taxi got stuck behind a wedding processional in traffic. The scene epitomized Egyptian transportation. In one car, the elated bride and groom clapped along to the blaring Egyptian music. As we passed them, we too clapped along, much to their merriment. Next was the minivan carrying the women and children of the wedding party. In typical fashion, there was about 30 people crammed inside, each row with four or five across and most with one or two on their lap. In front of them, another over-crowded car was tooting the horn more often than the obligatory once-every-ten-seconds as most cars in Cairo adhere to. And leading the train were four scooter bikes each carrying two men sans helmets. As the scooters weaved back and forth across the road, for the sole purpose of preventing cars from passing, one of the passengers took a break from yelling (or was it singing?) to lean all the way back on the bike, so his head reached closer and closer to the moving payment below. Our driver let our a “tsk,” – and for a Cairo cab driver to shun a driving activity, you know it has to be dangerous—and Ronit agreed, saying, “Those guys are a little crazy.”  His response was priceless: “BIG crazy.”

Transportation in Cairo is BIG crazy.  It is a city of almost 18 million people, designed to hold about half that. Overcrowded streets are the norm; traffic jams can last for hours.  According to a Cairo Regional Area Transit study in 2002, the average speed of all modes of transportation within the city was 19km/hour and dropping. What took 37 minutes to travel in 2002 would increase to 100 minutes within 20 years.   In 2003, the Egyptian government asked a group of Japanese engineers how to improve the overall transportation and traffic situation in Cairo.  After months of study, the engineers came back and said, “don’t touch a thing.”  According to the Japanese, the overcrowded streets of Cairo should be at a complete standstill. The fact that traffic was moving at all was a miracle. Any attempt to fix the system would probably drag everything to a grinding halt.

A number of transportation improvement projects have been implemented since the 1970s, ranging from parking meters to lanes designated for buses only to staggering work hours to relieve congestion. All of these projects have either failed completely, or petered out after a few successful years. This happens for a number of reasons: lack of maintenance, lack of funding, poor management, poor design… the list goes on and on.  Traffic signals no longer shine green, yellow and red, but rather a constant flashing yellow that does not, under any circumstances, mean ‘yield.’  This means most large intersections are policed by traffic cops 24 hours a day. Few drivers pay them any mind. The latest project designed to instill order on the road was to paint lane lines on some of the major thoroughfares.  The comical result is that drivers now know where not to drive. Some drivers actually use the lines as marker for the middle of their car.  This allows them to weave between lanes to pass, or better yet, create an additional lane in between the two lanes. Turn signals are never used.

All of this makes crossing the street the adventure of a lifetime.  A travel guide accurately described crossing the street in Cairo as a real life game of Frogger. You can go one lane at a time, look for openings, and then dash across before you get squished. The unwritten rule is if the driver makes eye contact with you, he is not allowed to hit you.  But like any unwritten rules, it is open for a certain amount of interpretation. 

Next week marks the beginning of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim calendar.  Most will refrain from eating, drinking and smoking during daylight hours, until Iftar, the break fast meal after the sun goes down.  Apparently, traffic becomes even more crazy just before Iftar, when people who haven’t eaten, drank or had their nicotine fix all day all try to rush home at the same time.  Despite the roads being even more crowded, everyone tries to go faster so they don’t miss the meal.  This prompted a local expat to refer to the time between 4:00-5:00pm during Ramadan as the Iftar 500.

So yes, I am loving it- constant excitement and comic relief. I can’t wait until our car arrives and I can join the madness. And now it is time head downtown, and get back out into the Big Crazy.

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