After two months in Cairo, my adventures with the city's cabs have been too many and too comical not to write about. At the risk of appearing like a gullible tourist, which I probably am, I will share my funniest moments.
Anyone in Cairo can tell you that the distance between the TV building downtown and Talaat Harb Street is so short you can actually walk it for good exercise. But not knowing this, I actually took a cab that drove around for 15 minutes to lengthen the trip and then charged me LE10 for a ride that should have cost LE2 at the most.
"Always speak to drivers and shopkeepers in an Egyptian dialect," my friend Randa constantly warns me. "Otherwise, they will think you are an Arab tourist and will charge you more." But taking her advice was more easily said than done. My feeble attempts to come across as a local were shattered by my forgetfulness. I would speak a couple of words in the Egyptian dialect before forgetting myself and reverting to my native Palestinian dialect. The cabbies can always tell that I am a "foreigner" trying to speak 'Egyptian'.
The one time I did try to present myself as an Egyptian, the cab driver ended up wanting to charge me LE15 instead of the LE5 I normally pay to go from downtown to Lebanon Square in Mohandessin.
Taking a cab to and from work each day is an adventure. I never know where I may end up or what to expect. Like that recent morning when I decided to come to the office early because I had loads of work to do. I got in the cab and simply told the driver "Al-Ahram". I said it in an Egyptian dialect. The driver named some route that he wanted to take. I had no clue what he was talking about. But not wanting him to think I was a "foreigner", I nodded agreement and told him, in Egyptian dialect, that the route he wanted to take was fine.
We were on our way. Next thing I knew, we were on some speedway and the drive was both smooth and fast -- no traffic, no traffic lights. Just us and the speedway. I looked out the window and enjoyed the morning breeze. "All the other cab drivers are so stupid," I thought to myself. "Here is this great fast speedway that goes all the way from Mohandessin to downtown and instead, the other drivers take me through lots of traffic."
I sat back and became lost in my daydreams. Some time later -- all right, much later, I realised that the cityscape was considerably different than the one I pass on my way to work each day. I also realised that I had been in the cab for a ridiculously long time. So I popped the question. "Does this route take us downtown?"
The driver slammed on the brakes so hard that the car behind us screeched to a halt to avoid hitting us. The cab driver looked at me and asked. "I thought you said you wanted to go to Al-Ahram".
"Yes, Al-Ahram newspaper", I replied coolly. "Why didn't you say that?" he asked. "Everyone knows that Al-Ahram means the pyramids and not the newspaper."
Well, how was I supposed to know that I had to clarify which Ahram I had in mind? The driver was understanding, especially when I told him I would pay him extra. This time I spoke in a clear Palestinian accent. There was no longer any point in pretending I was not a "foreigner". He thought I was gullible anyway.
But my day-time experiences with Cairo cabs were nothing compared to that one night a few weeks ago when I went to visit friends in Zamalek. I made the mistake of waving down a young cab driver who looked no older than 18. It was a miracle I arrived in Zamalek in one piece. The driver drove like such a maniac that I had to hang on for dear life the entire ride. I felt like I was in a 007 movie on some kind of a high speed chase, as I found myself constantly screaming at the driver to slow down while he pretended he had no idea what I was talking about. He also kept forgetting the name of the street where I was going and kept asking me every two seconds about my destination.
The rest of my daily cab rides are smooth and trouble free. Most times now, I don't pay more than I should. Other times, I try to get away with paying less. It never works. But after two months in Cairo, I at least know how to say good morning and give directions in the Egyptian dialect before sitting back and keeping my "foreign" mouth shut the rest of the way.