A newcomer to the big bad city, Marie Hougaard infuses the daily torment of riding Cairo taxis with references to Western pop culture
I confess: I was a beginner, another hapless European expecting the taxi driver to know his way around the city or to keep up a modicum of politeness; stupidly, expecting to ride with a man with whom you can settle peaceably on a reasonable fare. Ah well... The first lesson in my Cairo taxi education definitely had to do with the fare. It was never easy to do what I was told -- "get in, pay, get out" -- because the driver always seemed to be giving you, rather like those mafiosos in The Godfather (1972) "an offer you can't refuse". Refuse you must, though. Which is when the money argument begins.
More recently I discovered a technique that works: argue first. This is a 90 percent improvement. It saves me having to flee into a supermarket because the taxi driver is following the stupid foreigner he has not sufficiently duped. Considering the traffic, though, this leaves us with the problem of finding a taxi in the first place. The argue-first rule rather reduces the options. You end up in situations that seem to evoke one of the better-known lines from the M*A*S*H TV show (1972-83): "So hard to find a taxi in this part of the war." All things considered, though, I've found this to be the best approach by far. Once it stops, you quote your destination and your price. If the driver nods, you are home and dry.
Not quite, though, because there is a significant interim in the taxi itself; and getting into an Egyptian taxi is rather like stepping into someone's home. The difference is: when I step into people's homes they are generally speaking not unhappy about it. A taxi driver is, or rather he acts in such a way as to communicate the fact that I'm not welcome. Let's see... He insists on playing very loud music, it is very back music, and his attitude about it is rather reminiscent of The Big Lebowski (1998): "If you don't like my fucking music get your own fucking taxi." Once the music has been sorted, the race can begin for real. In this context it is necessary to adopt a classificatory approach, since not all taxis are alike; but it is possible to divide them into three types, according to the way they go about the race (It will be noted that, in all three cases, it is invariably a race).
First, there is the full time psychopath. This is the most common type. He is angry and he blows his horn all the time. He yells, driving like a maniac. He tends to believe he is the best driver in Cairo. His music is not only lousy but deafening. He will drop you off at the wrong place and argue vehemently. His most common phrase comes from Taxi Driver (1976): "Are you talking to me?" Then comes the unemployed engineer. He is sad and worried. He will frequently play Koranic recitation rather than music. His vehicle is old but well maintained. His most common phrase comes from the TV show Taxi (1978-83): "I'm just waiting for something better to come along. You know, like death." Finally there comes the really rare specimen who seems straight out of Driving Miss Daisy (1989). He smiles, he is helpful. He will get out to ask directions. A safe driver, a respectable man: he likes his job and he is good at it. When I'm lucky enough to end up with one of those, Janis Joplin -- see below, is always playing cheerfully in my head.
Let us refer to them henceforth as Types 1, 2 and 3: Approaches to the race range from Need for Speed: Most Wanted (2005) in the case of Type 1, to "Mr taxi driver only thinks about himself," as Lenny Kravitz had it -- Type 2, to "Oh, Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz". There is always traffic, there is always madness. At the beginning of my taxi education I used to hold onto the car door but it seems useless because most are liable to opening at any point in the journey. Now I know better: lean back, close your eyes and concentrate on being alive when you finally get home. I am rather used to it in fact: being ripped off because I look like a tourist, the mad driving, the beauty of it all on a Friday morning, having to give the driver directions in Arabic. Even as I write this, humming along to Tori Amos, "Got a long taxi ride, got a long taxi ride," while I contemplate another Cairo crossing, I can contemplate the prospect with equanimity.