Cairo Taxi, How To Catch A
"Ya haraami!" The young Egyptian man, in a blinding green-and-purple shirt and spotless black trousers, gestures sharply as he steps out of the cab. The taxi driver barks a reply which is lost in the noise of traffic. All around, cars jerk and slide in and out of the strange organism that is Cairo traffic. The smell of petrol and exhaust fumes complement the towering apartment blocks and the heat haze which radiates from the concrete. No one pays much attention to the argument: they've seen it all before. At last, it comes to an end. With an expression of disgust, the young man peels off a couple more ragged notes and thrusts them through the window. They speak a last few words on each side, then the taxi pulls away, cautiously re-inserting itself into the flow.
"Haraami" means "thief" in Arabic, and it is not unknown to hear the word shouted at taxi drivers in Egypt. Foreigners have even more reason to use it, yet it is difficult to avoid this particular form of transport. Locals pack the city buses to the gills, the underground Metro is good but limited in its destinations, and driving is a daunting prospect in the anarchy that is Cairo traffic. No, the Cairo taxi is a challenge that you must face.
How does the system work? There are no companies to call and book a cab with, just thousands of distinctive black-and-white vehicles plying the streets. Some are bright and new, some the worse for wear, some seemingly held together by wire and a prayer. To catch one, stand at the side of the road and signal, or just yell your destination to a passing driver. He will decide if he wants to take you; if so, hop in. Single women should sit in the back to avoid marriage proposals.
Here comes the tricky part. All Egyptian taxis have meters -- they just don't use them. Most are set on an unrealistically low official rate or don't work. You must know the generally accepted fare to your destination, and have the correct change ready in your pocket. When you arrive, step out of the cab, close the door, hand the cash through the open window, say shukran (thanks) and stroll briskly away. This makes it difficult for the driver to stop and argue with you. No easy feat on a busy, congested Cairo street, so he has no choice but to drive on.
Easy, isn't it? Unfortunately, they don't always stick to the script. Some drivers, seeing an agnabi (foreigner), assume that you have stacks of cash and no knowledge of the proper fares. They start by quoting a ridiculous figure, expecting you to passively agree. You are quite within your rights to insist on the proper fare. The ensuing conversation can include haggling, sarcasm ("We want to go downtown, not to Alexandria") and sometimes halting the taxi and getting out.
An effective alternative is stating your price then refusing to talk to the driver at all until you reach the destination. This works well, as it's hard to argue with someone who doesn't reply. The best way to avoid such a conflict is to never catch taxis outside hotels or tourist sites. If you can speak a little Arabic to drivers as well, even better. This helps establish your credentials as a person who wasn't born yesterday.
This article may make it sound as if catching taxis in Cairo is a constant hassle. It isn't. Not all drivers will argue over the amount, and many will offer unsolicited gifts (cigarettes, for example) and be genuinely friendly. It's just that a ride with a haraami is far more memorable. There is a positive side to any hassle too: it makes for a good travel anecdote later.
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