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2. The Universe / Travel & Transport / Travel
Hailing a Taxi in Cairo, Egypt
Cairo is the largest city in Africa and one of the largest in the Middle East in terms of population. Cairo does not, however, cover a large area geographically in relation to other major cities. This should mean that getting around is easy, but the maze of streets generally forces one to rely on public transport. The metro system is fairly useless for the tourist. The few who ride the metro head for the old Christian and Jewish quarter at the Mar Girgis station, a few stops south of Tahrir Square, which is the transportation and commerce centre of Cairo, and home to the Egyptian Museum and several major hotels.
Hailing a taxicab in Cairo can be a daunting experience for the uninitiated traveller, especially those arriving at the airport at an ungodly hour, which, unfortunately, seems to be de rigeur for arrivals in the Middle East in general.
A word of explanation. There are lots of honest taxi drivers in Cairo. Unfortunately, there are also the occasional unscrupulous taxi drivers who like to take advantage of people who don't look Egyptian or speak Arabic. This, in turn, is due to the fact that many tourists are, unfortunately, completely ignorant about the way things work in Egypt and overemphasize their ignorance and helplessness. Anyone who does this in any city in the world is asking for trouble, and Cairo is no exception. If you're self-confident, patient and understanding of the Egyptians, they are the nicest people in the universe and will bend over backwards to help you out.
Ex-pats who live in Cairo have learned a few basic rules that will help the casual traveller survive their Egyptian taxicab experience.
Meet the Egyptian Taxi
First, let's meet the Egyptian taxicab and familiarize ourselves with it. In every city in Egypt, taxicabs are a different colour. Only in Alexandria are they the trademark yellow you might have seen in the USA. In Cairo and Giza, they're black and white. The standard cab will be missing any or all of the following: headlights, bumpers, at least one body panel, hubcaps, and either the bonnet, or the boot panel. Some of these parts may secured with rope or bungee cords. The horn, however, always works and appears to be wired to the steering wheel, and the brake, accelerator, and clutch pedals simultaneously.
If you're arriving at night, be forewarned that Egyptians consider it rude to drive with the headlights on. They remain firmly off unless the need to overtake another car arises, particularly if travelling down a two-way street and it becomes necessary to pass through a space of one-car width. In this case, the car that flashes its lights first is supposed to go through first, although the possibility that the headlights may not work (see above) makes this game all the more interesting. Egyptian taxi drivers also have an alarming habit of driving with no hands on the wheel, or of turning completely around in the seat to talk to someone in the back while the car is in motion. There is also the legendary driver who sleeps while the car is in motion, but this tends to be more of a rural phenomena.
Despite these quirks, fatalities in taxicabs are rare. You will arrive at your destination, perhaps white-knuckled and huddled on the floor in a shaking, sobbing heap, but you will get there.
Arriving with all of your money, however, can be a completely different matter.
The standard method for hailing a cab is to walk out to the street and raise your hand when you see one coming. The cab will slow down, and you shout out the name of the area of town you want to go to (ie, 'Zamalek' or 'Mohandeseen' or 'Pyramids'). If the driver is going that way, he will stop and pick you up. If not, he will keep on going. It is not uncommon for a cab with passengers already in it to pick up more, as long as the cab will not be going out of its way to drop off the second group.
You should avoid queued taxis at all cost, unless you are arriving at Cairo International Airport, in which case you should only take queued taxis. Taxis from the airport wait in front of the two international terminals (they can be somewhat hard to find at the domestic terminal), and if you arrive at peak hours, the tourist police will point you in the right direction. The cab should stop at a checkpoint before leaving the airport, where you will be asked to sign a form indicating your destination.
Taxi fares rise exponentially the closer you hail them to any of the western five-star hotels - the area around the Arab League headquarters is bad because of its location adjacent to the Nile Hilton. The worst of this breed are the ones that queue up in front of these hotels. Sure, the doorman will hail it for you, but you'll pay upwards of 200% of the appropriate fare. Likewise, the fare will go up if you get into a cab and name one of these hotels as your destination.
The best way to put yourself on an even playing field is to walk a few blocks away from your hotel (and away from other hotels) and hail a cab from there. It's better to name a destination close to the hotel, or to use your hotel as a reference - say 'Urayyib min [name of the hotel]' meaning 'It's close to [that hotel]' rather than telling the driver to take you straight there. If you are staying at one of the fancy hotels in downtown Cairo - the Nile or Rameses Hilton, the Semiramis InterContintental, Helnan Shepheards, or one of the other hotels in the area - try asking for the American University in Cairo (say: Al-Gamiyya Al-Amrikiyya), which is just across Tahrir Square from these hotels. AUC is also a convenient place to catch a cab from if you are staying in the area. You can use the underground passages of Cairo's metro to cross beneath the square in order to avoid crossing on foot, which can be a bit like the old arcade game 'Frogger'.
If you follow the rules outlined below, you should have an easy time of it
Know Where You're Going
This sounds like a no-brainer, right? You might be surprised to know how many people get into cabs in Egypt and don't know where they're going. Get an exact address or, better still, the name of a nearby landmark from a guidebook or ask the receptionist at your hotel to help. If the driver doesn't know where you want to go, get out of the cab immediately. Another driver may have a better sense of direction.
If you are not going to a major tourist destination, make sure your driver knows where he's going before he starts moving (the best way to do this is to leave the door open while you discuss the destination). If the cab is in motion and you want to get out, you owe the driver money, even if he's only gone a few feet down the street. Having a map usually won't help - many cab drivers can't read them. If you're going someplace that tourists don't tend to frequent, like a bank or airline office, find out what landmark is located close by and ask your driver to take you there. Don't be embarrassed to call ahead and ask - most Egyptians are landmark drivers, and street numbers are rarely indicated on the building.
Know How Much the Journey Should Cost before You Get in the Cab
Franz Kafka would have loved Cairene taxis. Occasionally, you will see a meter in an Egyptian cab. They serve no purpose other than a decorative function, even if the dials turn. The best way to determine the price of a taxi ride in Cairo is to know how much the ride will cost before you get in.
Although most tourists aren't in the country long enough to master this particular system, it is worth trying to understand its basis. The theory behind this is simple: the cost of the ride is based on the amount of time you spend in the cab and the distance you travel. Ask your hotel receptionist how much a ride should cost. (It's better to ask anyone in the hotel than the doormen, since the doormen may have an interest in quoting you an inflated rate). If it's late at night, you may pay anywhere from 50% to double the usual rate. Beware of the estate car cabs, as the going rates for these are higher than normal cabs. It is not normal to negotiate the fare with the driver once the cab is in motion, although some drivers may try to do this with you. Knowing what the fair price is will help.
Here is a basic fare chart which is approximately correct for January 2007:
From Tahrir Square (Hiltons/InterContinental/Egyptian Museum/American University) to:
The general method to pay the driver is, once you've got in the cab, tell the driver exactly where you want to go, and you're off. When you get there, get out of the cab and then pay him through the window, saying Shukran ('Thank you'). If you know that the price you've paid is fair, turn and walk away. Most of the time, that will be the end of it. On rare occasion, you will find a driver who wants more money who will start to argue with you. They may even get out of the cab and try to follow you. If you know what you've paid is fair, stand your ground. (This is where hotel doormen are handy). Feel free to get the help of passers-by if you feel you are being cheated. Egyptians are proud of their reputation for hospitality and will often come to the aid of a foreigner who is being taken advantage of.
Never Agree to a Stopover
'I know a man with a shop...' is another way of saying, 'You look rich and I'm going to rip you off now, OK?' The taxi driver may offer to stop in at a shop owned by his brother/friend/cousin/someone who speaks English to drop something off/pick something up/get directions to your destination/show you something. The answer to this is 'no'. Invariably, you'll be treated to tea, shown several items, asked if you want to buy anything, and quoted a highly inflated price. Regardless of whether the driver and the store owner appear to know each other, the driver will get a percentage of whatever sale is made. Don't waver if the driver offers - saying 'maybe' is the same as saying 'yes'. Don't be afraid of being rude - your wallet will suffer otherwise! If you say 'no' forcefully, and he stops anyway, refuse to get out of the cab. If he insists, pay him for the portion of the journey completed, walk away and get another cab.
Don't Forget your Camera!
Remember to have fun and enjoy yourself. Cairo is an amazing place, and once you've figured out how to get around, go and see everything. And remember, there are no bad experiences, only good anecdotes!
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