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A Ride on the Wild Side

By Karen Kish
A Ride on the Wild Side

Imagine a city of 10 million people with only a handful of traffic lights, crosswalks, and stop signs. A few traffic police halfheartedly blow whistles from a safe distance on major medians. Drivers incessantly honk when they pass on the right or the left, approach a pedestrian on the street or sidewalk, enter an intersection, cut off another driver, or play chicken with any bus, truck, or motorcycle. Legend has it that 125 pedestrians are killed each day.
We divided traffic events into three categories: bus, car/taxi, and mixed media. While merely crossing the street is an adventure worthy of heart palpitations, riding in vehicles surpasses any white-knuckle amusement ride.
In the bus category, friends told of a scene that they witnessed while filling up at a benzene station. A flaming bus pulled into a gas station for assistance as passengers leaped off to safety. The attendants screamed at the driver to get out of the volatile gas station, which he did: he pulled out and down the street about 100 meters. The driver and several others sprayed the flames with extinguishers, the fire stopped, the passengers reboarded, and off they merrily went.
In the taxi genre, some encounters are short and sweet. While running one day, I spotted several cars stopped on the opposite side of the road. One of them was a taxi gushing flames out the driver’s window. The driver left to obtain water, doused the flames, then drove off. Business as usual. Another taxi driver revived his stalled vehicle by spitting gasoline on the carburetor to the horror of his expat passengers.
Other taxi escapades are more exotic and dangerous. On our way to the Khan El Khalili bazaar, we stopped to use an ATM machine. Our driver then backed out onto Oruba Street (eight bustling lanes) and couldn’t find first gear. So he got out, crawled under the cab (with his legs sticking out into traffic!), and manipulated the gearshift into place. We watched the gear knob moving inside the cab and seared mental images of his body getting dismembered by a speeding vehicle. He smiled reassuringly as he got back in, and we resumed our journey.
Some mixed-media mishaps involve animals. Our school minibus once hurtled into the far left lane—toward a donkey cart plodding against traffic toward us. Another snag occurred at an intersection with vehicles in various contortions of collisions on both sides of the highway. Even the tram at the juncture was derailed. One of the casualties was a donkey cart, which a crowd of helpful Egyptians was industriously hefting off the highway to free the jumbled traffic, while the injured driver lay disconcertingly inert on the median, and the donkey placidly grazed nearby.
Occasionally, our eventual jaded transportation ennui was jarred. One night, six of us were crammed into a friend’s Toyota compact. He took a wrong turn, and, in his zeal to backtrack, turned left—into the path of a moving tram just 15 feet away. To miss the sprinting tram, we swerved left, into another set of oncoming headlights: a woman driving against traffic to make a U-turn at the same tram crossing. We screeched to a halt; she careened onto the tracks, just after the tram passed.
Although our knuckles eventually retained their natural color while cruising Cairo’s streets, our chariots of choice were selective: preferably the “expensive” two-pound bus, trams, or the metro. All of the latter are transportation bullies compared to puny autos and have rail and dedicated lane access unimpeded by other vehicles. And yet, we, the “victims,” still couldn’t wait for that next “victorious” motorized adventure to write home about.

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