Shortly after I arrived here my son, Danny, sent me an email warning me that Cairo is in the top ten list of cities in the world for fatal car accidents. My initial reaction was there was no way those statistics were right—I mean how bad could it be? After a few drives around town I came to the conclusion the stats were definitely inaccurate. Based on my experience Cairo surely had to be in the top five! Since coming to that conclusion I have further decided that most drivers in Cairo are certifiably insane. And passengers who willingly ride with them are almost as crazy as the drivers.
If there’s one thing that I’m sure about it’s that drivers in Cairo are among the most aggressive in the world. I also think they all suffer from some kind of genetic disorder that forces them to ignore lanes, traffic signals and signs and engage in a game of “How many pedestrians can I knock down today?” For the first few weeks I was here I would literally close my eyes in total terror as the drivers would whiz in and out of traffic speeding along the crowded highways squeezing between vehicles they would just barely miss sideswiping. Then they would slam on their brakes as they stopped just inches short of ramming into traffic stopped in the highway in front of them. And then there’s the making-a-left-hand-turn-from-the-right-lane-thing they all seem to do. Trust me entering an intersection or making a turn in Cairo can be a very challenging scenario to say the least.
And if passengers are insane pedestrians fall into an even more mind-boggling group of the certifiable. What is amazing is that people try to cross the crowded streets and major highways navigating their way through the cars driven by all those crazy drivers. Even late at night there are people dressed completely in black (so you can barely see them) who try and cross up to five lanes of traffic full of these insane drivers. And worse some of those pedestrians carry small children in their arms or lead them along by the hand weaving their way in-between the cars hurtling past them. It’s a totally unbelievable scene that unnerves even the most unflappable.
I’d been here about two weeks when my cousin, Flora, came here to visit me. Well, she’s not really MY cousin but that’s not important. What is important is that she’s my friend and she came to visit me at a time when that visit was a very big deal to me. It was hard leaving my husband, my kids and grandkids, my sister and her family to come here. My father had just died a few weeks earlier and although I was excited to take the job I was still pretty raw from losing both my parents in the same year. We had the memorial service for both parents about two weeks before I left for Cairo and that emotionally draining service linked with losing my sole support system was really tough. So, when Flora came to see me—-well, it was just the solace I needed. A close friend; a loved family member; someone to share my experiences with in Cairo: how lucky could I be?
Flora was born in Turkey and was visiting her relatives there to reconnect with her roots. She wanted to hop over from Turkey for a week’s visit in Egypt to see me. Flora is really amazing. She’s generous, kind, entertaining, intelligent. She’s also an incredible cook, dynamic hostess, stunning decorator, phenomenal photographer. And based on the list of places she wanted to see while she was here (which was longer than my arm) I had to add “tourist extraordinaire” to that ever growing list of her talents and skills. Therefore, I wasn’t terribly surprised when one of the places on her list she wanted to visit was the pyramids way out in Giza.
I wanted to be a good hostess but I dreaded the thought of making the trip there what with my road terrors and all. But I figured once we got to Giza things would be fine. And we were paying top dollar to hire as good a driver as one can get in this town with a comfortable car with powerful AC thrown in to boot. So, keeping all of this in mind, we decided to make a full day of it. In the morning we would take the desert road to the Suez Canal (definitely not worth repeating in my opinion). After that the plan was to spend the afternoon touring the pyramids.
I figured I could handle the drive through the desert easily enough. Once you get out of the city driving becomes much less hazardous at least during the day light hours when you don’t need headlights and taillights to drive safely. And we hoped our ride in the car wouldn’t be too bad because we had timed the visit to the pyramids around the hours when traffic and gridlock in Cairo is about as good as it gets. So, with these plans in place we were optimistic our day would be a grand adventure and a memorable experience. Little did we know!
Flora and I quickly learned that besides being crazy, drivers here tend to mirco-manage your tourist experiences as well. They all seem to know the same Ahmed who owns a shop just around the corner. And they promise Ahmed can get you the best deals in town on all things Egyptian Hawaga tourists are sure to like. The drivers also love to provide unsolicited advice on ways to get the most out of one’s visits to the various sites. Want the best view of the temples? Take a ride in a balloon. Want the most romantic ride along the cornich el nil? Hire a horse and buggy. Want the most memorable way to tour the pyramids? Ride a camel. Or take a horse. And Essam, our driver that day, was no exception. He was full of all kinds of advice about what we should do, when we should do it and how we should to do it.
Our first mistake of the day was going to the Suez Canal. Our second was in mistakenly thinking the taxi would be able to drive us up to the front door of the pyramids for a quick look-see. Our third mistake was assuming that Essam our driver would give us good advice for our tour of the pyramids that day. And our fourth mistake was listening to and taking the advice of anyone who drives a car in Cairo!
Essam sized Flora and I up pretty quickly: two middle aged women carrying a few extra pounds (well me anyway—ok, more than a few). He came to the conclusion we needed an easy way to make the rounds of the pyramids. What we needed was to see the pyramids riding high atop the seat of a horse and buggy. So, the first thing Essam did when we got to Giza was stop at an artifact gallery where the owner excitedly met us at the door. I’m sure the owner figured he had two naive women tourists and was relishing the quick profit he hoped to make. But we weren’t quite as gullible as we looked and thanks to Flora’s well honed tourist acumen we exited the store empty-handed. But the store was strategically located next to the clearing where all the camel and horse owners watered and rested their animals. It was a convenient spot for us to spend time while Essam did his thing. Our quick tour of the friendly neighborhood tourist trap gave him just enough time to work out a deal with one of the local horse and buggy owners to take us on what they promised would be the ride of our lives.
The plan was to take a quick tour of back streets nestled at the foot of the pyramids, Then we would head to the pyramids for a guided tour provided by our buggy driver. The trip started off fine. We rode past numerous little vegetable and fruit shops and cafes crowded with men drinking Turkish coffee and smoking shisha. We made our way past women dressed in long black robes with colorful scarves covering their heads. Their stools lined the street where they sat busily preparing their evening meals. Our buggy narrowly missed children playing in the streets and animals grazing at weeds growing in little patches of green along the well traveled route.
We obviously weren’t the first tourists to pass along this narrow street. You could see the recognition in their eyes that we were just another buggy load of tourists on their way to the pyramids. We were no different than all the other tourists who had passed this way before us. Looking at them silently sitting there watching us watching them failed to signal that anything significant was about to happen. Nothing in their empty stares forewarned us they knew what was coming next. Nothing they did prepared us for that moment that forever changed our relationship with crazy Cairo drivers.
If car drivers are certifiably insane—horse and buggy drivers are criminally insane! Our driver, Hassan, a wizened refugee from the Sudan carried on a non-stop one-sided conversation. He continually peppered his commentary with oddly inappropriate quips about the other tourists we passed along the route. Periodically he asked either Flora or myself a personal question. When we failed to answer he turned his head around and continued to look at us with a crazed look on his face. Eventually, one or the other of us frantically offered some kind of response to his invasive questions to force him to turn his head and watch the road again.
Although neither of us said it out loud I know that shortly after we got into that buggy we both felt our driver was a tad bit scary. Armed with that realization made us both nervous about continuing our ride. I tried to reassure myself that tourists take rides in these buggies all the time. The Ministry of Tourism hadn’t closed them down. They hadn’t stopped Hassan from luring tourists into his buggy in their quest to spend a quiet afternoon gazing at the pyramids. I hadn’t heard anything on the local news or seen anything written in the local newspapers about crazed buggy drivers attacking tourists. Nor had I been warned in hushed whispers at the Maadi House (where all the American expats hung out) about tourists in horse and buggies being hurt while visiting the pyramids in Giza. So I figured that Hassan must know what he was doing; that we were probably safe. That we were just over-reacting from exposure to too much sun.
When Hassan took a left hand turn from the back street we were moseying along, ferried us a short distance down a lane running parallel to a major highway, it was then that I know we both came to the conclusion it might not have been the smartest idea to agree to this horse and buggy ride. And, it was right after that –to our utter amazement–Hassan made a U-turn, forcing his slowly plodding and panting horse and two reluctant passengers into on-coming traffic on the three lane highway. That’s when all hell broke loose. That’s when we both knew without a doubt our impulsive decision to take this buggy ride was the fifth and BIGGEST mistake of the day!
Cars swerved out of the way to miss us. Drivers blared on their horns. A wide range of rude hand gestures waved out of car windows at us. Drivers and passengers screamed at us to get out of the middle of the road. Dumbfounded with fear we were both certain we were going to be hit by the cars streaming past us. But it was when a semi-truck barreled down the highway headed straight towards us horn blaring to get out of the way we knew we were going to die!
Hassan plodded along in the buggy unfazed, laughing loudly at our obvious distress. He casually mumbled under his breath, “No problem. We ok. No problem. Horse and Hassan know what to do.” I think that’s when Flora starting loudly praying. We both screamed and frantically clutched one another terrified, frozen in fear. All I recall from that moment was wishing I could be riding in the car with Essam. All I remember is wanting to be in a car whizzing along the highway swerving around cars stopped in the road in front of us. Oh…how I longed at that moment to be in a car on a busy highway riding with our crazy driver Essam!!
I don’t really remember much about our visit to the pyramids or the sphinx we made later that day. Pretty much everything after our close encounter with a semi-truck on the highway has faded into a hazy and distant memory. I’ve heard that horrifying experiences tend to work that way—your mind blocks things that are too terrifying to remember. It’s a way of easing the trauma and stress.
Anymore, I don’t mind riding in a car in Cairo. Now, whenever I get nervous I just remember my ride in the horse and buggy at the foot of the Pyramids. I bring back the moment when my life flashed before me. I pull up the image indelibly burned in my memory of the semi-truck barreling down upon us. When I recall that moment things don’t seem quite so horrifying or scary anymore. Ride in a car in Cairo during rush hour? No big deal. Phew…that’s nothing. After all, I rode to hell and back in a horse and buggy with Hassan and lived to tell about it! Drivers in Cairo–crazy, insane, nuts. But give me any one of them any time any day–I can cope with them all. But I beg of you–keep me away from Hassam and his buggy–he’s the one to watch out for.