If you were to take New York City, eliminate all the health, traffic, and building codes, and let it develop for 200 years, you would probably end up with a place a lot like Cairo. I cannot begin to describe this city in any way that will not read like major exaggeration, but nothing I am about to say is even slightly overstated. This is all unbiased truth. I came to Cairo with no preconceived notion about the city at all. I just knew there were pyramids and I wanted to see some.
The first thing I noticed was the driving. My hostel arranged to have a driver pick me up at the airport and bring me to the hostel for the ridiculously affordable price of $12.00, so of course I jumped at the chance, especially when they mentioned he would be waiting for me at the airport with a sign with my name on it! All my life I have disembarked planes and seen all the sign-holding drivers and felt jealous. I always look for my name, just in case, even though I know full well there will be no driver there waiting for me. One of my less-than-exciting life-long dreams has been to come out into the terminal and read my name on a sign, and at last that dream has become a reality. That was a huge digression, but it was a big deal to me, so whatever. Where was I? The driving. Jesus. Every street and freeway in Cairo feels like the Indianapolis 500 being run at 5 miles per hour. No one stays in a lane, and no one yields to anyone. Every single driver is constantly veering and cutting off every other driver, and every time there is any sort of opening, a car instantly races into it. The end result is permanent gridlock, and unending start/ stop herky-jerky driving. Every driver is also honking his horn about 10 times per minute, so the city is a ceaseless cacophony of car horns. Every single car bears evidence of multiple collisions, and you see cars hitting each other quite regularly.
No provision whatsoever has been made for pedestrians. There are no signals and no crosswalks. Well, rarely are there, and when there are it is meaningless, for no one acknowledges them, in much the same way that the painted lanes in the roads are ignored. Pedestrians cross by walking directly into moving traffic at any point in the street they wish. That is really, honestly, truly, not-lying, the ONLY way to cross a street here. You must walk directly in front of a moving car and trust that the car will stop or veer around you. They always seem to do so, sometimes at the last possible moment, and always with a honk of the horn, but crossing a busy street feels like a real-life game of Frogger. Even on the freeways, pedestrians are constantly darting in and out of traffic. Also, on freeways, pedestrians hail cabs and buses, and the cabs and buses stop for them! It is madness, and a complete and utter failure of the system, for everything is congested when it needn’t be. If drivers in Cairo drove like drivers elsewhere, traffic would flow, as it does elsewhere. Sadly, that is not the case.
The second thing I noticed was the air. Because I COULD SEE IT. And I don’t mean like in Los Angeles where you can sometimes see a bit of haze on the horizon. I mean the air in Cairo right in front of your face is visible. And taste-able. There is a permanent cloud of soot and exhaust hanging in the air around you, and I am pretty sure a day breathing the air in Cairo is about the equivalent to smoking three packs of cigarettes.
Another common event here is being approached by someone trying to sell you something you don’t want, and doing so by trying to strike up a pointless conversation with you. About three times per block someone will ask, “what is your name,” or “where are you from,” or “what are you looking for?” If you do anything other than ignore them and walk away, they will try to steer you into a friend’s perfume shop, or shoe store, or whatever, by pretending to be your best friend. They won’t say they get a kickback from the shop owner, but rather will act as if they know you must want to shop there and they are doing you a huge favor by bringing you there. It is ridiculous and transparent, but they think they are being very clever, and when you don’t respond they sometimes get upset and curse at you.
Other things– cats roam the streets the way pigeons or squirrels do in other cities. You see hundreds of scrawny, feral cats darting about. In Alexandria, one of the cats scratched me, so I may die of rabies soon. I am hoping said cat had not licked his paw just prior to lashing out at me. Speaking of the local animals, about five minutes after I began exploring downtown Cairo I saw a dead dog lying on the curb, paws up, covered in flies. I have never seen that anywhere in my life, but there it was, right in what is said to be the Times Square of Cairo. In a city that treats the street like a trash bin, I suppose it is to be expected. Speaking of which, trash cans are such a rarity here that it is common to see people of all description cavalierly tossing their trash onto the sidewalk as they walk.
The final thing I’ll point out today is the lack of a queueing system here. No one lines up or waits for anything. Whether it is to buy a subway token, a sandwich, or a ticket to an exhibit, everyone elbows and cuts in front of everyone else (much the way they drive) and unless you also push your way to the front, you will never get anywhere.
I am never one to say any item or culture or person or ideology is good or bad, better or worse, or make value judgements of that nature. I firmly believe that every culture, no matter how different from mine or anyone else’s, is neither better nor worse than another, merely different, and my lack of familiarity or understanding of it does not make it wrong or bad. But by golly, I have to say that Cairo blows. There is some neat stuff here, sure, and the exchange rate makes it ridiculously cheap for an American to visit, but, and I hate to say this, at times it feels positively uncivilized here. I’m having a blast, don’t get me wrong– I can enjoy damn near anything– but I sure as hell would never live here. Mostly, I hope I don’t have rabies.