Navigating the streets of Cairo is a thrill-seeker’s paradise. The rules of the road, as we know them, have been discarded, and it looks like anything goes. Lines on the pavement are for decoration because your lane is wherever you make it–or at least wherever your car will fit.
Cars are often four or five across on roads designed for three lanes, and clearance of more than an inch on either side is considered a waste of space.
The most important piece of equipment on any car is the horn. There’s a constant conversation taking place between the drivers, and to the untrained ear it sounds like chaos. Need to change lanes? Make two quick taps on the horn as you cut the other driver off.
Crossing an intersection? One long honk of the horn will let the other drivers know you’re not planning to stop.
Taxi drivers use their horns so much that the control has been moved to a lever on the steering column for easier access. When looking for a fare, drivers honk at every pedestrian they pass, even the ones walking in the opposite direction. If you want the driver to stop all you have to do is look at them. They pull over, or sometimes just slow down while you shout out your destination. If they aren’t interested in going your way, no words are exchanged. They just drive off, honking as they pull back into the flow of traffic.
Signals and crosswalks are rare and the traffic never seems to end. Crossing the street at any time of the day involves precision and a keen sense of timing. Trying it during rush hour requires nerves of steel, and experience playing Frogger is a plus.
The first thing you need to do is forget everything your mother ever told you. Throwing caution to the wind, you watch the cars trying to gauge their speed before stepping into the path of the oncoming traffic. The cars don’t slow down. As a matter of fact, it feels like they speed up. They’ll honk and give you a warning if it looks like you’re not moving fast enough. If you hear a long continuous horn, get out of the way because someone is going to run you over.
Of course, none of this information was included in any of the guidebooks I read before coming to Cairo. During my first days in the city, I accidentally stopped every taxi that came my way. I would hear a horn, then turn to look out of reflex. Once, I stopped five cabs in less than a minute.
As crazy as this system sounds, it works. Cars, buses, bicycles, pedestrians and the occasional donkey pulling a cart share the roads, and I haven’t seen any road rage.
It’s the deviations from the system that can cause a disaster. I made the mistake of hesitating as I stepped into the street one day, and to my delight, the oncoming car stopped to let me pass. As I walked in front of his car I was thinking to my self, “Wow, what a gentleman.” This thought didn’t last long. The car pulling up behind him saw he had stopped and quickly pulled around, nearly running me down and cutting off another driver in the process. In less than five seconds I brought traffic on that street to a halt. I was standing in the middle of the road surveying the chaos I created when they all started honking at once. This time, I didn’t need a book to tell me what they meant.