We leave the airport and pull onto the ring road that skirts this vast city of almost 20 million people. No one in their right mind would actually try to cross Cairo in a straight line. One could be hopelessly lost amidst the endless traffic jams, accidents and the maze of streets, alleys and no-go zones.
I soon learn that traffic rules are largely non-existent and drivers are notoriously unpredictable. Driving here is not for the faint hearted. I feel sorry for any new car salesmen as there are no new cars on these roads and new car sales are certainly not an economic benchmark of the Egyptian economy. All the cars are covered in dings and dents, rusted and in various stages of dilapidation and disrepair. When an Egyptian car fails to proceed it is often left where it stopped. I saw a police car that had 2 flat tyres, a missing back window and it generally looking rather dead – it had obviously been abandoned when it last failed to proceed.
Public transport is virtually non-existent. There is a bus fleet which is totally inadequate to service the enormous population of non car-owners . Official public transport is supplemented by a vigorous and entertaining fleet of private vans that ferry people around the city for a fixed price on a fixed route. These buses are mainly white VW Kombie vans of an indeterminate age (Moses was a boy when they rolled off the assembly line). They have a myriad of amusing and colorful decorations inside and out. The seats have been rearranged to make sure there is a maximum payload of at least 12 people in the back. This number can be stretched by including a few more customers in the front with the driver and children being accommodated on knees. This ancient fleet putters around the streets with their engine panels propped open – I suppose to aid the cooling of the engine in the searing heat of Cairo.
The vans’ decorations are a reflection of the owners’ personalities and can range from bumper stickers that are placed anywhere, to aerials (the more aerials, the better the radio reception possibly?), a variety of colorful bobbing, bouncing and eye-catching dash ornaments plus an abundance of geegaws that hang from the mirror. The driver is usually hunched over the wheel with one arm hanging out the window with a cigarette hanging from his fingers, the other hand grasping the wheel and constantly honking the horn. This “horn language” can vary from a friendly toot (Hi!), to a series of peeps (I see you – can you see me?!) or a strident series of long blasts (Get-out-of-my-way-you-mug!).
Traffic blockages are a way of life. There are very few traffic lights or traffic policemen. The traffic flow does not move at a steady pace, but in bursts of speed and then inexplicably it comes to a complete grinding halt for a protracted period. Intersections are locations for vigorous horn blowing, hand gesturing, and if irked sufficiently, verbal abuse. There does not appear to be any traffic code other than “he who is bold – wins”! Everyone pushes their way onto the intersection, and then slowly, inches forward by either giving threatening looks to other drivers, or encroaching so close to another vehicle that a scrape of metal is inevitable, unless the other driver backs down. A traffic policeman can sometimes be found in the midst of this melee waving his arms around in vain.
Added to this mechanical stew are the pedestrians. They cross the street anywhere, any time and in any number. The old, sick, the infirm, mothers and babies, men with loads on their shoulders, school children – all throw the dice of luck and venture off the curb and into the unknown. Their lack of fear is a marvelous thing to behold. I am amazed that the gutters are not running with blood and that there are not piles of bodies and wrecked cars on every street corner.
Cairo’s skyline is a wreckage of a different kind. Many buildings are in various states of construction or demolition. It is hard to tell the difference between the two. New buildings are mushrooming up everywhere but remain unfinished with no windows, like rows of missing teeth. There are gaping holes in walls, reinforcing bars sticking out of the roofs as if they are the quills of an irate porcupine. The concept of a finished building with running water, completed bathrooms, windows, doors and walls is entirely unecessary when seeking to fill it with inhabitants. Numerous apartment buildings are let in a variety of unfinished states and the residents no doubt, pay exorbitant rents to live in such squalor.
The pressure on Cairo’s resources to constantly support the veritable tidal wave of immigrants from the country areas is a major problem. Some 95% of Egypt’s population lives in Cairo or the delta region. These families are forced into living in incredibly cramped, overcrowded and desperately poor conditions. As more people arrive, the levels of poverty increase and the standard of living is just appalling for the masses. The evidence of this is everywhere: pollution and garbage in the streets, the river and the irrigation channels choked with domestic garbage and industrial waste, filthy streets with a few street sweepers making futile attempts to clean the garbage from the roadways, buildings once beautiful and functional, now in a state of serious decay and decline.
The limited fertile agricultural land that surrounds Cairo, and other cities and towns is being overtaken by dodgy and often illegal housing development. Hope remains high that the revolution of the Arab Spring, and the downfall of the oppressive regime of the Mubarak dictatorship after thirty years , will see a change for the better. However, change cannot come soon enough for millions who are desperately poor and oppressed.
Vestiges of a once grand and mighty Egyptian empire are to be found in the ancient sites and museums. Already, I have been swept away by the amazing scale, magnificence, artistry, engineering prowess, splendor and incredible genius of these ancient people going back over five thousand years to around 3,500BC.
Stay tuned for the next blog – Wonders of Ancient Egypt. It will take your breath away….