Saturday, August 16, 2014

Taxi!

Today I'm not going to talk about me - was that a sigh of relief I heard?

Today I'll talk about another of the differences between here and Australia, the process of getting a taxi. For those American readers I believe it's 'hailing a cab'?

In Australia I have never lived where I have been able to walk out of my house and get the first taxi cruising past. The only way to take a taxi from home is to make a phone call to the taxi firm and book one. At the airport or in the town centre it's necessary to go to a taxi rank and wait patiently for one to appear, or phone the taxi firm and book one and also wait patiently for one to appear. This wait can sometimes be so long that the idea of walking home becomes more and more feasible, even if home is a 30 minute walk away. Once the taxi is secured it's simply a matter of giving the driver the address, fastening the seatbelt and sitting back in the air conditioned cab to watch the meter rack up the exorbitant fee. The driver will drive at a sedate rate, obeying the road rules and giving no cause for alarm (except the speed at which the amount on the meter is climbing). At the destination he will pull to the side of the road, take my money, give change if necessary and drive off. If the taxi driver is taciturn not a word needs to be spoken for this all to happen smoothly.

In Hurghada it's a little different. Here I walk to the bottom of the hill on which I live, and wait approximately 30 seconds for a taxi to appear. Sometimes, depending on the direction in which I am going I must wait a few minutes for an empty taxi to come and I have become quite impatient at that. It is necessary to tell the driver where I am going at which point he may decide it is not worth his while and drive off. It's generally a good idea to agree on the price before getting into the taxi. Fees are basically divided into the distance travelled, however a lot of drivers like to add another zero to the price when you're a foreigner and that's something to be aware of. It's also a good idea to not take a taxi that is covered in bumps and scrapes, for the reasons that will follow.

Once in the taxi it's hold onto your potatoes! Taxi drivers here (most, but not all) feel that the faster they deliver the fare the faster they can get the next fare and the more money they make. At least I think that's the philosophy behind the manic speed at which they drive. I have never seen a taxi driver wear a seatbelt and I have become accustomed to not wearing one. Once in a while the taxi will be air conditioned but the majority of the time not. Instead the windows will be wound down for natural air conditioning. Meters do exist in most taxis, some are even connected. However they are only for decoration, along with the various bits and pieces used to personalise the taxi (often including the entire roof of the interior). Of course taxi drivers are supposed to use the meter, and to wear seatbelts but it is very loosely enforced.

Speed is not the only issue causing alarm for the foreigner new to Egypt. It takes a while to adjust to the Egyptian style of driving. Here, line marking designating lanes is considered only a guide and there is no reason why two lanes should not become three. Indicators are also simply there for decoration, on the most part the horn is the communication device. Drivers sound the horn to let others know they are merging, to let the driver in front know that he is too slow and move over to make space for overtaking, and I'm not sure what else but constant beeping of horns is a background noise you get used to very quickly living here. In general, if you think about the driving style of a car chase on a movie you've got Egyptian driving. They weave in and out of the traffic, making new lanes as and when needed and pulling out to overtake at the last possible second. The first time you see your driver aiming at a gap between two vehicles which will necessitate him going in the middle of two lanes and will give the barest amount of space on either side is quite startling. There are no stop signs, and only one traffic light (I think) which is obeyed some of the time.

Egyptians drive on the right side of the road, Australians drive on the left. This has given me a few moments of confusion, but not as many as you would think since the correct side of the road on which to drive is also an optional rule. To be fair, the side roads are in a state of disarray so most drivers go on whichever side of the road has the least amount of obstacles. There are very few road signs advising of roadwork, sometimes there are traffic cones put around the giant hole being dug. There was one such hole in the road below my apartment building, a huge hole deep enough to bury several men. I thought it was permanent but one day some men came and did whatever they had to do to the pipe at the bottom and filled it in.

Roundabouts are the most confusing however. I had a lot of trouble figuring out where the lanes were, which I thought was because I am not used to being on what is to me the wrong side of the road. But then I was in a taxi where the driver actually used the correct lane to drive around the roundabout and onto the exit. That's when I finally understood that roundabouts are used more as intersections. The shortest route is used and that I guess is why the only traffic jam I have been in was at a roundabout, where there were vehicles pointing in all directions, none able to move. It was also at a roundabout where I was involved in the only bingle I have been a part of since coming here. Basically it was a miscalculation - the other car was trying to go beside my taxi which cut the corner, so he drove right into the back passenger door, which was where I was sitting. Fortunately both cars were driving slowly so it was only a scrape. That was when the other part of Egyptian driving took place. The driver of my taxi and the driver of the other vehicle got out and started shouting at each other, hands waving forcefully at each other. A group of people swiftly gathered, all adding their opinion (I assume) and it became a very loud disagreement. Then as suddenly as it started they all broke up, my driver got back in and off we drove. That he was still unhappy was evident in the way he continued to mutter and bang the steering wheel.

I saw another altercation on the hill below my apartment, when the giant hole was still taking up most of the road. A taxi tried to come up the hill and another one tried to go down the hill. They couldn't both fit and neither believed he should reverse. I didn't see the start of it and I don't know how it ended (although clearly it was resolved somehow) as I was walking past. All I saw was the two drivers shouting at each other, the drivers of the vehicles behind which also couldn't move getting involved in the argument and several presumably passers by adding their two cents worth.

I'm surprised there are not more accidents here, given the way everyone drives. There are a great number of accidents in Egypt however, in 2010 there were 183 deaths per 100 000 vehicles as compared to Australia which had 7 per 100 000 vehicles. Although you must take into consideration Australia's much sparser population, it is still a scary statistic.

There is another problem with taking a taxi if you are a woman and especially if you are a foreign woman. There have been reports recently of a taxi driver stealing a woman's bag, and another abusing a woman (unaware that she spoke arabic) for not paying what he wanted, which was well over twice the accepted fare. There is always, in every culture, going to be an element of criminals in a large and crowded environment. It is necessary I think to be careful and sensible. If you don't have a male friend to go with you, choose your taxi with care. What I did was to ask Monique at the shelter if she knew a trustworthy driver (after being stiffed by a driver I thought was trustworthy). Oh, that's another thing here, you get the personal number of a taxi driver you like and phone that driver whenever you need to go anywhere. She gave me the number of a very good, kind and trustworthy driver. Now I call him whenever I need to. If he can't come he sends his brother who is also a very nice person.

So to sum up, driving in Egypt is easy if you drive like you stole your car and the police are right behind you! And always be cautious.

Pics today are of course taxis :) Mackay first, then Hurghada









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