For anyone who has lived in Cairo, taking public transportation is something that can turn an ordinary day into a crazy one. Microbuses, the little mini-vans that zoom around most of the major routes of the city to pick up passengers, and whose fares are dirt-cheap, offer a wide spectrum of perks along with getting to your destination, including:
The Death-Wish Driver: Here, the driver (who usually looks about fifteen) will use every maneuver possible to cut through delays (including going head-on into oncoming traffic), and drive faster than possible belief or reason. I have literally thought I was about to meet my end, more than once, in a microbus, and now find myself instinctively reflecting on my mortality and saying the shahada whenever I sit in one. I suppose that its good for your iman… and makes you somewhat thankful for all the traffic that keeps them inching along for the most part, instead of speeding as if when they die they can just stick in another quarter for another round…
The Creepy Guy: Yes, sisters, along with getting to where you need to go, some microbuses come fully equipped with a creepy guy with googly eyes, or worse yet, roaming hands. What I have learned is that if someone is being weird or making you at all uncomfortable, there is usually a reason for it and you should move far, far away (or dropkick them). The vast majority of passengers are just normal people getting to where they need to go, but it does happen and is something to be conscious of, especially if one looks clearly foreign.
The Full-Tilt Chair: These are the chairs that fold down to make for additional seating, and I have found that about 70% of the time they are busted in a way that makes you feel that you are A) either sitting on a slanted see-saw, or B) leaning so far back that the person behind you can break out some tools and do some dental work on you. On the plus side, I’m sure it must help you balance your chi.
My other least favorite spot is sitting in the very back row, when there is an unrelated passenger already sitting in the seat facing the aisle. When you are trying to exit the bus, you have to basically climb over that person to reach the door, and let’s just say it can get a little too close for comfort or any level of appropriateness. I suppose it is a good thing that everyone on the microbus are strangers – if I was in that situation and it happened to be a brother I knew sitting there, I don’t think I’d ever get off the bus. I’d just keep on riding…
The Wannabe DJ: The only thing some of these microbuses that have the music blasting are missing are the hydraulics that some of the kids in the ‘hood used to have on their low riders, that make the whole car bounce up and down with the beat. (Actually now that I think about it, speeding over the ditches and speed bumps kind of gives the same sort of feeling…)
All kidding aside, a taxi ride probably costs around five times as much as a microbus would along the same route, so anyone who is planning on spending a longer amount of time in Cairo (and is not independently wealthy) should learn some of the basic routes. The other huge benefit of microbuses is that there is no call for haggling with the driver (which happens to many of us foreigners, even if the meter is supposedly running) and one is not alone with the driver which can be uncomfortable in a taxi. My only further suggestion for microbuses would be to perhaps do some math exercises before sitting in one. If you end up in the “cashier” seat, you spend most of the ride figuring out how to make change for various people’s fares and passing them and back forth between the passengers and the driver. One of my friends told me about a guest who visited them who took a microbus with them, and after spending most of the trip helping to open the door for people and passing money back and forth said, “Man, they should be paying me (not the other way around)” :)
In closing, I would say that a must-see for anyone who plans on spending time in Cairo is Maydan Sayyida ‘Aisha, a main hub for microbuses where buses, street sellers, crowds of people trying to get somewhere else, noise and dust converge into an unbelievable rush which is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Contrasting the rarefied aisles of City Centre or City Stars (the posh shopping malls) to the grit, dust and chaos of this area really gives you a glimpse into how contradictory and complex this city is, and how many different narratives it comprises.
This is somewhat a lighthearted post so I apologize for any offense caused. I am also not complaining, but just finding amusement in the sometimes-craziness of this experience which is, in its entirety, an immense blessing, alhamdulillah.