Traffic Week: Rules of the Game

I cringe when I hear people complain about taxi drivers in Egypt.   99% of Cairo taxi horror stories are preventable as long as the  rules_of_the_game are understood and followed:

Rule #5  Taxi drivers are not the enemy
Almost every foreigner, and even many Egyptians, have negative taxi stories. The infamous Cairene taxi driver is probably the greatest target of visitors’ wrath but this does not have to be the case. Most taxi-related hassles are caused by the foreign passenger’s ignorance of the rules. Master the system and you will have no trouble.  Riding cabs can even be a  pleasant and enlightening experience.

The biggest mistake visitors make is to try and bargain before they get in the cab, thinking it is best to agree on a price beforehand and avoid an argument at the end. This is the advice that guidebooks offer but this is not how the system works and by discussing the price at all, the passenger is telling the driver they do not know the system, which may tempt him to ask for a higher price.

A lack of working meters does not mean there is no system. In fact, it is organized and efficient, although unwritten and there are clear rates for how much a ride between different neighborhoods will cost, with slight variations based on level of traffic, time of day, and number of passengers. Ask around and you can quickly learn them. Simply tell the driver where you want to go and pay him the fare when you get out. In most cases, there should be no conversation whatsoever about price.

The image of the taxi driver being “out to get” passengers is incorrect. Perhaps a bit of empathy is in order:  Drivers sit in traffic, in non-air conditioned cars, for up to 12 hours a day, often earning just enough to make ends meet. They are usually thrilled to meet foreigners, especially those who can communicate in Arabic. Talk about the things that interest them — usually football, Egyptian films, or American action films — and they will treat you like an old friend. After these friendly conversations, some drivers refuse to take money, however, you should insist on paying. This is a side of the Cairene taxi driver that rarely makes the guidebooks.

4 Responses

  1. Rob, I have to strongly disagree with you on this. I too rode many cabs, and the greatest number of complaints was not from foreigners. It was from Egyptian friends. As the economic situation in Egyptian worsens, so will the desperation of cabbies. I yelled at many, but I blame few of them. Why? Because they are living an increasingly drastic lifestyle, getting by on scraps to feed a family. Not all of them are inherently hell-bent on ripping you off, but it is no small wonder there is a popular expression in Egyptian:

    ma ta2ta3sh 3ayshi
    Don’t cut my bread.

    I assume the meaning is obvious here, and I am sure many readers know it. Some people, who are batshit crazy, take this mindset too far. I have had friend almost stabbed for giving a one pound fare four or five years ago from the Opera Circle in Zamalek to across the bridge (at the time, a very standard fare). The guy took a swing at him with a screw driver, in front of this friend’s girlfriend. The kid in question was clearly Egyptian, and not the tourist type. He had no idea why the man was so mad, because that fare was fine any other time. He tried to stab him as he was walking away after a heated argument. I have heard other much more tame horror stories, and my own being the tamest stories. Lots of arguments ensuing as I cursed out a crooked cabby. I observed many of the rules, and like you, engaged in very amicable conversation throughout cab rides. I was legitimately offended when I responded to their requests at the end of the ride for more, saying, “is it not obvious I *know* what the fare is, pal?” So, following rules will only get you so far. I recommend everyone read Taxi, by Khaled Al-Khamisi. It shows what is obvious, that cabbies need to break the rules often to barely get by. This is especially true after the new transportation law, with its exorbitant fines (read other blogs on the topic, many highlighted their absurdly gross nature). If you work all day and make 100 pounds, how can you afford fines in excess of 1,000 pounds? You can’t, and you need to do what it takes. Ripping off idiots is how it is done.

    So, should we yell at them? At times, yes. Should we seriously fight them? Sometimes you will have to, because there are a few really bad apples. Fortunately, I do not believe in that Orientalist mode that it is indicative that the whole bushel must be rotten. Unfortunately, more and more cabbies will try to work people over as their fares account for less and less in the Egyptian economy. Most of them just need a break, so I let it go as soon as I do not see them again. Plus, tourists (anyone with a “touristic” visa) should be banned from regular cabs and forced to ride the yellow ones. Why? As much as I have friends who visited with the very independent mindset that they “can handle Egypt,” they sadly cannot. If you do not even have a modicum of Arabic, you are wasting your time. These people are walking targets.

  2. one pound on any trip that crosses the Nile is not standard fare. thats absurdly cheap and every cab driver in cairo would be angry with that.

    i dont think there should be any situation where it gets to the point of fighting. Just get out and walk away if they want more money. The only way I can see a cab driver really getting pissed off at a young Egyptian, is if that Egyptian displays a kind of class-based snobby attitude. By this I mean, sits in the back seat if they are a man, or acts as if they are too good to talk to the driver.

    if a cab driver asks how much at the beginning of any standard, normal cab ride, just say goodbye and go to a different ride. there’s only about a million cabs in cairo. if someone wants to bargain at the beginning just walk away and find another ride.

  3. Rob, notice I said several years ago. Egypt has had some nasty inflation. I will not go into all the details of that story, but I assure you the trip lasted around two minutes, at most, and I mean literally from end to end of the bridge. Everyone else listening to the story (at least Egyptians who knew it), agreed with the fare he paid. This was a convenience trip, not an across town trek.

    That being said, you never know exactly who you are dealing with. It really depends on the cabby. I have one friend in a class claim she was held at knife-point for money. My Korean roommate, who spoke neither English nor Arabic well, got out of a cab to kick a cabby’s ass for not giving him his phone back after calling me because he was “lost.” I will let you guess where the phone never returned to when the cab sped off. Another says a cabby jerked off and finished all over his steering wheel because he was attracted to her. I do not necessarily believe these stories, but even their likely possibility (at least the former two, certainly not the latter) will not force me to conclude all cabbies act this way. I will believe, however, like others just barely squeaking by, will screw over whoever they need to make a living. I would too.

    And lastly, just walking and finding another does not always work. I did that tactic all the time. Once from Wust El-Balad, near Ramsis at a weird intersection with surprisingly few cabs at that time of day, it cost me damn close to half an hour. I was less than please, and the asshole cabby hassled me the entire ride home about increasing petrol prices. Needless to say, I told him Americans had him beat and he was wasting his breath. 🙂

  4. I will never forget the day when, en route to my Arabic class, the taxi driver missed the motorway exit that I had told him to take. Without blinking he began to slow the car down, said “ma fi mushkila” then cracked it into reverse for about 200 yards back up the fast lane!

    I have no complaints about Egyptian cabbies, “learning the rules of the game” as Rob says is undoubtedly key.

    And… knowing Rob, he certainly likes the battle of wills if they object to his fare!

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