Ah, the Cairo traffic.
Take every car you’ve ever seen in your life and double that number, chuck in some donkey carts, add 15 years or so to the age of half the vehicles, grin as you use the word “cacophany” (of car horns) in an appropriate manner, remove as many traffic lights and lane markings as you can get away with, and send all those vehicles off in random directions on often poorly maintained roads. That almost does the experience justice.
Which makes crossing the road kind of challenging. It’s like a combination of Frogger and a game of “chicken”. But unlike in the old-skool computer classic, you don’t get multiple lives, so it’s important you get this right first time.
In a nutshell, it’s all about geometry. Oh, and physics. You need to judge the trajectory and speed of every vehicle on the road, and plot a straight line through this melee-on-wheels that does not intersect with any other moving body. Easy, huh?
Here are a few hints to help you out:
- Pick your spot carefully. Places where roads merge together are not a good idea, since Egyptian drivers are required by law to look in the opposite direction to the way they are turning.
- Timing is everything, so be patient and don’t take unnecessary risks. There will be a break in the traffic, or a point at which it snarls up enough to make it possible to cross. Watch out for cars accelerating into any gaps that open up, though.
- You’ve just gotta go for it! Seriously. Drivers will not stop for you. They expect people to walk out in front of them, and to keep going. They do not like having to use their brakes. Think of it as a kind of Buddhist exercise in sensitivity – you have to become one with the traffic… merge with it.
- It’s easiest to cross the road at a slight diagonal angle, walking against the traffic. Not sure why, but it seems to help in judging distance and speed. Plus, in the words of my old Primary School teacher, at least you can see the number plate of the car that runs into you!
- Do not play chicken with buses, minibuses or trucks. Might is right, and they won’t stop or even slow down for you.
- Watch out for taxis: they’ll assume you want a ride (you’re a foreigner, so of course you do!) and will slow right down, screwing up your precisely calibrated guage of traffic flow.
- It’s not ideal, but sometimes you may have to pause in the middle of the road and let a car go past, usually because you’ve misjudged someone’s speed, or some kamikaze driver has appeared out of nowhere. It’s normal to make eye contact with the driver and wave him or her forward, so they know you’re not going to step in front of them.
- Important advice for newbies: If you don’t feel confident, get “downwind” of a local who is crossing at the same time, and use them as a buffer.
So there you have it. This may all seem rather hellish, and crossing a main road in Cairo for the first time is undeniably nerve-wracking. But the good news is that it’s not so hard as it sounds, and you’ll quickly get better with practice.
If nothing else, you’ll kick ass the next time you play Frogger.