On the Ring Road, Squiggly lines often have English Names.
Off the Ring Road, however, it helps if you can read Arabic at 70 mph!
I saw the policeman before he saw me. He stood at the end of a barrier, holding onto a large rifle. It was a police checkpoint, something I had been hoping to avoid. I knew it was an inevitable part of driving in Cairo, but this was to be my first police checkpoint in this country. I knew that the police only randomly stop cars and more often than not let many cars pass through the barrier without inspecting their papers. I knew that I would not be one of them. My blonde hair and green eyes was among the things that made me stand out. But the real head turner was the fact that I was a 20-year-old woman driving SOLO in a very bright red SUV.
The policeman caught sight of me and, unsurprisingly, asked me to pull over. Although I had lived in Cairo for an entire year previously and was fluent in Arabic, I knew better. The officer asked me to roll down my window which I did. He asked, in Arabic, for me to hand him my driver’s license and registration, all of these words I understood perfectly. I shrugged my shoulders at him, feigning innocence. “English?” I asked shyly. I batted my eyes. Again, he asked for my license and registration in his mother tongue, trying his best to mime the words. “English?” I repeated as I upturned my hands, the universal gesture for confusion.
Realizing the conversation was going nowhere, he sighed and waved me on. I had to stop myself from thanking him in Arabic before driving away.
Driving in Cairo is not for the faint-hearted. The second time I lived in Cairo, I found an apartment away from my work at the stables. I was eager to maintain my independence and having learned the hard way in previous jobs, I knew that the only way to keep my freedom was to distance myself far from the people I worked with. Especially in a country where being a single woman already comes with a lot of strain on my independence and mobility. I chose a flat in Maadi, a good thirty-minute drive from the stables. Thirty minutes, that is, on a day without traffic (which only occurs when the stars and planets align.)
I had driven in India where I had previously lived and worked, though admittedly I had a driver for the majority of it. Still, driving on the British side and shifting the stick with my left hand instead of the right hand whilst dodging Indian cars, dogs, people, cows, motorbikes and rickshaws had given me nerves of steel. I became more of a local when it came to my driving style and the exposure to the chaos of India for such a long period of time meant that I no longer saw the use for things such as stopping at red lights or caring whether or not that one-way street REALLY WAS one-way. I was Indian as far as I was concerned.
So when my boss in Egypt handed me the keys to his fancy red SUV, I was more than ready to take on the challenge. I spoke Arabic and could even read and write a little of the language—although self-taught—and I was confident I would be able to manage. I had many adventures in my year driving in Cairo, including getting stuck on the bridge crossing the Nile on the ring road when my car’s radiator overheated. A few of the young boys trying to sell the local bread on the bridge helped ask bus drivers to spare me some water and they took it upon themselves to fill the car with water. My student who was awaiting a lesson for me at the stables ended up coming to my rescue, tow truck in hand.
A horse being transported in Egypt on a truck, a common sight in Cairo.
Another thing about driving in Egypt is the fact that the roads are not very easy to figure out (GPS wasn’t much help to me) and I got lost often. I’ll never forget the night I attempted to find my way home after a late night out and I took the wrong road on the motor way. It had no exits for 40 minutes and I was forced to circle the entire city, helplessly. I should have just stopped on the motorway and reversed to the correct exit like the locals typically did, but it was late at night and I hadn’t realized my mistake until it was too late.
Driving in Cairo can be scary and I do not recommend it to people who have no experience driving on roads with “No Rules” unless they have been exposed to it previously. The drivers speak to one another by flashing their lights in different ways to communicate and I often used my lights more than my horn when I wanted a sloppy bus driver to move aside so I could pass him. Drivers in Cairo are also ALWAYS in a race, though where they need to be in such a hurry I have yet to discover.
There is also a special way to beep your horn to call a driver a Mother F*#@. I won’t share this one on my blog but let’s just say, only use this if you know you can escape quickly.
A Donkey Cart in Cairo.
It is not unusual to see them in the fast lane on the motor way!
Another tip is, in Egypt it is very common for wealthy families to hire drivers to take them around. This means that you do not have to have your name on the papers of the car you drive (meaning anyone could be driving around a stolen car and the police would have no way of knowing) so it is not important that the car be in your name HOWEVER it IS important that you have your license and the car papers with you AT ALL TIMES. If you are caught without these papers the Egyptian Police can take the car from you. And chances are you won’t get it back.
A Doggie that found the perfect place to nap to avoid getting run over by sleeping on a parked car outside my building.
How insurance works. If a car hits you large enough to get upset over (dings and scratches and small bumps don’t count and they will continue driving as if nothing happened) then you must get out of the car and shout and demand cash on the spot. Get the cash from them that you can and then go about your day as if nothing happened. If they don’t give you cash or it is your fault then they will try to demand cash. Either way, cash will be required. Once it’s settled on the spot you leave the scene, never to see each other again.
Note* If you’re a foreigner, it will probably be considered automatically YOUR FAULT. I once had a Tuk-Tuk scratch the complete side of my vehicle while I was STOPPED and he blamed me (surprise). Luckily, I was with one of my Egyptian Grooms and he had to pay off the Tuk-Tuk driver and I had to explain to my boss later why he had a big scratch on his car. I’m pretty sure he thought it was my fault but thankfully just laughed it off.
I enjoyed the freedom driving in Egypt gave me. I did not like sitting in horrible traffic for hours on end, but I did enjoy the little moments, like pulling up to my favorite juice stand and the guy at the stall recognizing me immediately and bringing me my fresh mango juice for only 1 LE. I also enjoyed not having to deal with the taxi drivers that constantly tried to harass me or cheat me.
I learned how much I loved driving and the freedom having my own car gave me. I had many adventures just me and my car and although I don’t recommend driving in Cairo for the faint-hearted, I can say it helped me later on when I decided to drive from England to Mongolia!