A Date on Public Transportation

The ubiquitous Cairo microbus

Last week Jayson and I got a chance to spend time together … just us.  Since it is summer in Egypt where the weather is not so conducive to lots of outdoor walking, and it was also Ramadan which means no stopping for water breaks, we decided to go hang out at a mall for awhile where we could walk around in air conditioning and enjoy a nice meal as well.  After settling the girls with a babysitter, we had five hours all to ourselves.  We decided to take the cheaper and more exciting way to the mall, rather than simply hop in a taxi for the 30-minute ride.

We got directions from our neighbor who works out by the mall and could tell us which microbuses to get on and where.  This is important since routes are not posted but one just has to learn from experience where these blue and white Volkswagen vans go.  This is definitely a cheaper way to travel, but often involves more time as you must wait until a van fills up before it starts on its route, and your destination may not be directly on its route.  As for us, we were supposed to walk 10 minutes to board the first minivan, then ride that to the end of the route where we were to walk a few minutes to find the next minivan to take us the rest of the way, dropping us off on the highway near the mall.  I say, “supposed to” because we only followed the first half of the directions.

We started off from our house and crossed the metro tracks a little earlier than normal just to try a different route.  We found that it was an interesting place to walk, but not necessarily the easiest route.  Our double stroller would not have fared well on some of the paths, so we were glad to be free of the baby gear for this trek.  We found the first microbus easily enough and boarded it to wait about 10 minutes before it filled up to leave.  It was warm out and the microbuses depend on open window a/c only, so we were hot at times, but I realized during the ride that it was better on the microbus for couple time, as at least here we would sit together.  In a taxi, Jayson sits up front and I’m in the back.  One point for the microbus!

We got to the end of the line and the others riding along let us know that this was the place to get off.  Jayson briefly asked one man to direct us to the next microbus going the direction of the mall.  We thought we could see which direction to go, but he insisted we go another way as he was going to the same area and would accompany us.  As we’ve learned in this culture, it’s not unusual for someone who is giving you directions, to actually walk with you to your destination to make sure you get there.  I hoped this man was actually going our direction, and not just going out of his way for us.  As we walked the 15 minutes between the last stop and our next vehicle, the man complimented Jayson on his Arabic and asked basic get-to-know-you questions.  He was friendly and surprised to find an American speaking his language so well.  He made a brief stop at a store and then we waved down a bus going our way.

Again, as is common to what we’ve found, this man who took us under his wing to show us where we were going also paid the bus fare for both of us when we boarded the bus.  He directed us to move forward in the bus and pointed out an empty seat for me.  Jayson exchanged phone numbers with him, his name was Anwar, and briefly asked him what time we would need to be sure to leave the mall in order to find a taxi before the fast-breaking time of day when life stops briefly for people to eat.  Anwar didn’t answer the question, but instead asked why in the world we would take a taxi when we could go by bus and microbus!  Truth is, these other modes are so much cheaper, but we also didn’t want to be late getting back to the girls.

Before long, we saw the mall on the side of the highway, but Anwar told us to wait until the bus turned off the road and actually let us off quite close to the entrance.  We thanked him for his help and got off the bus, amazed to realize that we both got this far for the mere cost of 1.50LE (about 30 cents).  We entered the mall and were refreshed by the air conditioning from the start.  We spent about three hours walking around, eating dinner, walking some more and ending our time there with some ice cream.  It was so nice to be able to start and finish conversations without interruption as well as have a leisurely meal without feeding anyone else!  A nice break from the norm!

We left the mall about an hour before we hoped to be home just in case we ran into trouble finding a taxi.  We had decided to take a taxi back thinking that would be simplest, but at the same time were open to other options if we found them.  Our friend had said it was hard to find a microbus coming back toward Maadi with empty seats and we didn’t want to stand by the highway and wait forever.  However, before we even climbed all the way to the highway we saw some maroon microbuses parked along the road.  Jayson asked if these were going to the area where we had switched modes of transportation before and they said yes.  So, we climbed in, waited a few minutes and took off, enjoying the breeze that took our breath away.

The intersection we were dropped in the middle of

Five minutes down the road, the van pulled over on the side of the highway, but no one made a move to get out.  Then I saw the driver looking at us in his rearview mirror and he told us this was our stop.  It wasn’t quite what we expected, but he pointed down the on-ramp and said the area we wanted was down there.  We kind of laughed together about this as we weren’t expecting to just be dropped on the side of the road, but the driver never said he actually goes to the drop-off area.  So we carefully walked down the on-ramp, admiring some grassy areas, overloaded trucks and people traffic as we walked.  Once at the bottom, we had some busy roads to cross before we arrived at another set of microbuses.

Overlooking scenic Cairo

These weren’t going into Maadi, but could drop us off near a metro stop, and so we agreed and climbed in the front.  It was fun to be riding in these areas that I don’t usually get to see.  We passed a several block section of marble/stone workers where there were large pieces of rock stacked up to sell.  There were many piles of various garbage and under one particular bridge there must have been about 20 old microbuses that were discarded there forever.  At one point, we pulled over to let people out and noticed a stairwell built that would take people directly to the other busy road underneath us.  This was one of those instances where it was reinforced that you have to know your route and where the microbuses go.  So many people were going up and down these stairs because they knew this is the place to find transport.

This wasn’t the place, however, where we got out.  We went a little further up and the driver pulled over and pointed out the metro station at the bottom of the on-ramp.  Once again, we got out and navigated our way down the side of the road, past the piles of garbage, the shop selling garden decorations and the graffiti-covered walls of the metro until we found the entrance to the station.  We briefly considered walking the 2 ½ stops to our house, but decided it may take too long and we don’t even know the way exactly.  So, we bought our tickets and sat on a bench until the metro came.

It was about 6:30 by this time and fast-breaking was approaching quickly.  Things were mostly quiet at the station and the metro itself wasn’t too full.  We boarded and found a seat and enjoyed the last leg of our journey.  At the stop before ours, someone threw something into the windows of our car.  Others around us distributed the small bag of 3 dates and we got them too.  As we exited the metro at our stop, we noticed a couple men filling cups and handing them out to metro passengers.  People give away a lot during Ramadan and this was one example we saw up close.

We completed our journey by walking the final 10 minutes to our house where our three girls happily played with our wonderful babysitter.  We had again made our way back for a pretty inexpensive amount, but even more importantly, enjoyed a little adventure together and saw a little more of this interesting city.

A sunset to end a romantic outing

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