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

Stopped by a Policeman

Policeman on duty ... sort of.
Image by Ed Yourdon via Flickr

The other day I rode a microbus.  It’s not something I do too often, but there are certain places I go which are on a microbus route so I choose this cheapest option when I can.  On this particular day, I was going to the Carrefour Express market located in nearby “New Maadi.”  The cost for a microbus is 75 qirsh (or about 15 cents) which is significantly cheaper than my return trip which I must do by taxi since I’m laden down with bags of groceries.  By taxi, the cost is usually 10 LE (or approximately $2)—a big difference.

When I took the microbus to Carrefour Express last week, I had a new experience, and one which I can only guess at its meaning.  I arrived at the microbus station and found a vehicle not yet full, but anxious to begin its route and find customers along the way.  I sat in the third bench seat back from the driver with another woman.  Sometimes these microbuses get crowded, and it is best as a woman, if at all possible, to sit next to another woman, which leaves less room for trouble.  So, this driver seemed to take a slightly different route than I was used to, but since I don’t ride it enough to know all the variations, I didn’t think too much of it.  However, while driving down a street which was unfamiliar to me, a police officer walked up to the van and stopped the driver.  This is one of those situations where I wish I could understand when two Egyptians speak to each other.  As a non-native Arabic speaker, it is much easier for me to understand an Egyptian speaking to me because they slow down and say things more simply so I can understand.  However, when two Egyptians are speaking to each other, it’s almost impossible to follow along.

One of the things that made this somewhat easier, was that the officer kept repeating the same thing over and over again, “License … give me your license.  Where’s your license?”  And the driver kept answering, “I’m sorry.  This was the first time I did this.  I won’t do it again.  I’m sorry.”  But it seemed the driver was either without a license or really didn’t want to give the license to the officer.  I can only guess here, but I was thinking the latter was true.  Sometimes, these exchanges can be less than “above par.”  If the driver did have a license with him, and gave it to the officer, it could mean a trip to the station to get it back, or a small payment (aka, bribe) to the officer to return it.  This driver was just hoping to get away without a scratch.

As they continued to exchange the same words over and over again, I began to wonder what to do.  This was the second time I was stuck in a microbus wondering what to do.  The other passengers weren’t making any moves to get out, and I was really hoping, along with the driver, that the officer would just let him go so we could get where we were going.  But then a strange thing happened.  One of the passengers in the front seat got out of the van, and walked over to the officer and asked to talk with him.  Now, I didn’t really know if this was just any passenger, or a friend of the driver or if maybe he was the regular driver of this van and the other guy was just driving a few shifts for some reason.  I had no idea.  But he and the officer walked to the side of the road and talked for a few minutes before the officer returned to the driver and told him to turn the van around and get back on the route and not to deviate again.  (At least, that’s what I think he told him in Arabic.)  So the driver got away without a scratch, and it seems it’s all because a passenger helped him out.

Why?  I have no idea.  Did he just want to get where he was going?  Was the driver a friend?  Why would the officer listen to him?  Did he have some sort of clout?  It’s common in this society to have mediators work things out, rather than working directly with the affected parties.  Did he pay a bribe?  If so, why would he?  I didn’t notice much discussion among the other passengers as we just finished the route in silence and all exited along the way.  The passenger that helped out got out of the van a little while before me, and his leaving didn’t indicate anything special about him or his relationship to the driver.  So, I’m left with many questions about what exactly happened there.  But I am glad I got to the store and back home again without too much of an extra delay.


The Walk to Church and Nursery

We moved apartments last week. We hope there will be some stories to tell about this, and Julie is working on a post as we speak. Our apartment remains in about the same neighborhood as before, so while the walk to work is about the same, the scenery changes – ‘An Eight Minute Walk to Work’ video will need to be in the works soon, adding sixty seconds to the ‘Seven’ video offered earlier.

But now that our location has changed, we need to put out some of the previous videos we have been preparing. One soon to come from Julie concerns a special Egyptian ritual we enjoyed with friends on the occasion of Layla’s birth. This one, however, is another neighborhood stroll – this time to St. Mark’s, the local Coptic Orthodox Church where we worship and Emma has her preschool.

The video was filmed when our moms were here visiting to help out for a month while Layla was being born and Julie was recovering from surgery. As such, my mom features somewhat prominently in the video, especially as we negotiate a harrowing experience along the way. For us, it was normal routine; for her, well, Egypt takes some getting used to…

The video is filmed in stages, so you can click through to the following episodes:

One: Microbuses (one minute)

Two: Sand and Street (four minutes)

Three: School (two minutes)

Four: Canal (two minutes)

Five: Club (three minutes)

Six: Church (four minutes)

Seven: Nursery (one minute)

Sorry they are broken up a bit, but the trip as a whole, unnarrated, takes about fifteen minutes, which I figured would be a bit long for one uploading, and perhaps viewing. Now, feel free to watch at your convenience.

Sorry also for being a bit sporadic with our postings recently. Our move – in the middle of Egyptian summer – plus some work developments I can describe later, have conspired to take a bit of time and energy away from writing. We have not stopped learning about Egypt during this time (quite the contrary), but we hope to be better able to relate our findings soon. Thanks for your patience and for following along.


Microbus Fiasco

We have a microbus stop outside our apartment building.  What this means is that anywhere from one to twenty minivans are parked in one or two lines, just a few feet from our front door, and they snake around the corner toward the main road.  It sometimes means a lot of noise and people traffic as there are busy times for people to be riding this mode of public transport.  Also there are small scuffles at times among the drivers and perhaps passengers, which involve yelling and frequent honking of horns.  For us personally, it means more air pollution, and sometimes, a longer walk to the main road if we choose to take the clean-air route and go all the way around the block.  All in all, it’s not terribly inconvenient or bothersome most of the time, but it would be nicer if this microbus stop was in another location.

We have rarely ridden on this microbus line as it goes to a section of town that we usually have no need to frequent.  It’s a poorer, more crowded neighborhood a little north of Maadi.  But the other day, on Easter, in fact, we planned to ride the microbus to the end of the line to have dinner at the home of one of Jayson’s friends.  It was quite an experience.

We exited our building and found a long line of microbuses, as usual, but we also found our doorman, our landlord’s son, and a police officer right outside the gate of our building.  We didn’t notice right away that there was a problem, but as Jayson spoke with the officer, who has a friendly relationship with him, and I was briefly talking to the doorman, there was some commotion around us, and the officer told Jayson he was busy at the moment.  A minute later, our landlord’s son got into his large white car, and backed it up and parked it blocking the entire line of microbuses.  He got out of the car, slammed the door and walked away from it.  Meanwhile, the doorman is saying to him, “Hey, no, this is wrong.  Give me the keys.”  But the son ignored him and walked around in a huff.  I thought, hmmm, this is interesting, we were just ready to board the microbus to meet our friend.  Hope he moves his car soon.  Surely, the police officer will do something about this.

So, Jayson and I, with the two girls, our bag, and a bag of chocolates for our host, boarded the microbus and waited.  And waited and waited and waited.  The microbus was full, as were the four or five that were surrounding us, but no one was moving because the big white car totally blocked the possibility.  The landlord’s son was standing on the street yelling and talking with the doorman, and some of the microbus drivers were yelling too.  Many of the passengers were looking around wondering what was happening and what they should do.  Jayson and I just sat there, with our girls in our laps, watching the scene.  Another son came down from their apartment to either watch or help, but his car stayed parked there for about ten minutes while the people who wanted to ride the microbus waited and questioned and fumed and threw their hands up.  At one point, most of the people in our microbus exited and walked away to find another way to their destination.  We didn’t really know where our destination was; we just had instructions to ride the microbus to the end of the line, and besides, we were interested in what would happen in this situation, so we stayed put.

I wondered where our landlord was, and thought that she could intervene and talk some sense into her son.  I mean, it seemed he had some problem with the drivers, but what about all these poor passengers who were now stuck?  I was also getting nervous for him as the crowds were gathering and tensions were getting high.  Jayson wondered at one point if he should get out and ask what was happening, and perhaps the presence of a foreigner would kind of shame the son into doing what’s right.  I wondered if he knew we were sitting inside one of the microbuses waiting to go, if that would make him move.  I mean, this is a guy who is often sitting in his parent’s living room while I visit with his mom.  Would he want to inconvenience his parents’ tenants?  But, we thought it best to just watch and learn.

After about ten minutes, he got in his car and drove off, swerving a bit wildly, down the street and screeching around the corner.  Well, I thought, now he’s safe from the crowds for the time being, and we can finally get moving.  But, the microbuses did not move.  It seems the drivers were quite upset about this whole thing and kind of went on strike for a little while.  At one point, one of the drivers who had been yelling and very agitated, started to run back behind us in the line of vans.  Two of the girls in our microbus got very nervous at that point and were afraid he was going to get into his bus and do something drastic.  So they quickly exited, along with some others.  But just as they were getting out, he ran up the sidewalk with a club in his hand.  I thought it would be best to stay in the van!  As is typical in Egyptian fashion, some of the other men around calmed him down enough to keep him from doing anything with that club (click here for a cultural explanation and personal reflection).  It was a little scary for a minute, and as the crowds continued to gather, since the microbuses had now been standing still for fifteen minutes, I wondered what could happen.  The drivers were angry, and surely the passengers would start to get angry that now the path was cleared and the drivers refused to go.  What a mess.

Meanwhile, Jayson called his friend and apologized for our delay and tried to explain the situation to him.  After he hung up, and it seemed there was no movement to go anywhere, we finally got out ourselves, and walked to the end of the street where we found a taxi who was taking a few other passengers to our destination.  Once inside the taxi, we asked one of the other passengers if she knew what the problem was.  She explained that one of the people who lives in the building by the microbuses (we knew who that was) was upset because the microbuses are loud and bothersome day after day and he finally got fed up and parked his car in their way.  Wow, I thought.  Yes, I could agree that they are sometimes louder and more bothersome than they need to be, but what good did it do for him to put his car there?  Surely this would not encourage the drivers to be more concerned for his comfort and well-being by keeping things quieter and not beeping incessantly when it wasn’t necessary.  No, instead it seems he just made stronger enemies who would now probably go out of their way to bother him.

We don’t know how long things were at a standstill on our street.  We arrived at our destination via taxi and had a nice dinner and time with Jayson’s friend, and by the time we were ready to return home, the microbuses were up and running again.  We haven’t seen our landlord or talked to the doorman about the situation, and we probably wouldn’t bring it up.  It is a curious thing, though, and provided a bit of entertainment and cultural insight on an otherwise nice, normal holiday.  Happy Easter.

Footnote:  A few days later I visited another neighbor who lives upstairs.  It seems she may have been home during this fiasco, and perhaps watching from her balcony.  She explained that maybe the son had a little more justification in doing what he did.  It seems he was parked on the side of the street and a microbus hit his car.  Whether this was on purpose or just because the driver was being a little careless, I don’t know.  But when he yelled at the driver, it seems the driver hit it a second time, intentionally for sure.  So, that is what started the whole thing.  When I asked my neighbor about all the innocent passengers who were inconvenienced, that didn’t seem to matter too much to her.  Her feelings are that the microbus drivers are generally not nice people.  She says they talk crudely to each other, but I don’t notice it because I don’t understand what they are saying.  She complains that they cause a lot of problems on our street, and it would be best if they could go somewhere else.  She wants to write a petition, signed by the residents of our building, and if Jayson and I sign on, she thinks it will go a long way in moving this line somewhere else.  We’ll see if anything happens with this plan.

Maadi Messenger Published Articles

School Kids and Microbuses

A few weeks ago we provided a look into our local neighborhood here in Maadi, Cairo, during a seven minute video tour from our apartment to my work. Click here if you missed it or would like to see it again. Today we provide an extended look at one of the more lively sections of this walk, taken from our balcony depicting the street below.

Julie provides the commentary at the moment the kids from the boys’ school exit out onto the street, which also happens to be the beginning point of local public transportation in which microbuses carry residents from a nearby neighborhood back and forth. Our street is not always as noisy as the video will show, but neither is what she will show you unusual.

Please click here to enjoy the video on Vimeo (sorry, we had trouble with YouTube).

Note: Should the microbuses in particular strike your fancy, please pay attention for a coming post Julie is preparing which features another aspect of these, our illustrious neighbors…