Today on the way to Alfa Market (the biggest grocery store in Cairo, that I’m aware of), my taxi driver decided to make small talk. Taxis in Egypt are great and also a constant source of stress.

1. Taxi drivers speak about as much English as I speak Arabic, as a general rule. Meaning that I can tell them to go straight, turn right or left, and where my destination is. I can tell them I’m American (today’s driver asked if I was Armenian). And we can discuss politics.

2. Taxi’s are, in fact, cars. Unlike Liberia, I cannot hail a motorbike and hop on the back for a speedy, death-defying journey. Instead, I wince and cringe as we maneuver, in a car that by all logic should no longer be moving, around people, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, and the occasional traffic circle.

3. There are no lanes in Egypt, they are simply guidelines.

4. Taxi drivers all smoke. Most men in Egypt smoke, probably upwards of 75%. So, as a friendly gesture, I usually offer my driver a cigarette, unless he beats me to it. It is very rare though for a driver to offer me a cigarette when I’m travelling alone. Most women, after all, don’t smoke. Or at least not in public.

5. As a how to guide: when paying for a taxi, one must immediately get out of the car upon stopping at the destination. Then lean in the front window and pass however much you deem appropriate to the driver. Generally, I go by the 5 pound minimum but sometimes the drive is very short and then less. However, if for some reason you think it’s wise to pay while still in the car, and are not fluent in Arabic, prepare of an argument upon your arrival. Even when I pay and walk away, I can hear the driver yelling animatedly in Arabic behind me. I would say I’m being cheap but if I let everyone charge whatever they liked, I’d be paying 50 pounds just to get some groceries. This is why it’s extremely important to know how much the drive should cost before arriving.

6. Oh and just like most of the world, taxis pick up multiple fares at once, as they like.

But today’s driver decided that I was a particularly interesting fare and called a friend to introduce me. He was talking on the phone, asking me questions and repeating them into the phone (in Arabic, of course). This is when we started talking politics. He explained to me that the Bush’s and Clinton were no good. He liked Reagan, oddly enough. I was going to ask about Mubarak but decided that while we can have a reciprocal discussion of American politics in broken English, that it may be difficult to get a solid “good” or “no good” answer about Egyptian leadership. (I regret not asking).

My return trip was eventful in a different way. I was walking, trying to hail a cab, which is just not done here (you stand and wait, I’m too impatient and like to walk, so a few cabs missed me as they passed). One finally stops, right before the bridge to get me back downtown (which is a decidedly nasty walk because of the sun, the exhaust, and the leers). He first stops for one woman. No, not going where she’s going. Then two children, about 8 and 9 respectfully, obviously brother and sister. He cruises past to me. Then, immediately hits the gas and is off. There a little ways down the road, three men in pure white galibeyas (the traditional dress of men in Egypt, particularly religious men, but just about everyone where’s them, it goes to the floor, has the little slit at the neckline in the front, looks like a big robe) and what appear to be Saudi head wraps (the red and white pattern, long, loose, tied around the head) are his fares. Wealth and piety definitely win.
The kids and I managed to get a cab that had one woman already in it. The boy, graciously and chivalrously sat in the front. I believe this custom must have to do with protecting women by not letting them sit in front, where they could fly out a windshield (airbags and seatbelts are rare in taxis). It’s also a little like separate-but-equal, particularly among strangers.