Thursday, June 29, 2006

Street Crossing 101

Quick note: I am posting frequently, so look below this post for picutres of the Nile and my first post from the city.

Let me tell you about the babies we almost killed today. To do that, I need to talk about crossing streets in this city. The topic probably deserves a blog unto itself, but I'll limit it to one post. Stop lights in Cairo are largely symbolic. Symbolic of the pretend sense of order that the city vainly tries to put forward. There is no yellow on these stoplights, simply red and green. And they flash red, green, red, green, all day............. but nobody seems to notice. The cars fly at a furious pace, weaving and lurching. Honking for no apparent reason. I want to acknowledge that everybody who has ever visited a foreign country asserts that the driving there was insanity. I'd like to put forward, however, the proposition that Cairo may well take the cake as far as drivers go because you have to consider the drivers in addition to the fact that pedestrians are ruthless and that the stop lights are mere gestures. My point is that it goes beyond the drivers to the conditions on the road. I've never quite seen anything like it.
Let me give you an example, before I get back to the babies. The Nile Hilton, where I'm staying, is surrounded on all sides by major multi-lane roads. To go anywhere in the city from the hotel involves crossing a street. In front of the hotel is an eight lane road that runs along the river Nile. On this road, called Corniche al-Nil, cars go sixty in bumper to bumper traffic. Yesterday morning, I needed to cross the Nile en route to my language school. To get to the bridge, I had to first cross the 8 laner. I stood on the curb and looked in both directions as far as the eye can see. No intersections anywhere. But all around me were Egyptians on foot, crossing. If you haven't seen it, it's hard to describe the sight on crossing so much traffic. It's fairly awe inspiring. It's almost like a dance between pedestrians and drivers. Where there is seemingly no room on the road for cars to swerve or brake, they manage to find a way (with lots of horn).
Now let me address those who think that this post is over doing it a little and that to call street crossing a dance is just trying to sound stupidly poetic. While I prepared to travel to Cairo, many people told me about the street crossings. It was much trumpeted in my mind, and so I eagerly, and nervously, anticipated it. But then I got here, and it was every bit as people had said. It's sort of a controlled insanity.
And so I made my crossing on that eight lane road. Becuase there are no breaks in the traffic, I put my head down and walked. The first car came to a screeching halt, honking hysterically. In the next lane, the car swerved right and all the cars next to it got the picture and all swerved right in tandem. The car in the next lane made no bones about it. He wasn't stopping. And so I gave a little hop step and narrowly averted disaster. You get the picture. The point is, I made it accross just fine. You just can't have any fear.
Now to the babies. This morning, I got in a cab to head to the other side of town. As we hauled around a turn onto the entrance ramp of one of the Nile's bridges, I saw ahead of us were about a dozen women, covered from head to toe in long black robes, as many of the women here are. Each of them was holding a small child. I'm not sure whether they were all going to a function with their children or just taking them out for a walk, but there they were. We were going about 60 and right at them. We'd almost hit single people before, but never had I been confronted by such a mass right in front of me. And just as we got to within feet of them, a path opened between them, just the width of the car. With a casual nature that I have never seen with American mothers, these women made room with ease as we made our way through. I saw on both sides that our side view mirrors caught the robes of a couple of these women, but nobody seemed to mind. And just as quickly as the sea had parted in front of us, it closed up again around our exhaust.
Even the smallest things in this city are wildly fascinating to me.
A Preview: That cab ride took me across town to a real estate agent. Today is apartment searching day. I am currently sitting in an internet cafe on the outskirts of town. We saw one apartment this morning and we will look at more this afternoon. A full report to follow tonight.


hector said...

theo, do Egyptian women really ware "robes"? Isn't ther another name?

In case you need this, here's a link to the very thorough Arab World. It's very good and offers some very important information.

The crossing sounds very intriguing. Do you have any images of the traffic flow + pedestrians?

Theo May said...

Yeah, there are real names for them other than robes. But there are a bunch of different names depending on what the specific robe is. And since I'm not exactly sure what the name of these robes are, I just generalised. I shall figure all this out in good time!

Anonymous said...

there are no more insane drivers, in the world,than the latin americans,hector can attest to that. i think we should take an informal "blog poll" on the subject.
your description of the proverbial "arab street" is very colorful...i can smell the fumes from here.
for all us foodies,food talk is wellcome once you've zagated enough.