Nostalgic for Cairo

I spent the winter semester of this year 2010 in Cairo, Egypt teaching English as a foreign language to adults as fulfillment for my practicum/internship requirement for my degree at CMU (for 6 credits, that is). They were all refugees, mostly from Sudan, Darfur, Somalia, and Iraq (but the organization, St. Andrew’s Refugee Services, serves refugees from over 30 different countries and at the time of my departure, we had over 1000 people coming through the gates every day).  But here in Winnipeg, at CMU, I cross the divided highway to get from our North campus to our South campus and the manner in which I do is so very different from how one must cross the street in Cairo. I prefer the “Cairene” way.  Therefore, out of nostalgia, I am re-posting a guide for crossing the street while I was in Cairo.

Dear  foreigner,

When approaching an intersection in Cairo on foot you might find yourself suddenly overwhelmed by the copious amounts of people walking in every direction and the line of cars that extends towards the desert’s horizon. Yes, the Cairo traffic grid is chaos, but do not be alarmed. The following tips are sure to help you cross the street in a timely and life sparing manner.

Step 1: Your mother was right.

Your mother was right; always look both ways before attempting to cross any street in Cairo. Not only do you need to look at on coming traffic, but make a point of looking in every direction that a motor vehicle could possibly come from as motorcyclists often weave through traffic and appear out of nowhere, speeding mere inches in front of you, potentially causing a heart attack, when you, the innocent foreigner, were convinced that it was safe for you to cross.

Step 2: Do NOT hesitate.

There is no room for hesitation on your part, as a pedestrian. As you approach the intersection in question you must already be completing step 1. If you continue to wait at the curb for a space in your comfort range, consider bringing a blanket and a picnic basket. The longer you wait, the harder crossing becomes.

Step 3: Taking on Cairo one lane at a time.

Having said that, looking both ways is an art and must be practiced continuously as you cross the street. More often than not, vehicles are always moving but the density of traffic reduces speed enabling you to cross. You will almost always have to cross the streets lane by lane. You will have to make eye contact with drivers and guess whether or not they will slow down enough to let you cross the lane or whether you will have to stand in the 24 inch space between the lanes until the opportune moment arrives. Do not be afraid of this 24 inch space. You are fairly safe here.

Step 4: The running man.

If you happen to be so fortunate as to find yourself at an intersection that has pedestrian lights you are probably also at a very large intersection that is policed by street patrols who more or less direct traffic. When traffic is stopped you will see a green running man appear on the pedestrian traffic light. When you do, carpe diem, because the traffic is never stopped for long.

Step 5: Safety and power in numbers.

You, dear pedestrian, do not have the right of way in Cairo, and if you simply cannot find it in yourself to step onto the precarious pavement in front of you, simply follow the Cairene next to you closely but inconspicuously.

Step 6: The blessing of gridlock.

Gridlock occurs several times daily in Cairo and happens to be the pedestrian’s greatest blessing. If you find yourself at a street where cars are at a standstill in every direction, drivers look annoyed, and you cannot hear your own thoughts over the blaring horns, you can rest assured that what you have in front of you is gridlock, blessed gridlock. In this case, simply weave around the cars to the other side.

Step 7: Gridlock: one caution.

Gridlock most certainly can be a blessing but don’t head for cloud nine quite yet. Always practice step one, especially in gridlock. Motorcyclists sometimes zip through the standstill traffic between lanes and rarely yield to anyone, pedestrian or not.

Step 8: If you have high blood pressure.

If you are planning to explore Cairo by foot and you have high blood pressure, I highly recommend you go Friday morning before prayers.  Most shops will be closed but your chances for crossing the street safely and in a timely manner increase exponentially. But watch out for speeding micro buses who think the street has suddenly turned into a freeway.

From Cairo with love,

M. Kampen


2 comments on “Nostalgic for Cairo

  1. ladycherin says:

    This is sooo true!! I’ve lived in Cairo all my life, and I still can’t get used to crossing the street!!

  2. Kampen says:

    Hello! I was only there for 4 months teaching English but I sure had a great time! Are you still living in Cairo?

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