I love the taxi drivers of Cairo.
There aren’t many people who feel this way. Cairo has twenty million people and forty million cars, and every single one of those cars is a taxi, and they are all hooting, all the time. Sometimes they hoot just to test whether their hooter’s still working because it’s been thirty seconds since the last time they hooted.
Cairo taxi drivers have very bad hearing. You tell them you want to go to the pyramids, say, and they think you mean the Pyramid Souvenir Shop, which their cousin happens to own. It’s strange how often it happens. Every day, all day, Cairo taxi drivers must think to themselves: “Wow, what a coincidence! This is the tenth guy today who wants to go to my cousin’s souvenir shop!”
Every taxi in Cairo has been in 3000 minor accidents already. They have so many dents and dings they’re not really car-shaped any more. Sometimes they drive into each other just to pass the time. You can never die in a Cairo cab because the traffic doesn’t move fast enough, but one of my dreams is to watch a duel between South African taxi drivers and Cairo taxi-drivers, in home and away conditions. Our guys would have the edge in speed, but the Cairo guys can take the collisions. But still – I love Cairo taxi drivers.
The last time I was in Cairo I left my hotel at dusk, when the sun drops over the western desert and turns the air the colour of apricot. I went looking for a drink.
I found a bar called the White Horse that sold Egyptian beer. The city seemed big and overwhelming when I went in, and when I came out it was even bigger and more overwhelming and also it was spinning counter-clockwise. That’s Egyptian beer for you.
I tried to walk home, but I didn’t know the way, and also I’d forgotten how walking works. I nearly fell in the Nile. I did fall into a tree.
So I hailed a taxi and it dropped me near my hotel and I crawled out and left my wallet on the back seat. I watched it drive away and disappear into a steel river of misshapen taxi cabs, hooting as it went.
I was sad about my wallet, but I’m used to it. I lose my wallet a lot. I spend almost more time separated from my wallet than together: we have a regular unconscious uncoupling.
The next day I went to go see the Sphinx, and I took a camel ride into the desert, sitting on the two-man saddle with the camel’s owner, who kept putting his hands in my trouser pockets. For such a large fellow, he had a very gentle touch.
When I returned there was a message to present myself at the nearest police station. That always makes me a little nervous. I find myself thinking: how did they find out about that I only guessed the mileage on my last tax return? Or is this about that jar of honey I smuggled through customs?
At the station I met a policeman with a moustache the size of a small dog, who asked me how much money was in my wallet when I lost it.
I was confused. How did they know? Have they been keeping me under surveillance and reading my sad texts home? If Egyptian intelligence is so good, why don’t the taxi drivers never know where you want to go?
I told him the wallet had $2000 in cash and 150 Egyptian pounds, and about R137.
“And coins?” he said.
“I don’t know. Maybe 75 cents?”
He narrowed his eyes and held up my wallet. “There is money missing!” he said. “There is only thirty cents! We will bring back the taxi driver, we will get it out of him!”
“No, no!” I said. “Thirty cents sounds right!”
He handed over the wallet and all the cash was there.
He told me the sequence of events: a passenger found my wallet on the back seat and gave it to the taxi driver, who remembered dropping a tourist on a corner with four international hotels. He went to each hotel in turn and found the one that had me registered as a guest, and handed it to the concierge, who took it to the police station and handed it to the duty constable, who handed it to the duty sergeant, who handed it to the man with the small dog on his upper lip.
“Can I give the taxi driver a tip?” I asked.
“He does not want a tip,” said the man with the small dog.
“Can I give you a tip?”
“I do not want a tip either.”
There are times when all my cynicism isn’t enough to stop me seeing that wherever you go, there are always good people. There are more good people than bad people. Sometimes they’re civilians, sometimes they’re hotel employees or policemen. Sometimes they’re even taxi drivers.Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer and aspirant retiree - follow him on twitter: @DBBovey