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Rollin’ Through Cairo

Earlier today I was stuck sitting in traffic and I started daydreaming of faraway places. On the back of the bus ahead of me was an ad for mouthwash…a swirl of refreshing blue liquid curling into a perfect wave around a bare-chested man with a dazzling smile. Underneath the ad an exhaust pipe blew out balls of heat that blurred the photo until it looked like a mirage.

Cobalt blue water in a desert landscape…

Egypt? Yes…yes! I’d love to go to Egypt! Pyramids, palm trees…exotic sights and sounds…the beautiful, barren desert split in two by the Nile. It sounded like a refuge to me….

…Then I remembered what Cairo traffic is like.

Crowded, chaotic, and cacophonous… Millions of cars, trucks, and motorcycles funneling in from desert freeways to streets laid out a thousand years ago. My own experience in Cairo traffic was a thrill ride akin to a demolition derby. Bumping and pushing, grinding and honking… Vehicles of every kind fighting for tiny spaces left in the traffic streams by someone else who’d moved deeper into the fray.

The evening I arrived in Cairo I was picked up by Fahti, a private driver sent by my cousin. He was around thirty years old, with jet black hair and eyes that could swallow you whole. He wore a black, leather motorcycle jacket with white stripes down both sleeves…The uniform of the young, hip, urban man. Offering me his outstretched palm, he helped me into the backseat of his white, German-made SUV. I spent a second searching for a seatbelt but gave up when I realized there were none. Something told me this was the kind of ride that was best enjoyed on the edge of my seat.

I looked up just as Fahti slid on his expensive sunglasses. “You, comfortable?” he asked hopefully into the rearview mirror. His words were delivered with an accent so soothing they were like little, soft pillows tailor-made for my ears alone. Fahti turned the key in the ignition and gunned the motor.

Oh, God…here we go!

Seeing a gap in the traffic, Fahti forced his way out into the street. Horns blared all around us as cars swerved away from the vacant area we’d come to conquer. He manuvered the car to the center of the horde where we stayed for most of the freeway ride. It seemed that each driver knew his place in the lineup and stayed a respectful distance from each other as we cruised along. Fahti used this moment to relax. He leaned back and hooked an arm over the passanger seat. Lifting a finger casually, he pointed towards the desert. “Pyramids,” he announced. I squinted but, whether it was the drifting sand or the pace of the car, I could’t see any pyramids.

How fast is a hundred, sixy-nine kilometers, anyway? I wondered after daring to glance at the speedometer.

Eventually, we exited the freeway and headed down into Old Cairo. Two and three cars at a time turned into narrow avenues where more cars were parked along either side of the street. There were no lanes marked so the other vehicles crowding in around us pinned us to our spot. It had become a fight for survival.

Fahti kept his cool, although now he had both hands on the wheel. He shifted fast, stomping on the clutch and throwing the gears around like the expert he was. When he wanted to move ahead he’d go at it aggressively, staking his claim passionately. I clung more tightly to the headrest in front of me and dug my nails into its leather upholstery.

A square opened up ahead of us and we began circling a tall obelisk in its center. Fahti had trouble getting close to our exit on the first go-around so we took another rotation…I think on two wheels. He slid up to the cars ahead of him, gently nudging them out his way until he was ready to execute his move, then, rather abruptly, we were out of the roundabout and on a quieter but incredibly twisted side street. We made several turns in both directions and I could hear my bags thumping in time as they swayed back and forth behind me.

Another vehicle filled a space beside us and I saw Fahti’s head nod ever so slightly in the other driver’s direction. He nodded back just as I felt a surge of gas go through our engine.

Oh, shit! Now it’s on!

The other driver raked our side and I heard a grinding, metal-on-metal sound. Fahti jerked the wheel an inch to the left and drove us into our opponent’s front fender, pushing him back and away from our car. Both drivers revved their motors again and we surged ahead. Fahti was still in the lead but the other driver was right on our tail, pushing against our back bumper. We continued crawling along that way for several more blocks before Fahti yanked the wheel hard to the right at a corner and we turned down another lane. That was the last we saw of that driver.

The cars on this quiet but crowded street were mostly parked. Fahti negotiate his way around them with the same calm he’d displayed at the beginning of the ride. He pulled up to my hotel and hopped out of the driver’s seat. Opening my door, he extended his hand to me gallantly, and asked, “Did you enjoy the ride?”

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