Airport? Where is airport?

The taxi didn't look like a good one but that's a relative term in Cairo. Any cab that hasn't completely fallen apart, dragging bits of engine like entrails down the road, is something of a luxury. Still, this one looked in a pretty poor state, its black-and-white paint job peeling away and rust spreading its fingers across the bonnet.

"Airport, please," I said to the driver in fluent Arabic. (Of course, that's a lie; I don't speak any Arabic, though it would have solved a lot of my problems.) The driver gave me one of those worrying looks taxi drivers sometimes give you when they're not really sure how to get to where you're going but there's no way in the world they're going to let a fare step out of their vehicle.

"A-poor?" he asked, making sure he'd got it right.

"Airport," I repeated. He had that worrying look again but he had already let out the handbrake and we joined the seething, honking mess of virtually motionless traffic that surrounded the pyramids in Giza. There are several ways to know your cab driver has no idea where he's going. The first is when he pulls out a map or GPS and starts fiddling with it. The second is when he asks you for directions. The third and most time-consuming sign is when he starts asking everyone else for directions.

As soon as we joined the traffic, my driver, Ahmed - whose name, admittedly, I just made up - had his head out the window and was yelling to other vehicles, I assume in a plea for help.

It can't be easy being a cab driver. I certainly don't expect them to know every single address in a city but the airport is surely the sort of landmark they would be asked to visit fairly regularly. Well, unless they're Ahmed, apparently.

Such is the joy of the overseas cab ride. Every traveller has a tale of taxi-related woe. Usually several. Whether it's the maniacal drivers in Prague who treat the city's cobbled streets like their personal racetracks, or the ripoff merchants in Istanbul, or the dodgy meters in Mumbai, or the fearless tuk-tuk drivers of Bangkok, everyone has something to say about cabs.

I've been ripped off before, plenty of times. I've feared for my life. I've had Chinese taxi drivers sing to me, Indian rickshaw drivers drag me into their cousin's carpet emporium and Bolivian cabbies offer me the best price on illicit drugs. But I've never encountered a cabbie who didn't know where the airport was.

Until Cairo.

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We'd been driving for about 15 minutes, stopping to ask anyone in earshot for directions, before Ahmed turned back to me, raising his eyebrows for confirmation. "A-poor?"

"Airport," I said again, sticking my arms out to the side and doing my best impersonation of an aeroplane.

Ahmed frowned, nodded, and on we drove. After another 15 minutes, we passed a sight that seemed quite familiar to me. It was large and pyramid-shaped. Now, there aren't many landmarks in Cairo I can identify with certainty but a 146-metre, 4000-year-old pile of rocks is one of them. We'd just done a giant circle. This was going to be a long journey.

Undeterred, Ahmed was once again trying to negotiate the knot of traffic around the pyramids, which is not an easy thing to do when you have your head out the window asking pedestrians for directions to this "air port".

The sad irony was there was someone in close proximity of our taxi who did know how to get to the airport: me. I just couldn't explain myself because of the aforementioned lack of Arabic and charades skills that don't go as far as street directions. See, there's a huge ring road that surrounds Cairo and the airport is right next to it. If you get on the ring road, which also passes Giza, you'll hit the airport eventually, regardless of which direction you go in.

Rather than explain this, though, I had to settle for studying the parlous state of my chosen transport. I didn't have a seatbelt, of course, but that hardly matters when your car is being overtaken by pedestrians. That rust from the outside looked as if it had crept inside the cab and eaten away at the windowless door frames.

Outside, the traffic honked, the dust swirled and Ahmed kept yelling for help. Finally, after a conversation with a fellow taxi driver held at a steady five kilometres an hour, a light went on. Ahmed turned around and grinned at me, raised his thumb in the universal signal of everything's OK and hit the accelerator.

And then the brake, of course, because we were still stuck in traffic.

We did eventually make it to the ring road and then made progress at frightening speeds, our humble cab shaking and rattling, threatening to disintegrate like a meteorite falling through the atmosphere, until we eventually screamed to a halt outside the international terminal.

Ahmed smiled at me, swinging my bag on to the pavement. "A-poor!"

Have you had any interesting taxi experiences while travelling? Post a comment below.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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