Belinda Jackson learns to walk like an Egyptian through Cairo's crazy traffic.
'My eyes," says Karim seriously, "are my indicators." He guns the lowered BMW around Cairo's main square, Midan Tahrir, skipping between lanes as if we have some invisible crash barrier around us. Pah! Who uses indicators when you can use the whites of your eyes to show you're changing lanes, I always say ...
Think Paris's psychotic Champs-Elysees, then treble the number of cars flying around it and you have an idea of central Cairo. There might be lanes marked on the road but why have just one car per lane when you can fit three?
Suddenly, a car cuts in front of us that even in maniacal Cairo is a suicide move. Karim slams on the brakes and we yell out "Crazy!" in two languages. It's the first time I've seen anything that approximates road rage in fever-pitch Egypt.
Cairo's soundtrack is an opera of car horns tooting as they swerve around pedestrians, tooting as they change lanes, tooting as they brake, all the time tooting. Toot. "Hello." Toot. "How are you?" Toot. "I really want to cross four lanes to get to that exit." Toot. "I know I'm driving at a 90-degree angle to the traffic flow, but how else am I going to get there?" Toot. "Fair call."
In between are bus conductors roaring their destination, the bray of a laden donkey, bleating of goats, the call to prayer from the mosques, a million ringtones of Arab pop and the blast of whistles from the natty police who, incredibly, in filthy Cairo, are dressed in sparkling white uniforms.
The traffic. The traffic!
The traffic is so tight, there's but a smear of smog between each car and traffic lights are just pretty street decorations. Yet pedestrians wind through the traffic, snake-hipped, co-existing with the cars, mopeds, goats, buses, donkeys, motorbikes and push bikes in one big roiling mass, sliding in and out of each other's way, where near misses go unremarked.
How do they do it? I wonder as I stand, yet again, at the side of the road, trying to gauge my crossing toward the Egypt Museum. I can almost touch the big, pink legend but am separated by what looks like a moving car boot sale (it's only later I discover the pedestrian subway).
And suddenly, my person is commandeered as yet another Cairene takes my elbow and walks me across the street. In front of this banged-up Lada. Between the Merc and the Honda. In the wake of a pulsing Hummer. I feel as if I'm in my dotage, all this leading. But I cling to my saviour like a dishevelled Lois Lane to her heavily moustached Superman.
To avoid needing a full-time chaperone, I have to deal with this fear. Finally, my eyes find the chaos forming some sort of order (cars first on the pecking list, then motorbikes, donkey carts and finally pedestrians) and with a flick of my hips between two bumper bars, I learn to walk like an Egyptian.