In Egypt what would be considered a road hazard anywhere else in the world is probably the road. Outside of Cairo there are few defined spaces for traffic and pedestrians. Even where there are pavements people, cars and animals share equal access.
Most visitors suspect leaving the sanctuary of their hotels risks being flown home in a box. But as Egyptian street life is gloriously vibrant it seems a shame to miss out when all that’s needed is a little local knowledge.
Walk like an Egyptian: This is easier than you might think. Wear shoes with traction and keep looking over your shoulder to check what’s going on behind, even when walking on what appears to be a ‘safe’ side of the road. There isn’t one. Pot holes without safety barriers regularly appear overnight, so glancing down occasionally helps to prevent unwanted tumbles.
Jay walking: Is entirely legal, encouraged even. Nonetheless if you can avoid crossing the streets, do – you’ll live longer. If you must cross then run as fast as you can in a zigzag fashion while keeping a constant watch on anything that’s moving or could possibly move. Never assume someone will stop for you. They won’t. For really busy areas it’s better to find a place where locals are already crossing and tailgate them as nonchalantly as possible. Suspected stalkers are as unwelcome in Egypt as they are elsewhere.
Remember there’s another way to cope with this. One can either hop on a local mini-bus or take a taxi.
Mini-Bus: Multitudes of honking mini-buses careening to a stop in front of pedestrians will take you anywhere along fixed routes within towns and cities extremely cheaply. By cheap, I mean never pay more than 1 / 2 LE (Egyptian pounds). Ignore any attempts at bargaining. Buses are small and often crowded, so getting in and out can reveal more flesh than is considered suitable and can lead to unwelcome attentions. Modest attire is therefore to be recommended.
Taxis: Collective service taxis are one of the best features of Egyptian transport. They operate on a wide variety of flexible routes and are faster than buses. Taxis can be used for individual trips or shared with others. Prices for all trips, including intercity, must be agreed in advance. On the downside is the often maniacal driving at high speed.
Alternatively, if you have a death wish, you can hire a car.
Car rentals: A number of international companies operate in Egypt. To hire a car you need a valid international driving license, be at least 25 years of age and possess nerves of steel.
Rules of the Road: There are none. But still it’s important to have your facts straight before attempting to pilot anything on wheels. For instance driving is done by constantly blasting horns and flashing headlights – a method known locally as ‘The Egyptian Brake Pedal’.
Honking: Is done to signal intentions and warnings when, for example, anything is blocking the road, something looks like it might, something isn’t and at traffic lights regardless of color. Drivers toot when pulling out, pulling in, stopping, moving, bored or when saying hello.
Lights: Indicators are reserved for use solely at night and then only to alert any following traffic of road bends ahead. In darkness headlights are flashed intermittently to oncoming traffic to alert them of their presence rather than used continuously. Saves on the battery apparently.
It’s wise never to assume any human or animal has seen you – honk that horn and flash those lights even if it’s just to be friendly!
Lane Markings: Are purely decorative. Drivers drive on which ever side of the road appeals, which is generally on your side. The intentions of another road-user should never be taken for granted as there’s a good chance he hasn’t decided yet and, even if has, he’ll almost certainly change his mind again.
Overtaking: Cars, buses, carts and trucks will make every effort to overtake and undertake other vehicles even in what appears to be an impossibly tight space, as this gives them the right of way. Anyone who tries cutting in from behind is ignored as they’re liable for collisions.
Collisions: If you do have an accident, immediately go on the offensive and offer to pay for repairs. The alternative is being screamed at until you’re deaf and you’ll still end up paying. If the local police happen to be around, standard procedure is to chuck everyone in prison regardless of fault and, believe me, you’ll still end up paying.
Speeding: Strangely speed limits are rigidly enforced in Egypt. Although you wouldn’t think so from the way Egyptians drive. Even minor infringements can result in confiscation of one’s driving license. Getting it returned is an expensive, protracted and laborious business with no guarantee of success even if one hands over wads of hard cash ie. dollars or euros.
Security: One safety feature you can always count on while cruising the Egyptian highways and byways is the road block. To some they seem like an unnecessary hindrance and the endless waiting to be judged friend or foe interminable. Be patient and remember the longer you wait, the longer you live.
Cultural tip for better appreciating the above: The Islamic religion is a critical component in Egyptian life. Therefore, this is a fatalistic culture and one’s destiny is believed to be firmly in the hands of God. Since nothing can be done about this, there tends to be an acceptance of the status quo. In other words, the answer to everything is subject to ‘Insha’allah’ (God willing) and a copy of the Koran is a standard extra in all forms of transportation. On the upside, this fatalism means that it’s rare to meet an Egyptian who’s not smiling.
Getting to Egypt: Alitalia, KLM and Air France all fly to Egypt for approximately EUR300 return or less. However, holiday packages generally work out cheaper than booking flights and accommodation independently. Budget Travel, for example, will fly you to Luxor, luxury coach you to a 5 star hotel and feed you breakfast for around EUR540 per week. If you disappear as I did – resorts not being my thing – they will even come looking for you.
Getting around Egypt: Egyptian public transport is amazingly efficient and inexpensive.
Bus: Inter-city buses are the cheapest way to travel around the country. A ticket from Hurghada to Cairo costs as little as 60 LE per person, one way. In the Red Sea area you will find two main operators – The Upper Egypt Bus Company serves the Red Sea Governorate towns, from Hurghada to Safaga, El Quseir and Marsa Alam, also linking these towns to the Nile valley and Cairo. The Canal Zone and Sinai are served by the East Delta Bus Company. Both companies offer air-conditioned buses and on the longer routes they also have on-board toilets. Schedules change frequently, so it’s better to check personally at the bus terminals.
Rail: Slightly more expensive is the extensive railway network controlled by Egyptian State Railways. The network has a high standard of service and covers the whole country, connecting all the main cities. Tickets can be bought at the station but, as with all matters in Egypt, some patience is required to actually complete the purchase. Take along your student card, if you have one, as I’m told it may give up to a 33% reduction on fares. Personally I doubt this but then I’ve never had the patience to try. Visit http://www.egyptrail.gov.eg for more information.
If you want to take advantage of the overnight train services then it’s necessary to book one week in advance through a travel agent or through Abela Egypt. For more information visit http://www.sleepingtrains.com.
Planes: For those with money or little time to spare Egypt Air flies daily between Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel and Hurghada. Being a nervous flyer I always appreciated the traditional communal prayers led by the pilot while on board ie. ‘bismillahir rahmanir rahim’ (in the name of Allah, the most merciful, the most kind) to assist take-off and on successfully landing ‘al-Hámdu lil-láah’ (by God’s mercy) we made it. All of which reminds one just how truly miraculous aviation travel really is. For information on timetables and fares visit http://www.egyptair.com.eg/english/.
Health & Safety: Adrenaline rush is addictive so proceed with all due caution. Still, no vaccinations are required for tourists arriving from Europe. Pharmacists in the major towns are knowledgeable and are usually tri-lingual.