Cairo is a city with a population exceeding 18 million people. The metro system, however, underwhelms with 3 lines of operation. The city is spread out so people will tell you that you need a car to get around. This is LA…if you took away some of the infrastructure, aged the buildings, crammed 14 million extra people into less than half the size of it, and added 40 Fahrenheit degrees.
The result of such a city is that the streets overflow with cars and people and visible order appears only to physicists who study chaos theory. Drivers are aggressive in the way they switch lanes, in the way they defend their own lanes from others cutting in, in the way they create new ones entirely. But, more or less, there are other areas of the world where drivers act like this. What adds to the chaos and complexity of street traffic here, though, are the people that walk across these same streets (and highways).
Initially I was nervous in the streets sitting in a half a ton vehicle. Crossing the street brought images of Frogger to mind. But there they were – men, women and children as young as 7, walking between 5 lanes of oncoming traffic in ways that would make New Yorkers look like complete pansies. One night we watched the cacophonous traffic from our balcony and eventually it began to unfold into, if not a symphony, a dance between people and cars, ebbing and flowing in a way that made total sense to the people below. We watched for about an hour, surprised by the beauty we found in it.
Like I mentioned before, though, I am not one of those people. If you want to find a way to emasculate someone, make them insecure about something they’ve done their entire life – and make it something mundane, like crossing the street. I felt like that kid who walks around the block for hours because they’ve run away from home but remember that their parents don’t allow them to cross the street by themselves. Now that I think about it, Mari and I did find our meals at restaurants around the right corner of the hostel we were staying at – coincidentally.
By contrast to the lack of self-confidence Cairo knocked into me was President Obama’s visit here a month prior. When he came to see the sights here, the city cleaned the streets he was to visit and replanted trees along them. But that’s not what should have given our president an ego boost. Egypt wanted to impress so much that when Obama visited, the day was declared a national holiday and people were urged to stay home so he wouldn’t experience the traffic of the city. And for the most part, people took their paid holiday and watched Obama give his speech in Technicolor instead of in person. Our president was able to effectively shut down 18 million people by simply showing up. And me? I’m gearing up to tackle the streets soon enough. Maybe just a few more laps around the block first.