Walk Like An Egyptian
By foot, bus, and camel to Giza.

By James Cannon | Of the 700 people attending an international conference on urban transportation solutions in Cairo one year ago, I was the only one staying at the Baron.

The Baron was cheap, it offered daily shuttle buses to the meetings, and—not coincidentally—it was the sole hotel on the conference’s list that was locally owned. I had not come to Egypt to divide my time between chauffeured cars and the Sheraton. I wanted to experience Cairo as its citizens did. Specifically, wherever I went, I wanted to travel on public transit or my own two feet. And the first place I wanted to go was the pyramids.

The Baron is where I began. I boarded the hotel’s two-person elevator and pressed the button for the lobby. The machine responded by triggering what I failed to recognize as a prophecy. In an inspiring but ominous sign of the travails that lay ahead, it played the first several stanzas of the theme for Chariots of Fire.

At the front desk I asked for directions to the Metro.

The attendant spoke little English, but his reply indicated that he understood my intentions perfectly.

“It is impossible to walk there,” he said, very clearly. “You must take a cab.”

After a meeting of the staff confirmed that this was true, I pointed at my sneakers and asked them to mark the Metro station with a dot on my photocopied map. One did so, placing it about a mile away, but warned me again that one simply could not go by foot.

I began trying at 7 a.m. After walking two short blocks on side streets, I arrived at the main thoroughfare, which I needed to cross. The road was outlandishly wide. Seven lanes of slow traffic moved in one direction and seven moved in the other. In between was a concrete median topped by an iron mesh fence.

There were no traffic lights visible in either direction. I waited at the road’s edge in vain. Wondering if my attempt to live like an Egyptian would be thwarted within the shadow of my hotel, I suddenly caught sight of another man, an Egyptian  in my shoes. He stepped into the road and I followed him, proceeding to cross one lane at a time, crouching in terror between each column of traffic until the fence stymied our progress. Obeying his signal, I walked along the barrier until we reached a hole just big enough to crawl through, thereby winning the challenge of seven more lanes.

Fifteen minutes later I was weaving through the rubble of a pedestrian walkway that doubled as a garbage dump. Buses flew past in a blur of hand-painted Arabic destination names that were incomprehensible to me, but up ahead the vehicles appeared to slow down just enough for people to jump on and off. 

I showed my map to a young man in this crowd and asked him to point me toward the Metro. He laughed. It was too far away, he answered in English. Walking there was simply not possible. But he would be happy to take me as far as Ramses Square in downtown Cairo, where the realm of the possible opened wide.

A series of ancient, overcrowded, foully polluting buses passed by until my new friend exclaimed, “This one!”  We jumped on board, where he perched on the dashboard and I clung to a pole. A stream of money and tickets moved from hand to hand amid a crush of commuters too thick for the ticket collector to move. I too turned to pass a ticket along, only to spark a gale of laughter. This one belonged to me, courtesy of my companion, who was beaming amid a palpable wave of respect from his countrymen. I tried to pass $2 worth of Egyptian pounds back to him but no one would take my vast overpayment, least of all him.

After more than hour in near gridlock, my friend signaled to me again. We jumped off the bus in the middle of traffic amid the chaos of Ramses Square, made our way across several lanes of cars and buses, and climbed over another iron fence to gain the curb.

We bid one another goodbye and at last I entered the depths of the Cairo subway. My watch said 10 o’clock. When I rose to ground level in Giza half an hour later, the station-side transit options most prominently featured two taxi drivers engaged in a fistfight. I watched them spar until I heard a voice behind me asking in English for the time of day.

Its owner was a thirty-something Egyptian who introduced himself as a night guard at the Hilton. I asked him where to find a public bus to the pyramids. Just the direction he was headed in, he answered, and we walked a quarter-mile to another unsigned queue. He pointed to a bus and hopped on board with me, seamlessly shifting his mile-a-minute patter into a sales pitch for a camel ride to the pyramids. Why pay the foreigner’s admission tariff, he asked me, when you can ride in style to the cost-free entry gate reserved for Egyptians? 

I could think of no shortage of reasons, but by this time the bus had turned off the main road and was plying the side streets of a residential neighborhood. I panicked and made for the door. He stood up too, declaring somewhat absurdly that this was his stop. Seconds later, I was standing at the mouth of a deserted alley in the middle of nowhere, and my “friend” was right at my side.

Straw lay across the narrow passage between single-story mud huts. Horses and camels stood and sat among knots of children at play. On the bright side, there was virtually no chance of a vehicular manslaughter. The internal-combustion engine seemed never to have touched this place.

We walked down this alley for about 100 yards. We turned left into an even smaller alley. Soon we arrived at a single empty room with window holes but no windows, where a young man named Agi explained that a camel trip to the pyramids would cost $30.

That seemed a bit pricey for a journey that could conceivably end with my lifeless body lying face-down in a ditch.

I suggested $25.

The deal was struck. Presently a shoeless child appeared in the alley pulling a camel adorned with colorful blankets and a saddle. The beautiful animal sat and Agi climbed on, motioning for me to get on behind him and clutch his body.

Snaking our way through alleys filled with children, animals, and workers at labor, we also saw another species that hinted at the Egypt of centuries ago: pedestrians walking with ease. The mud huts eventually gave way to large Bedouin tents, which in turned opened onto the Sahara.

Agi pointed over the endless dunes and laughed. “The Atlantic Ocean,” he said. “About 2,000 miles ahead.”

His home was an oasis community a few hundred miles in that direction across open desert. He camped at Giza part of the year to earn money by serving tourists like me. On this day, I gathered, my $25 would be the sum of his community’s income. Soon he parted with enough of it to bribe a solitary soldier to lower his gun—and the rope stretching across a lonely gate well behind the pyramids.

We crested a dune and the immense stone monoliths swung into view. Agi took my picture and I gave him the $30 he had first requested.

The Pyramids of Giza stood above a great assembly of tourists, and at long last I walked down to join them.

Later I managed something that seemed close to a miracle. Navigating half a mile of urban rubble from the pyramids’ main tourist entrance, I found what appeared to be the same thoroughfare that serviced Giza’s Metro station.

A young Egyptian confirmed this good news: the bus route went straight there. I stood next to him for a few minutes, happily waiting for one, until he politely spoke up again.

“Of course,” he said, “you have to be on the other side of the street to go in the right direction.”

James Cannon G’77 is the founder of Energy Futures, Inc., which has done consulting work in 23 countries. He always uses local transit, starting from his home in Boulder, Colorado.


Notes from the Undergrad Seeing the big picture
Alumni Voices What I learned in summer school
Elsewhere Footsore in Cairo
Expert Opinion Preserving playtime

Jan|Feb 08 Contents
Gazette Home
Previous issue’s column

©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/02/08