Monday, April 14, 2008


I've started working part-time and that means I have started commuting part-time. I get stuck in the morning rush and try to grab coffee or dinner with friends at the end of the day to avoid participating in the evening rush. Sometimes I succeed. And sometimes, I sit in traffic, chewing on exhaust and trying to make conversation with my cab driver as gridlock eats us up for what seems like hours (most times it is hours...)

The standard cab fare from Zamalek - where we live - to the AUC campus - where we work -- is normally about 5LE (a little less than $1). When I first arrived, I made sure I knew just enough Arabic to make my way home and negotiate the appropriate fare. I constantly tried to find ways to get 5LE notes as change so that I could hoard cab fare. I was going to pay 5LE and not a piaster more.

The trick is to know how much is standard and how much you are prepared to pay, hand the money to the driver and walk away. If you turn back or hesitate, there's a long, loud, pointless negotiation for more money. And my Arabic just isn't strong enough for that.

Everytime I got in a cab, I would make sure the driver wasn't taking the scenic route to increase the fare. "Ya Mohammed, just because I'm going to the American University, does not mean I don't know how much this ride is going to cost". "No, no, turn left here -- it's shorter this way." "Why would you take July 26 at this time of day?" I was constantly on guard, lest someone tried to rip me off or take me for a "foreigner".

In recent weeks, I've begun to hear about rising food costs and shortages of daily staples. We work for an international institution, live in the most priviledged part of town and spend money like it's falling off a monopoly board. We are so far removed from the challenges of the average Egyptian, it is ridiculous, really. What we spend on a dinner with friends is often the monthly income of a local policeman or teacher.

Learning this has made me more philosophical in many ways. I no longer get angry at the cab driver or stress out if my ride is 30 minutes instead of 20. Malesh, we'll get there when we get there. Me sitting in the back of his cab squacking in my incomprehensible Arabic isn't going to clear the traffic. If we take the longer route, sometimes that means we move the whole time instead of taking the shorter route that literally soaks my every pore with lead and diesel exhaust. Sometimes it means we take the longer route and there's no upside, but there you go. At least I have the priviledge of being able to afford to be driven to and from my work.

Now, when the driver asks me for 10LE from campus to Zamalek, I don't argue. I just say ok and hop in their cab. And when I reach my destination, I do what I have always done: I get out, thank the driver, pay him and walk away.

I am probably not making an ounce of difference in the overall situation of the people around me. But I'm finding that my stress levels are lower. And that is worth the all the 5-10LEs notes I can find.

All photos and text copyright Sufia Lodhi 2008

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