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Wednesday, 8 July 2009

On the Buses - From Heliopolis to Pyramids by Night Bus

It is the early hours of Friday morning. I have been out to dinner with friends in Heliopolis, the exact opposite side of Cairo from where I live, and have decided to trust to fate and see how near home I can get on Cairo public transport.

I am in luck at the Roxy bus station where a number 200 bus awaits my arrival to transport me and my fellow passengers the many kilometres through the faded luxury of Parisian Heliopolis down through the heart of Ramses Street. For the princely sum of 1.50LE, I am about to be taken on an adventure of the senses; sights, sounds, smells and feelings.

The bus pushes its way through the thronging crowds, all trying to capture buses going hither and thither about The City Victorious – Mdinet Nasr, Msassa, Tahrir, even as far afield as Tanta, AlIskandria, and my way- Al Ahram – The Pyramids – last remaining wonder of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The bus fills, empties, fills again. The bus crosses over the Nile on to Gezira Island – I don’t recall which bridge – 26th July Corridor? May bridge? It is dark, I am in a reverie and don’t notice.

I look up and see an old, fat woman with a huge bag, she is squashed in the gangway between seats. I invite her to let me hold her bag, it’s customary here to offer. I hold it there, perched on my knees, until the bus again crosses the Nile over in to Giza, and she dismounts in Mohandseen.

Making our way through the dark and quieter streets alongside the university, we come upon Midan Giza – crowded and busy even now, at 1am. “Haram, Haram, Haram” “Aktoober” “ramZaiS” call the young men leaning out of the jostling buses and microbuses, “Tahrir” “RamZais” “Aktoober” – the exotic names fill my head sending thrills down my spine. What mysteries were revealed therein. “One day”, I think to myself, “I shall visit the mythical land of MSassa on one of these beasts”.

We pass from Midan Giza to the head of Haram Street – The Pyramids Road. Slowly we make our way through the congested street, competing with cars, taxis, and horses. We see a small knot of people shouting and cursing and a staggering horse in the middle. A taxi had hit the horse in the chest – it was tugging a trailer. The men got on the trailer and the poor, bleeding, staggering horse is whipped off down a side road to meet its fate. This is the dark side of this wonderful land.

By the time we get to the Pyramids Road, only two other passengers – a young man and his veiled wife - and myself were left from our starting point at Roxy. I wonder where they were going, what was their journey for? Why are they out so late?

We inch our way along until the turning off for Faisal Street. Not so long ago, you could just carry on to Al Remaya, the big roundabout outside the pyramids, with Meridian Hotel and Sofitel on different sides. They’ve reconfigured the roundabout now, and it’s no longer round! A cross roads has been cut through, and large traffic lights with giant, unmissable, LCD timer countdowns fitted. Now, traffic coming from Giza to Al Remaya has to detour via Faisal Street.

My bus terminates at Haydeck Al Haram – a huge housing complex just passed Remaya, but it would be very difficult to get an onward bus from there as most of the microbuses and buses try to fill up at Remaya to make the most money.

I alight from the bus on the corner at the head of the Fayoum Road. Many microbuses stop here, waiting for passengers for Fayoum, some 90km distant. My destination is the simpler Aktoober (6th October City). Sometimes you will find a microbus for Aktoober waiting to start here, but it’s not common this time of night. Those that do overcharge everyone – you are a captive market, anxious to get home.

There are a crowd of us waiting, as ever, for the rare beasts which Aktoober buses or microbuses are at that hour of the morning. My fellow travellers are mainly men – a mixture of workmen – either going home or starting early, I’m not sure. Men with small white turbans and long galibayas and the inevitable hammers and drills tied in a bundle with rags, and men dressed in the short-sleeved shirts and smart trousers of the office worker, on their way home from their late night finishes – all too common among the Cairene workforce.

There are a few women, a young woman with a perfect figure dressed in the typical skin-tight clothes and higab of the unmarried Egyptian female and carrying a small suitcase, two older women dressed more traditionally in black abayas, and a stout woman around the same age as me, hair uncovered, in uncomfortable looking court shoes, the flesh of her feet flowing over them, and clad in matching black and white floral-patterned polyester skirt and blouse.

Suddenly, a minibus approaches, coming across the traffic lights, a slim, young man is leaning out of the door, his hand in that familiar, “thumbs up” gesture. “Aktoober”, the voice is still distant but we are all on alert. The bus careens across the mouth of the Alex Desert Road, narrowly avoiding an articulated lorry thundering round the corner and turning in to the Fayoum Road.

We are all ready, like athletes poised at the starting line, waiting for the firing pistol. The adrenalin starts to flow, the heart begins to race a little harder, tongues moisten lips. The bus approaches – where will it stop? We are all alert, waiting for the signal. The bus goes past and starts to pull in a little way down the road, just past a half-barrier.

We are off, the race has begun, the race to get a place on the bus. We have noted that the bus is only half-occupied, who will get the seats? We charge down the road, like the start of the London marathon – elbows akimbo, who will get there first!

I am about sixth, some men push in front of me, but then I push on. No time for manners here. The bus is already starting to move. I push in to the sounds of “hoosh hoosh” (move down move down) and wedge myself between two seatbacks to help me remain upright during the 7km ride home.

I am in luck tonight, a young man offers me his seat. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. I accept it. The only problem is, this seat is near the back of the very full bus. That means keeping my eyes peeled for when my destination approaches, and shouting ‘a la gamb, lowsamat’ (beside, please) in appropriate time for the bus driver to lurch to a halt at the side of the road.

Two indistinguishable young men got on the bus – they are handcuffed together. Which is the detective and which is the criminal? – it isn’t possible to tell.

The money man starts to push his way down the bus collecting fares. I am intrigued to notice that the two handcuffed men both pay their own fare! Imagine being arrested and having to pay your own bus fare – someone should tell Gordon Brown!

At some point, the money man stands before me and I produce the requisite fare. On some of the numbered buses they give tickets and you have to keep them – ticket inspectors do appear with some frequency – and they are not uniformed!

We travel down the Fayoum Road, passing Haydeck Al Haram, people get off, people get on. Bowaba Ola, bowaba tani... the turning for the Al Wahat Road leading off to 6th October City approaches. A group of workmen waiting at the turning push on to the bus – even more necessary for me to plan my exit – I am going to have to get passed all these guys!

I see the signs for the hotels which are down the same road as me and grow more alert. I have to judge it just right, too soon, and the driver will deposit me at the 3rd gate of my compound, a very long walk home from there – too late and it will be the 1st Gate. I need the second.

I wait for the bus to pass the 3rd Gate. I shout out the name of my compound to the smiles of all around me – ‘bowaba tani – bowaba kabeera’ – ok you can all laugh, but the bus driver understands me, I want the second gate, the big one. People in the gangway start to press against the opposite side as I rise to make my passage down. With some shifting and struggling, I push my way to the front of the bus. “Shokran” I call as I step down “Arf” says the young man at the door.

The bus pulls away and speeds off towards its next destination.

I wait a few seconds for my eyes to adjust. I have to cross a 4-lane very busy road. Big lorries often drive with no lights. There are street lamps along the road, but I have to give time for my eyes to see if there is a darker patch of darkness rushing towards me before I try to cross. Luckily, late at night, the traffic on this road is a lot lighter and I see no patches of darkness.

I cross over to the long strip of land between the two halves of the road. I step on to the grass. Yuck, ankle deep in mud. Someone’s been watering it! Luckily I am on the way home and not on my way out. This is why I wear trainers most of the time – imagine if I had been in sandals?

With more care I cross the second half of the road – there is a big curve in the bend leading up to it and traffic hurtles round at a rate of knots. I succeed in my quest and approach the entrance to my compound. I wave to the security guard and call out ‘salam a laikum’ ‘alaikum wa salam’ he waves back, and I wend my weary way through the winding paths between the bushes back to the comfort of my den and the waiting arms of my loved ones (well paws anyway ;))

(All these things happened, just not all on the same journey and I have no idea if Heliopolis is Parisian or not :D )


General said...

Great account - you have told a lovely descriptive tale about a routine journey for many!

I hope you get out of Egypt all that you have put in!


General said...

A lovely account of a routine journey for many. The descriptions are fascinating - I am looking forward to my visit to Cairo!

InshAllah you will get as much out of Egypt as you are putting in.


Oldbag of Cairo said...

Thank you :)

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