Normally a trip to the airport can be filled with many emotions. Joy of going on a well deserved holiday or sadness due to the death of a loved one that has recently passed. My trip however is not about the final destination, as that pales in comparison to the journey from the centre of the twilight zone in a beaten up Peugeot car, in a foreign land.
I have been here for one day on business and my throat is coarse and painful due to either the pollution or the water I was drinking last night. My feelings for my throat disappear faster than the old car we are in accelerates into a sea of cars. Chaos, it appears is the order of the day here. Lines that mark the lanes on the road may as well not be there as cars, lorries, busses, motorcycles and even horse drawn carts become one seething mass of motion working its way along an uneven road. Horns are the only common thread that prevails out of this madness, from small timid peeps to full blown blaring lorry horns that vibrate through my already tensing body, all choreographed in to some bizarre orchestral nightmare.
It is hot, humid and every breath feels like I have my mouth tightly wrapped around the exhaust pipe of our car. The air conditioning is on but seems to be blowing a milky warm breeze that barely reaches the back seat. My driver, who is a very large man, grips the steering wheel between his huge fingers as if he is holding a child’s arm. His other arm, spills out the open window never flinching regardless how close the car next to us comes. The air coming from outside looks as toxic as it feels, it seems determined to whip around the back window and across my neck. The cheap fabric seats have seen better days and I am trying not to figure out what a few suspect stains could be. My driver has said nothing to me since I got in the car, I’m sure he assumes I do not speak his language and to be honest I am happy to keep it that way as I am tired and would prefer his entire concentration on his job in hand.
A strange sound screeches in to life and I look across the street thinking an accident is about to happen in front of me. To my surprise the driver answers his mobile and the noise ceases. He bellows into the mobile phone and I wonder to myself if he really needs it, he could simply lean out the window and shout his message to the recipient without any problem. His dialect is a little rough for me to understand but he seems to be complaining about the hours he has to work today, as well as having to drop some Englishman off to the airport during rush hour. He glances in the mirror and gives me a smile. Welcome to Egypt.
As we gather speed it becomes apparent that there is nothing here that resembles a safe distance. As we pass an old black and white taxi, I can hear the man screaming into his mobile phone. Obviously the dangers of mobile phone use and driving have not yet reached this part of the world. We are so close to this other car that it occurs to me that rust is not just an orangey brown color, but a mix of many colors all eating there way through the metal at different speeds. As my window passes the driver in the next car I realize I am closer to him than I am my own driver. The car has so many bumps and scratches that I can’t even work out what kind of car model the taxi used to be. A horn from my driver brings my attention sharply to the now narrowing gap we are in. A lorry one side and a concrete slab to the other, brings about a well-known saying starkly to my mind. That of being between a rock and a hard place could surely never have a truer meaning. Fortunately my driver realizes he does in fact have brakes on the car and reduces his car for the first time, as my mind vividly races of through many scenarios of what might have been.
As we bounce our way through the streets, I wonder if the roads here were ever flat. The traffic clears slightly as we hit a highway and my attention now turns to the people and buildings that line my terrifying journey. Plaid shirts seem to be the only fashion that is in right now, although no particular color outweighs another. The men all look lost in their thoughts, which considering the trouble I was having with mine was not a surprise. Other men wore the more traditional smock, which is like a long dress shirt that stretches to the ground. Women blend into the scenery as if by choice to hide from the glares and judging glances of passing men. I catch a glance of two veiled woman each stood with their arms down by their sides and a sports bag each perched perfectly on their heads. A soldier in his smart clean beige outfit and red beret is a stark contrast to the grime that seems to infest everything in this city. Everything looks dirty, from the people on the streets to the buildings behind them.
As I look at the buildings it is hard to work out what is being built and what is falling down. Again plaid shirts hang over the balconies, reinforcing my growing beliefs that I am either in the presence of a cult or the only organized aspect of this entire country. The plants on the side of the road are raped of any foliage, what were once trees are now brittle twigs showing that once someone tried to make a difference here but the pessimism of the country robbed these shrubs of that dream.
A pungent smell hits me like a runaway train, almost gagging at this smell my mind desperately tries to locate a memory of it. The closest that my mind can grasp, as my eyes begin to water and saliva floods my mouth is the idea of grabbing a dead goat and sucking the matted, dying animals fur as if my life depended on it. I shift awkwardly in my seat trying to escape the smell, my eyes dart from object to object trying to identify the culprit. A rusty looking lorry with a tattered rag like drape over its rear compartment seems to be where the smell is emanating. Willing the driver to accelerate,
a first on this trip, he slowly, almost in slow motion, glides passed and the smell begins to reduce. How fresh the air I originally complained about now smells and tastes.
Above a wall in front of the car I glimpse a plane in its final approach to the airport, I am almost at the end of my journey. My back is dripping with sweat and my hands gripped tight from tension. When the taxi finally stops in front of the terminal I take a deep breath and smile as I realize how close I had been to crashing, being crushed by lorries and being sick in my forty minute journey from central Cairo to the airport. My thoughts go to my wife and her family, as they are Egyptian, I am sure they will be amused by my tale of over dramatic terror and ignorance to a country that continues in its quest to bemuse travelers through its organized chaos.