There’s a scene in the movie Bowfinger where Eddie Murphy crosses a speedy six lane interstate lane-by-lane screaming, “Mother of God! Mother of God!” while cars careen within inches of him, his shirt flapping, his arms flailing as he stops abruptly on his toes. A car whizzes past him in front (“Mother of God! Mother of God!”) and one in the lane behind. His shirt billows. He arrives physically unharmed at the curb, but emotionally traumatized. “I don’t wanna do this anymore!!!” he cries.
Crossing the street in Cairo is a lot like that, but it’s still not the worst place in the world to have to cross a street. That distinction, without a doubt, goes to India.
Turkey was the first place I’d ever seen a pedestrian get hit by a car. We’d accidentally taken a road into Izmir at rush hour that went straight through the heart of the city. Several meters ahead of us, a young man meandered through an ocean of inert vehicles and as he neared the sidewalk, the cars all inched forward at the same time, including the one he was directly in front of. He jumped, literally, over the car, landing on the hood with a thud. And nothing happened. No one got angry. No one was appalled. The man wasn’t officially hurt (just bruises, perhaps or a sprained knee) so he just kept walking (as though it was no biggie). The cars kept inching forward apathetically. John and I were mystified.
“Did I just see that?” I said to John. We were both furrowing our brows. “I mean, I didn’t just imagine that, did I?” In the states, if a vehicle and a pedestrian made contact like that, the cops would show up and other cars would pull over and passers-by would gather as witnesses to the event. People would be upset and the driver would at least get out of the car to ask if the person he hit was okay. My mind queued up the “car-pedestrian accident” reel, but nothing I was seeing outside our windshield matched the script that was inside my head.
In Beijing, we would stand on bridges above the streets (where, incidentally, people would write the names and numbers of prostitutes on the pavement in chalk) and watch pedestrians attempting to cross the street down below:
“Look at that one! Oh my God! He’s not gonna make it!”
“Did you see that one?”
“Oh my God! Can you believe he went for it?”
Pedestrian-watching was like a sport to us and it was, without a doubt, more interesting than the sterile open spaces of The Forbidden City. But really, street crossing is probably more like an art form than a sport in the places that lack the order of enforced laws. It’s like music, or dance.
In Turkey, after we turned in our rental Peugot in Istanbul, we became pedestrians. Usually, it seemed that cars would slow down if we could make eye contact with the drivers. As I recall, that worked pretty well in Turkey, but so far, it doesn’t work at all in Cairo and it certainly didn’t work in India.
Cairo is a challenge for pedestrians, but on a scale from 1 to 10, Cairo is about an 8 in terms of crossing the street (with 10 being the most difficult) while India is definitely and unequivocally a 10. So Cairo, in a sense, seems like an easier place to cross the street in comparison with India, though it’s more difficult than crossing the street in Istanbul or Beijing.
While riding in a car, I’ve tried many times to videotape the craziness, but I can never get the full panorama on film to be able to accurately represent the white knuckle, nail-biting, close encounters that happen on the streets in countries that lack a strong, law-enforcing police presence and a judicial system to back it up. I’ve yet to feel brave enough to videotape myself crossing a street in Cairo (maybe someday I’ll videotape John and Lydian doing it).
In India, we had a walking guide who helped us navigate the insanity of Varanasi’s streets. Through narrow corridors, we stepped over and around and through situations, human and otherwise that would be hard for me to imagine if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes. Out of a basket on a blanket, a cobra lunged at my ankles while nearby a different cobra was being “charmed” (John saw the charmed snake, but completely missed the lunging one. I was so focused on the lunging snake that I never saw the charmed one.). Rabid dogs frothed at the mouth and trotted down the street, an outdoor restroom and the corresponding human waste that one would expect in the midst of such decrepitude piled up grotesquely next to a busy food stall. There were dying dogs, loitering cows, piles of trash, blind musicians, unimaginable poverty, lepers, sadhus, and who knows what else that I missed while I was focused on some other piece of insanity. And after we emerged from this chaos, we had to cross a street.
Sounds simple enough, but this street had six lanes of traffic coming from five different directions that converged at an intersection with no stop-light. Motorbikes carrying whole families and their sheep, horse carts, cows, cars, bicycles teetering along overloaded with two stories worth of trash or giant white bags strapped to the baskets, and pedestrians moved like a torrent of water in a flood. Our guide pulled us out into the fray.
Halfway across the street, Lydian got hit by a motorcycle.
It was a technical “hit”, but like the man in Izmir, Lydi didn’t get hurt. Her arms went up and her eyes got big as the tire made contact with her leg…gently. We all stopped in horror. The traffic magically diverted around us momentarily like we were stones in a river. Lydian looked at the motorcyclist with her mouth agape in a moment of appalled shock and incomprehension (did I just get hit by a motorcycle?). But the motorcyclist had stopped, at the very last moment, milliseconds from injuring her. Millliseconds. John and I were both even holding onto her hands (he had one, I had the other–perhaps this was part of the problem?). But there was no space in the frenzy of traffic to even pull her out of the way. None of us even had time to make an exclamatory remark like, “Oh Good God!” or “Holy Moses!” It wasn’t that we hadn’t seen it coming, but rather that we had seen it coming from all directions at the same time.
The guide stopped for a moment, not at all surprised by the “hit”, but he waited with anxiety for our American reaction to the event. Lydian stepped back from the black rubber and the motorcyclist continued on his way. The guide prepared to quell us as he ushered us the rest of the way across the street. But we’d already been living in Nepal for six weeks by that time. We’d seen at least a dozen people get “hit” by cars (thought it had never happened to us). Lydi’s close encounter wasn’t the guide’s fault and we knew it. Indeed, it was a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty situation. We could be appalled that Lydian got “hit” by the motorcycle or we could be relieved that she didn’t get injured or killed by the hit. In fact, maybe a light tap like this didn’t even count as a “hit” in India. On a bridge halfway across the Basmati River, in Nepal, I intersected with a cow just as it started to pee and I too had gotten “hit” but not “hurt”. I wasn’t sure how to rate these events. Should they register as traumatic? Or just strange?
India is deadly in terms of its driving. And so is Cairo. There’s no arguing the facts. But I could argue that India and Egyptian drivers tend to be much better drivers than their counterparts in the U.S. because they have a lot more stimuli to contend with on the road and so their skills are sharper. Thus, drivers can come much closer much more often to hitting a pedestrian or another car accidentally without causing major injuries. That doesn’t diminish the fact that car accidents kill a lot of people in Cairo and India. But it is an important thing to consider when crossing the street in Cairo day-after-day. Otherwise, it would be tempting to just stay inside and never cross any streets ever.
We have to cross a busy street every morning to get to our Arabic classes. There are three lanes on both sides of the street and each day, the crossing is a new and different experience. We stand together, the three of us, on the curb, waiting to see “an opening”. This is not the same kind of opening that we’d see in the U.S. or Europe when a light is reliably changing a quarter of a mile down the road and a gap in traffic happens naturally as a result. Rather, this Cairo gap is something different, almost like a miracle or a blip in the matrix. It is never predictable and in fact, sometimes…perhaps often (I would say), it doesn’t happen at all and we end up stepping out in front of that first car (as it closes in on us), in the nearest lane with nothing but a blind faith that it will probably, hopefully stop (in time, as in Lydian’s case) or at least slow down. We can’t hurry because there’s always another car coming in the next lane and the next. Each lane that we cross is another accomplishment. Another miracle.[cue the hallelujah chorus]
When we reach the median, we congratulate ourselves before stepping out into the next three lanes of traffic. We do a high-five on the other side of the street in front of the Saudi Arabian embassy.
It’s best to cross the street with a soft gaze, taking in the movement of traffic as a whole, as though it’s one big beast. Generally speaking, bolting is a bad idea. Rather, it’s good to cross casually, with a predictable rhythm so that the cars that are coming in the other farthest lanes can see our approach. John says that more expensive cars are more likely to slow down (to avoid big dents, he theorizes), but I haven’t personally observed this yet myself (I think he may be imagining it, so desperate is he for some kind of predictable pattern).
Last week, Lydian and I (holding hands) ventured out into traffic before John was ready. I thought he heard me yell, “Okay!” but I was on his bad side (he has a ruptured eardrum so he’s partially deaf right now, which adds to the challenge of crossing streets). The car in the first lane was moving pretty fast, but it slowed down just enough to miss us. John stayed at the curb and Lydian, being 15, wasn’t sure how to handle the situation when we got into the middle of the road and two cars were coming at us in two different lanes with no intention of slowing down. We balanced on the dotted line as they passed in front of us and behind us going at least 30 miles an hour. Holding Lydi’s hand, I felt her try to make a run for it, but there were other cars whizzing along in the lane closest to the next curb so I clamped down on her hand and pulled her back with such force that her hand was sore for several days. After we reached the curb, John was still standing on the other side of the street. He gave me a “What-the-Hell-Were-You-Thinking-Look” and in response, I shrugged a “Hey-We-Made-It, But-You’re-Still-Standing-Over-There” look. It happens. Sometimes he goes for it before we realize that “it’s time”. Sometimes he and Lydi cross together and I’m left on the curb. There’s never more than a second to make the decision about whether to go or to stay. There is no “right time” to cross the street in Cairo. It’s all chaos, all the time, but occasionally it’s possible to meander through the chaos unscathed.
One day, Mona flagged down one of the mini-vans that the locals use for public transportation to
take us across town to see the Markaz Shabeb for the first time. She lifted the fingers of her right hand ever so slightly as she stood inconspicuously on the edge of six lanes of traffic. She made the gesture so elegantly and delicately that it was almost unnoticeable as her arm hung at her side. But instantly, a white van merged and then pulled over to her. I felt oaf-ish in that moment: the big bumbling American on the side of the road, tripping over herself to cross a street. There’s a graceful, almost dance-like quality to the traffic patterns here and although driving and crossing streets is definitely more dangerous in Cairo than in other areas of the world where there are gridded streets and working stoplights, there is still order here.
On our first date, John told me to close my eyes as we stood in the parking lot at Chi Chi’s in Lincoln, NE twenty plus years ago and he said, “Listen…” And so I closed my eyes and I listened. And then he said, “Do you hear it?…”
And I smiled and said, “What?”
“The rhythm… Everything has it.”
And he was right, though sometimes, in other countries, we struggle to make sense of the patterns, the rhythms because our Western brains are calibrated in four-four, two-four, and six-eight. Like the imams ululating in unfamiliar tones and complex, seemingly irregular rhythms from the minarets, the cars move on the streets to an unfamiliar beat. And crossing the street seems novel and dangerous to us because we’re simply not a part of this song.