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  • Writer's pictureMaryann Kariuki

Coffee With My Taxi Driver

Updated: Mar 31

Disclaimer: You might wanna be in bed for this one, it's quite a long story. No one goes to Egypt and comes out with just a paragraph. And if they ever do, were they really in Egypt?

Pt 1: The one who did not smile.

It was my first ever trip alone. And there it was! A placard with my name on it, an unfamiliar face and a rather disapproving smile behind it. I always dreamt of the day I'd see my name unfashionably written and lifted at an airport exit because I thought it somehow showed a level of importance for the guest arriving. It doesn’t. It just means that you are highly capable of getting lost once you step foot out of an airport, therefore requiring assistance. The former is just what I thought it meant when I was young and inexperienced. So the moment I saw the nice elderly man holding my name up, I immediately started blurting out apologies because my analogue hand watch told me that I was already an hour late for my scheduled pick up time. How could that flight have been late? It wasn't like we left Ethiopia out of schedule and neither was there any significant traffic up there. I mean, we at some point slowed down for sure, I could feel it. But I don’t think that cost us an hour. Sigh.

Of course, it didn't cross my mind to adjust my watch to the local time. When else had I travelled to a different timezone? Never. Turns out I wasn’t even late. I came to realize this at midday the same day, when I arrived hours early to an appointment I had at the embassy. I still remember the blank unobliging look the receptionist gave me when I insisted I was right on time. Let me just tell you that they didn’t attend to me until 2 hours later. No regard for my early arrival whatsoever. Anyway, the taxi driver was a calm guy, he looked like he’d seen some shit though.

I sat shotgun, and I remember wondering why I had to sit on the right hand side because I, as a matter of fact did not know that these descendants of gods, goddesses and pyramids drove on the left hand side! Felt very dubious at the time. I mean, you gotta understand that coming from Kenya where we keep left, and drive on the right hand side, it feels kinda wrong to see someone keeping right and driving left. I however got used to it after a couple of minutes while still struggling to initiate a conversation with the man one, two or fourteen times before giving up and letting him be.

One thing I however noticed, almost as every other person's first encounter in Egypt is that everyone drives as if they are late to everything they had planned on doing that day. Everyone was hooting at everyone and everyone was cursing at everyone. Someone cursed at my driver, well, calling him my driver makes me sound fancy as heck so allow me to pull my blackness back to centre and instead name this nice man, Simon. Nice naaame. Now, let’s get back in the car. Someone cursed at Simon and I remember his face flushing red in seconds. I swear I could see that from the corner of my eye. I sunk in my seat. Heart pounding. The 35 degree heat daring to take me out of the land of the living and seriously craving a diversion from thinking about how hungry I was.

I wanted to talk to Simon, but like I said, he’d flushed red and I thought it would serve the moment right if I just kept my mouth shut and showed zero interest in initiating a conversation before he stopped the car and let my chatty little self get off in the middle of the streets. Well, not quite accurate in all fairness, because deep down I am sure Simon was a nice man, but you get my drift. So yeah, Simon and I drove on along for another silent half hour but alas! I heard a sound. Sketchy at first. A cleared throat. Then some words. It was Simon, the man spoke! Voluntarily, to me! The man spoke to me! He pointed at this statue on the roadside and explained to me in a short half minute what it represented then like clockwork, put his serious face back on and all I could say was ‘ wow, interesting.’ For fear of asking him to repeat what he’d just said since I did not quite get a word in. Ah, but I’ll always remember silent Simon. He dropped me off at the Airbnb I had rented and wished me a lovely stay. He did not smile while saying this.

Quite a nice guy, lovely but silent experience.

Pt 2: The one who bought shoes for his family.

So I got to the Airbnb, freshened up and hailed another taxi to take me to the embassy where I had an appointment. This second taxi driver, let’s call him Peter. I’m having fun with these names to be honest. Now my man Peter was a funny guy. Funny, funny guy. I feared for my life though, I must admit. Not because he gave me mad kidnappy vibes, no, but because he was so invested in engaging my person, that he failed to keep his eyes on the road. He had just done some cosmetic shopping for his wife and daughters and was so proud of it so he made me, his back seat judge, his mark of quality. I had to assess all these items as he passed them to me one after the other, with this huge contagious grin on his face. There was no way to ignore that. He seemed so happy!

However, every time he passed me a pair of shoes he’d bought one of his daughters, he’d turn his whole body back causing him to stray off the road quite a bit and I’d hear the enraged drivers hoot and yell at him. This however seemed not to bother him at all. Not one bit. It was probably just another day for him. You know that proverbial ‘my-heart-skipped-a-bit’ thing people talk about? My heart finally experienced it. It skipped not one, but several beats! Wondering how many more shoes he was going to pass me before we actually got hit.

Guys, it was my first ever trip alone. And my plan was to stay alive, for as long as I could.

But chances of this were looking thinner and grimmer by the minute. At some point, a blurry vision of Simon (the previous taxi driver) crossed my mind. I missed Simon, he was more cautious, but I liked Peter, he was full of life. I however decided to quit the comparison and pray instead. So I did. We drove on like this for about half an hour. Now, here’s the funny bit... Peter spoke little to no English, but we communicated. Somehow we did. He spiced up Arabic words with English and I really did appreciate his efforts, but one thing he didn’t understand was where he was meant to drop me off. So I sort to Google maps to sort me out. Now if you’ve ever tried to translate english to arabic, I believe you agree with me when I tell the public that translating English to Arabic is not a good idea, the translations do not, I not match. Maybe that has changed now. I don’t know. So don’t go quoting me.

Anyway, after a couple of attempts trying to get the translation but failing miserably every time, Peter phoned his daughter to translate what I was saying. This was genuinely very kind of him. So I spoke to his daughter on the phone, lovely girl but this didn't work either. So we went round in circles and since he didn’t know where the Embassy building was, this kind kind man, parked his car, told me to stay in and walked a couple of steps to a man basking in the sun to ask for directions. After a few minutes of me debating whether or not I should leave the car, he came back smiling and pointed at the building and showed me its entrance, so I paid my taxi fare, thanked the nice man and bid him goodbye.

He smiled, he had this big grin across his face, as if he was doing it to compensate for Simon’s stern face. Again, remember Simon? The first taxi driver? Yea, that guy.

And last but not least, the third taxi driver.

This guy, I really wish I remembered his real name. But anyway, we’ll name him Ali for now. Who knows, our paths might cross again someday.

Pt 3: The one who bought me coffee.

The wait at the embassy was long. Remember that I got to the embassy 2 hours before my scheduled appointment because I hadn't adjusted my watch to local time? Remember that? Unlike my home country where you get rewarded for arriving early, because typically, we are famous for not being governed by time and arriving late to almost everything, these guys at the embassy did not give a flying hoot about my early arrival which I thought would be met with grand cheer. So I had to wait. I watched them go on their lunch break as I starved near- eternal- rest. Can you imagine that? I almost passed out. They showed no mercy. And I wasn’t about to risk a detour to the shops in case the devil was on my radar and made me get lost. So I waited.

And waited.

After waiting and finally getting attended to, in what seemed like an eternity, I hailed a taxi back to the Airbnb so I could go take a quick shower and pick my stuff because I had an over night trip to go for on the same day. (This trip is going to be a story for another day because I went for a trip with absolute strangers, and it was one of the best trips of my life). Now, this taxi driver was the cherry on top. Ali spoke some good English and he had a smile on his face from the moment I got in the car. When he started our trip, the first thing he asked was where I was from. So I said ‘Kenya!’ with maybe too much excitement. To be honest, whenever someone asks me where I’m from, I usually have no control over the tone I use to answer that question. It’s usually so high pitched and unnecessarily loud! I guess I’m just so proud to come from a land as beautiful.

Anyway, let’s go back to Ali. With an award winning smile he said ‘welcome to Egypt!’ He was quite warm and by this point I was already rating Cairo people as the ultimate 5 stars. As we went on talking, we passed by this street that had some nice coffee scent all through. Now I’m not a coffee drinker but the smell of coffee is one of my favorite scents on earth. Followed closely by coconut oil. So I mentioned to him that I thought the street smelled really really great, like it was soaked in coffee. And the man turned around to face me. Now, what’s with taxi drivers in Cairo and turning around with their whole bodies to talk while they are still driving? Huh?

Anyway, he turned around and asked me if I wanted to have some coffee and I said no, and explained that I just thought the street smelled nice and that was all. But this man went on and said ‘no, you want coffee, you get coffee and that place sells the best coffee in Cairo.’ I said 'no no, please no, let’s just go' …partly because I was thinking ‘oh gosh this is how people get kidnapped, partly because I thought…'yes, this is in fact exactly how people get kidnapped. I’ve seen it in movies and it’s happening to me now'. But you won’t believe this…okay maybe you will believe this. He parked the damned car on the side of the road, switched off the taxi meter and said ‘let’s go get some coffee’. I was scared. Was this a date? Was I on a date with my taxi driver? Whose first name I barely knew? Ah, what love.

It took me a while to get out of the car. Lol who am I kidding. I needed no persuasion. In case it was an opportunity for me to...RUN. So I got off and walked behind the taxi man. Feeling excited and scared. All emotions at once. We entered the coffee shop. It looked like a small place where annual maximalist interior design conventions took place. Adorned in an extreme amount of gold, pattern and colour which weirdly enough was really pleasing to my eyes. What had I become? What was Egypt turning me into? A few minutes after our order, our coffee was served. Smelling so so good. In these tiny golden cups that made it feel very ceremonial. Like I was taking an oath of some sort. A welcoming ritual. I was now one of them.

I took my first sip. The coffee was bitter but nice. I never knew these two words could follow each other in a sentence but here we are. Now, for someone who doesn’t drink coffee, I don’t know what nice coffee means so I asked Ali where it was from. He said it was Turkish coffee. I nodded and smiled, finished my share and wiped the aftertaste with some cold bottled water Ali had got me from the fridge. After gulping his last sip, he turned to me and asked ‘are you okay now?’ To which I smiled and responded ‘never been better’. And so we said thanks to the shop owners, bid them goodbye and went back to the taxi. Then we drove for a while and it was time to be dropped off to my stop, the Airbnb.

Ali asked me to call him if I got lost, and I said ‘that’s so kind of you but I’ll be fine, thanks’.

I however got lost immediately after he dropped me off.



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