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Tuesday, 19 January 2010

On the Buses!

Ok. I’ve had a go about taxis and about driving in general in Egypt. It seems like a good idea to round this off with my thoughts on buses here. In this I am speaking from experience. As I no longer work for a travel company, I no longer have a car available so my options are walk, taxi or bus. Taxis we’ve already covered!!!!!

I have used the buses here for local travel around Hurghada and for longer trips such as Cairo (about 7 hours) and Safaga (about 45 minutes).

There are two kinds of buses here. There are the ‘big’ buses run by specialist bus companies. These buses operate the longer popular routes such as from Hurghada to Cairo, Alexandria or Luxor. These tend to be old coaches which still have functioning air conditioning. There are several companies to choose from so you have to research first which one will give you the best value for money and the most convenient travel schedule for your needs. They tend to stop in different places in the destination city as well so you may want to take a more expensive ride if it stops nearer to where you really want to be at the other end. On the long journey they mostly serve you with a ‘doggy bag’ containing cakes or bread and something (don’t get excited – this doesn’t come anywhere near a full mean) and a carton of drink (a very small one!). Some provide water as well. The idea here, just like at home really, is that before travel (anytime from a few weeks ahead to a few minutes ahead) you call in at the office and book and pay for your ticket which you need to keep safely until you get on the bus. They have rules about luggage but you can certainly take at least 1 large case and 1 small case (that would probably pass as hand luggage on an aircraft) with you. Tickets are ‘first come, first served’ so if you leave it until the moment you want to go and you plan to travel at a popular time you might be unlucky. I found this is actually quite a relaxed way to travel as long as you don’t let yourself have nightmares about the general standard of driving (see previous blog). You get a relatively comfortable seat – at least as comfortable as a flight – some light refreshments and you can sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery or not off to sleep.

For between 1/3 and ¼ the cost of these buses you can take your chances on the shared minibus service. These are operated by individuals and there is no chance of pre-booking a ticket. They don’t have a schedule either. Basically, they all operate from a single ‘bus station’ on the outskirts of Hurghada. When you need to travel you make your way there and look for the section where the buses will go to your desired destination. All the destinations are marked but are in ARABIC, so it pays to know what the word looks like in the local lingo. Many of the drivers speak little or no English so it also pays to know what your destination sounds like! Remember, not all place names are the same. For example, Hurghada locally is known as El Gardaka, Alexandria is Iskandria and Cairo is Cahira. Once you’ve found the right area of the bus station you will be directed to a vehicle which will be the next one to leave. There is no set time for it to leave. It will be a Toyota minibus, very old with a rather special and innovative air conditioning system called windows. If you’re lucky the windows will actually work and you will be able to open or close the one nearest you to suit. If you are VERY lucky the door will also work. In winter they travel with the door closed but in summer don’t be surprised to find they tie the door back to be permanently open. This assists with the air conditioning. These vehicles take 14 passengers and you simply wait until it’s full. Once there are 14 of you off you go. There are no rules about luggage but space is very limited and any luggage you take will be placed on top of the vehicle. There is a ‘kind of’ roof rack but nothing is secured in any way and relies on gravity to stay put. If you are in a hurry and want to leave right away the driver will be happy to oblige as long as you pay for all the empty seats. If you want a private journey you have to pay for 14 seats. If there are already 5 people on board (including you) then you pay for 9 seats and so on. These mini-buses are the same ones used for local travel around Hurghada. While they are fine for around town spending 6 or 7 hours in one can be a killer.

For some of the closer destinations you may be directed to an area where you will find a number of old Peugeot 504s parked up. These are 8-seaters, including the driver, and when you first see them you can’t help wondering how they manage to make it out of the car park let alone to your desired destination. They operate in just the same way – wait until they are full then off you go. Again, if you are in a hurry they will go immediately if you pay for the empty seats. Some have air conditioning but don’t count on it. In some of these even the windows and doors don’t work properly. Even if your window works their may be only 1 window winding handle for everyone so you have to ask the driver to pass it to you if you want to open/close your window. Really, your Egyptian experience isn’t complete until you’ve travelled in one of these. They are the same vehicles you will find working as official airport taxis from Hurghada International Airport although the airport taxis do tend to have fully operational windows and doors.

Whether you end up in a mini bus or a Peugeot have a good look around you. The key word here is 'accessorize'. In fact, more than that. Let’s say accessorize, accessorize, accessorize. They have covers over the dashboard with tassels hanging down, things hanging behind the mirror, air fresheners hanging around (thank goodness), all sorts of mirrors attached all over the place, photos of family in fancy frames stuck on the dashboard or roof and decorated sayings from the Qu’ran all over the place. Some more than others but they all seem to love the accessories.

In either case, mini bus or Peugeot, as a foreigner you will often be asked if you want “special”. By this they are indicating that they will provide a private service just for you and you need to negotiate a price. Beware; this could be more expensive than taking the more comfortable coaches I have talked about earlier.

Getting around Hurghada by bus can be lots of fun. The buses are old Toyota minibuses just like the shared taxis service above. However, they tend to be a bit newer. In fact just recently some very new ones have been appearing on the local bus routes! These are often also accessorized and are run by individuals. Again, there is no schedule but there are plenty of them and they do run 24 hours a day. If you don’t understand Arabic you probably need to take your first couple of bus rides with a local. Many of the drivers either don’t speak English at all or have a very limited amount of English.

There are formal fixed routes for the buses and they have to display their route number. However, some only display this number in Arabic – well actually not in Arabic. It’s one of life’s conundrums that in Europe we use Arabic numbers so it’s an inverted logic that of course they don’t use Arabic numerals in a country where they speak Arabic. Instead they’ve opted for Persian numerals. The only numbers you can rely on that look like Arabic numerals and mean the same are 1 and 9! Fortunately, most of the buses also have the route number in Arabic numerals for you to understand and, in Hurghada at any rate, are colour coded. For example, those buses running route 6 have a grey band and those running route 5 a red band and so on. Be warned, they have NOT translated the destinations and the fares for each destination into English.

Bus travel is extremely cheap – typically about 1/20th the cost of taking a taxi to the same destination. For buses you need to have some very small change available. I’m talking about bus fares from LE0.25 to a maximum of LE3.00 so they won’t thank you for trying to pay with a LE20 note.

You need to tell the driver where you want to go and try to give him the correct fare if possible. Most locals know the fares and can advise you before you get on the bus. The vast majority of bus drivers are honest and will charge you correctly. However there are a few out there who definitely try it on. I’ve seen guests from a hotel get on the bus just outside the hotel. They’ve taken a LE0.50 journey and they’ve been asked to pay €5 each.

The other catch is that if you don’t know where the place is you need to get to you won’t know when to get off the bus. Unless you can make yourself well enough understood with the driver that he knows he needs to tell you when you get there you have to work it out for yourself. Even if he does understand he needs to let you know when you arrive he will most likely forget.

Do allow plenty of time for bus journey compared to other forms of transport. There are proper but stops but don’t be fooled. They are used but they are not the only stops. Generally, as I mentioned before in a previous blog, Egyptians don’t like to walk. So, they get to the nearest point on the bus route and just wait. When they see the bus they signal that they want it to stop. If there are free seats the bus stops and they get on. It’s quite possible that the bus will stop every 10m or 15m for someone new to get on or off. When you want to get off you just call out to the driver who will pull over straight away to let you out.

Driving is, well, driving in Egypt and air conditioning it windows and doors – in summer the door will be fixed open because health and safety is not a common concept in Egypt. There is often a ‘helper’ on board to take fares – usually an older child or a young teen. They don’t use a proper seat once the bus is full but perch anywhere they can. Sometimes, if the door is open they stand on the step and hang on to the roof-rack! During the summer at busy times some of the passengers travel this way too. I have seen buses with up to 3 people hanging on in this way.

This all seems very daunting at first but you do get used to it. Seems normal to me now!!!!!!!!!!!!

I hope you find this useful.

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