Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Egyptian Switch

A random traffic scene in Alexandria.

Taking a long distance taxi in Egypt can be very cheap. At least if you are Egyptian or you can haggle reasonably well. I recently took a taxi from El Salloum (on the Egyptian side of the Libyan border) to Alexandria, a distance of 510 kilometers. That set me back 350 Egyptian pounds (59 USD), from a random taxi I encountered just after passing customs. I must say that was remarkably cheap, even for Egypt. It is, after all a 5-6 hour drive. During my visit to Egypt I also took long distance taxis two other times (from Sharm el Sheikh to Dahab and back again, 90 kilometers each direction), paying 250 from the airport in Sharm and 150 back again (these places are much more touristy than El Salloum, hence a much higher price per kilometer - although I may have also been ripped off in Sharm or been very lucky in El Salloum).

However, all three times I was introduced to what I ended up calling 'the Egyptian switch.' After getting into the car, the driver naturally starts driving towards the destination. But he (I have still not seen any female taxi drivers in Egypt) is always on the lookout for another car going to the same destination. In Egypt you can tell which city cars are registered in by the license plate, something that give the drivers a clue. If your driver sees someone that is likely to be going to your destination, he let the car pass and the uses his horn, waves out the window and/or flashes his lights. The car that just passed will in many cases stop and your driver will jump out and walk over to the other car. A minute later, you are ordered over into the other car and will continue to your agreed destination.

The Egyptian switch explained
1) You agree on a price to your destination with a taxi driver.
2) The taxi ride starts.
3) The taxi driver will scout for other drivers going to the same destination and eventually stop someone.
4) Your driver will ask whether the driver of the other car (and this can be any car, not necessarily a taxi) can take you to your destination against some money.
5) If this is OK, your driver will  negotiate a sum of money as compensation for the trouble. Of course, he will usually keep most (at least half) himself, then offer the remaining fare that you have agreed to pay for the trip to the new driver. The new driver will not know how much you have paid.
6) You will pay your original driver what you have agreed upon and then change vehicles.
7) The original driver will give some of your money to the new driver.
8) You will continue your journey to your destination, but in a new vehicle and with a new driver.
9) You will arrive at your destination and will not have to pay any more money. The money issue has already been sorted out between the drivers.

Do note that your second driver may ask you (given that you can actually communicate) how much you paid originally. You may want to keep quiet about this, as likelihood is that the new driver will realize that he has received much less than what you have paid. This may be especially annoying to the new driver if the Egyptian switch happens at an early stage of the trip.

This may actually be a good thing
Why can this be a good thing? It is certainly environmentally friendly. The first driver can turn around again early during the trip and will not have to make an unnecessary trip. It is a little like car pooling and it saves petrol. It also divides the money you are paying to more people. Chances are high (or almost certain) that you have been overcharged (petrol only costs around 40 cents per litre in Egypt), so the money goes further and contributes with income to more families. You may also meet someone who actually knows your destinations, something that can be helpful when on vacation. And in all three cases that I experienced this, the new vehicle was much nicer than the first one.

The downside of the Egyptian switch is that your journey is slightly interrupted and that you may feel uncomfortable by being taken from the middle of nowhere by an unknown driver. You can always refuse to go into a new vehicle if you don't like the new car or the new driver. After all you have agreed a price and a destination with driver number 1. But you may have luck with driver number 2. Two of the three times I ended up with a new driver that spoke much better English than the first one. And vacation is about experiencing something new, so why not go for it.

A natural question is, can the Egyptian switch inspire or be parallelled by i.e. an internet service? Can we do things smarter online?