Caram Kapp: Thawrat al Torgoman, or how to get to Alex by bus

Posted on July 15, 2012 by

Photo: Ahmed Khattab

It had to be the bus.

Many trips to Sinai and between Cairo and Alexandria had prepared me for an easy, pleasant, though lenghty travel experience on an air-conditioned bus. They did not prepare me for what turned out to be a demonstration of the new will of the Egyptians to confront authority and demand, if not their basic human rights, at least fair and reliable commercial services.

A fresh day had begun, with the sun murkily sihloutting my view of Cairo skyrises. The first thing I did was take a taxi to Torgoman station near Ramsis, the main train station. Today was a day for a bus drive, and long- awaited meetings, fish on the Mediteranean and coffee in the Brasilian Roastery. It was a day for a trip to Alexandria.

Upon entering the station, coincidence arranged the now- expected Quranic recital through the public address system. A small crowd was waiting to buy tickets for the morning bus to Alex, commuting for business, pleasure and family. Many had made appointments at the optimistic time of twelve, by which they expected the Super Jet company to have delivered them safely, with some punctuality to the second- largest city in Egypt. Consisting of participants in the Egyptian development process from various social and political strata, they were all here with the goal of getting from A to B by means of what is considered to be a cheap, reliable and everyday means of transport in most countries, the Bus.

A couple of elderly men, a businessman, a liberal dude with foreign education and an accent worse than mine, an army officer, a man in transit from Mahalla with his family and an out- of- work factory owner, qued, or piled slightly, in front of me. A rotund, mustachioed man in his mid- fourties dispensed tickets and information from behind a glass wall, telling us that booking would start twenty minutes before the trip and that the bus would be leaving at nine- thirty. With a bit of time on our hands we started our traveling acquaintance with some jokes and discussion of the politics of the country. A certain pattern has established itself for this kind of discussion: You slowly introduce your political views by talking about the pros and cons of the Army, your position on Morsi and what he is doing, or saying. These days, this kind of discussion generally ends on the concensus that everyone in the country needs to overcome their differences and work together to make Egypt a livable place once more.

By then, the PA was preemptively dispensing calm to the potential travellers in the form of soothing music. This did not overcome the uproar that followed the announcement that there would be no nine- thirty bus. „We have appointments!“ „I let my place on the next bus go for this!“ „This is not fair treatment!“ „We demand to see your superior!“- some of the frustration that was hurled at, yet did not pass through, the glass wall. The unflappale clerk assured us that his superior would surely be here in ten minutes. A few seconds later, he was definetly going to be here by ten AM.

The liberal dude went up in the huff and puff of a Tahrir Milyoneyya. The Army officer tried to find a way around, by asking if there were tickets to Agami available, then gave up after being told that none would be forthcoming and left to find alternative modes of transport. The dandy was flustered, yet held his toungue. The factory owner, who later told me he was living the life depicted in a bad 50’s comedy, made a fuss about civil rights and reliabilty, trust and this being a bad day. The family man, weary of being in transit, pointed out that his children were tired and so was he.

Slowly, the throng dissolved into those willing to find alternate means of transport and those intent on taking the bus to Alex. The latter group consisted of the factory owner, the family man and myself. We asked the next clerk where the station head was to be found and were directed downstairs. Then outside, to the offices of Super Jet, where the clerk jumped onto an oncoming bus to escape his responsability. Then to door 28 in hall 2, where the clerk was supposed to be. Then back inside upon not finding him.Then to find a Mu3taz, who we were told was the station head.

We found him near the offices of Super Jet, in a cubicle labled Station Management. A small man in his late fifties, bald, wearing a salmon shirt and white trousers, he radiated the authority of someone in charge of this place for years. Flanked by a man twice his size, he was a diminutive, yet impressive sight. „We have appointments!“ „I let my place on the next bus go for this!“ „This is not fair treatment!“ „This is not fair service!“

He explained to us the basics of a difficult system, established over years of casual management: There were sixty busses that day, and all of them were full. No-one had reserved in advance to go to Alex at nine-thirty, so no bus had been prepared. „But we were told to get our tickets here on the phone- I called yesterday eveneing!“- the family man. I felt slightly stupid having taken no such provision. I also felt like the manager was noticing my looks, which are foreign, more and more.

He asked us: „How many are you?“ „Ten, ya Basha“. He looked at his aide, who seemed to nod. Suddenly, he reached a decision. „There will be a bus at ten,“ he declared – news to all of us. No mention had been made of the change of schedule before. „Fouad, my secretary, will take you up to the ticket booths“ We were escorted up by Fouad, grumpy, yet surprisngly well-mannered and helpful. There we me met with the initial ticket clerk once more. After a brief exchange of looks with Fouad, we were told to approach him. „The Bus to Alex, airconditioned?“ He asked.

Of our group, only the three of us were left, but we were soon joined by others, a new group of travellers seeking to take the bus to Alexandria. We felt quietly proud of ourselves, going down to hall 2, door 28 once more. We separated there, the family man to tell his kin  the good news, the factory owner to the hall and I to buy water and some food for the trip. We did not speak again on the bus, save to say goodbye. Just before I boarded, I found the station manager and his aide next to me. „Is everything alright now? We want you to be happy!“ Mo3taz Beh told me cheerfully. „Oh, I get it“ was my untranslatable Arabic reply.

For a moment I ponder if the mere presence of a foreign influence, namely myself, had brought on the sudden availability of the bus, rather than the persistence of the Egyptians whom I had been following for the last half hour and would experience more inconvenience than I by having to wait for the next bus. Without them, I would probably have been amongst those seeking alternative transport. I would like to believe otherwise, but cannot quite convince myself that, had three Egyptians taken the same step, they would have been met with much more than excuses and finally be forced to leave, defeated by smalltalk, insults and buerocratic bullshit.

On the bus, one of our fellow travellers tolds us how he had experienced the same story a day earlier. „Do you have to make noise for things to work normally in Egypt?“ We wondered, before sinking into our separate worlds of worry, family and scenery. I looked out on the desert road, which can no longer be called that, as most of its length is covered by lush green fields, while the family man enjoyed the trip he fought for and the factory owner complained to all who will listen.

In Alexandria, everyone asked me why I didn’t take the train?

Posted in: Egypt