Running Cairo: A live Video game

Not sure if anyone ever invented a running game… they probably imagine it would be boring! I mean… all games have a running hero, so there’s nothing so particular about a game about a runner.

However, thinking of running in the streets of Cairo, I feel I’m part of a running video game experience!

Someone should lend me a Go-Pro to really show the world what kind of running experience I’m describing.

Before diving in, I must first state a disclaimer for anyone who hasn’t yet been to our ‘interesting’ part of the world: Cairo, the capital of Egypt, the country in Africa (or Middle East depending on how you hold the map), is a very populous city of more than 15 million inhabitants. There are many new, wide, fancy gated neighborhoods where none of what I’m describing here really means anything! But the majority of the 96 million Egyptians (like 99% of us or more) live through the experiences written here.

Disclaimer over, let me share the landscape of my running practice.

First of all we have 2 choices for running and each has its benefits and hazards.

Obviously the morning run is my favorite: in Summer, it means starting 5 o’clock and NEVER later, and finishing as early – i.e. fast – as possible before temperature rises above 35 Celsius, and before rushing cars start proving t pedestrians and runners that survival of the fittest is a true daily reality not a hypothesis!

The second option is the evening runs, which I rarely opt for but will have to be a greater option as temperature goes well above 40 Celsius this summer. This option is hazardous, as will be shown later, but at least the blistering, chaffing, dehydration challenges of morning runs are avoided to some extent.

After deciding which section of the day the run will be at, there’s then the question of “where”. The obvious answer is “the streets!” and that’s not necessarily the correct answer, but is one of two options.

Most well-off Egyptians or even middle-income families are members of some kind of sports club, extending over acres of land with pools, tennis courts, football grounds, and running tracks. Now this is by far the preferred option for anyone running under 15k. The challenge even at 15k is that it means running the track around 5 times. Not exactly sure who would enjoy that, but I tried it only 4 times and was bored to tears!

Majority of Egyptians would assume this is the standard place for running, except of course long-distance runners.

Now the more dangerous option is the streets… and this is where the video game starts … literally!

Stepping out of any house into the streets is a matter of life-and-death risk. With hardly any sidewalks anywhere around the city, cars basically occupy every inch that is flat enough – i.e. walls, houses, other cars aren’t part of the deal. Hence, once an innocent pedestrian steps out of the safety of their building walls, they are on par with cars… and priority is for cars!

Watching for cars is a skill one develops since early childhood. We watch for cars while on the few sidewalks existing because motorcycles and bikes use them instead of the roads when the traffic is heavy. So dear innocent pedestrian thinking you’re safe on a sidewalk: please be extra careful.

Now sidewalks, whenever they exist, are more suitable for jumping barriers than running. Mostly as high as 60-70 cms (to avoid cars), extending no longer than one single building, full of holes, lampposts, cracks, interrupted by exits and entrances to private parking garages, they are challenging to any smooth run. One has to keep stepping up, down, maneuver right and left, and of course avoid the mass of pedestrians trying to use the little space hardly enough for 1 walking person let alone accommodate a runner.

I recall first time I visited a foreign country, that was USA in 1994, and I saw the ramp on the sidewalks, and simply stood with my mouth open! “You guys have sidewalks, and RAMPS onto and down from them???!!!” Obviously a luxury that is light-years away from Egypt…

Once down on the road next to cars, the major watchout of course is cars! Usually I prefer to run with cars facing me. At least if I see a speeding car I can quickly glue myself to one of the walls for protection.

The streets at least have the benefit of longer continuity without obstacles, but then that’s also not so true! Pedestrians use the streets much like runners, and they are SLOWER, so to cross pedestrians, a runner has to step deeper next to the racing cars ahead – another reason why looking at cars is better.

Crossing pedestrians and walking closer to the cars are the main challenges if a street extends long. Now most streets are clearly not that long! Every few meters there’s a crossing.

Cairo was never really planned or designed. It simply MUSHROOMED since the middle ages. It’s true! How the city evolved from its early nucleus is a story worth telling at a different time and some amazing books speak about it. Mostly the safe haven for impoverished farmers and traders from rural areas, families migrated to Cairo looking for work, and they just built simple houses one after the other without any proper planning.

Just picture centuries of this!

Crossing these streets ranges from being a child’s practice to being a life-threatening experience. No joke! Some of these crossings witness a fatality on daily basis. Let’s not ask the obvious political questions on why nobody is doing anything about it… I nearly lost my sister and her friend to a crossing accident while running two years ago: that’s how serious it is!

Picture a run that starts like this: stepping out of the house, running carefully in the street next to the cars, pausing to look extra carefully while crossing every few minutes, and going right-to-left around pedestrians… and that’s not even all.

At 5 am, the quiet streets have a different life of their own: stray dogs, cats, and numerous types of creatures. Over the last 10 years, I witnessed the number of stray dogs around our building – one single building – grow from 1 to 7. These are my friends, but I can’t claim the same about the dogs throughout the neighborhood.

No exaggeration:  my last 8k run within the neighborhood, I crossed 5 packs of dogs! I learnt some tricks of course, being an animal lover, but they don’t always work. My daily practice area now excludes certain streets where the dogs proved unfriendly no matter what I do.

So, dear fellow readers and/or runners, here’s first snapshot of my daily run, pending a Go-Pro to show it all live one day.

But that’s not all! Hold your breath for later posts on night runs, harassment, water spots and the cheerleaders.

Image result for cairo street running

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