Saturday, April 25, 2009

Are taxi's the same everywhere?

What is it about taxi’s that conjures up memories in my mind of speeding around bends, vying for too small a space in traffic jams ahead and exposing white knuckles whilst holding on for dear life to the handle on the seat back in front of me? Why do taxi drivers throughout the world feel compelled to challenge and change the rules of the road in every city I have ever travelled to? I can give you some examples:

My top 5 scariest taxi rides:
1. Indonesia - Jakarta – Airport to JI. Raya Cilandak KKO (about one and half hours).
2. India – Bombay – Taj Hotel to Airport (three and a half hours)
3. China - Shanghai – Airport to Pudong (one hour )
4. USA - New York – JFK Airport to Central Park ( 50 very long minutes)
5. Malaysia - Johor Bahru – Causeway to Pasir Gudang ( 40 minutes)

Granted, the number one scariest ride on my list, took place in Indonesia and was somewhat enhanced by the fact that it happened during a local uprising against the military. Foreigners were being hijacked along the airport road, so the taxi driver felt compelled to drive along it at the speed of light and when he asked me to lie down on the back seat for the duration of the journey, so I could not be seen through the window, it dawned on me that perhaps I should have made a will. It is amazing how hearing these instructions sharpened my senses and increased the amount of adrenalin coursing through my veins, so much so, that my heart felt as if it was about to make its own way to our destination, bouncing along without me! That very day a warning was issued to travellers by the UK government, advising all UK nationals to consider postponing any travel plans to Jakarta. Why didn’t they tell me earlier?

The most surreal taxi ride I have ever taken was in India and happened one evening when I was on my way from the hotel, to the airport. I ordered the car to pick me up four hours ahead of the scheduled departure time of my flight, which should have been more than enough to make the journey and a timely check-in. What I hadn’t bargained on was that the first rain of the Monsoon had arrived in Bombay, just one hour before I was to set off! If you have been in any Indian city when the monsoon rains arrive, you will understand why this posed a potential threat to my travel plans. At the first drop of monsoon rain people dance and celebrate outside, in the rain. Everybody celebrates! There are 19.5 million people living in Bombay, it has the highest population of any Indian city and possibly the most domesticated cows, which are revered by Indian’s country-wide. The holy cows and all the people take to the streets to welcome the monsoon and they were all out that night, all 19.5 million of them, plus cows, I swear!
My driver was heroic. He swerved and stopped, spotted any opportunity to move forward and, all the time, kept his hand firmly planted on the horn of the car, which, in an odd way, added to the chaos and revelry. I was horrified at first and then realised that I was in the hands of the Gods and this taxi driver. So, I sat back, relaxed and soaked in the scene around me and I am so glad I did. I have never seen such unadulterated joy written on so many people’s faces, in one place, at one time. It was contagious and gave me such a happy feeling, which stayed with me long afterwards. When we finally arrived at the airport, my driver abandoned his car about 300 yards from the departure lounge, grabbed my suitcase out of the boot and held it above his head. He urged me to follow him as he pushed and jostled his way through the saturated crowds, as I held on to the back of his jacket. I made the flight with half an hour to spare, and couldn’t thank him enough for all the effort he had put into getting me on that plane. Then I gave him a huge tip for his trouble and I will never forget what he said to me “Please come back soon to my beautiful India, Ma’am”. Life is good!

My first trip to Shanghai happened many years ago and I was stunned by the swerving capabilities, frequent lane swapping and the uncanny ability of my taxi driver to cut up every other vehicle on the road ahead and at the side of him. A friend told me later that the lower the registration number on the licence certificate, which must be clearly displayed on the front dashboard of each taxi, the more experienced the driver is – mine, on this occasion, was licence number 212,076, not so encouraging when the licence numbers start at 100!! I am glad I didn’t know this at the time. I have since refused taxi’s with high registration numbers because the suggestion that lower numbers means a better driver, seems to hold true and I have also been known to get out of a cab when the driving has been too reckless – only in Shanghai!

In New York I felt as if I was on some horrid fairground ride which stopped and started, constantly. Why do the cabbie’s stop as if they are about to dive off a cliff and then start again as if they are in pole position on a Formula One racetrack? I recall that we hardly moved 10 yards during each of these spurts of movement and I felt horribly nauseous by the time stumbled into my hotel. And how do some taxi’s drivers judge the distance between the front fender of their car and the back of another, to within 3 millimetres? I had to close my eyes. Welcome to New York!

The first Malaysian taxi experience I had helped me understand some different driving methods and how traffic “merges” rather than flows. It became apparent very quickly that perhaps I was going to be in for a treat of unusual driving skills as I noticed that the traffic along side my taxi was five abreast on a three lane highway. Ah! Somebody later explained to me that there is an unspoken rule to driving in JB that is called “pick your spot” and this is the one and only rule; pick a spot you wish to be in on the road ahead and head for it, regardless of what any other vehicle on the road is doing. Everybody was driving this way and by some uncanny miracle, it worked, but, I quickly found that it was a completely terrifying experience to anybody not used to it. Add to this the fact that there are not only cars picking spots, but, trucks, motorbikes and bicycles of all shapes and sizes, each needing various sized spaces to fit into, but that seems not to matter at all and on this day it seemed to work. I did not see one collision during that ride. Perhaps that was an exceptional day!

So when I hear people say that they have had a terrifying taxi experience, I smile to myself and wonder “Compared to what?”

Speaking of taxi’s, my review for today is of a wonderfully funny and well written travel book I re-read recently by Annie Caulfield called Show Me the Magic – Travels Round Benin in a Taxi. Annie sets off to travel around Benin looking for magic and stories of the past. Her luggage does not arrive with her at the airport and so she checks into the hotel and can do no more than wait for news of its arrival. Whilst sitting in the hotel lobby, she is approached by Isidore the taxi driver, who convinces her that he should be her taxi driver of choice. She eventually hires him, along with his battered Peugeot, and the following day the journey and his stories begin. It soon becomes apparent who is the boss and who needs to do as they are told as they travel. The history and magic of Benin unfolds under the expert eye and guidance of Isidore and an unexpected story of Isidore’s own comes to light. Annie Caulfield does a superb job of transporting the reader around Benin with her and Isidore and she offers more than a just a commentary on Benin, its people and its past, as we accompany her to many meetings with local shaman’s and visits to festivals, shows and parties, which she describes with her trademark humour and wit. It is a lovely book and I would recommend it to everybody, whether they intend to travel to Benin or not.

So here is one of our local Taxis in Hong Kong. Can’t say I’ve had too many bad experiences with these, so far – but then I have to ask, compared to what?


  1. My scariest taxi journey was in Cario. The taxi drove the wrong way down a busy three-lane carriageway, as it was a "good short cut" All the cars were honking at us, and swerving to miss us - I was so scared!!

    Taxis in Hong Kong always seemed OK to me,

  2. Wow, that does sound scary - not had that happen to me but have taken a few "short cuts" I might not have chosen to take had I been driving!

    Hong Kong taxi's are very tame if compared to India or China for example. It always makes me smile when I hear people complain about taxi's here.