Saturday, June 13, 2009

Desert Notes: How to catch a taxi

After having caught more than a few taxis since my arrival Abu Dhabi, I’m beginning to believe that all taxi drivers the world over must share the same DNA. This genetic link predisposes taxi drivers to firstly, drive over the speed limit; secondly, forget how to use indicators; and lastly, to stop suddenly when and wherever they choose.

There are some differences though. Abu Dhabi taxis are generally cars and not combis or minivans, and are generally far more roadworthy than their South African counterparts. The taxis are also metered, which as far as I am aware, is practically unheard of in South Africa.

There are a few things to be aware of when catching a taxi in Abu Dhabi.

The first is that you can find one just about anywhere, though you probably find one far more quickly at an intersection or main road. Any government building, bank or mall will generally have a few in the immediate vicinity, so waiting around is rare. The longest I have ever had to wait has probably been about five minutes.

You can also “order” a taxi through one of the two more upmarket taxi operators. These are generally much smarter cars, and of course, you pay much more for them.

To hail a taxi, simply stick your hand up when you see one approaching. If they flash their lights at you, it means they are occupied already. If the driver gives a short sharp blast on his hooter, it means he has spotted you and will immediately swerve across as many lanes as necessary and come to a screeching halt in front of you. Or just past you if they were really motoring.

It does help to be a woman though, and it certainly helps to be a woman with children. Taxi drivers will unload male passengers, whether they like it or not, in order to help you out. Most male passengers are quite accommodating of this, and will simply wait for the next one to come along.

It is however, better practice for a woman to sit in the rear of the taxi, rather than upfront with the driver. Men generally sit in front with the driver, rather than the American-style “passengers in back” situation.

The next important point is to remember than not all taxi drivers have a good command of English. They are generally from the sub-continent (Pakistan primarily) and as such, speak Arabic or Urdu, with a smattering of English. The one taxi driver’s command of the English language extended to random repetitions of “Hello. How are you?”

Some speak English very well, and if my husband is traveling with me, will often strike up a conversation – generally about your origins, how long you’ve been in the country, and how many children you have. Children are important here, and thus the premature exit of male passengers to assist a woman with kids. You are definitely unlikely to get this random chatter if you are a woman traveling without a man. It would be considered highly inappropriate, and very disrespectful to the woman concerned.

That said, one of my more recent taxi trips alone, did engender a conversation of sorts. I even learnt how to say “hospital” in Arabic. Moo-stash-bah. That’s how it sounds. How it is spelt is completely beyond me.

The reason I ended up learning this word, was firstly because the driver spoke minimal English, and secondly, because of the way in which directions are given.

You never say “Villa number 3 on Tenth Street please.” You use landmarks instead.

My taxi driver didn’t know what the word “hospital” was. So when I asked him to take me to the Zayed Hospital, he shook his head. So I used the nearest landmark, which is the Pepsi Cola factory. This he knew, and once at Pepsi Cola, I was able to direct him to the hospital. Which he did know. And then he said, and I quote verbatim:

“You no Araby? Next taxi no English, you Moo-stash-bah Zayed.”

And so I learnt to say hospital in Arabic.

Another important thing to remember about giving directions is that not all roads are known by the names listed on the signboard. For example, the apartment we first stayed in was just off Fourth Street, in the Yabhooni block. But if I had to tell the driver to take me there using those words, he’d be very confused. Because Fourth street is known as Muroor Road. So to give directions to my old place, I’d have to say “Airport Road, left at Pepsi Cola off Muroor Road, opposite the Quadiysa School.” And that would get me there. And Muroor/Fourth is just one example!

The taxis themselves are all in the same livery, except for the ones you “order”. They are white with gold corners and a green sign on the door and roof. But you do have to be careful. Because the driving schools are also white with gold corners and a green sign on the door. The only difference is the red “L” on the roof sign. So an unsuspecting newcomer could get the shock of his life if he tried to hail one of those!

Like the South African taxis, the Abu Dhabi versions are often highly decorated inside, and with bumper stickers and decals on the exterior. Inside the car (normally a Nissan Sunni or Toyota Corolla), the seats are likely to be covered in brightly coloured fabric (like those big thick flowery blankets) and plastic or vinyl sheeting on top of that. The rear window ledge will probably be packed with artificial flowers, tinsel or similar shiny stuff. There will be CD or prayer beads hanging of the rear view mirror. The dashboard will be covered in fabric, as well as with more plastic flowers and what-have-yous.

The mudflaps will probably have decals, often of falcons. Some may have more shiny stuff on this as well. The bumper stickers will vary, but I’m generally very loathe to catch the taxis with the stickers for Abu Dhabi Racing or Kakimoto Racing.

‘Cos those dudes race everywhere. Most taxis are fitted with a little alarm which pings repeatedly if the driver goes over a 100 kph. The speed limit is generally between 60 and 70 kph. But I’ve heard that “pinging” a lot more than occasionally. Especially over or under any of the bridges.

You also need to be aware that your taxi-driver will often unexpectedly open the driver’s door and expectorate noisily onto the road. I have Issues with snot, phlegm and other associated nasties, and this one gets me near-heaving every time. I’ve learnt to focus solidly on the view from my window.

So if you can deal with learning a new directional vocabulary, coping with hocking up goolies, wild gesticulating at other drivers, speeding, and rapid lane changing, you’ll do just fine when hailing a cab in Abu Dhabi!

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