On the unique charm of foreign taxi travel…
However hard you try, it’s going to happen to you at least once on a trip. Maybe it’s inconvenient bus timetablings, or miscalculated departures, or another case of Lonely Planet fabrications, but there will always be at least one occasion on which you arrive in a new town at five in the morning.
At first consideration, it perhaps doesn’t sound that bad – worse things than early mornings can happen to you when you’re out on your own, after all. But as you step onto the tarmac in Sinai or Alexandria or – God help you – Cairo, having slept intermittently squeezed up against a freezing window by the obese, flatulant man with the wandering hands in the seat next to you, staggering under the weight of your pack and getting yelled at in some unintelligible idiom the driver thinks is English, the last thing you want to deal with is a swarm of taxi drivers.
And they really do swarm: ten or so of them, crowding around you, shouting over one another in an attempt to get your custom. If you’re sharp, you’ll have managed to stay with the other travellers; more likely you’ve been shepherded into a corner by yourself, and you’re now trying to do the maths on how much they’re overcharging you and how much you can bargain them down by on your own. Once the choice is made, you’ll get taken to your carriage, and with luck you’ll be too exhausted to register much horror: the front is dented. The wing mirror is totally absent. The back door is held shut by string. There are never, ever both parts of the seat belt, and even if there were the driver would only get offended if you tried to wear it.
So the driver asks you the name of the hostel you’re going to. Mistake number one: you tell him. The name elicits a knowing grimace, and he launches into an explanation of how this hostel is dirty/burned down/a brothel and he can suggest a far better alternative. Needless to say, probably the principle factor making this alternative ‘better’ in his mind is the commission they pay him. An argument ensues, which with enough insistence you might just win. At which point, of course, the driver will flip out his mobile phone and start calling his friends to find out if anyone knows where the place you’re looking for actually is.
That’s not by any means to say that the drive is unpleasant. Some of the best portraits of a country are painted when its guard is down, and never is it more down than when the city is just waking. Cairo is the biggest city in Africa – a full three times the size of London – and, as one might expect, is constantly choked with traffic during the daytime hours. At five a.m., the streets are clear. One of my most vivid images of Egypt is of a young boy emerging from the early morning mist, riding his bicycle lazily in an S-pattern down the middle of an empty road, carrying a stack of pita bread on his head. Or – complete opposite – arriving in the tiny oasis town of Siwa, a mere blip in the Western desert which was only joined to the rest of the world by road in the late ’80s which still retains a distinctive local language and culture. Nothing could be further removed from the West: children as young as four or five riding motorbikes (some of them working as taxi-drivers), the women either covered head-to-toe in embroidered cloth or totally absent, all the buildings made of mudbrick (including possibly the world’s only mudbrick ATM). My first glimpse of the town was stepping out into the freezing darkness, the only light a neon green glow spilling out from the ramshackle local mosque with its carpet of shoes outside as the dawn prayers took place.
So it was with a certain degree of deja vu when I found myself, six months after flying out of Sharm-el-Sheikh, being confronted by a farmer on the Pacific Coast of Ecuador, explaining to me that se ha quema’o, and miming flames with his hands. But, of course, he knew a campsite, very good value…
I thanked him with all the politeness that I could muster, and set off to search for it on my own. The town wasn’t big, but was full of dead ends and totally lacking in street signs. After trudging up the long seafront for the millionth time I stopped in an internet cafe to see if Google could shed any light on my faulty directions. I sat down, tapped the name of the hostel in, and the first thing it turned up was – who’d have known? – YouTube footage of the building smouldering.
Enjoyed this article? It isn’t really similar at all to this rather funny article on www.Trendflux.com
Photo Credit: http://danielyagminjr.blogspot.com/2009_11_01_archive.html