Sunday, November 12, 2006

Cabbing it

The little off-white Peugeot taxi cabs of various vintages and quality are a ubiquitous feature of urban life in Madagascar’s capital city. So ubiquitous in fact that I hardly would think enough about them to comment on them beyond griping with my friends about the ever-increasing cab fares and their tendency to run out of gas going up hill on a one-way and one-lane cobblestone alleyway with a whole line of impatient traffic waiting behind. The most noteworthy recent comment made about these little creatures and their anonymously generic drivers was that several of them appeared in the recent “Great Race” episode that took place in Madagascar (which I have yet to see).


So it was this evening that after we emerged from a long evening chat with old friends over pizza that we didn’t really give the routine of looking for a cab much thought as we prepared to go our separate ways. The only time you ever really think about it is when its pouring rain or you’re in a desperate hurry to get somewhere.


As I understand is the case in much of the developing world that has taxis, there’s an important routine to know before getting into a cab. Cabs here don’t have meters – the only way to determine a price to a destination is to argue it out with the driver before you get there. The best technique for this is to not get into the cab until you’ve settled on a price – lest you become an unexpecting hostage extorted into paying the cabby’s idea of a fair price else he might never let you out again. This is another category of my existence here that makes me feel like my life is a broken record. The conversation is almost always the same.


- Manahoana. How much to go to [name of quarter].

- Where exactly in that quarter.

- [Name of quarter] near [name of x place].

- [Name of x place], [some exorbitant amount].

- No way, [name of quarter] isn’t that far. [Some cheap/reasonable amount].

- No, it’s very far. And gasoline is very expensive.

- [Name of quarter] is very close, or at least closer than [name of more distant quarter]. You aren’t going to use a whole liter of gasoline to get there.

- Get in.

- I’m only paying this much.

- But for [some slightly lower price].

- No, I’m only going to pay [reasonable amount], and no more bargaining.


Then the conversation trails off to either agreement or the driver driving away or you slamming the door and walking off to find another, more agreeable taxi. There are several factors that go into these routine arguments: first there’s the cabby that sees a white person and immediately thinks they can squeeze out a prize fare. These most often have us slamming the door of the cab and simply walking away without replying. The second problem is that cab prices are steadily increasing all the time through a variety of inflationary pressures, and it can be really hard for a person who only comes to the capital city occasionally to keep up as there’s no fixed rule or scale for these increases. Several times I have taken offense at an amount quoted to me, only to learn that no, indeed, that’s within the range of normalcy for current rates. Sometimes I’ve named a price that has the cabby pulling the door shut and driving away himself, leaving me in a cloud of exhaust and no closer to my destination.


Tonight was a quiet night, comfortable and no rain, and we were in no particular hurry to find a cab other than it was time to go home. So the first cab pulled up and I went over to ask the price. I named our quarter and then Stephanie, my host for this trip to Tana and slightly distracted by an on-going conversation with our dinner friends, opened the back door and asked the same question. I think it must’ve flustered the cabby for a moment, but then he immediately stated a price that was a good dollar above the general standard fare to get home. Neither Stephanie or I even bothered to respond, but simply closed the door and window and walked away.


We carried on our conversation as we continued down the street. After a short time I noticed that we were being followed at a discrete distance by the little cab, which is slightly unusual because usually if the price is that far off the wall nobody sticks around to discuss it further. He thought he’d get an east extra on the fare, we thought he was scamming us – usually the best solution is to simply go separate ways.


After several minutes no other empty cabs appeared but he was still behind us. We weren’t in a hurry, but while the others were engrossed in a topic, I turned on a whim to the little car and again asked how much he proposed this time. The answer I got back was a meek 50 cents cheaper. I simply shook my head no and he humbly came down another 25 cents. At that point it was within normal range, and he seemed so chagrined that I agreed and asked him to wait while we found our friends going to another quarter a cab.


When we climbed into the cab a couple of minutes later the poor guy had his head on the steering wheel and had to shake himself back awake. Stephanie asked if he was okay. He explained that he was pulling a double shift and was really tired. We were carrying take-out leftovers, so Stephanie asked if he liked pizza. We ended up leaving the whole box with him.


On our way we stopped at a gas station (another necessary element to any Tana taxi ride, no matter the distance) and picked up another passenger going in our direction. Stephanie new here in passing as being a snack-seller on a near-by corner and they took to chatting. Pretty soon we had the cab driver shaking his head and laughing at the verbal antics Stephanie and the snack lady went through as their conversation roamed. Everybody wound up enjoying the ride through Tana’s dark streets.


When we arrived I asked the driver when he would be done, and he replied that he had to work all night yet. I have no idea what his circumstances are that would have him pulling a double shift driving a cab both all day and all night, but we left him with well-wishes for the evening and urgings to take a short nap, and a box full of pizza parts. In the end, it was yet another of those small encounters that made me take a minute to think about all of the parts of life here that have become so routine that they hardly seem to matter anymore. Yet tonight I know there is at least one cab driver with a stomach full of pizza and maybe a bit of a smile on his face as he waits for yet another fare to argue over before he can go home at the break of dawn.

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