Where can I take you?
My taxi is waiting nearby.
Where can I take you?
My taxi is waiting nearby.
THE PEAK OF MOUNT KANCHENJUNGA was covered with snow and clearly visible from our bedroom window in Gangtok at 630 am on the 29th November 2019. By 900 am, it was hidden by clouds.
Our taxi driver collected us and we set off for Darjeeling. Although he was born in Sikkim, his parents are from another part of India. Almost 90% of the inhabitants of Sikkim are not Sikkimese and do not enjoy the special privileges afforded to ‘Sikkim Subjects’, people whose ancestors originated in Sikkim. These privileges include owning land and not paying income tax.
The majority of people who now live in Sikkim arrived there after it was absorbed by India in the mid 1970s.
From Gangtok the route is mainly downhill to Rangpo, the border between Sikkim and West Bengal. The winding road follows the River Rani downstream from Ranipool. As we drove along through the wooded valley, our driver told us about ‘D’, one of the two drivers he employs.
‘D’ was the fifth husband of a lady who owns a restaurant and bar. One night, well after midnight when D’s wife had closed her eatery, D decided to give her a driving lesson.
She sat at the wheel, and just before her lesson was to begin, D dashed into the restaurant building to relieve himself. While he was away, she rashly decided to show her husband that she knew how to drive and did not actually need to be taught by him. When he came out, he saw that the car was moving steadily towards the edge of the road and was about to topple over the edge and drop down onto a very steep slope. He ran to save the car and his wife but he and the runaway vehicle toppled off the road and fell down into the darkness below.
D was killed but his wife, who was sitting in the driver’s seat survived unscathed.
Driving without a licence is an imprisonable offence in India. To avoid risking this, her family, D’s in-laws, arrived and placed her dead spouse in the driving seat so as to make the police believe that he, who carried a driver’s licence, was driving the car when the accident occurred.
We were horrified to hear about this event which had occurred less than a fortnight before we set off from Gangtok. It was clear that D’s employer, our driver, was still stunned by what had happened.
Our driver’s careful driving gave us no cause for concern. However, as we neared Darjeeling and had rung our host to give directions for finding his homestay, our journey struck problems.
First of all, our driver told us he had never before driven to Darjeeling and had no idea about its geography. Secondly, we discovered that taxis with Sikkim registration plates, such as ours, were restricted as to where they can drive in Darjeeling. The result was that our driver had to stop at Jorebunglow, quite a few miles outside Darjeeling. We had to wait there until a local taxi driver took us into town. Despite this, the scenic journey between Gangtok and Darjeeling is a joy to experience.
Years ago, I had friends who lived south of Hampstead Heath in South End Green, near where the writer George Orwell lived during the 1930s. I often visited my friends there and usually stayed with them until long after public transport ceased working late at night – those were the days long before 24 hour bus services. In those days, I was a student with limited means. Taxi and minicab rides to my home in Hampstead Garden Suburb to the north of Hampstead Heath were costly and if used too often would eat too deeply into my meagre funds.
So, often I used to walk through the darkness to my home, a distance of well over 2 miles. Most of this walk was across the wooded stretches of Hampstead Heath. Even back in the 1970s, this vast expanse of urban woodland was far from safe. Murders and attacks were not unknown. My parents and others would have been horrified to learn that I was risking my life to save paying a cab fare. Was I scared? The answer was both yes and no. I was concerned because of the news stories I had read. Yet, on the other hand I was not so afraid.
I felt that anyone encountering me on my nocturnal wandering deep in the secluded heart of Hampstead Heath might have had one of two reactions. Either he or she might have imagined that I was up to no good and possibly on the prowl for victims and would therefore steer clear of me, or that the person whom I encountered was up to no good. If he or she was ill-intentioned, the person would have still had to be a little bit cautious because I might have turned out to be more than a match for him or her. This reasoning would have done me no good had the person I met been severely evil.
Fortunately, luck was on my side. I never encountered anyone, innocent or evil, on my nocturnal strolls. However, I would never even dream of making this kind of journey across Hampstead Heath again, and would not advise anyone else to attempt it because London has become more dangerous than it was in the 1970s and before.
Back in 1983, I visited Bulgaria. I had been advised that it was very unwise to exchange currency in the country any other way than by using the state’s official foreign exchange desks. So, as soon as I disembarked at the railway station at Sofia, I changed some of my UK Pounds into Bulgarian Leva. Even at the official exchange rate, one Pound had a more than adequate spending power.
My friend and I took a taxi to the city centre. When we arrived, the meter , I asked the driver how much we needed to pay. He answered:
“One Deutschmark, One Dollar, One Swiss Franc, or one Pound.”
I said that I wanted to pay in Bulgarian Leva. He said:
But, I protested:
“The meter says only one Leva”
The driver turned around and said:
“Two people: two Leva”
I repeat this true tale to emphasise how little local money was valued in comparison with so-called ‘hard currency’. Also, in a few months when the UK leaves the European Union, probably without a trade deal, the Pound, which is already sinking in value, might cease to be a hard currency. Who knows, but here in the UK we might prefer to be paid not in our own currency but in one of the harder currencies such as the US Dollar or the Euro.
A few years ago, we hired a mini-cab (a type of taxi) to take us from Kensington to Golders Green. When we entered the cab, we heard music being played on the car’s cassette player. It sounded Russian to me. I asked the driver about it and he confirmed that it was Russian. He told us that he was from Afghanistan and had lived in Russia for a couple of years before settling in London. We began chatting as we drove northwards towards Golders Green. He told us that during the day he sold shoes in his own shop and drove his cab in the evening. We engaged in an amicable conversation.
When we arrived at our destination, I asked how much we owed him. He said:
“Nothing at all.”
“But, we must pay you something,” I said.
“No, nothing. You are my friend. I cannot ask you to pay me,” he explained.
For a few moments, I was flummoxed, at a loss as how to proceed. On the one hand, he said he did not want to be paid. On the other, he had done a good job for us, which needed rewarding. Then, I said to him, handing over a £10 note:
“If we can’t pay you, take this as a present for your children.”
He accepted the money without objection. £10 was the normal fare for that journey in those days.
We booked another mini-cab for our return journey. By coincidence, it was driven by someone from Afghanistan. Although he was not as friendly as the outward bound driver, there was nothing to complain about him. When we arrived at our home, we asked him how much we owed. He answered:
“Anything you like.”
I paid him the £10, which we usually pid for that journey, and the driver was happy with that.
Shortly before that day of Afghan mini-cab drivers, I had finished reading a book about travelling in Afghanistan., An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliott. In it, he describes shopping in rural Afghanistan. The customer is not quoted a price, but has to make an offer. If the offer is too low, the seller will look insulted and hurt. If it is too high, everyone else in the shop will laugh at the customer. I suspect that it was on this basis that the two mini-cab drivers operated with us. They must have detected our familiarity with eastern ways and customs. Had we been typical Anglo Saxon customers, they might have simply quoted a price.
My late mother lost two front teeth in a car crash in South Africa during the 1930s. Ever since then, she was both a nervous driver and an apprehensive passenger.
In the early 1960s, my mother was one of the first drivers in the UK to have seat belts installed in our car, which, like all other cars at the time, was sold without seat belts.
When I used to go on holidays with my parents, we used taxis wherever we were: water taxis in Venice and automobiles elsewhere. The places we visited most often were Italy and Greece. In both places, drivers manoeuvred at higher speeds than in the UK and far more adventurously. I remember one occasion in Milan (Italy) in the 1960s where our taxi driver drove along the tram lines on the wrong side of the road, so that trams headed straight towards us. And, in Athens (Greece), if a driver saw a space on the road some hundred yards ahead, he would take all kinds of risks to reach it. In all the years that I travelled with my parents in taxis we were only involved in one accident – no injuries, fortunately.
Well, all this dangerous dashing about in dare-devil taxis did not do anything positive for my mother’s nerves. Consequently, wherever we went she made sure that she knew how to say ‘slow down’ in the local language. Whenever I am being driven in India, where traffic is very exciting to say the least, I often think that had my mother experienced it, she would have died of fright. Oh, by the way, the Hindustani word for ‘slow down’ is ‘aasthe‘.
I know it is not a good idea to make generalisations, but it is quite fun to do so occasionally. So, here goes! This time, I am going to generalise about taxi drivers’ knowledge in London, Bombay, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad.
The drivers of London’s characteristic black (usually) cabs are only allowed to work when they have “The Knowledge”. That is, they have passed an examination that requires the candidate to have a very detailed knowledge of the streets of London. A London cabbie only very rarely does not know the way.
London’s minicab and Uber drivers do not have to be tested on The Knowledge, but they are usually very adept at using GPS systems.
In Bombay, there is a huge number of yellow and black cabs. In my experience, the drivers usually know their way around the city. Some of them raise all kinds of objection s before they give in to your wish to hire them, but once aboard they will take you where you want without requiring navigational assistance.
I find the best way to get around Bangalore is to travel in an autorickshaw. Their drivers often know the way, and if they do not, they will ask fellow autorickshaw drivers, who can point them in the right direction. Uber and it’s competitor Ola exist in Bangalore, but their drivers, often from out of town, are often clueless about the city’s geography and find GPS hard to understand.
It is our experience with autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad that prompted me to write this blog. We have made many trips in their vehicles. An enormous proportion of the drivers will tell you that they know how to reach a place, but in reality they have no clue. They will not admit their ignorance and are often reluctant to stop and ask for directions from bystanders.
One driver in Ahmedabad, who was completely lost, got annoyed with us, his customers, and said: “Why are you going somewhere if you don’t know how to get there? I should leave you here, and you can find your own way.”
I did say that I would be generalizing. In all fairness, I must record that some of the autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad have been very knowledgeable about their city, but these have been in the minority.
So, when you visit the truly wonderful city of Ahmedabad, you will find it helpful to be able to access Google maps on your mobile phone while travelling around.
Like London, Bombay is heavily dependent on workers who were not born in the city. This is the case for most of Bombay’s multitude of taxi drivers. Many of them came to the city from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP).
During a long journey from Colaba in South Bombay to Bandra, we spoke to our cab driver, ‘P’, from UP. A well educated man, he has been driving his black and yellow taxi in Bombay for well over 20 years. For most of the year, he drives for 14 hours per day, 7 days a week. His wife and children live in his village in UP. Much of the money he earns pays for his children’s education.
P owns his taxi and has a small house in Bombay. Occasionally, his family come to visit him in Bombay. Thrice a year, P visits his village in UP. There, his family have land where they grow a wide range of vegetables such as carrots, cabbage,potatoes, aubergines, rice, wheat, and more. While he is away from Bombay, he hires a driver to work his cab.
P feels that the present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is good for India because he seems to be reducing corrupt practices amongst the country’s civil servants. Another good thing that Modi has done, P told us, was to ensure that everyone including humble village people have bank accounts. In the past, state benefit payments were given to the panchayats (local village councils) to be distributed amongst the intended recipients. The panchayats usually deducted an amount from the beneficiaries’ payments and kept it for themselves. Now that everybody has a bank account, the state pays the people without intermediaries and be sure that the recipients receive the whole of the amount intended for them.
In P’s words, the Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi is “… lacking in talent”
P said that people in UP spend too much time worrying about what their neighbours have achieved and criticising them jealously instead of getting on with life. As he put it: “They don’t care about what they eat in their own homes, but instead what their neighbours are consuming .” People in UP are lazy, P said, they do not want to work; they just want to drag you down. In contrast, he said, people in Bombay are too busy working, trying to make a living, to care about what their neighbours are up to.
Although P has prejudices, which he barely concealed, he is intelligent and knowledgeable. At one point in our journey my wife mentioned two brothers, whom she had once known, and said that they were named after twins in the Hindu myths collected in the Mahabharata. “Madame,” the taxi driver said politely, “They appear in the Ramayana.”
Later, when my wife told P her name is Lopa, which is short for ‘Lopamudra’, our driver immediately recounted the mythological origins of that name.
P, like many other drivers of black and yellow taxis in Bombay, is keen on conversing with is passengers. In contrast, most of the drivers of Uber cabs in Bombay, whom we have encountered, tend to be sullen and reluctant to chat.
During our very recent stay in the Cochin/Ernakulam region of Kerala in the south of India, we encountered two drivers with disabilities.
The first was in central Ernakulam. He was the chauffeur working for a friend. His right arm was encased in surgical plaster of Paris from above his elbow to his finger tips. He drove well despite having only one functioning arm. Luckily for him, he was driving a car with automatic gear changing.
We met the second driver twice in picturesque Fort Cochin. He wore a surgical support collar around his neck. It was khaki in colour and matched his khaki autorickshaw driver’s uniform jacket.
The first time we were driven by him, we noticed his collar, but made no reference to it. The next time he stopped to pick us up, we asked him about the collar, guessing that he might have been involved in accident. We were not expecting his explanation.
The poor fellow related that when his wife had deserted him for reasons that he did not tell us, he had tried to commit suicide. Fortunately, his attempt failed because now his wife has returned to him.
In May 2016, my wife and I landed in Albania at Tirana’s airport. There was a line of taxis whose drivers were all eager to drive us into the city centre and to accept either local currency or Euros. At other times during our trip, getting a taxi was never a problem. However, thirty-two years earlier, when Albania was a strictly controlled Stalinist dictatorship (at least as as repressive as North Korea is today) , getting to hire a taxi was impossible as this excerpt from my book “Albania on my Mind” will demonstrate.
“After we had eaten lunch at the hotel, a group of us went into the square outside it. We saw a long line of taxis, which were waiting vacantly by a booking booth. We wondered how often these were hired and by whom; there was not a soul in sight taking the slightest interest in them. One of us walked up to the booth and asked the man sitting inside whether we could hire a taxi to take us up to Mount Dajti, some way outside Tirana. Just when it seemed that we had succeeded in hiring a cab, another person inside the booth lifted a telephone receiver, listened for a moment, and then whispered something to the man with whom we had just negotiated. He beckoned to us, and pointed at the hotel. Somehow, he made it clear to us that we needed to book the taxi not from him, but from the hotel reception desk.
We trouped back into the hotel’s lobby and made a beeline for the reception desk. Two suited men, sitting on a sofa nearby, looked at us over the tops of their newspapers. As we reached the desk, I noticed that the doors of one of the hotel’s two lifts were opening. Our Albanian guide Eduart hurried through them and towards the receptionist, who was beginning to attend to us.
“What do you need?” Eduart asked us, out of breath.
“We want to hire a taxi.”
“We want to visit Mount Dajti?”
“Why should you do that?”
“We need some fresh country air. We’ve been in the city for too long.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Eduart protested. “You have already spent many days in the countryside.”
“But, that’s what we want, and we believe that the views from Mount Dajti are magnificent.”
“You cannot go.”
“Why ever not?” we asked.
“There is a lot of traffic. The roads are crowded.” We looked at Eduart disbelievingly. Traffic congestion was certainly not a problem in Albania in 1984.
“You know that there’s a big national cycle race on at the moment.”
“That was over long ago,” one of us objected. “We saw the posters announcing it along the roads.”
“You can visit Mother Albania, but no further.”
We had already visited the Mother Albania monument, which was located in the outskirts of the town. However, as we were determined to not to give in to our obstreperous guide, we agreed to his compromise.
“Alright,” we said.
Then, Eduart said menacingly:
“You may take the taxi to Mother Albania, but remember that if anything happens to you, we cannot take any responsibility for your safety. You will not be protected by your group visa.” “We’ll risk it,” one of us said.
I did not like the threatening sound of Eduart’s voice, but followed the rest of our small group back to the taxi rank. When we arrived there no more that ten minutes after we had left it, we found that all of the taxis had disappeared, and also there was an extremely long line of people waiting in a queue outside the booth. Accepting defeat, we made our way on foot to …”
DISCOVER WHAT IT WAS LIKE VISITING COMMUNIST ALBANIA IN 1984 IN “ALBANIA ON MY MIND” by ADAM YAMEY
It is available from Amazon, Bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and on Kindle