Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Tale of Two Taxis (Taksis)

Mr. This Cat's (Not Abroad) and I have been in Kurdistan for 5 weeks now - and finally have our own home - so it was only a matter of time before offers to ferry us about town would begin to dwindle, if not dry up altogether. Now in Erbil, there are 4 ways to get from Point A to Point B:

1) walk
2) drive (note that foreigners are prohibited from owning vehicles nor does insurance exist for those stupid brave enough to lease)

3) take a mini bus

4) take a taxi

5) kidnap the veggie man's donkey

... and on Friday, we found ourselves in that unenviable position of having to get across town without a ready invitation of a lift. Since driving was out of the question, and none of our support staff could figure out the bus routes for themselves let alone for us, and walking only takes you so far (and that wasn't far enough) - that left the donkey and the taxi. Let me add that taxis are independently operated here and scoot about town bereft of seatbelts and meters. Vis-à-vis the first point, it is what it is; vis-à-vis the second point, passengers must either negotiate a fare before heading off or pay after-the-fact, and hope that you don't offend your driver with what you offer, making him your enemy for life. Donkeys, on the other hand, are quite happy with a carrot.

Personally, I would've preferred the little burro (she's very very pretty), but taxi it was. In fact, in the span of 10 hours we would take 4 taxis (so it's fair to say that we're taxi experts now) of which I will relate two for your reading pleasure.

Ride the First

Ride the First was actually our first ride in Erbil. We flagged a little beige taxi (or taksi since the x doesn't quite exist in the Kurdish alphabet) near our home and, because I know a sum total of one Kurdish word (and yes, it's a polite word), I equipped myself with a business card bearing the address of our destination. We slid into the backseat of the taxi
(taksi), and handed the driver the card, congratulating ourselves all the while with our preparedness, and fully confident (this was a Very Busy Thoroughfare we were going to) that he'd have no problems finding it.

Surprisingly, notwithstanding
the Very Busy Thoroughfare we were going to, our driver had no clue where the Lebanese Beauty Centre is located, but enterprising fellow that he was - and clearly understanding that we'd be of no help to him linguistically and/or directionally - he cheerfully called the salon and asked for directions. This bode well. So off we headed up and down a series of streets - none of which could actually be called streets completed as Erbil is one huge construction site - dodging potholes, avoiding traffic cones (chunks of bumper-friendly cement) and jostling with other cars for one of the seven lanes of traffic on these marked 1- and 2-lane roads.

Apart from the standard French Connection moments which are de rigueur when driving here, what we didn't expect was to be air-borne during our trip and landing on a different road. What actually happened we will never know because both Mr. This Cat and I were busy trying to determine if the home appliances stores were open as this was a Friday (they were not), rather than keeping our eyes on the road (which technically,
as passengers, is not our responsibility).

As best as we can piece things together, our driver - naturally exceeding the speed limit - came up fast behind the car directly in front of us which seems to have made a rather unfortunate decision to stop in the middle of
the Very Busy Thoroughfare. Our driver hit the brakes and swerved the taxi (taksi) to the right to avoid killing us all hitting the other car, at which point we soared into the air and landed on a yet-to-be paved (= dirt) curb about half a metre below and parallel to the Very Busy Thoroughfare. We weaved back and forth like a fish on crack and our driver succeeded in decelerating and correcting the car. Finally we stopped.

We all exhaled as one.

Sorry, he said.

At least I think that's what he said but, to be honest, the pounding of my heart thwumping in my chest had pretty much blocked out all sound for a three-kilometre radius.

To be fair, he did look rather sorry. And somehow I didn't even have the heart to be angry with him for what happened - nor was I particularly freaked out by it. Perhaps we were all just relieved not to be hanging upside down from an ass-over-tea kettle taxi (taksi) - which was probably an impossibility any way as none of us were wearing seatbelts. No matter. Relieved, we just decided - an unspoken but mutual decision this - to blame the other car wholly.

Moments later, he pulled over to the Lebanese Beauty Centre, apologized again and had the good grace to not even look at the bills we handed him. In return, we had the good grace to pay him a decent fare.

Taxi the Second

Same day, different taxi
(taksi). Mr. This Cat and I are coming home from a wildly exciting expedition to Erbil's new home decor department store (think TJ Maxx or Winners Light), which we know is close-ish to our home but not exactly too certain how long the walk would be. As it's getting dark and neither of us wants to see me whining because the walk is too long, we decide to flag a taxi. Because we don't actually have a street address - because our street doesn't actually have a street name - we have been instructed to advise taxi (taksi) drivers in Erbil to simply take us to Ainkawa (our neighbourhood), and since there are only two ways in, we can point them the rest of the way to our door. Lucky for us, our home is close to Ainkawa's newest landmark (which Erbil's drivers seem to know): the New Italiano Restaurant, which is anything but Italian and which offers vegetarian pizzas liberally garnished with chicken. To be fair, it is at least new.

Anyhoo, as we approached the main thoroughfare a taxi
(taksi) slowed down (taxis [taksis] automatically slow down when they spot Western pedestrians assuming that we really don't want to walk), and we hopped in. It turns out that the front passenger seat was occupied by a young boy of around eight. In his arms - which suggests that there was some form of completely ineffectual safety restraint at least - was a one-month old infant. Mr. This Cat and I did what we assumed was expected and fussed over the baby rather than admonishing its father (we presumed) to put the infant in a car seat and strap both it and the eight-year old into the back seat where they belonged.

Ooooooo, aren't you pretty? I cooed. A bit of an exaggeration but I never know what to say in these situations.

And because I was the only passenger in possession of a uterus (I'm not sure about the baby), the beaming father (
we presumed) barked something to his son (we presumed) and the boy leaned back and thrust the baby into my arms. I gave Mr. This Cat a what-the-fuck look and sat back trying to support the baby's head, shield it with my body as we came to brake-screechingly abrupt stops which should have, by all rights, sent us flying through the windshield, and cushion it as we veered and leap-frogged through traffic. All the while chucking it under the chin and babbling insensibly at it.

I am not a baby person.

As we made our way through Ainkawa, I prayed that I would not be an instrument of this child's death (although technically I think that would've been its father [we presumed] rather than me). I also prayed that its bursting-with-pride father (we presumed) would stop beaming at me via the rear-view mirror and keep his eyes on the road.

Within ten minutes the taxi (
taksi) had pulled up to the New Italiano Restaurant where I was divested of my charge. I pretended that I wanted to keep the baby because I never know what to say in these situations, and we all laughed. So ... two taxis (taxis) - two very different taxis (taksis) - in one day. As exhilarating as it was to cheat death that morning, and as cute as the baby was (a bit of an exaggeration but I never know what to say in these situations), I can't help but think that we should have just nicked our veggie man's donkey.


Snowflake said...

o-m-g. I don't think I'll ever be able to visit there. Unless you get your own donkey.

Anonymous said...

Now is the time to look for a donkey sanctuary or get a good pair of Nike's.
After all that did you do any shopping?

This Cat's Abroad said...

Snowflake: I thought of you the whole time. Seriously. Anonymous: maybe I'll have to bite the bullet and figure out the manic mini bus system. Or yes, get a donkey.

Miss Footloose said...

Thank you for the wonderful entertainment this Sunday afternoon! I so recognized much of this, having had similar experiences in let's say eccentric countries.

In Armenia we were also not allowed to own a car. But an creative -scheme- I mean way had been found around this. The (toy)car we wanted would be/was officially owned by an elite-someone-with-money. We paid him the price of the car for which we received the RIGHT TO USE IT it as well as THE RIGHT TO SELL IT, all documented on paper. Worked like a charm. There is always a way.

However, my man, who is a very good driver, begged me on bended knee not to drive because, well, of the 7 lanes of traffic on 2-lane roads and so on. Imean so on and so on. So I did not drive, but my man was my personal chauffeur. And now and then I took a taksi.

Hang in there. Get a donkey. Are you allowed to have one as a foreigner? What about a motor cycle? Am I serious? Probably not.

Cath said...

Get a donkey. Name her Donna.

~S~ said...

Odd . . . I was reading this today out of the blue my Blackberry received your email from December 2009.
I couldn't do what you do. (and I'd have kept that baby!)


Lee said...

Too, too funny! Thanks for the hilarious post. Definitely take the donkey - no danger of the baby-thrust-into-your-arms on a donkey. At least less of a chance. Maybe.
Donkey. Definitely.