Can you judge a city by its cab drivers?

Bicycle rickshaw rides in India are never what they seem.
Bicycle rickshaw rides in India are never what they seem. Photo: Corbis

'We can make just one stop," the rickshaw driver said, turning to face me, oblivious to the knot of traffic in front of him. "Please?"

I groaned. "No. No stops."

"Sir," the guy urged, managing to weave through other rickshaws without looking at them, "just one establishment, I promise you. A very, very good emporium, you will see."

"I don't want to go to any shops. Just straight to my hotel, please."

Unperturbed, the driver tried a different tack. "Sir, you do not need to buy anything at this emporium. Sir, if you just go into this shop I will get 10 rupees. Just for you to go inside and look. Please, sir."

I frequently quote taxi drivers ... because they come out with such fantastic declarations.

I sighed. "How about if I just give you 10 rupees, and in return you don't take me to this store?"

The driver smiled a gap-toothed grin. "OK! Very good, sir!"

And with that he turned to face the traffic again, gunned the engine and roared through the busy Agra street.

I'd dodged a bullet, avoiding yet another inevitable visit to a cousin's friend's aunty's carpet emporium, and all for the princely sum of about 20 cents. There would be other attempts, of course, to get me to a shop during this trip to India. In fact even this driver on this same journey would try his luck again.

That's what happens in India, where a deal is never a deal and a journey is never a journey until it's finally over.

The five-minute whip around the corner can turn into a tortuous and circular journey involving a lot of arguing and the inevitable payment of more money.

The 50-rupee fare can amazingly become a 100-rupee fare when it's claimed "the price was for each person".

You come to expect it after a while in northern India, a battle of wits and patience every time you climb into the back of a rusty old three-wheeler. But it's all part of the experience. What would India be without its dodgy drivers?

In fact, what would any country be without its own version?

I find taxis kind of fascinating. Not just the vehicles themselves, the modes of transport that range from ancient cycle rickshaws in Vietnam to spanking-new Mercedes in the UAE, from clapped-out Ladas in Russia to beautiful London black cabs - it's the drivers. They're characters, good and bad. They're stories on wheels. They're often the first locals you meet, and the last to whom you say goodbye.

I frequently quote taxi drivers in my travel stories, because they come out with such fantastic declarations, from the witty and insightful to the ignorant or occasionally racist. It's entertaining, at the very least.

Indian drivers are characters. They're painful at times, with their insistence on haggling, their persistence with shopping, and their reluctance to look at the road. But they're never dull.

Can you judge a country by its cab drivers? Sometimes you can.

As with most new places you arrive in, the first Iranian I interacted with in Tehran was the taxi driver who picked me up from the airport. A few minutes into that first journey, while driving at 140km/h, he flipped open the glovebox, pulled out an English phrasebook, studied it on his lap for a few seconds, and then turned to me, smiling: "Welcome in Iran!"

And I was welcome in Iran. Very much so.

Glaswegian taxi drivers are true storytellers - just as most of the citizens of that maligned city are. Their only downfall is they won't let you get out of the cab when they're mid-story. They've turned off the meter, you've paid your fare and they still won't let you out.

What about China? I was in a taxi in Beijing for about two minutes before the driver shared a little secret: "I am Beijing No.1 taxi driver!" Uh-huh. Then he turned on the karaoke machine. Only the karaoke machine wasn't for the passengers, but purely for the amusement of Beijing's No.1 taxi driver, who spent the rest of the journey singing China's greatest hits into a headset microphone.

Maybe Chinese people wouldn't be quite what I'd been picturing.

Some drivers aren't so representative of their country. I've lost count of the number of Bangkok taxi drivers who have tried to rip me off. And Thais are some of the most genuine people you could meet.

Cabbies in Prague, meanwhile, drive like lunatics, leading you to believe this is a country full of people in a serious hurry. That's not exactly true.

But regardless, it's always an experience, always something to write home about. And at least you don't have to visit a carpet emporium.

Have you had a dodgy taxi driver experience? Was it funny or just painful? How did you escape? Leave a comment below.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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