My tryst with cabbies across the Globe
For me travelling is part of my life not only because my job in the Information Technology industry warrants it, but it’s also my favourite hobby.
The first touch point in the new city you land is the Cabbie unless a friend or a family member is waiting for you to be received. My experience with the cabbies around the world ranges from an emotional bonding to a forgettable experience.
Before I landed at Singapore, I was given a earful on the efficient city transport infrastructure especially the cabbies, who are supposed to be very honest, disciplined and expect nothing less or more than the fare that is displayed on the meter. It was the Chinese New Year eve sometime in January 2004 and with nothing much to do that evening, I was very keen to see the Night Safari located some 20 miles away from the City centre. It seemed like the city was in a holiday mood already and I could hardly see Cabs on the wide Singapore roads. The ones that I hailed refused to ply because of the long distance that would have cut short their celebration time. Finally an elderly looking cabbie stopped and offered to take me to my destination. I was very glad but it was short-lived. The cabbie switched off his meter and demanded a fixed fare that was 150% the actual approximate fare. All for the honesty and efficiency of the Singapore cabbies, I was left to ponder. I had no choice but to engage his service and enjoy the evening at the “must see” Night Safari including a dekko of the Singapore’s famous citizen, Ah Meng the Orangutan.
Later that year, I was sent to Houston, USA for a month’s consulting assignment. The cabbies in the US are well known for demanding the extras on top of the actual fare. After all US is known for its regulated Tips culture unlike other Western countries I have visited. But I did not expect this experience when I took a cab from the George Bush International Airport to The Woodlands, a suburb 20 miles away from downtown Houston. I knew the fare would be approximately $60 and kept $5 bill handy for the “Tip”. When the cab stopped at my destination, the fare was displayed as $62. I handed over $65 much to the annoyance of the cabbie. He expressed his anguish and frustration upon getting a tip of just $3 and started demanding $10 from me. I had no choice but to handover $70 which was still short of his demand. He departed, maybe with a thought of never taking an Asian passenger again. What is the difference in this cabbie and the Autowallahs of Chennai, I felt? My mind was immediately transported to Mumbai, where the cabbies took pains to return even a Rupee back to the passenger.
Closer home, I had a wonderful experience with the Srinagar cabbies, when I was sent to that city for a short assignment. This was in 2005 and the tourists were still apprehensive about planning a holiday to this paradise on Earth. I was a little apprehensive, when I landed at the Srinagar Airport but after interacting with the locals, I felt it was as safe as any other city in India. People were very warm and friendly and went out of their way to help any Tourist. My cabbie was very soft spoken and he hardly drove the cab above the 40km/per hour limit. I was wondering why he was different compared to others who drove on the Srinagar roads at high speed. Later I came to know, that he had couple of bypass surgeries and was not willing to take any chance by driving rashly. He was the only bread winner for the family and his absence from work meant his family had to go almost hungry. The lean tourist season had affected their business very badly. On the day, he dropped me to the Airport for my onward journey back home; I wished him good health; good tourist season and offered a tip equivalent to the US dollars I had paid to the ungrateful US cabbie. After some reluctance, he accepted the tip. The smile on his face brightened the entire environment around him and even my delayed flight back home had no moment of anxiety within me.
Sometime in June 2008, I was asked to attend a Seminar in Munich, Germany. Summer in Germany is a unique experience, when people are in the best of spirits literally. A trip to Munich is incomplete without a Visit to the Hofbräuhaus, the famous Bavarian style Beer hall. I enjoyed Munich as much as the warm and friendly Münchners. I would never come across a city again, I thought, wherein people gave lot of importance to time be it the Hotel chef who served my Cheese and Egg Omelette in 3 minutes flat as promised or the friendly cabbie who arrived at the Hotel lobby 15 minutes before the appointed time to take me to the Airport. Somewhat Asian looking, I picked up a conversation with this cabbie, who had earlier greeted me Guten Tag (Good Day in German). The cabbie turned out to be an Afghan, who had settled down 6 years ago at Munich. He tried to speak with me in broken Urdu and became very emotional when I asked him about his homeland and his thoughts on India- Afghanistan relations. Most of the cabbies, be it in India or abroad, are often well read and I think their political opinion is well sought after since their attachment to the print media is more than anyone else. The newspapers give them the right company, while they wait for their next Customer. This Pathan, too, was well read. He felt bad about the war in his country and was very glad about India’s role in transforming his country. He echoed the feelings of his countrymen, by showing lot of interest in Bollywood and India’s rich cultural heritage. When I got down at the Airport, the Pathan embraced me in true Afghan style; wished me happy journey back home and asked me to pray for his country. Maybe the thought that my flight to India passes over his Motherland’s airspace, excited him more……
When most Indian tourists were dreading to visit Sri Lanka, thanks to militancy in that region, I chose this destination to spend the Year New of 2009 with my family including my parents. We were greeted with folded hands (like our Namaste) coupled with the words “AYUBOWAN” or May you live long (equivalent to our Ayushmaan Bhava) at the Colombo Airport, by Thilak, our Tour guide doubling up as the van driver for the 1 week of road trip across the country. He mingled with us so well that we felt he was one amongst us. He ensured my parents were comfortable and stopped whenever he sighted tender coconuts, sold near the roadside. Sometimes when we missed Indian cuisine, he ensured to take us to the right restaurant, that serves authentic India cuisine. At Colombo, where the security was very high, he introduced us to the army men as friendly neighbours whenever we were stopped at the checkpoint. Immediately we could see the smile on the young faces…most of them young ladies. At the time of dropping us back to the Airport he became extremely emotional and gave us his contact number and address asking us to visit Sri Lanka again ….but as his guests.
In February 2009, I was in London for couple of weeks on an official trip. The Asians must be forming almost 80% of the cabbies in the UK just as in US or Australia or UAE. Most of the cabbies in this sleepy suburban town called Slough, where I stayed, are from Pakistan. Normally these cabbies desist from making any political statement about India-Pakistan relationship but rather feel that we should live as friendly neighbours and squarely blame the politicians for the current state of affairs. I have seen the Indian and Pakistani cabbies mingle so freely in a foreign land as if they belong to the same hometown. Maybe it has got to do with the common language and culture that bind both these countrymen. Most of these cabbies have to send money back home and hence work almost round the clock, unlike the locals who prefer 8 hours shift and a relaxing weekend. Someone in the office, where I worked, slipped a Visiting card of a Mr. Khan, London Taxi Driver. Let me try Mr. Khan’s service for the journey back to my Hotel, I thought. Little did I know that this Khan would become my “un”official chauffeur for rest of my stay in Slough. He ensured that I never engaged another cabbie, by offering me a reasonable fare and prompt service at all times. Once while driving back to the Hotel, we stopped for a few minutes, while my friend had to make some purchase in the local store. I asked Khan as to why he was slogging so hard. His eyes moistened and he began by telling me his story. He had come to London 20 years ago after his marriage. His 3 kids were born in the UK and had adopted the English culture that included pubbing and dating. They could not be disciplined since he feared they may go to the local Police and complain against him. Two of his kids were girls of marriageable age and he feared they would run away with local British boys. He was hence planning to take his children to Pakistan and get both the girls married, without their knowledge. He was slogging to earn the air fare for his large family and the marriage ceremony back home. I could not say a word since I did not know how to react and what to suggest. I felt he was wrong in not letting his daughters know about the plan but after all he was a parent and wanted his kids to follow the culture of his motherland, which is fast diminishing in a foreign land. He had to leave the next day for Pakistan and asked his brother to be his replacement for rest of my stay at Slough. I wished him good luck and hoped he took the right decision.
This is another story of a Londoner, Alex Lawrence, who actually moonlighted as a cabbie for me though he was the operator of the Cab company based at Vauxhall. I had made him an offer he could not refuse….to drive me down from the Hotel to the Client’s office at Canary Wharf and bring me back too for one full month. He was a professional Snooker and quite well read. We in fact became very close friends during this period, discussing Football and other things. Incidentally it was World Cup 2010 time and England was losing badly to all the teams. He was a big fan of the English team and I loved taunting him. He is my friend on Facebook and we are still in touch. He became my official cabbie during all my future visits to London.
In May 2012, I was visiting Bangkok for a conference. My friend who had been to Bangkok before, strongly recommended that I hire a cabbie named Poonsuk, who could speak in English. I hence reached out to Poonsuk, who was extremely email savvy and was happy to be my cabbie cum guide during my short business trip. Poonsuk was nicknamed “Funsuk Wangdu” by me from the popular movie “3 Idiots”. In Thailand, the local populace hardly speak good English and Poonsuk was an exception. One has to use hand gestures or use calculators to communicate especially in the local markets or even in the Malls. Poonsuk played latest Bollywood chartbusters while on my way to the Hotel from the Airport. I could see very few people on the road and asked Poonsuk about it. He laughed saying Bangkok wakes up at night while people sleep in the mornings. Bangkok roads are notorious for the worst traffic jams in this part of the world. However the early morning ride was extremely smooth and it took us just 30 mins to cover a distance of 20 miles, whereas the same journey takes not less than 75 minutes during normal traffic hours. Poonsuk was my guide during this trip and he was the one who drew up my itinerary so that I did not miss any important landmark in and around Bangkok. After coming back to India, I recommended Poonsuk to many friends visiting Bangkok. It is always better to have a known person as your guide in the city, you are visiting for the first time. He fulfilled the role admirably well and insisted I visit Bangkok again in the near future, while dropping me back at the Airport.
This incident happened in June 2012, when I visited Lima, the capital city of Peru. The Peruvians are very friendly people but the only challenge is the language to converse with them. I would not recommend a lonely trip in a cab or otherwise, unless you are accompanied by a local. I had a tough time with a local cabbie about the currency note I handed over to him at the end of the trip. He seemed to accuse me of giving him a fake note, which I understood much later as both did not understand each other’s language. I pushed the note inside and walked away hurriedly into the office premises. I was severely admonished by my office colleagues for taking the risk of hiring a public cab. For rest of the days, one of my office colleagues would come and pick me up from the Hotel and drop me back.
In December 2014, I was on a business trip to Beijing in China. My first interaction with the Chinese, outside the Airport premises, was a real test of endurance. The test began when I took a cab from the airport to Fairmont Hotel, a distance of about 40 kms. The driver knew no English and I had a tough time communicating to him about the fare details and the location to be dropped, He repeatedly said “NO” to whatever question I asked him. Maybe he knew only Yes and No from the English lexicon. FortunatelyI had carried the directions to the Hotel in Chinese which he could not decipher so easily. After some struggle, we reached the Hotel and his “NO” was indeed a “YES” to all my questions. I wanted a receipt and wanted to know if he knew the place where we were going. I wished, the cabbies in China especially in the capital city of Beijing, were given a crash course on basic English to deal with foreigners given that tourism is a booming industry in China especially Beijing.
On a holiday to the North East in November 2015, I had booked a taxi to drive us down to Shillong from Guwahati followed by a tour of Meghalaya and then to the world famous Kaziranga wildlife sanctuary. The taxi was hired for 5 days and we were assigned a chauffeur named Zakir, who was our unofficial guide for the 5 days tour. He became completely attached to me and wife as if he was an extended family member. When my wife was unwell due to motion sickness, he was extremely concerned and arranged for medicines when we landed at Shillong from Guwahati. He had tears in his yeas at the time of bidding us adieu. He said he had never enjoyed driving in North East before and had in fact loved exploring Meghalaya with us. He asked us to return again to the North East very soon and explore Arunachal Pradesh with him. With this promise we bade him goodbye and to the North East.
On our trip to Bali in January 2019, I was assured by my Travel Agent that we have been assigned one of the best guides known to have a fine sense of humour. We were welcomed by an elderly looking Sutappa, probably in his mid 60s but possessing the spirit of a youngster. He was accompanied by the driver named Reagan. He kept us highly engaged with his talk on Hinduism in Bali, about the history of various sites and he also sang local Balinese songs for us. Thanks to Sutappa we were aware of the various festivals, customs, the caste system of Bali. His recommendation to attend certain cultural shows, that were not part of the itinerary, was indeed appreciated by all. On the day of departure he brought us a bag of local “Balinese crackers” (to be fried and eaten). He is still in touch with me through WhatsApp and keeps me updated on Bali while I help him with references of Indian tourists planning to visit Bali. He plans to start his own Travel agency very soon and I wish him all the best.
On our recent trip to Bhutan in May 2019, we were assigned a driver for the entire duration of the trip and I was a bit surprised when my travel agent said the driver is a woman. Ms Dema was waiting at the airport lounge, as our DrukAir flight was landing at Paro airport and she immediately clicked my photo the moment she saw me on the tarmac. The photo was sent to me just to confirm she had come to pick us up and that she recognised me 🙂 Best use of technology, I felt !! Dema could speak English and Hindi fluently and she volunteered to be our Guide as well through the 5 days tour, which we gladly accepted. She said her husband takes care of kids and homely chores so that she could focus on her job. She was a fairly independent lady, who had education upto Intermediate (not a Graduate) level but was well groomed and had a certain amount of poise in her. We depended on her tips and guidance and she was bang on every time. Like my friend Sutappa, Dema too dreamt of becoming an independent Travel Guide and Agent. She wanted more Indians to visit Bhutan and was happy to help them plan their itinerary, stay and travel. Perhaps she chose the best way of becoming an entrepreneur, I felt. I am sure she will succeed in her venture.