My tryst with Cabbies around the World

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.

Last year (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……

Early this year (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.

Yours Truly,

Arvind Kamath

About the Author:
Arvind works for EDS, an HP company and is based out of Bangalore, India. Prior to HP, he was employed by Infosys Technologies. Both these companies gave him an opportunity to see the world, while on consulting assignments.

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