They run out of the international airport into the sunlight and heat. Racing to the nearest vehicle, they fling their bags into the trunk. One asks the driver, “Do you know how to get to 123 Old Yola Road?” The other talks right over the first, “Do you speak English?” They jump in the car, shouting, “Go, go, go!”
The driver nods his head, “Yes.” It isn’t clear which question he’s replying to, and he seems a little unsure himself.
Soon he pulls over and starts to get out. “Benzine…” he explains. Eventually, he manages to make them understand that he needs money for fuel. “Just our luck, picking the taxi that is out of gas!” He buys fuel from a roadside stand in an old 1-liter water bottle and pours it into the gas tank.
Hopping back in, the drive continues. Time passes and they start getting impatient. The driver just shrugs and refuses to look them in the face or answer their questions. He may let loose a string of words in a language they do not understand. They start talking to each other. Their speech is in English, but their tone and facial expressions would be clear in any language, “Stupid driver. This guy is useless! Bad taxi luck again…”
The driver looks more and more miserable. Eventually, after about an hour, they have lost patience, “He has no idea where we are going.” Now there is another hour of stopping every few minutes to ask directions from other people who don’t speak English. Eventually, they find where they are supposed to be going. The price that the driver asks is far higher than what he quoted early in the drive, “Now I need a little extra.” An argument ensues and finally they fling a few American bills at him. “Man, we always have the worst luck with taxis,” they growl as they stomp away.
This vignette repeats itself every single week on The Amazing Race. It is a good example of what not to do. Unfortunately, we’ve all made at least a few of these mistakes. Taking a taxi in the Emerging World requires a special set of skills and knowledge. Let’s study the disaster and see what lessons we can learn.
The Taxi Cartel
The first thing to realize is that on a street at random, we can take any taxi we can get to stop. And it’s usually easy to get taxis to stop for westerners. But in a controlled setting like an airport or bus terminal, a major market, or a luxury hotel, the situation is much more rigid.
Each of these often has a taxi cartel. Only its members are allowed to park in front of it and solicit fares. Likewise, no other taxi is permitted to simply pull up and collect riders. Violations rapidly descend into shouting matches, angry crowds, and even beatings.
Call a Taxi
The best and safest way is to call a taxi. Either have a regular taxi driver (& he’s worth his weight in gold, so compensate him well), or if we’re in an unfamiliar area, at least ask the concierge or other authority figure to recommend a taxi. If it is one that we use regularly, and it isn’t part of the local cartel, have it pull up just outside the compound, and just walk out to it.
When our taxi pulls up, the natural inclination is to walk over and immediately start putting our bags in, or (more usually) allowing the driver to do so. Instead, we should pull out our phone and hit [redial], to call the number we just called to summon the taxi. If the driver’s phone doesn’t audibly ring, simply walk away. This is good confirmation that we have the authentic taxi we requested. Others may be a kidnapping attempt, or commonly just a random taxi driver attempting to pick up a lucrative westerner.
There is such a thing as a stupid question. “Do you know where this address is?” is a good example. There is no way that any taxi driver is going to answer this, “No.” First, he may make more off of a simple ride for a westerner than from the rest of his fares all day, so he’s not going to do anything to jeopardize it. Secondly, the entire point of his job is transportation, so he has his pride involved. Of course he knows where it is! How dare we even doubt it? He knows the location of everyplace in town.
Addresses in the Emerging World
Addresses in the United States follow a well-defined format. Just the street number, name, and zip code or town is enough to determine a specific place for a taxi, E911, or mapping software.
Many places in the Emerging World, the situation is much less standardized. Roads have names, often just what town they lead to (which of course changes, depending on which end of the road we’re at), but house numbers are much rarer. Some locations are well known: “Take me to the American Embassy.” Other locations have names, such as Elm House. Yet others may include a house number or name, but also specify directions, even in the mailing address, such as, “Net Cafe, on Gowan Way across from the old Post Office.”
Even town and village names can vary. In a mobile signal survey of northern Nigeria, I discovered that villages often varied widely in spelling between Open Street Maps, Google Earth, and two different printed maps. There also wasn’t any consistency: sometimes two would agree, and other times one of them would agree with the third or fourth. As a broad generalization, Google Earth tends to have names spelled like westerners would spell them phonetically, while Open Street Maps has names spelled the way that locals spell them in their heart language, but even that has large exceptions.
The Correct Way to Give an Address
Because of all this, the trick is to mention the neighborhood in which a building is located.
The correct way to ask if a driver knows how to get to someplace is to ask an open-ended question, “Excuse me, but what part of town is 123 Old Yola Road?” That solicits more information. Not only do we get deeper insight into whether or not he knows where we are going, but we also can judge his communication skills.
The correct way to give an address is to give the neighborhood as well as the specific address, “Please take us to 123 Old Yola Road, in Anglo Jos.” Even if the taxi driver really is clueless about the address, we’ve immediately got him headed in the right direction.
It is common for a taxi driver to arrive in the right neighborhood, and then just stop and ask someone for specific directions to the right house. This is normal and acceptable business practice. The local residents are likely to know exactly where something is and give good directions.
Make sure that the driver understands our desired final destination, but allow him to ask for directions. He speaks the local language and is already familiar with the town. He is far better situated to both ask and understand the directions than are we.
The Taxi Driver’s Assumptions
A taxi driver should recognize any major location. For others, absent a neighborhood, he is going to assume that as westerners, we of course want to go to the part of town where western embassies and hotels are located. Why would we want to go anywhere else?
He will drive to that neighborhood, and then drive back and forth in circles around nearby blocks. He assumes we know where we’re are going. He is hoping that we’re going to suddenly say, “That’s it! Pull over next to that building.”
We can bypass this by finding out the neighborhood ahead of time, and then saying, “I’m not sure from here. May we ask directions from this local?” That way we’re the ones who are admitting ignorance and his pride is intact.
People in the Emerging World often have a much shorter timeframe of reference for planning purposes than Americans do. We postpay our utilities for convenience, and assume that the basic infrastructure of life will be working tomorrow much like it worked today.
In many parts of the world, history has shown that assumption is not safe. People make rational decisions, but based upon a much shorter timeframe of hours, not days or weeks. Thus, “Why save money for the electric bill if the electricity may not be on tomorrow anyways?” The book African Friends and Money Matters, by David Meranz, explains this issue in much greater detail and should be required reading for anyone Visiting Friends.
Most taxis run on just enough fuel in the tank to get the driver to his next fare. After all, why spend money on filling all the way up when the car may break down tomorrow? “If I get a fare, I will be earning money, and that will pay for the fuel to the next stop.”
Fuel in the Emerging World comes in a lot of formats. Official filling stations can be similar to what we have in the West, but full-service & prepaid. On the other end, if gas is in short supply and rationed, our taxi driver may pull into a deserted lane and hop out to run get a liter of fuel from a black marketeer. It isn’t uncommon for it to be sold by the side of the road in old plastic water bottles.
Dissing Your Driver
Even someone who doesn’t speak our language can infer a lot just by tone of voice and expression. Why talk down about someone in front of them, even if what we’re are saying is true? (And it probably isn’t…) Keep cheerful and catch flies with honey, not vinegar.
A driver who is confused is nothing compared to a driver who is actually angry with how he is being treated. He may drive around for hours and intentionally misunderstand us. Why not be polite instead?
Now I Need a Little Extra…
If it has taken a while to find a destination, the driver may ask for a higher price than originally quoted. This is incredibly frustrating. His original price was probably quite generous because we’re westerners. And now he’s raising it! Maybe he is just gouging us?
That is certainly possible, especially if we’ve made him angry. However, if what he thought was a 15 minute trip turned into a two-hour drive in circles, then he really does need more money than originally agreed upon. He is living each day hand-to-mouth, and while he may have a good living compared to a day laborer, keep in mind that we make far more in an hour than he does in an entire day. If he doesn’t turn a profit today, he and his family may indeed go hungry tonight.
It’s frustrating, but it’s better to perhaps be gouged than to let people go hungry. Pay the man. And next time, be prepared with at least the name of the neighborhood to which we’re headed.
Bailing On a Driver
In the event that it becomes clear that we absolutely must change drivers, be careful. Just getting out at a random location in the middle of an Emerging World city can place us in an extremely dangerous situation.
Wait until we see a hotel or government building, or some location with some kind of organized security presence. Then point, and say, “There! There!” He may be confused and disagree, realizing that it’s not where we originally asked, but he should pull over. (If he doesn’t, that’s a strong sign that we’ve got much bigger problems…)
Get out and make sure we’ve got all our luggage. Pay him. No tip, but don’t haggle, either.
Once he’s taken care of and dismissed, then ask the local building greeter/guard to call us a taxi. Do not ask the taxi driver we just left to call us another taxi.
On the Amazing Race, some teams consistently arrive at their destinations before the other teams, and some consistently show up last, episode after episode. There isn’t a lot of luck in it. Some have good taxi skills and some don’t. It is irrelevant if a team is young and in shape, whipping through challenges in an hour, if it always takes them six hours to get across town to the next location.
Taxi Luck is what we make of it. Ask hosts for the name of a couple good taxi drivers. And if a ride was a pleasant experience, be sure to ask the driver for his handy number (phone number). Tip him well and he’ll be happy to drive across town just to pick us up next time. He’ll keep us safe and offer a lot of great tips on appreciating the local culture. A good taxi driver is one of the most valuable resources when Visiting Friends.