Beirut is a city of two million souls and what often feels like 16 million cars. Organized, reliable and clean public transport is virtually inexistent. We use our cars drive 15 minutes through dense traffic to a place we could have walked to in half the time. Everyday new combinations of swearwords are concocted by irate motorists, festering behind the wheels of their vehicles, their palms dampened, their brows collecting sweat above angry eyes. The ubiquitous car horn overshadows your in-car musical selection, and adds that crowning touch to the symphony of mayhem that are Lebanese roads.
Whilst in a rush hour traffic jam ten days ago, I got rear-ended by a distracted female driver. And it’s not as fun as it sounds. My car is in the shop for a few weeks, so I’m rediscovering the joys (or lack thereof) of making my way around Beirut using my wits and some crumpled thousand lira notes, which inevitably means a succession of taxis and serveeces.
The taxi driver anywhere in the world is an odd entity. Part driver, part psychiatrist, part friend, part annoyance. As a motorist in Lebanon, I’ve found them mainly to be an annoyance so far, with their frequent stops and blatant disregard for traffic regulations, where they exist. But now as a passenger, I’ve come to love these unsung heroes of the road.
As I was heading to work the other day, my cabbie surprised me by assaulting me with a plethora of obscure facts about global warming. He then elaborated on his entire political belief system, which he very accurately described as Northern European Social Democrat. After single-handedly finding a solution to Middle East peace, he’d managed to restore my faith in humanity in 10 stress-free minutes. He tried to refuse to take any money from me, since he’d enjoyed the conversation as much as I had. But I insisted, such good work couldn’t go unappreciated.
Later that same day I hailed the archetypal battered old Mercedes serveece. I’ve always believed Mercedes should use these cars as posters for the endurance of their vehicles. This particular Merc seemed to have about 10% of its original parts, and was held together mainly by wishful thinking rather than any sort of welding work. The driver started discussing the various types of surgeries he’d seen performed on the Reality Channel. After initially fearing this meant he was going to drive me down a dark alley and remove my spleen with a pocket knife, I realized he as just very proud of his intellectual curiosity. As was I.
This got me thinking about how many times taxi drivers have proven to be the highlight of my day. I remember one time in London, I’d grabbed one of those illegal minicabs that loiter around at the exits of nightclubs. The Vauxhall Astra that lay before me was the oddest shade of green, and the driver looked like he’d been having a much merrier night than me. I cast all caution to the wind, as one does with most 3am decisions, and hopped in the passenger seat. After exchanging niceties about ethnic origins and whatnot, the cabbie looked at me solemnly and said: ”you are not happy with your life, but this will change. You are destined for great things. I like your charisma”. Disregarding the fact this declaration was brought about by the fact he had obviously been smoking a pretty wide array of illicit substances, I took it to heart, especially since it had been a particularly tough few months. We then proceeded to sign a medley of Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits with all the windows rolled down as he zoomed through West London, in violation of at least 13 laws.
Later that same week, I happened upon a Polish driver who was an opera enthusiast and gave me a crash course in the subject over a 20-minute ride, complete with occasional outbursts of song. I’ve learnt about the conflict in Eritrea and Kashmir from cabbies. I’ve learnt Brazilian sayings, and the latest football analysis.
I’ve also learned about the cities I was visiting. After landing in Prague for the first time, and armed with every cultural cliché passed on through films like Hostel, I hopped into a cab fully expecting to be sold to Georgian human traffickers by the time I reached the hotel. To my surprise, I was given a historical narration of every building I passed, to the gentle sound of Czech heavy metal, by one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met.
You can tell a lot about a city from its taxi drivers. You can sense the diversity of a place and its friendliness. Taking a cab in Paris is pretty revelatory, for example. If you manage to find one that is. I once asked a Parisian cabbie who had his radio firmly set on Folk Songs of Brittany if he had Radio Nova, to jazz things up a bit. He responded: “Yes, but we’re not going to listen to it. And refrain from using your mobile phone whilst in my car”. That tells you all you need to know about Paris frankly.
I had a Haitian cab driver in Miami once who recited a good portion of the New Testament as he was speeding down a busy highway, which I took to mean he was intent on sending us headfirst into the harbour. I’ve had racist cabbies around the world look at my beard and dark hair and ask what I was doing in town exactly. But I’ve also had a cabbie park his car after the fare was paid so we could continue our discussion of paranoia-themed 70s movies for another half an hour.
For every aggressive, disagreeable driver, there is an uplifting and inspirational one. I’m looking forward to the two weeks I have left with the taxi drivers and serveeces of Beirut. Maybe they’ll teach me a few things, maybe I’ll teach them a few things. And maybe, just maybe, when I’m back behind the wheel of my car I’ll think twice about honking my horn at them when they slam their brakes to pick up a passenger. Maybe, just maybe. But probably not.