I’ve had a lot of taxi rides in my life. There was the client-paid Euro 300- ride from Frankfurt to Düsseldorf at 5 a.m. when they realized they need an American lawyer present for a closing at the last minute. The first New York City taxi ride where I realized the “TV cutout” in the security screen gave the deceptive illusion that what had just happened in that small space was actually what my vehicle had just done and that it was kind of dangerous. The ride in Accra where the driver explained to me why there are no seatbelts in taxis there to secure my son’s carseat. (So they don’t strangle the driver and carjack him.) And the most memorable one to date, in Hong Kong, where the driver whipped and weaved so violently that a 3-year-old DB1 gave me an impromptu watermelon juice and calamari shower. Not DiploDad. Just me. Ewww.
A lot of countries have a “taxi culture”, but India has one of the most memorable, I am 100% certain.
There are a few different types of taxis. For the young hipster crowd, there is Uber Cabs. At least until the government actually comes through on its promise to shut it down until they get regulated, licensed, or possibly pay an extra fee. (Read into that what you will.) There are also what are known as “cool cabs”, air-conditioned, sanitized, and hermetically sealed. DiploDad prefers them, especially when he’s in a suit and tie. Bo-RING.
I myself prefer the “Bumblebees”: tiny black and yellow cabs of indeterminate age and condition. There’s nothing more exhilarating than flying down the Marg (street), hair in the wind of the overheated air blowing through all four windows, with the back seat shaking and with the bolts loose, while classical Indian music blares along with static from an ancient radio. Or sitting in a nicely re-upholstered seat with a shiny new vinyl ceiling covered with photos of fruit baskets while your driver stops to open the door at every stoplight to spit out paan juice. Bumblebees are like that proverbial box of chocolates – you hail one, and you never know what you’re going to get.
There is a taxi stand right next to the service entrance of our building, and it didn’t take long for the cabbies to start to recognize me. There aren’t many blond women with two pale little boys in our neighborhood, after all. The line up along the muddy patch of road, polishing their cars, chewing paan, and sleeping in their taxis. When we head out, we are met with either enthusiasm, or indifference, and there’s no telling why it’s one or the other. Some days, they are so nice and cheery I feel like I am finally at home and “getting this” and other days they are rude, derisive, and snotty and I wind up stalking off with my kids in hand towards the main road because I am NOT going to pay R300 for a normal R70 taxi ride. Most of the time now though, they know that the blond lady only pays “meter”, but she rounds up to the next R100, and they get on with it. DiploDad and I had a serious argument when we first came here about “paying meter”. He said it didn’t matter, just negotiate price and go, it was worth it to him. I told him he was making my life difficult, and incrementally expensive. I won this argument when we left a local mall on meter with a charge of R60 and everyone had approached him with a price of R250. They still try this when he is with us. They lose to the Blond Devil Lady. Every. Single. Time.
Most of the Bumblebees are tricked OUT, and it’s fun to ride through the streets of Mumbai, windows down, hot air blasting through your hair, with Ganesh on the dashboard, marigolds on the front grill and incense burning on the dash. At night, we try to hail a “disco cab” as the DiploBoys call them – one with a neon miniature temple on the dash that pulses in time with the traffic.
The cabbies are a mixed bunch, and each one more quirky than the next, although they generally fall into one of several categories. Category I: Young Hip Guy who would rather be anywhere but driving you. Expect to be ignored, have him scroll through his iPhone at stoplights (or while driving until you tell him to knock it off when he almost hits a donkey cart) and exude a general air of malaise. Category II: the Old Pro. The Old Pro has been driving a cab since before Siva was born. He has a head of crazy hair, often flecked with grey, gaps in his mouth where a few of his paan-stained teeth are missing, and he drives with the reckless abandon of Burt Reynolds in a 1970s Smokey and The Bandit movie. (Yeah, if you’re a child of the 80’s, look it up. I’ll wait.) He knows where things are and understands English perfectly, but he also is the one who is most likely to try the “side street hustle” and amp up the number on the meter. Category III: The Genuine Nice Guy. The GNG has only been driving 2-4 years. He knows Mumbai, but didn’t grow up here. He is curious about foreigners, and most likely to remember you on repeat trips. He will point out sights along the way, and he is the best one to ask where to find the best sev puri or how the latest Bollywood movie was. He shares his Indian culture, and is generally a kind, curious, and gentle soul. He is also, however, the one most likely to get you lost. Finally, there is Category IV: The Political Nutjob. The PoliNut will make sure that you understand the politics of pre-partition India. He will “educate” you on the wrongness of everything America has done in the last four decades until you switch to one of the other languages you speak and start a conversation with your kids or husband and he freaks out and begins to second guess himself. That is always a fun way to end a ride.
The most memorable cab rides since I’ve been here have been with just me and the DiploBoys. On one particular cab ride, DB1 and I were headed off to soccer practice. We grabbed a cab from the side of the building, tooling along, no conversation, when suddenly, at a bend on the road, the cabbie jumped out, leaving the car running and the keys in the ignition, saying quickly one word: “washroom”. DB1 and I looked at each other. We watched him rush back behind us a few meters to a public restroom. We looked back at the dashboard, the key vibrating in the idling vehicle. And then DB1 gave a sly grin said the six words in that evil little tone that only an 11-year-old can muster: “I double dog dare you, Mom”. Me. The Bumblebee. Not a cop in sight. Hmmmm….
Another time, the DiploBoys and I got into a cab on the way home from school and DB2 was singing one of the songs from a recent popular Bollywood movie. The cabbie laughed, pulled out an iPhone and began blasting “India Waale” at the top volume while the boys, the cabbie and I enjoyed a Bollywood dance party all the way home, with the occasional taxi load of folks joining in at stoplights.
Finally, there was the Nicest Cabbie I’ve Ever Known, and I don’t even know who he is. When on the way to the Breach Candy Club one Sunday to swim, DB2 stowed his flippers in the back of the taxi. I hadn’t seen him do it, and DiploDad hadn’t either as he was in the front seat, praying the burning incense didn’t land in his lap. DB2 forgot the flippers, and we only realized it once we were inside the club and the cab was long gone. DB2 cried, I scolded and hugged, and told myself to add swim fin replacement to my list of things to do. Two days later, as DB2 and I were walking back out of the service entrance to catch yet another Bumblebee, the security x-ray lady called out to us. She had the swim fins. The cabbie recognized them, remembered where he’d picked us up, and brought them back to security to give to us. I thanked the lady profusely, and DB2 was so happy as he hugged his fins. He’d left no name. No cell number. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and faith in my fellow man.
Especially if the fellow man is a Bumblebee cabbie.