Monday, 22 February 2010

The (taxi) ride of your life

In trying to drum up something to write about, as I haven't typed anything in a while, I initially thought about writing on the mental and physical effects living abroad can cause. Then, ironically, it turned out to be too depressing and dull to write about, so I've settled to instead talking about a completely unique and life-threatening form of Russian transport - the gypsy cab.

I'm not too sure where the practice originates from. Maybe it stems from the economic hoo-haa of Communist times, combined with the whole 'equality' ideology as well. The basic process is this, and you don't need your phone to call up some pithy taxi company:

1) Go to the side of the road, preferably the busiest;
2) Stick out your hand (this is known as поймать машину poi-i-mat ma-shi-nu lit. catch a car);
3) Watch in amusement as several automobiles, usually the shitty ones, swerve across a few lanes to make it to the kerb;

[What a Moscow taxi maybe should look like, but yours certainly won't.]

4) At this point, carefully open the front passenger door of the first car, lest you break it. Confront the driver brusquely, state where you're going and how much you are going to pay. If he agrees: jump in beside him, as opposed to the back seat and off you go. If not, slam the door in his face and walk to the next one. Eventually, by the third or fourth, you'll get where you want for what you want. Always negotiate a price before getting in, and, although this should go without saying, never get into a car with two people in it.

Now for the ride itself. Quality of conversation - if you choose to have one - can range from simple chit-chat (traffic, weather) to historical debates (life in the Soviet Union) to them spouting racist outbursts. It also depends on whether or not the man (I've hitched a ride on two separate occasions with women, one of which was very manly and didn't charge me a dime, as it was a short journey to the end of a one-way street anyway, the other was a German real estate agent) is drinking stary melnik beer, smoking belamor cigarettes, eating sunflower seeds, or fooling around with his portable DVD player.

None of this is an exaggeration, I've been in a gypsy cab where at least one of these things has occurred. In some occurrences they've been nigh on terrifying. This New Year's drive home at 4am from my friend's flat I will never forget, for instance. I was with a lady friend, and I got the feeling the driver was trying to be the cock of the walk . It had also snowed heavily, so the roads weren't exactly ideal, but the metro was closed for another couple of hours, so death cab it was.

I've never been driven home so fast through so much snow with no real concern on the driver's part. He was doing the usual chit chat, and was on his mobile phone a lot, only pausing in conversation to whip the wheel around corners. Four hundred roubles for the pleasure (about eight quid).

Thankfully, having had a chance encounter with an English person at the airport a while back and sharing a taxi home, I now know that there are many reputable companies. For the expats, here's one called XXL, and you can call them at +74959958294, but you should really only consider them for long distance journeys to the airports. Domodedovo, for instance, is about 50 kilometers away.

Another instance was meeting a Dublin couple on the street a year ago. They had backpacks on, due to take the Transiberian express in a couple of days, and were looking decidedly lost, so my friend and I helped them find the nearby hostel, then went and grabbed a drink in the center to celebrate, only for us to realize later that it was a national holiday and the metro closed early. So we caught a ludicrously small, pathetic looking, clapped-out gypsy cab to squeeze into. My friend and I are desensitized to such things, but upon seeing the faces of the Dubliners halfway through the journey, I realized that the two of them probably won't forget the encounter for some time.

It's snowing a hell of a lot right now. Heaviest in 40 years. Take that, Luzhkov!

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