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Anatomy of a Taxi Ride

"Traffic Safety and Road Conditions: Travel by road in Qatar is generally safe. Roads in Doha and Qatar's highway system are well planned and engineered. Informal rules of the road and local customs, however, may prove frustrating for first time visitors..."

-- Official US State Department Travel Advice on Qatar

Jennifer and I have no car in Doha. In this car-bound society, therefore, we must rely on taxis to go anywhere. What follows is a description of what we commonly encounter.

Finding a Cab

Finding a taxi is usually no problem. At least when you don't want one. It seems that almost once a minute, a taxi driver will come screaming by, blaring his horn to announce his presence, offering you a ride. This is usually quite annoying.

However, when actively looking for a taxi, especially on a nice hot and humid summer day, they can be hard to come by. The best strategy is to find a shady spot under a tree or next to a building, and just wait. Often you will spot an apparently empty taxi coming your way, and, bracing yourself for the inevitable horn blast, you start waving, only to notice a passenger slouched down in the back seat. Your hopes are dashed once again as the driver speeds away.

Greetings and Small Talk

When an empty taxi finally picks you up, the first thing is to tell the driver where you are going. While sometimes easy, this can often be quite a challenge. Language is one barrier, as is the complete lack of an address system in Doha. All navigation is landmark based, and different people have different names for each place. If you are not attentive, it is entirely possible to end up at a destination far from where you wanted to go.

As the driver speeds off, he will start frantically searching his radio for some vaguely American sounding music while you in turn are trying to figure out how to get the seat belt to work. The seat belts are often a lost cause, as the belt is either tied in a knot or missing altogether. Even when you successfully manage to get the thing around you, the catch will somehow be broken, making it nearly impossible to get out of, or the belt will leave a grayish-brown streak across the front of your freshly washed shirt. On particularly bad days, both will happen.

The second phase involves small talk. I know some Arabic, Hindi, and Urdu, and most drivers know a little English, so the conversation is often carried out in a linguistic jumble with much gesticulating for emphasis, or to fill in a missing word. There is a ritual set of questions that must be asked. First is "Where are you from?" After replying "America," the driver typically says "Ohhh. America number 1!" Usually, the driver is from Peshawar, a Pakistani city near the Afghan frontier. Precisely, from Kohat, a town 60 km from Peshawar. Drivers are amazed when I guess this ("You know Kohat?!?"), but there is no trick to it. Simply the entire male population of Kohat is in Doha driving taxis. (On rare occasions, the driver is from Afghanistan, and inevitably his favorite movie will be Rambo III, which is shown frequently on TV in Doha. Most Afghanis love to see Sylvester Stallone with his huge machine gun, kicking some serious Russian butt.)

Next comes "How long in Doha?" My reply "One and a half years" brings the inevitable response "Ohhh. Not long!" (Actually, it seems very long.) After this, there may be a short silence. During this time, you can examine the taxi to see what type of carpeting has been riveted to the dashboard, the color and condition of the custom vinyl upholstery, what variety of tassels are hanging from the ceiling, and what sorts of doodads illuminate when the brakes are applied, which they rarely are. If the seat belts are dysfunctional, it is a good time to take a moment to contemplate the inevitable forehead sized crack on the windshield in front of you.

At this point, the conversation usually starts up again. One of two things is discussed, depending on the operational state of the seat belts. If they are working, while you are trying vainly to wipe off the grayish-brown stain from the front of your shirt, the driver will tell you about how many guns people have in his home town. In one instance, the driver pointed to a picture of two young children, about 5 and 7 years old, each toting a Kalishnakov. "My kids," he said proudly. Another time, the driver told me how much the price of a Stinger missile had fallen since the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan. The most recent going rate was about $500.

If, on the other hand, the seat belts are not working, the driver will shun all talk of guns, and instead discuss how many accidents he has had since he started driving his taxi. "23 accidents in 8 months. Driving in Doha very bad!" one told me. Others report similar numbers. Once I inquired about the forehead sized crack in the windshield, hitting my head with my hand for emphasis. The driver replied "Rock throwing!" Yeah, right. The city is filled with crazed rock-throwing punks, targeting only the passenger side of taxi windshields, hurling forehead sized rocks. That explains why the crime rate is so low in Doha -- all the malcontents are busy collecting rocks and stalking taxis. It is during these conversations that the driver tends to get excited and drive extra fast, sometimes leaning out his window to shout ferocious bits of Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, or Keralite at some guy he just cut off.

Arrival

At last you arrive at your destination. You tell the driver to stop, which is promptly ignored. When he has figured out what you are saying, the driver will jam on the brakes hard and the stopping is often accompanied by a small skid on any loose sand and dirt on the street, and a loud blast of the horn from a tailgating truck who must swerve into the next lane of traffic to avoid rear-ending the cab. At night, as you are fumbling in your wallet for money (in the dark as the interior lights rarely work), the driver will often pull out a lighter with the flame turned on max and thrust it at you in an attempt to help you find the fare. Sometimes, the intent seems more to set you or your wallet on fire. Finally a handshake and you are on your way, cursing your dirty shirt, blessing your good fortune at arriving in one piece, and dreading the next time you need to go anywhere by taxi.

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