Adventures in Taxistan
I seem to have the most interesting luck with cab drivers. I always get the ones who don’t speak either language that I do, or sometimes, I get the ones with ‘stiff neck syndrome,’ a terminal condition that prevents you from turning your head either way as you zoom out into an intersection. (I usually drive, but the car was otherwise booked)
I walked out of the house today and hailed a cab as it passed the house. The cab pulled up and I bent over and looked inside the window. Today’s cabbie was sporting those HUGE tinted shades with gold rims, the kind you would expect on a cheap cop show from the 70’s. He has the mustache to go with them, a tad too large for the typical Punjabi villager moustache, but no problem.
So I tell the guy where I’m going and how much I’m willing to pay him (this is Pakistan, that’s how it works) and instead of bargaining, he just kind of tilts his head sideways, which is the Pakistani gesture that means both yes and no, as well as maybe and whatever. It’s an all-purpose gesture, and I assumed it meant yes so I jumped into the cab and we were off.
As soon as we started driving past the first turn, I piped up and said, “Yahan left turn lena hay.” (take a left turn here.) And he made a sudden left turn and said, “Kahan turn karna tha?” (where was I supposed to turn?) “Yahan, left.” I said, trying to reassure him.
“Left?” he said, “Now is that badda (sp?) or gadda (sp?)?”
Now people, I can say left and right in three different ways because Pakistan has a lot of local languages, (whose speakers have nothing better to do than invent ways of confusing me.) but I have never, ever heard of badda or gadda. I still don’t know whether that’s what he was really saying. (bogga?) The moustache was causing some sound distortion.
“Ulta or seedha?” he asked, turning and looking at me like I was from outer Mongolia. Or space.
“Ulta,” I said, “Left is Ulta.”
“So now where do I go?” he asked.
Here I paused. See, in Urdu, the word for ‘straight’ and ‘right’ are the same. Seedha. I’ve had many moments with cab drivers that could pass as skits in some comedy (whose sole focus would be ridiculing white-washed Pakistanis) where I’ve said seedha as in straight, only to have the cab driver turn right, and where I’ve said seedha as in right, and the cabdriver has driven past my turn. I had to choose my words carefully.
“Aagay,” I said, “Ahead.”
So we drove ahead, and I used hand-signals as visual aides to the directions I called out from the back seat. When we got onto the main road that we were supposed to follow straight for about five kilometers, I relaxed in the back seat and started taking in the scenery. (on a clear day the Margalla hills are beautiful) After a couple minutes the cabdriver cleared his throat and nervously said, “You haven’t told me where to turn yet.”
“I know,” I said, “That because we’re going straight.”
At a certain point I realized that the guy had no idea where he was and no idea where he was going. The farther we went, the more nervous he got. Several times, as we drove straight through the major intersections that mark sector limits in Islamabad, I saw him sigh and make a frustrated gesture with his hand. (are we there yet?)
When we were about five minutes from the destination, and he had nearly passed two of the landmarks I had given him, driven uncertainly through red lights (which I think he didn’t know were there) and tried to turn down the wrong side of a street, I finally asked. “So,” I said, “How long have you been working in Islamabad?”
He actually turned around in his seat (while still driving!) and looked at me forlornly and said, “Two days. I’m from Karachi.”
Actually, I should’ve realized he was a Sindhi, because once his local language failed to work with me (badda? gadda? gobba? ???) he went to Urdu. The Punjabi cab drivers first try to use khabba and sajja, and when they realize I’m confused by it, they switch to English. (layft, raeet.)
Well folks, as long as this story is, I haven’t reached the end. We reached my destination and as I was getting the fare from my purse, he smiled sadly and said, “Baji, before you leave, can you tell me how to get back…?”