I broke the one rule of taxi etiquette
SITTING in the front seat of a taxi in Istanbul last year, I became unnerved when my driver suddenly pulled over to the side of the road, stomped his way aggressively to the boot of his car and started rummaging wildly, sounds of clunking metal heightening my rapidly increasing anxiety. Was he looking for spade, length of rope and a handy litre or two of lime to dispose of my body?
Just as my hand begun reaching for the door handle, my driver reappeared with both a wide grin on his face and a plastic bag filled with oversized peaches in his hand. "The sunset is so beautiful," he told me. "Do you mind if we stop and have a snack as we enjoy it?" And sit we did, side-by-side, peach juices dripping from our chins as we watched the sun dip behind the silver minaret-dotted skyline. Yet when I told my husband about my lovely driver later that evening, he simply shook his head. "What is it with you and taxi drivers?" he asked. "Will you ever learn?" Answer: probably not.
They say when it comes to taxi passengers, there are two kinds of people: those who sit in the back seat and remain silent, and those who'll sit up front and offer a polite, 'Been busy, mate?' I'm of the little-talked of third group who enthusiastically clambers into the front seat, whether I'm in Goa or Paris, and immediately wants to know everything about their childhood/relationship with their mother/thoughts on what's wrong with the world, it's population and the leaders which govern them ('quite a lot' my informal method of research tells me).
I do this because through all my years of travel, I've become convinced taxi drivers are the heartbeat of every city and often, a window to the mindset of the country they represent.
The first time I realised I'd struck travel gold was when I was thrown out of a taxi for daring to mention the country's president. "Now you've said his name and you've ruined my whole day!" he screamed through the window just before he sped off. "We all hate him. I HATE HIM."
An over-reaction possibly, but over the years other experiences have included arguing with a particularly xenophobic driver in Paris about immigration and asylum seekers, enjoying ear-thumping techno and swirling disco balls in an Indonesian taxi, playing charades with a Chinese driver in Beijing who couldn't speak a word of English but smiled a lot, and a guy in Goa who just wanted to look into my eyes and sing at me for the duration of the trip - while he was driving.
Of course, sometimes I get it wrong. Top marks must go to the taxi driver in Sydney who reached into his glove box and asked whether I'd be interested in taking home a bagful of feminine hygiene products that another female passenger had left behind.
Also, I've lost track of the number of times Australian drivers ask, alarmed as they take me to the airport for a work trip, 'But who's looking after your children?" (Oh, I don't know, maybe their father??) Yes, there are the odd negative elements out there hooning around in taxi land, but believe me, climbing into a cab really is a front row ticket to what can often be the best cultural showcase in town.