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The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.

By taxi through Asia

In Hong Kong, mum’s the word

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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THE TWO men huddled in the front seat muttered to each other. It was hard to follow their grunts but they were clearly talking about me. The driver, wrapped in a large shawl, nodded at his burly turbaned accomplice. My fate hung in the balance as I sat, motionless, in the back seat, frozen. Mists swirled up from the earth devouring trees, cattle, dogs and any remotely familiar signs. The portents were ominous. It was now days since I’d left Hong Kong. It could be several days more before anyone realised I was missing. In Hong Kong, where almost seven million people live cheek by jowl furiously exchanging business cards but rarely making eye contact, it could be months, or years...

The vehicle juddered violently as the wheels ground over potholes, deep craters and broken pavements. A child cried out in the night. Kabul is bleak and unforgiving. Tortured scars of its war-torn past and present greet you at every turn. It is not a city for the fainthearted. And it is certainly no place for recklessly curious journalists. Sensibly then, I was not in Kabul, but in my hometown Delhi in a reassuringly familiar bone-rattling yellow-and-black Ambassador taxi. It felt good to be home.

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Delhi taxis – and taxi drivers – are a breed apart. For one, the meter is always mysteriously draped in a hand towel. You never get to see it and nor does the driver. Here, you are not treated as a common fare-paying visitor, but a revered guest – with a large wallet. Why bother visitors with complex fare calculations, surcharge tables and meters that run at TGV speeds when the entire transaction can be civilly handled in the dark, under a dim lamppost in the rain? Such is the legendary hospitality of Incredible India that cabbies will go to any lengths to make you feel welcome. In fact some will drive you right around the capital’s far-flung suburbs instead of taking you boringly direct, up one block to your hotel.

Drivers courteously involve your mother, suggesting youthful distractions your father stopped providing 20 years ago...

Hong Kong cabbies on the other hand prefer to get straight to the point. “You go? No go?” And they’ll drive you down the shortest route unless you happen to be Japanese. Yet, even in this busy metropolis, taxi drivers will courteously involve your mother in all conversation, of course wholly in Cantonese, suggesting the sort of lively youthful distraction she craves but your dad stopped providing about 20 years ago. Your mother will feature prominently in most exchanges. Next time bring her along to meet these wonderful folk.

Tokyo taxis are an extraordinary experience. They employ GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) navigation, and liveried drivers who bow, refuse to mention your mother, and stop the meter anytime they get lost. Tokyo cabs are squeaky clean. One explanation could be the US$200 one-way fare from Narita Airport to anywhere downtown. No one can afford them. Blue collar workers, housewives, and Honda’s humanoid robot Asimo, all prefer to drive cars. Cars are certainly cheaper but they have a downside. Godzilla likes stepping on them and hurling them around especially when there’s a tidal wave just about to hit Tokyo. I have it on good authority that if you do run into Godzilla, this is what you must scream. “Niga-ro, Gojilla-ga kita-zo,” which, simply translated means, “Run away, Godzilla is coming.”

Any visitors planning to insist on using the meter should be escorted to the airport and deported on the next plane...

Bangkok, the City of Angels, has finally introduced metered taxis and things have changed dramatically. In the past, frazzled tourists hopped into random taxis and haggled with drivers endlessly about the fare. Now, beaming tourists can simply flag a meter taxi, settle in comfortably – and haggle with driver endlessly about the fare. The argle-bargle is particularly animated at peak time, when it rains, and around tourist areas making it a tad difficult to get to your green curry in a hurry. It’s time to cut the “krap” and enforce regulations. It must be dealt with firmly, at the source. Tourists should be briefed on metered taxis upon arrival at Bangkok Airport, and then quizzed. Any visitors planning to insist on using the meter should be sent back on the next plane.

Singapore taxis also employ satellites. This is a sophisticated call-and-direct system that involves large plastic placards that taxi drivers affix to their windshields indicating the destination they are headed to. If you are going that way, hop in, and thank those satellites for the pinpoint precision of this transaction. My last taxi ride to the airport was with a singing cabbie. He sang “Tennessee Waltz”, three times, and told me he knew 15 kinds of ballroom dance. When he wasn’t singing he pointed at the trees. “Singapore is so green,” he said. His city was clean, green, honest, happy, cheerful, smiling, safe... It made me wonder why I still live in Hong Kong. Well, maybe because my mum loves those cheerful cabbies.

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