Tonight is one of the busiest nights of the year for taxi drivers, working until the early hours of the morning to ferry home New Year revellers. It is also a deadline for the familiar – but now almost vanished – gold-and-white taxis of Abu Dhabi, with their reign on the capital’s streets due to end at midnight.
It’s not every form of transport that warrants a specific travel warning by a foreign government to its nationals while they are in the UAE. But one of the many claims to fame for the taxis is that on their final day in service, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office was still advising its citizens not to use them because “they can be badly maintained and erratically driven”.
Until just over five years ago, there was no choice. For anyone without a car in Abu Dhabi, the lack of a bus service (which arrived in 2008) meant the choice was a gold-and-white taxi or walking. The first silver taxis began operating in late 2007 but were still a relatively rare sight until well into the following year.
Now the original form of public transport is no more. For many, their passing will elicit no lamentations, for all the reasons that prompted the Department of Transport to bring in the modern silver taxis with better-educated and uniformed drivers proficient in Arabic and English.
But for some, the original taxis reflect a more colourful, older way of life in Abu Dhabi that reminded them of a time before soaring glass skyscrapers and a modern and corporate urban environment more akin to Europe or the United States than to the other Arabian cities.
And for every driver, there is a story, frequently of hardship but sometimes of hope and determination. Men working long hours for the most slender of margins, but who nevertheless have transformed the lives of their loved ones, hundreds of miles away and who they often do not see for many months.
We sometimes get a glimpse of these lives for the price of a few dirhams.
Here, in tribute on New Year’s Eve, are some passengers’ most memorable stories.
A tender tale of love
“I love my wife,” said the driver.
They had married when they were teenagers. After 15 years of wedlock, he still called her every day.
She had been told she was sick and could not have another child.
Their only child was a daughter. The family wanted a son.
The women in their families were insistent that he remarry, and his wife had given him permission.
“But I love my wife,” he said. “I do not want to do this.”
Breaking language barriers
Quite often, the drivers of gold-and-white taxis I encountered were disgruntled veterans of decades of driving in Abu Dhabi and you could tell most passengers treated them like some kind of humanoid robot rather than people.
So I learnt how to say “How are you?” in the main languages spoken by drivers – Pashto, Urdu, Hindi, Nepali and Sinhalese.
The result was always dramatic. At the very least, it would elicit a laugh and a smile, even from the most disgruntled driver.
One Pashto-speaking Peshawari grumbled to any request that everything was “too much problem”, but when I asked him how he was in his native language, he ended up singing poetry to me for the rest of the journey, even though I only knew four words.
These skills helped me when I left Abu Dhabi. Afghan taxi drivers in New York City and in Auckland, New Zealand, were even more shocked when I could speak a few words of Pashto.
A father’s sacrifice
Two stories stand out from the past year. The first was in the summer, hailing a cab from the centre of town to Mussaffah to pick up my car after a service. He was a grizzled veteran from the Swat Valley, who had arrived in Abu Dhabi in the 1970s. This was one of his last trips – he was retiring at the weekend – and as we passed the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque he recalled how this had once been nothing but desert.
He then talked about his family, of the two sons he had been able to put through university. One was now working as an engineer in Australia, the other was soon to graduate and would follow.
It was clear the old driver was a reluctant pensioner and slightly nervous about his future. Yet his efforts had ensured that the lives of father and sons would be totally different. The second story was told by a young Bangladeshi driver in his twenties. He had been working in Abu Dhabi for four years and had married over the summer. His wife was due to have their first child in the New Year.
I commiserated about the separation from his first child but in fact the family would soon be united. With the money he had saved, he had brought some property. Soon he would cash this in to follow his dream of being a dairy farmer.
He planned to start with a small head of 10 cattle; Australia cows would be best, he felt. Plans had been meticulously made, a milking parlour, a source for feed. One bull would be sold each Eid for meat when the prices were best. It was a good story, and it certainly earned him a good tip.
Over the years the life stories told to me by friendly taxi drivers have become somewhat repetitive. But one that stands out from the rest was the story of a young Egyptian driver who drove me from my home to a reporting job.
He had lived in the city for a year, leaving his family home in Cairo to find employment. The driving was temporary, he said, as he actually had a university degree and was a qualified hospital x-ray technician, but had been unable to find a specialist role. It was unexpected and quite shocking, and rather embarrassingly emphasised to me the old cliché of never judging a book by its cover.
Sickness and sympathy
When I was pregnant, I was one of the unlucky who suffers morning sickness – or in my opinion, all-day sickness – throughout my pregnancy, which meant travelling by taxi was pretty challenging.
As someone who gets carsick anyway, the combination of pregnancy nausea, car sickness and the UAE’s love affair with speed bumps was disastrous. Consequently on several journeys, I had to ask the driver to stop the car while I stuck my head out of the door and vomited in a very unladylike fashion.
Thankfully, all the drivers were very courteous and understanding, often telling me of their own wives’ struggles with pregnancy sickness. Even the time when I didn’t get the door open in time, resulting in some damage to the seat, there was no anger, just sympathy. I was always so grateful for their kindness I overtipped every time.
An unexpected adoption
I had just moved to Abu Dhabi and didn’t have a car so taxis were the only way to get around. One day, one of my cats was ill. I called and tried to book a taxi, but they refused to transport a cat in a cage.
I finally went out and tried to flag a cab. A beaten up gold-and-white taxi stopped. Rolling down the window, he asked what was in the cage. “A cat. I need to take her to the doctor,” I said.
The driver agreed and, after taking directions, sped up. “Don’t worry Ma’am. I go fastest way. I love cats. I have cat. He is my second son. My other son is in India.”
Not only did he get me there in 10 minutes, he waited without charging to take me home. Driving back he told of finding a black-and-white kitten in front of the door of a small flat he shared with three others. He took the kitten in, now named Moko, and said he and the other men in the flat took turns taking care of the tiny creature. “Moko is very cute. Very sweet. He is always the first to come to the door, to welcome me when I come home from a long day of driving.”
A sticky wicket
After 10 minutes of play-by-play translation, I finally told the taxi driver that I did not understand cricket.
“I think you like only money,” he said.
“No, it’s just, I like hockey. Ice hockey.”
“Like Germany,” said the driver. “Germans do not like cricket. Tell me, do you know why?”
I had no idea. Complicated rules, I suspected.
“Hitler went to a cricket game,” he told me. “At the end of three days, he asked who won. It was a draw. Hitler was so angry he stopped all cricket. So Germans do not play cricket. And why don’t you play cricket in Canada? Maybe Hitler?”
One very lovely, friendly and chatty Indian taxi driver shared his life story with me. He had spent 20 years in Abu Dhabi supporting a large extended family. His brother had also been in the emirate for 15 years.
By the time we reached my destination, he felt we had become true friends and refused to let me pay my fare. It took me a few tries but I finally got him to accept my money.
I left the taxi with a smile on my face – and a new best friend.
Compiled by John Henzel