x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Catching a cab with Certainty and Knowledge

Sharing a taxi with some fellow travellers on their way to Dubai.

This summer I went to Cyprus. The four-hour flight was to leave Dubai airport at 35 minutes after midnight. My wife and daughter were already on the island. I spent departure day fretting over whether to book a cab to Dubai, which was a safe plan but expensive, or to take a bus to Dubai and then make my way to the airport, a penny-wise idea but rife with risk: what if something went wrong? What if someone stole my bag from beneath the bus? What if the Dubai bus terminal was a black hole which let transportation in but allowed none out? What if I looked like an idiot, a sweaty idiot, lugging my luggage from station to station of this journey?

These questions rattled around in my mind as I mangled the morning Sudoku, as I ironed some short-sleeve shirts, as I ate a nourishing lunch of All-Bran and drank coffee, as I watched the first round of the British Open on Showsports 3, and as I endlessly checked the time of day on my mobile phone. Parsimony won out, as it usually does. Around 6:30, a scant six hours before take-off, I arrived at the Abu Dhabi bus terminal. My worst fears were immediately realised. The terminal was more jammed than I had ever seen it. Cabs, cars, big buses, small buses, all were getting in one another's way. Long queues of travellers filled the space like mitochondria in a Petri dish. I joined a queue of people waiting in vain for a bus to Dubai. My linemates looked like they had been standing there a long time. This was awful. Farewell, Cyprus.

Then, off to the side, a rakish driver leaning idly against his silver cab said he would take four of us to Dubai for Dh40 a head. A band of us quickly formed. An ardent supporter of free-market economics, the cabbie adjusted his price to Dh100 each. We disbanded. He went back to Dh40. We rebanded. He was Yoko, we were The Beatles. I squeezed into the back with two young men from the subcontinent. A fourth traveller took the front seat and would speak only to his mobile phone. The man in the middle would quickly mark himself as Certainty, the one on the far side as Knowledge.

Certainty was from the south of India, Knowledge the north. I asked them to guess where I was from. "Britain," Certainty said. "Closer to the United States," I said. Thinking... "On the north side." Thinking... "Brrrrrrrrrr." The only sound was the automatic beep when the odometer passes 120kph. "Ca-" "Canada," said Knowledge. He did not answer in the form of a question, but still. As we drove south - it felt south, though on reflection it was probably east - we passed the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. I asked my Indian fellow travellers if the temple looks like the Taj Mahal.

"Not at all," said Certainty. "Maybe in the minarets," said Knowledge, who then remarked on Islamic influences in Indian architecture. We discussed movies. "Tom Cruise is from Canada," Certainty asserted. I explained that while Cruise lived briefly in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, when he was in high-school, he was not in fact Canadian. "Sharon Stone - she is from Canada," Certainty tried again. "No."

"No. But Jim Carrey is from Canada." "Have you seen The Mask?," Certainty asked. He delivered his questions in the tone of statements, so that what he really seemed to be saying was, "Surely you have seen The Mask." "No, I haven't seen it," I said. "Really?" Certainty was incredulous. I felt a poor representative of not only my nation but all Western culture. "Keanu Reeves is Canadian," I said, hoping to score a few cheap runs.

"No, Keanu Reeves is Hawaiian," said Certainty. He was neither superior nor apologetic about this; his endless confidence was neither his burden nor his pride; it was simply another indisputable fact. "Do you like Die Hard?" he asked-said. "Yes," I said, clinging to the safe route. "I like Die Hard." I remarked that I had seen and enjoyed Om Shanti Om, the Bollywood sensation about reincarnation and cinema.

Certainty said a Bollywood kingpin, whose name I did not catch, is the richest man in the world and has a mansion with a bathroom five storeys high. "No. Gates is first, then Mittal," Knowledge said. "He is maybe fifth." "Ah yes," said Certainty. "His magnitude is fifth." We fell silent. I was able to observe at great length that our driver was an inveterate nose-picker. He had his finger so far up that it pushed against his right nostril like a third-trimester baby kicking at mother's stomach.

Certainty whispered to me that Front-Seat Man in the front passenger seat was surely Bangladeshi: "You can tell by his manner of speech and his physical appearance." Near Jebel Ali, we pulled into a petrol station. The driver tucked in his shirt and went to pray at a roadside mosque. Given the breakneck pace at which he drove, this was a sound notion. The Indians and I grabbed a snack inside the petrol station. Front-Seat Man stayed in his spot and did not so much as look at us. He was evidently loath to invite discussion about rotating the seat plan.

Back en route, I checked for e-mails on my mobile. "Nokia?" Certainty said. "BlackBerry," I answered. "Canadian." The traffic crawled as we approached the Dubai bus station. I mentioned having recently become acquainted with lakh, an Indian word signifying one hundred thousand. I asked if there are other Indian mathematical terms that vary from the Western nomenclature. After some thought, Knowledge said, "The crore."

"Crore?" I said. "I think it's 10 million," said Knowledge. "Yes, a hundred lakh is one crore." "It's one hundred million," said Certainty. "A hundred lakh is one hundred million." Knowledge reminded him again that 100 lakh equals one crore. "Yes," Certainty affirmed. "It is one hundred million." We turned a corner, past a shop sign that said Travel And Walk Rent A Car (but what if you don't want to walk?).

"This is the bus terminal," said Knowledge, looking forward. "Yes," Certainty confirmed. "The terminal is here." rmckenzie@thenational.ae