When in a new country, talk to the cabbie – he's your best bet, says Chris Guillebeau.
The Practical Traveller: when in doubt, ask the taxi driver
I got into a cab in Zimbabwe. The landscape of the Victoria Falls area was beautiful and the people were nice, but the economy was in a shambles. The world's highest inflation rate had devalued the currency to the point where even small transactions required large stacks of money. It's a cash economy, so those who can afford to buy luxury goods, such as TVs or refrigerators, hire security guards to escort a car filled with suitcases of money.
Wherever I went I was asked to pay in US dollars, which was fine with me since I didn't want to lug around a basketful of Zimbabwean cash. One afternoon I wandered into a supermarket. There were no customers, and the clerks tried to put on a brave face. A man approached me, offering to exchange an Australian $10 (Dh39) note he had received from another tourist. What rate did he want? "Anything you can offer," he said.
People are struggling, I was repeatedly told by multiple sources, including my taxi driver, who ferried me back and forth from the campsite where I was staying. "What is the biggest problem?" I asked him.
"Mugabe is a criminal," he told me matter of factly, referring to the president who has ruled the country since 1980. I was surprised at the openness. Much of the time, complaints are more indirect. But in Zimbabwe, at least when I visited, people were fed up.
In many countries around the world, the taxi driver is the man (it's almost always a man) on the street. If you want to know what's really going on in an unfamiliar place, ask him. Start by being friendly and asking about his family. Another good question to ask is, "What do you do for fun here?"
In Lesotho, my driver had to think about it for a while. "Well, we go to the bar," he said, and there was a long pause.
"Anything else?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "Sometimes there is a football game on."
This banal response isn't unique to rural Africa. In New Brunswick, Canada, my cab driver had much the same response."We watch the hockey, and sometimes we go to Tim Hortons," he said, referring to the popular doughnut shop.
Like everyone else, taxi drivers have their own interests at heart when doing business. Many will quote foreigners much higher fares than residents. Some will drive you around in circles, running up the meter. When settling in the back of an airport taxi and giving the name of a hotel, some drivers will tell you it's no longer open - but they'd be happy to steer you to another place of lodging where they receive commission. Most of the time, you can avoid these problems by confidently requesting your destination - and then getting back to the conversation.
Four years ago, during the US election, the world was enthralled with Barack Obama. Everywhere I went, from Kazakhstan to Mongolia, the junior senator's face appeared on magazine covers. In Karachi, my driver told me that the local taxi drivers' union had taken a vote and decided to endorse Obama.
"What does the union think of John McCain, his challenger?" I wanted to know.
"Who is that?" the man asked. Apparently, the election was a foregone conclusion, at least among taxi drivers in Karachi.
In Egypt a month later, my driver went on an extended discourse about his affection for female candidates. He was torn between his longtime love for Hillary Clinton and a new crush on Sarah Palin.
"I feel like I'm torn between two lovers," he said, as I laughed from the back seat. "By the way," he continued, "Have you already reserved your hotel? I know a place you will like better."
The US election is coming up again this November. So far, the world of taxi drivers isn't quite as interested this time round, but wait for it. As we get closer to the date, I'll be curious to hear what the man on the street has to say.
Chris Guillebeau, 33, is the author of The Art of Non-Conformity, published by Penguin. He is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world, and is currently on number 183.