x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The gold and white taxis never change, they just go extinct

Not many will mourn the demise of Abu Dhabi's old cabs, but spare a thought for the poor drivers.

They might not be as iconic as New York City's yellow taxis, or have the same knowledge as London's black cabs, but no one who's ever ridden in one of Abu Dhabi's old gold and whites can deny that it was a colourful experience all the same.

More than 8,000 of these relics of the 20th century have already been, or soon will be, taken off the capital's roads by TransAD, which is phasing out older cabs in favour of a new silver fleet of franchise cars.

As with the demise of Abu Dhabi's old central souq, and the gradual disappearance of corner shops, the old taxis will become a thing of the past sometime next year.

But for those of us who grew up in Abu Dhabi in the 1980s, these taxis were our only form of transport, true lifesavers in the scorching heat, which, for all you spoilt kids, was hotter back then.

Dodgy taxis were an essential part of life in Abu Dhabi when most of us could obtain a degree in astrophysics easier than a driving licence.

But like the Sony Walkman, Steven Seagal and Internet Explorer, the gold and whites are now an anachronism, reminders of an analogue age in a digital society.

And in truth, few customers will mourn the demise of these old carriages. Rundown vehicles, a liberal interpretation of traffic rules, poor ventilation, and, let's not be coy, questionable hygiene: all were part of the old taxi experience, and still live on in some of the new ones too.

But if it was no picnic for the passengers, spare a thought for the poor drivers. Ever wondered why they were so grumpy? Passengers who treat drivers in a manner usually reserved for 6-year-old children for some reason seem to find this a mystery.

After all, what could a taxi driver who works 12 to 14-hour shifts for a pittance, which he has to send to his home country to support his wife and children who he has not seen in several years, possibly have to complain about? It's a wonder none have ever gone the way of the eponymous Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle.

Taxi fares in Abu Dhabi remain low compared to rates in other major cities: a ride in a gold and white from one end of the Corniche to the other costs about Dh10, about the same as it did 20 years ago. You can bet that the cost of living has not similarly stalled. Meanwhile, commissions are lower, hours are longer and customers more demanding.

By far the majority of these drivers seem to be from Pakistan, not surprising when you consider the country's historical ties with the UAE. Before the discovery of oil, the emirates, especially Dubai, relied heavily on trade with Pakistan and India. And when the UAE declared independence in December 1971, Pakistan was the first country to accord formal recognition. Now, almost 400,000 Pakistanis ply their trades in the UAE, like these taxi drivers providing a lifeline for their families back home.

As in all walks of life, some drivers were salt of the earth, others outright maniacs. Some were ultra-cautious, slowing down at green lights; and a significant number - at a time when a seat belt was tantamount to a badge of cowardice - would give that ride at Ferrari World a run for its money.

I've been kicked out of taxis, chased by drivers, challenged to fights, lectured for listening to the devil's music and encouraged to become a religious fanatic (the last two, admittedly, by the same person). And, occasionally, I've even been dropped off at the right place.

I've engaged in conversations that meandered aimlessly, a bit like the taxi rides themselves. And occasionally I've heard stories of staggering heartbreak. If you listen closely, wisdom can come from the most unlikely of sources.

"Too bad all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxi cabs and cutting hair," the US comedian George Burns once joked.

The gold and white drivers may not have always had all the answers, but their country, and ours, couldn't have done without them.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae