Fuel prices are probably the cheapest in Saudi Arabia. You can get one litre of petrol for 60 halala (errmm..that’s what they call paise here) and for 15 bucks, you can have a full tank. Understandably, a car is as common here as an auto would be in India. And you can’t think of cars without thinking of the people behind the wheel. This is the first of a God-alone-knows-how many part series on this species. You have a few interesting specimen too. Let’s start with the most conspicuous of them – the taxi driver.
If you are from Mumbai then you would picture a beaten down black and yellow Premier Padmini. If you are from Kerala, then you would think of those white, or grey or golden colored unbreakable Ambassadors. But if you are in Riyadh, you would be riding in either a Toyota or a Hyundai. You find plenty of taxis here. No wait, you don’t have to find them, they find you. Taxis cause half the traffic jams in the city. The lane closest to the pavement would be choked with these white cabs slowing down beside every bystander with an inquiring eye.
Almost all the taxi drivers I have traveled with are Pakistanis. Some of them make very interesting conversation too. The day after Saddam was hanged, one Pakistani driver asked me who I thought the biggest terrorist was. I figured what he wanted me to say, and so I mumbled something about how it depended on your perspective. Quite expectedly, he said that Bush was the biggest terrorist, and then, a little unexpectedly, he also mentioned his own Prez Musharaf as the next biggest terrorist! Not all of them discuss politics though. I was on my way to a working class shopping hub called Battha. The taxi driver asked me why I was going there and I said that I had some shopping to do. And then he said that if I was going for shopping then it was ok, but that most Indians seemed to do nothing there but stand beneath the overbridge and just talk all day. And most of these Indians were from Kerala! They would do nothing, it seems, but stand, smoke, drink tea and just talk till late at night. He just couldn’t understand why they came out into the streets to talk. He said that if a Pakistani wanted to talk to his friend, then he would go to his friend’s place or call his friend over. They wouldn’t go out into the street to hold a press conference. I couldn’t think of a good enough reason to explain the Indian’s love for the overbridge and street corners, and so I didn’t offer any. Another taxi driver was cussing his boss, and another was talking about how his family was back in Pakistan and how he ran losses in his business and was now down to driving the streets.
Not all of them speak so much though. A few of them are just morose and grumpy. You try to break the ice, they would just grunt in reply. But these taxi drivers are generally a likeable breed. And where in India would you get to travel in a Toyota or a Hyundai without having to pay through your nose for it? Here you get away with just 10-15 bucks. Sounds quite cheap till you do the normal Indian expatriate thing and convert it into rupees. Don’t do that, and you can have an enjoyable taxi ride.