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taxi

I turned the key.  The engine chuntered, whirred…and stopped.  I tried again, and again.  Same result.  I sighed.  I was stuck by the side of a back street, somewhere in Pakistan, with an immobile vehicle.

This is not an ideal situation.  Before coming to Pakistan we received thorough safety and security training, and much of it seemed to revolve around attempting to avoid precisely the kind of situation in which I found myself.  Alone, stuck, on a hot day.  Diplomats in this position would be calling their emergency contact number and having a helicopter buzz in to pick them up, but people in my position don’t have access to that kind of thing.  The day was hot, and getting hotter.  A trickle of sweat ran down my back in a particularly insidious manner.

Suddenly a taxi approached.  It is always easy to tell when a Pakistani taxi is approaching.  It makes a sound like two pounds of rusty screws inside a tin bathtub being thrown down a flight of stairs.  The rusty bathtub approached and I hailed it with enthusiasm and not a small amount of panic.  I explained to the friendly driver what my predicament was, though no explanation was really necessary: clueless foreigner, immobile car – breakdown.  It’s not as though I was stopping to enjoy the view, which consisted of a few half-dead shrubs, a rusty dumpster, and a great deal of dust.

“No problem” said the taxi driver.  “Push it, it’ll start ok”.

I went to the back of my own car and started pushing, regretting almost immediately my decision to buy a black car.  The taxi driver was in the front seat.  I pushed, and sweated, and my palms sizzled audibly, and the car started moving.  After a few seconds I broke into a slow jog and the engine chugged into life.  The car drove away, slowed down, turned round, and came back to me.  I never once entertained the notion that the taxi driver would do anything else.  Pakistan is rather wonderful in that way.

I thanked him and offered him some money.  He refused, of course.  I insisted, of course, and of course he refused again.  I smiled and stuffed it into his top pocket.

The next day I got the battery changed.  Fewer breakdowns, hopefully, but also fewer opportunities to be blessed by an unexpected person.

CNG-STATION-queue

The taxi creaked as it rattled over the rutted road.  The driver looked sideways at me and smiled appreciately.

“You look good in that shalwar kameez.  You’re practically Pakistani!”.

“ I like Pakistan” I replied.  “It is a wonderful country in many ways”.

He sighed.

“Everything here is corrupt.  This country has everything: coal, gas, oil, fruit, wheat, and yet people are hungry and poor.  This country will never get better”.

We drove past a CNG filling station.  Compressed Natural Gas is the fuel of choice for Pakistani taxi drivers simply because it is cheap, yet because of shortages it is only available for two days a week.

“Look at that line of cars!” he said as we drove past a queue of battered taxis several hundred metres long.  “They’ll be waiting for five, maybe six hours just to get enough gas for the day’s work.  Most of them probably got up at 4am to start queueing.  They are poor, and their children will be poor, and their children’s children will be poor, and nothing will change”.

I sat in silence.  The taxi swerved around a pothole, then swerved back again to avoid another.  The road was corrugated and cracked like the cover of an antique book.

“And look at the roads!  Nobody fixes them, and this is not some tiny village, this is one of the biggest cities in Pakistan.  Even village roads in your country are probably better than these”.

I didn’t say anything.  He was right; they are.  His voice was not angry or bitter.  It was worse than that: it was numb, as though despondency had anaesthetised his ability to care.

Struggling to make him think more positively, I asked what he thought should be done to improve things in Pakistan.  He sat quietly for what felt like an age, then said:

“I don’t know”.

I bumped into an old acquaintance the other day.  He’s a guy from the tribal areas of Pakistan who drives a taxi for a living.  Like most Pakistani taxis, his is old, clunky, slow, and seemingly held together by little more than duct tape and force of habit.  Like most Pakistani taxi drivers, he overcomes these shortcomings with a solid sense of humour, a total disregard for safety, and a lot of prayer.  Every time he starts the engine, turns a corner or changes a gear he says the simple prayer “Bismillah” (“in the name of God”).  I’m not quite sure if this habit is charming or worrying.

Anyway, I asked him how he was, how his family was, and how he spent Eid.  For once his customarily cheerful face fell.  He shrugged his shoulders.

“I’m a poor man.  I couldn’t afford to sacrifice an animal.  What kind of Eid is there for someone like me?”.