SMOKE: Taking The Taxi

Originally published: 26 February 2004

The very first time I ever took a taxi was one night when I was at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, and it turned out there were too many people to fit into too few cars.

I was trying to impress some girl, if I recall, and offered up my place in the car and told them I'd hitch a ride.

I no doubt fondly pictured myself as some sort of urban cowboy - sticking out a thumb and hitching my dreams to a jalopy heading south - and the blokes in the car were happy because they had a fine-looking bird in their car instead of me.

They pulled away with squealing tyres and by the time they had gone five metres the chick had already forgotten about the weirdo who wanted to hitch instead and probably had her tongue halfway down somebody elses throat already.

My reality hit and I hailed a cab instead - not one of the big kombi taxis, but a normal yellow one. I had R25 in my wallet - a fortune in the days when beers only cost R2 - so I was confident enough to tell the driver to "step on it to Claremont, my good man, as none of us are getting any younger".

This he gleefully did and I misread the meter all the way, not noticing that one of the noughts was missing. When we arrived at the pub where my friends were he told me it would be R22 - I thought it was R2.20, and had been preparing an assault on the happy hour "two for one" special.

I payed up, moped inside, saw the bird I fancied was only one grope away from marriage, bought two for the price of one with my remaining R3, drank alone and then walked for two hours to get home, with a slight but persistent headache.

Beware the party animal.

I never took one of those cabs again, but on numerous - far too numerous - occasions I have taken the minibus taxis, and it's an experience all who crave the dark side should experience at least once in their life.

"Mowbry-Kaap" is the call along Main Rd (Mowbray-Cape Town), and if you're needing to get from the southern suburbs to town all you have to do is stand on the side of Main Rd and hail the first boom-box you hear.

They shunt past at least once every five minutes, usually with the Guartjie (the oke who takes your cash) half hanging out of the window screaming "Mobry-Kaap" and indicating to wary motorists that the driver is about to cut in front of them without warning.

We all know how badly these abominations are driven, and indeed - I have a running feud with taxis, which has led to me almost being sideswiped on more occasions than I care to think of. Never back down, never let the bastard in. He certainly won't return the favour if you do.

But there are two types of experiences that you get on the inside of the taxi - if you're a passenger.

The first is the rust bucket held together by string and glue, with the insides hollowed out to accommodate as much seating as can be crammed in. It's not uncommon to find a minibus capable of taking 17 passengers and when you consider that most minibuses are overcrowded anyway, there are a lot of folks on board.

I don't know which is worse - getting onto an empty taxi to have it fill up on you, or trying to get into one that is bulging dangerously from the compacted throng who are bursting out.

Since I am usually getting out before most folks (black people in South Africa always have further to travel from the city centre than white people, and black people make up th majority of passengers), I prefer not to be one of the first ones in.

You have to go right to the back so that people can fill in and spread towards the door, and once a taxi is stuffed do you have any idea how hard it is to not only see where your stop is, but to communicate to your driver to stop there?

Once he gets the message to stop (it gets passed along from the back in a ripple of inexplicable but efficient human communication), and actually does stop (to the accompaniment of the backed up, irate drivers behind him who just have to wait until he has done) - then you have to get out, and in a minivan stuffed with enormously fat women who themselves are trapped and squashed and immobile, that's a frightening task.

Many's the time I've had to propel myself forwards my shifting from the lap of one Mama to the next, and since I've usually got some sort of bag slung across my shoulder it gets hooked on all sorts of body parts and bits of seats.

The drama can turn into a cabaret smart quick, with the spotlight decisively on you.

I have no idea how the Guartjie and the driver work out who's paid what, particularly when everybody gets on at once. There's an informal system of tapping the shoulder of the Mama in front of you and she won't even look round - she'll just put her palm out facing upwards and you deposit the money into it.

That's the last you'll hear of it (unless you need change, and trust me - you don't want to be needing change). It makes its way forward via a blind faith system and somehow the Guartjie and driver always seem to know exactly where it came from.

In fact - they'll drop you off at your destination based on the amount of money you have given them, without even having to ask where you're going - that's how intuitive those okes are.

So those are the problems associated with sitting at the back. Getting on late, however, presents almost as stern a challenge.

I've yet to understand how a driver can stop to pick you up when he knows that already there is so little space in his vehicle people are sitting on each other's laps, but somehow - no matter how full his van is - he'll always squeeze you in.

Not comfortably, mind - you will be sitting half-crouched on top of someone, head bent at the neck to avoid bumping the roof, with the pressure of at least a ton of human flesh pushing you against the flimsiest of doors, which are always held closed by a piece of string (the string means that if the Guartjie can't reach the door the driver can reach around and pull the string to close the sliding door shut).

The bonus of getting on late is that you get off easily enough, but it's a disaster if people have to get off before you - you spend half the journey getting in and out of the taxi.

The taxis usually come with a sound system and forget it if you think they're going to be playing popular ditties of the day. Each driver has his own personal preference and screw you if it ain't your mojo, baby.

I've heard it all, from Michael Franks to Aretha Franklin to gospel choirs to a solemn intoning of the Qur'an, but most of the time it's simply thud-thud doef, thud-thud doef, with a casiotone filling in the rest. Ad infinitum.

I quite like it though - you never know what you're going to get.

So all of that is the first option - the rust bucket from hell, which putters along on a wing and a prayer.

The second experience of a taxi is Syndicate Boy - one of the souped-up vans belonging to an organisation. These are mean machines - the ones as a car driver you really have to watch out for.

They drive at insane speeds in order to cram as much business into one day as possible (they accept the inevitable fines as a business expense), and clear their path through the mess of traffic along the narrow, dirty streets of Salt River and Woodstock - the last two stops before the end of the line in the city bowl - by blowing horns with musical interludes rather than a good, old-fashioned beep.

La cucaracha, la cucaracha.

While these taxis are the ones I loathe the most as a driver, they're the ones I want if I need to get somewhere in a hurry.

When I'm in the taxi I have a huge amount of fun seeing how pissed off other drivers get, and I cheer my man on when he skips red lights, overtakes dangerously and cuts in front of slow-moving bastards.

If you need to get somewhere fast and you don't mind a serious adrenalin rush at 7.30am on a Monday morning, then these are the boys you want to be flagging down.

I believe my taxi-flagging days are largely over, though, and while in the greater scheme of things that's Good - there is something to be said for the heady rush of simply handing your life over to a gangster you've never met and chasing the thrill dragon down the highways and byways of the industrial outskirts of the city of Cape Town.

La cucaracha, Mama.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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