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THE TAXI DRIVERS

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Every aspiring traveller, every wide-eyed stranger, needs an Abdul, a Wayan or a Karim. Having aspired towards knowing the world, having had eyes forced open,  each has been experienced. As one more-accustomed to the cost of a taxi ride in London, the rate for a long day’s taxi ride in Tunisia, in Penang or Bali is peanuts. The equivalent in local currency of about forty pounds sterling; a far better bargain than the collective coach trips sold by travel companies or hotels. Into the bargain, it means a guaranteed day of employment for Karim, Wayan or Abdul. Each may have limited English language, but each has a good knowledge of their own city, district, area.

Take Karim. We almost wished we hadn’t, but it was worth it in the end. In this case, we weren’t setting out to be tourists, not culture vultures. Karim´s working day mission was clearly established at the outset. 

‘Take us to Oued Zarga, to the military graveyard in Tunis where my uncle is buried.’ Although interested in military history, this was not a military history mission. A previous visit had been a mark of respect. This was a visit on a mission entrusted to me by my aunt, his widow. As her life ebbed away she talked of many things: family issues, joys and regrets brought on by her waning health. One of her greatest regrets was that she had missed the opportunity to visit her first husband’s grave. It had been her ambition to lay a poppy wreath there. There was no difficulty in promising to do that for her as she faded away.

So it was that Karim was employed, engaged, entrusted to take us to Oued Zarga where we would find the grave of Driver Albert Shaw, RASC. The destination was a couple of hours driving from the hotel. Previously the journey had been by local train to Tunis City and then on an irregularly timed local market bus complete with cages of live chickens to the small town, followed by fortuitous local train back, changing in Tunis City. Now, the option was to be driven by a local driver, preferring not to navigate through unfamiliar territory. It was at 8.30 a.m., after an early hotel breakfast, that Karim presented himself in the hotel foyer. A slim, wiry man, wreathed in smiles. The initial route planning conference didn’t take long. He didn’t need the proffered map. ‘Is good map. Not see before.’ It had been bought in England. All roads were in his head. He tapped his head vigorously. Heavily accented pidgin English affirmed that he knew ‘the cuts’. We hoped that mean that he knew the short-cuts. Glancing down at our only item of baggage — the specially commissioned poppy wreath — he asked where the picnic box was. We had no picnic box. He was disappointed in us. However, we had Tunisian dinars. We would eat out during the day. There was a momentary frown, then another smile. ‘I fix,' he said.

We could see why his taxi was battered and bruised when we set off. Of this type of taxi, hired with driver by the day, it was definitely the most decrepit we came across. At least there were no holes in the floor, like the one once hired for a mercifully short taxi-ride in Tunis City. There was a gleam in his eye as he started the engine of his Peugeot 200. Most Tunisian taxis are Peugeot 200s. To the unaccustomed listener’s ear, the engine sang. It had no opportunity to purr for Karim had a heavy foot and the engine roared. Pointed to sit in the front, as a previous visit had identified its landmarks, my fellow passenger settled into the back. Hanging from the rear view mirror was an object of some sort. It appeared to indicate a form of religious affiliation. It did not feel very Islamic. Karim stroked it affectionately and we set off.

It would be more accurate to say that we roared off, with considerable squealing of wheels on tarmac. Karim had set out his intentions and his driving style. As we bolted down the hotel approach road, it was clear that somewhere inside Karim´s psyche, there was another person: a racing driver; a Lewis Hamilton, a Michael Schumacher, a Sebastian Vettel. Nervous muted screams were coming from the back seat. Feet were firmly braced against the back of my seat.My fellow passenger is a much faster driver than I am, although much more cautious. She was not having a pleasurable experience.

Karim certainly knew the ‘cuts’, and, yes, they were short-cuts. Through and around the back of every village he could find, scattering hens, sheep and goats wherever they were to be found, and incidentally, avoiding frequent traffic police road-blocks. In time, in almost record time, we arrived at a small dusty town recognised from a previous visit. Parking the car, Karim turned with a grin saying, ‘You coffee. I fix lunch,' meaning that he would buy raw materials for lunch for all of us. Giving him a modest dinar note or two, we were directed to an outside table on the footpath. A brisk waiter served delicious coffee. It was only as we sipped coffee and took in our surroundings, that we noticed the men at adjacent tables smoking, the men at adjacent tables playing a board game and men at adjacent tables regarding us suspiciously with a degree of hostility. My wife felt a trifle uncomfortable. There were no women to be seen anywhere. We longed for Karim to return.

After a lengthy wait, he returned, paper bags and cardboard packages in hand. There was change. Lots of small coin change. ‘Is lunch. Is good Tunisian lunch.’ The thought did not inspire. Hoped said it wasn’t sheep’s eyes. Sheep’s eyes had been served at a banquet during a previous Tunisian visit. And sheep’s testicles. ‘Not far,' he said. He was right but it was clear he was going in the wrong direction. ‘No. Is good,' he insisted, swinging off the tarmac onto an unmade road. The profile of the landscape, the reservoir dam wall, the old French Roman Catholic Church long abandoned situated next to the cemetery was unrecognisable. When we came to a locked gate and the track petered out, he smiled at me and said, ‘Not good’. Mainly with hand signals, the fact was explained that we needed to cross the nearby railway track, drive up towards the dam and find the church. Realisation dawned. ‘Ah! L’eglise’. Most Tunisians have retained the Colonial French from former times. We were only a mile or so from our destination, but my landmark, the tower of the abandoned church had gone. In fact the church had gone, only some graffitied foundations left. Other building materials had been re-cycled in the building of the new settlement on the other side of the main road.

The Commonwealth cemetery marking the resting place of some of the dead of Operation Torch during the Second World War was as pristine as ever. No graffiti. No weeds. Carefully gravelled pathways. Information board clean and tidy. Perfectly clean gravestones which looked as if they could have been put there yesterday. No disrespect for the dead; the British, the Australians and the Indians who found their eternal rest there. Karim turned his back on us as we took the wreath and our prayers to Albert’s graveside. Karim had no wish to intrude on our memorial moment. Ours was the only poppy wreath. A special visit to the Royal British Legion poppy factory in Richmond on the outskirts of London had been made. Created  specifically to my deceased aunt’s order, we wondered how long it would last in that dry and dusty place, among the row after row of graves on parade.

As far as we were concerned, apart from lunch, that was it. Duty done. Honour satisfied. 

‘Lunch now, Karim?’ 

‘Soon. Very soon.’ 

Karim wasn’t finished with us. We weren’t sure what he was saying as he bundled us into his car. It sounded like ‘Thugs’. I offered my front seat to my wife. 

‘No fear. Not with him driving. I’m staying in the back with my eyes closed.’ 

Her eyes would have been better open to help absorb the bumps and cushion the jolts.

It turned out that he was taking us to a place of Tunisian cultural heritage, the Roman period settlement of Dougga. Very few Tunisian cent coins were required to enter the car park, where sitting on a low wall, Karim rapidly converted baguettes and a very smelly package of garlic sausage into lunch. There were tomatoes, cucumber and sweet peppers. Each baguette was liberally spread with harissa paste. ‘Harissa,’ Karim said proudly. ‘Is good. Very healthy.’ 

We needed the soft drinks he had bought. Harissa paste may be very healthy. It is also very mouth-tinglingly hot. From our seat on the wall as we ate, Karim pointed out the temple and its remaining pillars. One building he named as, ‘Men with women,' blushing as he glanced at my companion. Elsewhere across the valley, he indicated a semi-circle of cubicles, rather like swimming bath changing rooms, but without doors. He then held his stomach and mimed a squatting movement. He didn’t walk the ruins with us. As is common in Tunisia, notices are in a range of languages. We were able to read that the ‘men with women’ place had been the Roman brothel. The cubical’s complex where he had mimed squatting was the communal toilet. Things were learned that day we hadn’t expected to learn.

The journey hone was equally hair-tasing. There is no telling now many chickens were killed on the way. We did not stop. He may have been in a hurry for his evening meal. We may have lingered too long in Dougga. Perhaps he was aware that the hotel restaurant closed for service minutes after we arrived back. We got our evening meal.

Learning from Karim was not unique. A day with Abdul in Penang had been recommended by the delightful colonial style boarding house we stayed in.  We were told, ‘He will be outside at 9 a.m.’ After our healthy breakfast of melon, mango and dragon-fruit with local bread, we presented ourselves to Abdul. He was an entirely different kettle of fish. Significantly taller than me, kaftaned and turbaned with an extensive bushy beard, he made an imposing presence.

‘Abdul,' he presented himself, right hand against where his heart might have been and a discrete but not fawning bow. His car was different, too, Bigger. No bumps and bruises. Spotlessly clean, inside and out. ‘Please,' said Abdul, opening the back door for both of us. We were clearly to be kept in our place. Front of the car was for him not for his passengers. His copy of the Koran was tucked in the side pocket. 

‘You go where first?’ he asked. 

‘Abdul, you know your island far better than we do and we only have a few days to explore, Take us where you think we should go.’ 

‘Funicular and pagoda first, then decide,' he said.

Driving with Abdul was a pleasure. There were flashback memories of driving with Karim and his avoidance strategies at high speed. For a big man, Abdul was patience and good manners personified. Many pilgrims climbed the precipitous steps up to the pagoda, all bright paint and enamelled gold.  Abdul didn’t come with us. It wasn’t his religion but it was culturally important that we should see it. He was open-minded. The funicular was not far away. We rode up the steep track to the island-top view point, aware that a baboon rode with us on the outside.

Penang Island has an ideal climate for growth. Plenty of rain, plenty of sun, all the humid heat a gardener could want and many gardens to see. Abdul took us to the Tea Gardens refreshment rooms for our light lunch break. Afterwards, suitably equipped with the umbrellas they provided, we visited the Spice Gardens. While the morning had been fine and sunny, after lunch a fine warm rain persisted. Ideal for the Spice Gardens and its tricky hill-side pathways. The place was fascinating; so many plants grown and harvested for infusions and herbal remedies. We sampled many but chose not to sample what the staff termed, ‘the most expensive coffee in the world’. We had enjoyed seeing the small mongoose type creatures in their cages, although we regretted the cages. We declined the offered coffee, not because of its cost — it was very expensive had we chosen to buy — but because of its provenance. It appears that the mongoose like creatures were civet cats. They eat the raw coffee fruits as they ripen and fall from the bush. Unable to digest the coffee bean, it is defecated, collected, roasted and ground. It is said to have a very pleasant and distinctive flavour. The process is extremely tedious and labour intensive. Subsequently, we saw civet enhanced coffee on sale in Singapore at extremely inflated prices.

Our day with Abdul concluded with a tour around the holiday-beach side of the island, a passing look at fine hotels and an exploration of a Colonial period fortress. We returned to our boarding house after an examination of the old town, jutting out to sea, rising on a series of piles and wooden planks. It had been another fascinating day of learning. It is easy to see why Colonists were eager to hang on to places like Penang Island. It is equally easy to see why indigenous peoples were eager for the Colonials to leave.

Perhaps the most dramatic and memorable day spent with a taxi driver, was the one with Wayan in Bali. Wayan came at the hotel’s recommendation. He knew everywhere. He knew every one of importance and knew where European tourists liked to go. He took Australians there all the tine. The first Wayan-guided visit was to an open-air performance of Balinese dance. After paying at the door, we were hurried past two elegant women in Balinese dance costumes. Both were heavily weighed-down with make-up. The mental question arose, how long the make-up took. It was thick, precise and intense. Through the door, we were the last to arrive for the morning performance in the small open-air theatre. Among the guests already seated, I was surprised to see a small scattering of nuns. The performance, by both men and women, was very ritualistic. Women danced as gracefully and elegantly as one might expect. A series of traditional tales were enacted. Enough of the ritual was understood to follow the story-line. The bawdiness of the stories was both shocking and humorous. A long-held image of delicacy and joy of pure movement, instantly destroyed. The nuns laughed heartily.

Wayan then took his captive tourists to an art gallery. From a man actively painting in the hotel, a series of stylised Balinese paintings on which the oil had not yet dried had already been purchased. Wayan seemed disappointed that we bought nothing in the gallery. Much of the work available was monumental and we were travelling light. Perhaps Wayan would have secured a commission if we had bought. As it was, now approaching lunch-time, Wayan set course for a volcano side restaurant via the rice paddy-fields. The paddy fields were a spectacular sight, vivid green growth following the contours of the valley — climbing step by step across both sides of the valley. Many tourist photograph albums will have pictures of the phenomenon we saw.  How many witnessed, or even noticed the little old man, knee deep in mud, diligently pulling weeds from among the rice crop is another matter. 

The volcano side restaurant was a splendid and welcome establishment, perched on the edge of the crater, looking down on the growth of tropical jungle on the crater floor below. The volcano itself was disappointing, the meal fine. Little activity could be seen in the crater. A distant wisp of smoke in the clear air, a few miles away among the growth, and a delivery van trailing along a dirt track to some shanty houses. People cultivated cleared fields among the vigorous growth. Nothing too dramatic to see. Weeks later, when we were safely home, world news announced that the volcano had erupted, wiping out settlements and the crater side restaurant.

Finishing our meal on the restaurant’s open terrace, surveying the sight, Wayan came rushing in. ‘Look. Look. We go’. 

Intense black clouds were gathering on the other side of the crater. The wisp of smoke disappeared as a curtain of heavy rain crept closer. We were hurried to the car before the deluge hit. When it did, it was almost solid water. The road down from the crater, down into the valley, back past the paddy fields and into the city was now a torrent, a swiftly flowing river covering the tarmac road. Mopeds are a common mode of transport in Bali. Often whole-family mopeds carrying as many as five; father driving, mother on pillion with baby and two children standing on the platform in front of father. And possibly a family dog in the shopping basket in front. Now there were sou-wester clad moped riders, knee and ankle deep in water, riding up and down the torrent on both sides of the road. Just as suddenly as the rain had started, it stopped and the sun came out. Once in the one way system of the city, we were still surrounded by mopeds on both sides of the road going in both directions. Road protocols seem not to apply to mopeds. 

Wayan had promised us a Buddhist temple and the Monkey temple before returning to the hotel. Was there time for both? There was, if we didn’t linger too long. We squelched up a soggy path to the Buddhist temple where a solemn monk helped us on with the obligatory robe while we were on holy ground. Temple inspection complete, the Monkey temple wasn’t far.

A monkey temple can be a hazard. Monkeys are no respecters of humans, nor of humans’ notions of dignified and hygienic behaviour. Human food is monkey food if spied, as one or two unwary children found out when their treats disappeared. Items taken without request, without notice. Monkeys are far superior to humans when climbing. Most of the ruined buildings of the Monkey temple were tree-clad. There are no well-developed monkey notions of toilet hygiene. All paths were covered with monkey excrement. It was as well to look up, to avoid anything dropping unexpectedly from above, as well as to look down to avoid stepping on anything unpleasant on the footpath. Uni-directional binocular vision required. And the noise is appalling. Monkeys are well-developed conversationalists. At the top of their voices, shouting and screaming. While it had been a fascinating and stimulating day, we were glad to return to the car.

Having paid Wayan off, thanking him profusely, there was another surprise in store. Walking to our hotel room, on the lawn below the open walkway, adjacent to the expansive reception area, in full view of the restaurant, a tented bower was being prepared on the lawn. A tented bower festooned with ribbons, a dining table, two chairs and glorious displays of tropical flowers. Had there been a bed it might have been more accurately described as a boudoir. ‘There must be a wedding,' I said to my wife, ‘or at least a birthday party.’ ‘Hmmm,’ she replied. An unusually brief response from my wife. Normally she has a great deal to say. Shortly afterwards, washing and changing for dinner, the room telephone rang. A detached voice at the other end said, ‘Your reservation is ready now.’ The bower was for us, a special romantic occasion booked by my wife.

Day to day, I am not a regular taxi-rider. I look forward to the next taxi adventure.  


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