Frequent traveller: Road to hell

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  • Anonymous


    In which our correspondent recalls a series of rollercoaster rides and wonders how to stop cabbies driving him to drink.

    People often ask me whether I’m scared of flying, and the answer is no – it’s getting to and from the airport that turns me grey. Elvis Presley may have met his maker on the toilet, but I’m fairly sure my final moments will be in the back of a foreign cab, hands clutching a non-existent seatbelt just before a string of worry beads are embedded in my forehead as I head out of the front windscreen.

    My most recent buttock-clenching experience was a trip out to the airport from Istanbul. If you’ve seen The Usual Suspects, you’ll know what I mean when I say that my driver reminded me of Keyser Soze in the flashback where he kills his family. There were the same long, flowing locks, the same homicidal (and, in his case, suicidal) tendencies, and the same readiness to do the unthinkable, as he effortlessly created an extra lane on a three-lane highway.

    As with all of these taxi experiences, the terror builds gradually. Stuck in a traffic jam, playing dodgems seemed a fairly harmless way of getting to the airport as quickly as possible, but at 60mph in heavy traffic it became what management consultants refer to as a “high-risk strategy”.

    I have yet to meet a cautious Turkish taxi driver, but I have never before encountered one who would accelerate hard up the backside of a lorry. Inches from its number plate an extra lane opened up and we swung into it. I’m sure my cabbie was congratulating himself on a miracle of precision driving, which it was in a way, although I doubt he could do it again for the cameras.

    His final flourish was a 70mph dash round the single-lane flyover in the airport precincts, before depositing me and my bag at Departures and unilaterally awarding himself a 20 per cent tip, which I was too stunned to contest. Maybe this was the point of the whole experience, but two lives and one taxi seem a lot to risk for five quid.

    I have a rather less vivid recollection of another recent cab ride, this time in LA. I can’t even remember what the driver looked like, possibly because my eyeballs were pinned into the back of my head as we averaged 90mph from LAX to the Westin downtown. On this occasion I was tempted to ask the cabbie to slow down, but I was with a colleague who was looking infuriatingly unflappable, and I didn’t want to lose face. (He later described the journey as “that rocket ride”, which suggests that you’d be better off playing poker against me than him.)

    And anyway, does anyone ever work up the nerve to tell a taxi driver to take his foot off the pedal? I suspect the answer is no, because that simple question throws up a load more alarming possibilities: will slowing down inhibit his natural style and result in a crash? Will he go faster just because you’ve made him angry? Will he understand you? Will he even hear you?

    This last thought brings me to my worst-ever taxi experience. I was in the Crimea, travelling from Yalta to Sevastopol with a Ukrainian colleague in an ancient Lada with an even older driver. First impressions were reassuring – hunched over the wheel, peering intently at the road, my cabbie drove at a speed befitting his age and that of the car. For once, I began to relax and enjoy the view of the countryside.

    Then we pulled out to overtake an even slower-moving coach. There was a car coming the other way. We drove straight at it. Its driver held his nerve pretty well, but when it became clear that we were seconds away from a head-on collision, he funked it and drove off the road into a ditch.

    Our cabbie, on the other hand, hadn’t flinched – in fact, he hadn’t reacted. In fact, as we both suddenly realised, he hadn’t seen it; he was, to put it charitably, short-sighted. Not speaking Russian or Ukrainian, I asked my colleague to pass on a polite request that the guy should refrain from further overtaking manoeuvres. This was when we discovered that he was also mostly deaf.

    As we were in the middle of the countryside, jumping ship there and then wasn’t really an option, so for another 20 minutes we had to grit our teeth and watch helplessly as our cabbie blithely overtook anything he could get his Lada past, forced more astonished drivers into the long grass and brought a whole new meaning to the term “blind corner”.

    On the outskirts of Sevastopol, we decided we didn’t want to see what he’d make of traffic lights, and managed to get him to stop for long enough for us to pile out of the car and straight into the nearest bar. Truly, there are some occasions when vodka is the only answer.

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