Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Tidbit Tuesday: Gypsy Taxis for Beginners

By way of preface, this is a story that I've been working on for a while, it has appeared elsewhere (in a slightly altered form), but this is where it belongs.

Catching a ride in a gypsy taxi in Almaty, Kazakhstan is a bit like hitchhiking, you stand on the side of the road, face the oncoming cars traveling in the direction you want to go, and stick your right arm out with your flat palm pointing slightly down. When a driver stops, quickly state your destination (usually in the form of a pair of intersecting streets) and the amount of money you wish to pay (you can indicate price with fingers – or learn the hundreds in Russian).  If the driver nods, you hop in; if not, you try again.  When it is time to get out, you can say “zdyes (здесь)” which means ‘here’ or simply gesture to the place where you would like to stop.

Some people feel really uncomfortable with Gypsy Taxis but I have not had a bad experience in one.  Aside from the inevitable (and for the most part, innocent) flirtation when a driver finds out you are single, the experience is almost always entertaining and a really great place to practice Russian.

A Typical Ride
I slowly walk backwards down Furmanova toward Satpaeva my arm outstretched. Several waves of nice cars have already sped by without so much as a glance in my direction.  I can usually tell by the condition of the car if the driver might stop – the nicer the car, the less likely it is to stop. This isn’t always true of course.  I was once given a ride by the head of a computer firm.  She told me that sometimes she just likes the company on her commute.

A beat-up blue van with right-hand steering pulls out of the alley beside me.
“Where to?” The driver asks.  “Shalapina-Pravda,” I say, adding “700” almost as an afterthought.  700 Tenge is a lot to pay for an in-town ride, but I’ve come to a comfortable system for determining my number:  I know that 500 Tenge will get me to and from almost anywhere so if I am feeling impatient, I offer more.  If I am short on cash, I offer less.  Today I am feeling particularly impatient.
The driver indicates the passenger seat with a nod of his head.

I wrestle with the seat-belt as we turn into the busy Furmanova traffic.  A bit of the belt has folded and is stuck in the plastic guide above my shoulder.
“Give it to me,” the driver says as slows to a stop at the intersection.  I hand him the belt and he gives it a firm tug, pulling the fold free.
“Thanks,” I say, and then looking to the clasp, realize it is broken and won’t work anyways.
"Don't worry" he says.  "I'm security." With that statement he casually tosses a blue document holder onto the dashboard.  I take this to mean that any trouble we might have with the traffic police over me not wearing a seat-belt will quickly be settled with the display of the documents inside the sky blue cover.

The driver has a round, brown face with short dark hair and long laugh lines radiating from the corners of his eyes. His blue jeans and black nylon jacket look almost as well worn as his beat up van. “Where are you from?”  He asks me.
“I’m from America” I answer.  “Where are you from?”
I realize that the question sounds ridiculous and possibly even rude, but he answers with a chuckle “I’m from here.”
“From Almaty?” I ask.
“No," he replies.  "From Taldy-Kurgan.” I feel a certain smug justification at asking.  Many people in Almaty are actually from other cities in Kazakhstan, and getting them to talk about home is one way to keep the conversation away from marriage and children.
“I heard that Taldy-Kurgan is a beautiful city.”
“Yes, very beautiful.  Mountains, nature…Have you been there?”
“No, but I would like to go.”
“Call me if you want to go,” he offers.

As our conversation falters, I turn my attention to the long rows of brown and grey communist-era buildings peeking from behind the row of birch and elm trees that line Satpaeva.  Every now and again we pass blue or yellow signs that read “notary” or “Pharmacy” and, less frequently, “store.”  The car front of us abruptly pulls to the right to pick up a fare and we swerve to avoid a collision.

“Are there many cars in America?” the driver asks, his right hand resting lazily on the knob fixed to the steering wheel.
“Yes, lots of cars, but not so many buses, or taxis.  In Almaty there are lots of cars and taxis, and lots of buses, and a good metro.” I can only hope that in spite of my poor Russian I’ve managed to communicate that Almaty’s hodge-podge but serviceable transit network is one of the things I admire most about the city.
“Yes, but it’s dirty.”  The man replies.
“Yes, the air is very dirty.”  I agree glancing at the mountains that look pale and faded behind the brown haze.
“I was in Moscow for two years.  The air there was dirtier.”
“Really?!” I ask incredulously.
“Really” the driver answers.
“Why were you in Moscow?” I ask.
“For work” he answers.

Just ahead of us, I see the bright red sign for the Kimex shoe store at the corner of my intersection, so I pull a folded blue 500 Tenge note out of my pocket and fish for the 100 Tenge coins in my coin purse.  “Here please." The driver pulls over to the sidewalk. “Thank you very much” I say as I hand him the money.  “I’ll call you when I go to Taldy-Kurgan.”

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