2012 Date Europe Geography Miscellaneous Travel

A Not-So-Random Taxi in Perth, Australia

I travel, therefore I taxi.

This is a self-evident but often overlooked law of frequent travel. Even though I use taxis more than any other form of transport, I seldom give them a second thought. Instead, like most people who move around a lot, I tend to think mainly in terms of planes and trains. I take taxis for granted; an assumed fact of life on the road, always there, waiting and ready to ferry me around. They are a lot like a group of girls in the corner at the high-school prom: not nearly as glamorous as the beauty queens, but you will probably wind up dancing with them far more by the end of the night.

According to its most general definition, a “taxi” is any vehicle with a driver that is available for sole-use or small group hire. We mostly associate taxis with motor vehicles, but when I jotted down a list of all journeys I have made that involved me, a driver and a fare, it was surprisingly long, comprising: all manner of cars and mini-vans; trucks, pick-ups and other motorised vehicles; stretch limo; motor-bikes and scooters; motorcycle side-car, golf-buggy; bicycles; rickshaws and three-wheelers of all sorts; plane and helicopter; speedboat, sailboat, barge, river-ferry, rowboat, canoe and raft; horse and carriage, just a horse, donkey, mule, elephant and camel. And water buffalo.

Harry Allen of The New York Taxicab Co first coined the term “taxicab” as an abbreviation for “taximeter-cabriolet” – taximeter being from Latin and Greek for a measure of charges; cabriolet being from French for a horse-drawn carriage. The first ever records of commercial taxi services are of horse-and-carriage for hire in London and Paris, in the 1600s.

Motorised taxis first appeared at the turn of the 19th century, also in London and Paris and shortly after that, in New York. Just as well, because at that time the growing number of horse-drawn vehicles, many of which were taxicabs, had turned these cities into festering shit heaps. Literally. Steven Levitt describes it graphically in his book Super Freakonomics, where he writes that the streets of large urban centres in the late 1800s were “drowning in horse manure…. In 1894, the Times of London estimated that by 1950 every street in the city would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure. One New York prognosticator of the 1890s concluded that by 1930 the horse droppings would rise to Manhattan’s third-story windows.

The arrival of gasoline-powered cars changed all this, of course, and strolling through central London or New York nowadays it is almost impossible to conceive of this quite horrifying scenario. But the sight of, and pervading stench from, walls of horse-shit were the daily reality for our great-grandparents, little more than a century ago. Think of that, next time your taxi driver is a wee bit smelly.

Today, there are around 60,000 cab drivers in Australia, a country with a population of about 25 million. There are around 500,000 in the USA (310 million population); and 70,000 in Beijing alone (20 million population). So the math suggests that about 1 in 300 people is a taxi driver, meaning that there are 25 million or so people in the world who make a living as cabbies. That’s an awfully large number of people.

And that, in a nutshell, is the really special thing about taxis – the weird and wonderful army of people who drive them.

No other form of transport gets you so up close and personal with a complete stranger. You don’t generally get to chat with the pilot of a plane or the captain of a cruise-liner. But in a taxi you are one-on-one with another human being. You can talk, swap stories, and ask questions. You are in close confinement with somebody you don’t know from a bar of soap, and yet to whom you are entrusting your life. That’s pretty extraordinary, when you stop and think about it for a minute.

Plus, a taxi is often the first point of contact with a foreign country, and the people who live there. So taxi drivers are, in a sense, front-line national ambassadors, and can be a remarkably accurate indicator as to the character of the place you are visiting:

London’s unique black cabs are instantly identifiable. Almost as iconic are their drivers, who in order to obtain a taxi licence must possess “The Knowledge”. This essentially means knowing every street in London by heart, and how to get around town without needing a map, GPS or radio assistance. This requirement was first introduced in 1865 and remains the basic standard today, which makes it the world’s most demanding training course for would-be drivers. It takes on average three years of training and up to twelve “appearances” (tests) before London cabbies gets their licence.

As a result, London’s taxi-drivers are a lot less like humble blue-collar workers and a lot more like lawyers and doctors. That is, they are part of a highly trained and elite group, almost like a professional guild or secret fraternity that can trace its roots back hundreds of years, with all the attendant heritage, tradition, pomp and ceremony. And really, what could be more British than that?

In the United States, Canada and Australia, taxi drivers are often a representative cross-sample of the most recent immigrants to the country, or at least the poorer ones. A recent study found that more than 50% of all cab drivers in these countries are new arrivals from the “third world” – Indians and South Asians, Chinese, sub-Saharan Africans, South Americans, and so on, which I suspect is just stating the bleeding obvious to anyone who has caught a cab in one of these places lately.

The reason, however, is not at all surprising. The story of countries such as the US, Canada and Australia is, more than anything, the story of poor migrants, wave after wave of them, leaving their homes to seek better fortune in a new land of opportunity. For these people, securing employment has always been the first order of business. Some jobs, however, are better suited to a new immigrant than others, being those which are readily available, require no qualification, capital or specific language ability, and yet reward hard work – the more hours you put in, the more money you can make.

For Jews arriving in New York and London in the early 1900s this was the textiles trade; for Italian and Greek immigrants in Australia around the same time, it was the sugarcane plantations and gold-mines. Today’s equivalent is to drive a taxi, through which a new migrant can take his or her first baby-steps in pursuit of “The Dream” of a better life. Could anything be more American / Canadian / Australian than that?

Over in China, taxi drivers are mostly migrants as well, except in the case of the Middle Kingdom they are domestic migrants – farmers and rural villagers, drawn in their millions to China’s urban centres like moths to a flame. Chinese taxi drivers often work eighteen hours a day, seven days a week; they are in a hurry, speeding around like there’s no tomorrow; and many have no idea where they are going – remember, they are often newer to the city than their passengers.

For these new arrivals in the big smoke, a taxi driving job is often seen as the quickest way to jump on the social elevator, direction up. Rare is the cab driver in Beijing or Shanghai who does not have a dream along the lines of “rural boy drives cab, works hard, saves money, and eventually makes good and becomes rich”. In the frenzied dash for cash and material advancement that is modern China, what could be more Chinese than that?

A brief story about a taxi ride in Singapore. Once, on the way from my home to the office, the driver took a wrong turn, and so we had to circle the block an extra time. The ride was therefore three minutes longer than it needed to be, and instead of twelve dollars the fare came to thirteen dollars (regardless, ridiculously cheap for an almost thirty minute cab ride). However, the driver was so ashamed of his error he tried to refuse payment. I wasn’t having any of that so I handed him fifteen dollars, and jumped out of his cab before he could say anything. “Keep the change” I called out to him, and walked away.

That evening, when I returned home from work, there was a two dollar note waiting for me inside a small envelope. The cabbie had driven all the way back to my place to drop off the change, because he felt he had not earned the fare, much less a tip. That’s the Singaporean taxi fleet for you: efficient, hard-working, scrupulously honest and value-conscious, which pretty much describes Singapore as a whole, too.

Elsewhere, French taxi drivers are renowned for being rude and surly, especially to Les Anglaise and other reprobates who, sacré bleu, don’t speak French. Italian taxi drivers are crazy speed-demons with scant regard for the rules. Indian taxis are chaotic and run-down, and operate in buzzing swarms. German and Swiss taxis are super-efficient, super-safe, and typically late-model Mercedes or Audis that almost anywhere else would be considered luxury cars.

I could continue, but you get my point. A taxi can be like a special camera lens – open the aperture, and you will see the place you are visiting in a very particular light; engage taxi drivers in conversation, and there is no end to the fascinating things you may learn.

All of which brings me to the point of this story.

Last week I spent two days in Perth, Western Australia, to attend a board meeting. When leaving, I hailed a cab to take me from the city to the airport.

The driver had an Eastern European accent, so I asked him where he was from. He replied: “Krakow, in Poland”. I told him that I had been in Poland twice in the last twelve months (see my previous posts You say Oświȩcim, I say Auschwitz and Soccer in the Ghetto), which had included spending time in Krakow.

Ice-broken, we got chatting, and the driver introduced himself as Mirek. I asked him how long he had been in Australia. “Since 1987, so almost twenty-five years now”, he answered. He told me that he had arrived in the country as a penniless refugee at age 24, had made Perth his home, married, and now had three “Aussie kids” in their late teens.

He said that a year before arriving in Australia, he had managed to get a visa to travel from Poland to Belgium, from where he had travelled illegally to Austria, and there he had applied for refugee status. He had remained in Austria for nine months, and after filling in many forms and attending many interviews, he had eventually been granted asylum in Australia. “I am a refugee here too”, he chuckled, “not a boat person, but a refugee anyway”.

I asked Mirek what he meant by “asylum”. He told me that growing up in communist Poland meant “living life with no hope”. He said that I could never imagine what it was like to be unable to do simple, everyday things, like buy bread, much less speak freely. He paused, and then added: “But the final straw for me was Chernobyl”.

On 26 April 1986, there was an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine, which was then part of the USSR. It was the worst nuclear disaster in history and large quantities of radioactive contamination quickly spread over much of Europe. Countless people died or suffered terribly from radiation sickness, both immediately and in the following months and years.

The Russian political machine initially clamped down on all news of the disaster. Workers in the plant, and the fire fighters who arrived to try to extinguish the blaze, were not told how dangerously radioactive it all was. Many died horrible deaths as a result. The “incident” was not reported until two days later, and then just as a 20-second snippet on the Russian evening news. It was only after the massive rise in ambient radiation levels set off alarms at a nuclear plant in Sweden that the Soviet authorities finally admitted that an accident had occurred. Even then, the scale of the accident was at first deliberately concealed.

None of which went unnoticed at the time by the then young Mirek, and his friends. “Information was so tightly controlled, no-one knew what was happening; there was such a sense of panic”, he told me. “I thought to myself – these fucking communists are going to kill us; they will poison us, and we won’t even know about it”.

In the days following Chernobyl Mirek resolved to leave Poland – “to get the hell away from there as fast as I could” – even though that meant he would be leaving behind everything he knew and everyone he loved. “I left my mother and father, and I never knew if I would see them again. At that time the door in Poland was a tiny bit open, so I thought I might be able to go back to visit them once I got foreign citizenship somewhere. But I also had friends who were never able to return – not even for their mothers’ funerals. That was the risk I was taking”.

I asked Mirek why he had chosen Australia, of all places. He said: “Well, America was my first choice, but they didn’t accept me. I knew nothing about Australia, except that it was as far away from Europe as I could imagine, and that was what I wanted most, to move as far away as possible”.

Even though he had lived in Australia for nearly a quarter-century and more than half his life, Mirek told me that he was certain he would eventually return to Krakow, and live out his retirement there. “I have lived in Australia a long time, and it is a good country”, he said, “but Poland is my home”. Again he paused, before adding rather new-age-ishly: “Poland is where I will close my circle”.

It was Mirek’s turn to ask questions. He asked where I lived; what I had been doing in Perth; what had taken me to Krakow. He was especially interested in the subject of energy, and Poland’s potential to become a major European gas producer.

He asked me about my background, and so I told him how I had been born in Israel, grew up in South Africa, moved to Australia at age thirteen, and now lived in Singapore. I had mentioned Israel, and rockets from Gaza were still raining on Israel that day, so Mirek enquired if I had family there, and if they were all OK. I told him my parents had moved back to Israel about six years ago, when they had retired, almost thirty-five years after they had first left there.

Mirek kept firing questions at me. Perhaps he was especially inquisitive, or perhaps I was in a talkative mood, but in the fifteen minutes that remained of the journey he extracted from me an abbreviated version of my entire family history. How my grandmother was from Lithuania, how her family had perished in Nazi concentration camps in WWII, and how she had been shipped to South Africa as a refugee to start a new life. How my father’s family had lived in Morocco for hundreds of years, and had moved to Israel in the early 1950s as part of the huge population exchange that followed the creation of the modern state of Israel, in 1948. How my parents had met and married in Israel, moved from Israel to South Africa when I was very young to allow my father to study for a PHD, and then on to Australia in pursuit of a more peaceful political climate than prevailed in South Africa in the mid-1980s.

We arrived at the airport. As I was paying the fare, Mirek turned to me and smiled: “You know, the story of your family is not so different from mine”, he said.

I must have looked confused, so he added: “For your grandmother, it was the Holocaust; for your parents it was to leave Apartheid South Africa; for me, it was Chernobyl. We all left our homes looking for peace and quiet. But still, eventually we all go back to where our heart is. Jews, Christians, Poles, Israelis, it doesn’t matter, it is the same story for displaced people like us, everywhere”.

I said goodbye and walked off towards the check-in, with Mirek’s words ringing in my ears. “It’s the same story” he had said, although how could that possibly be right? Mirek lived in Perth, he was born in communist Poland, he was a generation older than me, he drove a taxi, and the course of his life’s journey had been determined by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. How could his story and mine be “the same”?

But he was right, of course – the details might be different, but for migrants and children of migrants everywhere, the story is so often exactly the same: a trauma in one’s place of origin, leaving behind all you know in the hope of finding a better life elsewhere, and living forever after with the resulting inner conflict, torn between “the old country” and the new.

Mexican-American author Ana Castillo summed it up quite well when she wrote: “I’ve spent my whole life in Chicago being asked where am I from?, so that I have a sense of displacement that also is very psychologically disorienting“.

I honestly hadn’t been expecting a mind-fuck conversation with a taxi driver in Perth that day, but like I said at the start, if you engage taxi drivers in conversation there is no telling what fascinating things you may learn. Not just about the place you are visiting, but about yourself as well.

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