Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Portrait #49: Yet another international taxi ride tale

There's something somewhat disconcerting about waking up in the morning, eating breakfast, running a few errands, then getting on a taxi with all your belongings and moving to another country. It's all a bit too casual and straightforward. I think that three-hour check-in, long security queues, and the unavoidable earpopping are important rituals in any big move. Alternately, huge moving vans, loads of paperwork, road trips with sketchy hotel stays, or other such rituals must be involved. But to leave home number one at 12:30 p.m. and pull into home number two at 5 p.m., with nothing marking the transition other than a few new stamps in the passport... was this really a move?

And for this reason I am grateful that I moved to Jordan on the first day of Ramadan, and that I caught the consummate stereotypical 1960s Dodge Skylark taxi as my transport of choice, and that my driver was on the verge of tears the whole way. It made the occasion more memorable.

Notable #1: The first day of Ramadan. It's still summer in the Middle East. The sun comes up around 4:30 a.m. and sets around 7:15 p.m. Right now we're riding a heat wave, with temperatures hitting 40 every now and again (in Fahrenheit, regularly surpassing 100)... and, to boot, it's been muggy, too! Now factor into this general climate the idea that during the current month, almost 90% of the people in the region are not eating anything, drinking anything, brushing their teeth, or indulging themselves in any other way from sun-up to sun-down... It makes a 4-hour taxi ride through the desert sound rather stifling. I was oh-so eager for a drink of water on this whole trip, but since I was sharing the taxi with 3 fasting individuals, I couldn't bring myself to taunt them.

Notable #2: The car. Since this is a semi-permanent move (which in my life of transition means nothing more than that I currently have no plans of returning to home number one), I had a good bit of luggage, so I thought it was appropriate that I purchase two seats on the shared taxi: a seat for me and a seat for my stuff. This ended up meaning that I shared the front of a sprawling 6-seater with no one but the driver. I had a perfect view of the highway ahead, and I had plenty of space to sweat all on my own, with nothing but two of my bags inching up on me. The seats were navy blue and the windows were lined with navy blue curtains. Fortunately the front seat curtains were tied up, but I felt bad for the potential claustrophobia of my backseat mates. The gas gauge was broken, and drivers here are famous for filling their cars up with just-enough-petrol to make it to the next and cheaper station. So I spent a few minutes wondering if I should worry about the possibility of breaking down due to an empty tank, but I soon concluded that if we did it wasn't my problem so I might as well enjoy the ride. Or enjoy the reminder to pray, for as I looked out the front window, I saw that we were swerving from the far right to the far left of the highway and back again, inching up around cars at a very high speed, slamming on the breaks when we were getting too close and weren't going to make the weave in time. How fast were we going, anyway? I checked the speed dial to find that it, too, was broken. The doors were also broken, but our driver never noticed a door was not properly closed until we were on the highway, and he wasn't about to slow down while the passengers one-by-one had to open and re-shut their doors. In fact, the only thing that was in perfect condition on this car was the emblem that announced that we were riding a Dodge Skylark.

Notable #3: The driver who almost became the first Arab taxi driver I saw cry. But he didn't cry, he just panted a bit and his eyes got somewhat glossy. The first day of Ramadan fasting must be the hardest, and making the long hot drive down the highway couldn't have made it easier. The fact that he wasn't supposed to be the one driving all the way to Amman - a cousin or an uncle who bailed on him was meant to have taken over right before the border - must have been frustrating, too. Then there were the packs of cigarettes he was smuggling. And the medicines. And some other identifiable goods in a plastic bag. He needed to keep track of all that, and he was a very young-looking chap. Oh, it must have been a hard day for him - and he must have been running very, very late for something, considering how fast he was driving. I hope he got a good 'break-fast' at 7:15 before catching the highway back to Damascus that night.

So when I arrived in my new Jordanian home, I was thirsty, sweaty, and my head was spinning. My four bags and me had all made it safely across the border, and I felt I'd had my proper share of transition rituals.

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