Out of Gas: Traveling by Taxi in Beirut

April 30, 2012 5:02 pm

“Don’t you think we can walk there?” I asked Kevin in a pleading tone, “It can’t be that far away!” Kevin, who is my husband and navigator, shrugged, “I think we need a cab.” I couldn’t stand the thought of another harrowing ride in a Beirut taxi. We had been in the city for 3 days and I’d had my fill of the nauseating scents of cigarettes and exhaust fumes, the lurch of stop-and-go traffic, and the anxiety of negotiating fares with stubborn drivers.

Hiring a taxi in Beirut is a complicated transaction between driver and passenger. The easy part is finding a taxi. In Beirut anyone with a car can work as a taxi driver, and in a city with few good employment options, it is a popular way to make a living. There is no registration, there are no meters, and there is rarely a “taxi” sign anywhere on the vehicle. Drivers simply pull over to the side of the road and honk their horns at pedestrians, hoping to pick up a fare.

We were standing on the corner of a busy street, dreading the process that was about to unfold, when a beat up Mercedes pulled up next to us. The car looked at least 20 years old. The doors and frame were barely attached to each other, the bumper sagged, and the tires were bald and wobbling. The door swung open, and two little boys stared curiously at us from the backseat, momentarily distracted from the bag of oranges spread across their laps. The driver shouted at them, and one promptly jumped out and moved to the front seat.  The next thing we knew, we were scooting across orange peels to join the younger boy in the backseat.

The most difficult part of the taxi system in Beirut is negotiating a fare with a driver who doesn’t speak English, knows you are a confused tourist (all tourists are confused in Beirut), and will often quote you a price in one of two currencies (the U.S. dollar or the Lebanese pound). To complicate matters further, street signs and addresses are irrelevant in Beirut. Instead, locals navigate the city using neighborhood landmarks. We learned that the best method is to ask for the busiest street in a given neighborhood, then try our luck on foot.

This taxi was unlike any of the others we’d taken. Our driver smiled at us. He didn’t say much, but we could see him inspecting our reflections in the rearview mirror. The boys started asking questions in broken English. We were all curious about one another. The practicality of getting from one place to another had nearly been forgotten. We tried to explain where we were going, using a well-known landmark, the Hard Rock Café. The kids were confused, “Oh, Pigeon Rock!” they exclaimed, naming another major Beirut landmark. “No, no, Hard Rock Café! The Corniche!” we tried to interrupt as they translated to the driver. A few minutes later we had all agreed on our destination when suddenly the driver pulled over. Without a word the kids hopped out, oranges in hand, and wandered down the street. It was all part of the routine. Finally, we were on our way. No price had been negotiated, the car rattled along on the edge of mechanical failure, and traffic was at a standstill, but it was the least stressful and most entertaining taxi ride we’d had so far.

On the plane to Lebanon, a Beirut native warned that we should never use a hotel taxi. We had every intention of heeding her advice, but in a fit of exhaustion and hunger we opted to take a hotel taxi to dinner the following night. The driver immediately asked us for a fare twice as high as we’d expected to pay, and made an impressive effort to hustle us into paying him to wait outside the restaurant. When we didn’t agree to the rates, he pulled into a parking lot and refused to go any farther. We spent $35 to go less than a mile, and we never made it to the restaurant.

We knew right away that our current driver was different from the rest we’d encountered. Other than the occasional grunt or shrug about the traffic, he barely acknowledged us. There was no hustle happening in that taxi; just the simple goal of making a little extra money to take home that night. After what seemed like hours in gridlocked traffic (it was more like 45 minutes), we finally started moving. We were happy to be heading the right direction until we noticed that the driver had turned off the engine to coast down a hill. The old Mercedes was running on fumes.  He turned onto side streets, presumably because it would be easier to coast away from traffic. It was evident that he had done this before. As we rolled from street to street, Kevin and I enjoyed startling glimpses of everyday life of Beirut. Kids played in front of bombed out buildings, women hung laundry on high-rise balconies, and men chatted and smoked in the street. Finally, we convinced the driver to let us out on the side of the road, ½ mile from our intended destination. When Kevin offered him $15 for the ride, the driver looked relieved to be avoiding the normal negotiation. That won’t even buy half a tank of gas, I thought to myself.

We wandered along the Corniche for a few minutes, happy to be stretching our legs and breathing fresh air. As we stopped to take a picture, the beat up old Mercedes rattled past us, looking for another fare.

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