Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Horrors of Transit: Why I'd Rather Walk Than Go by Plane, Train, Bus or Taxi Driver

If there's such a thing as the worst section of the labor force to work in, I'd venture to guess that it might very well be transportation. That's not to say that this sector includes jobs with descriptions that I find distasteful in any way. Driving a vehicle, working as a flight attendant, and selling bus and train tickets are all nice work if you can get it, especially in this economy.

And I'm not saying it because I once went out on a terrible date with a guy in Rome who was a manager for one of Italy's national train lines and who hated his job because there wasn't even a sliver of creativity involved.

I draw this conclusion based on the general crankiness of workers whose job it is to facilitate the movement of people, en masse or one at a time, from point A to point B, while dealing with them directly. That would include taxi and bus drivers, bus terminal employees, train station staff, airport personnel and ferry crews, all of whom are paid to make customers feel like inconsequential cattle as they go from one place to another, and it would exclude airline pilots, who are separated from the public by the cockpit door and appear to be more cheerful because of it.

That's the reason why Morrissey doesn't like to fly ("I hate the dictatorial way that you're told to 'Pick this up, Get your bag, No, you can't, Yes, you can, Stand here, Join the queue, Leave the queue.' It seems as if as soon as you enter an airport, you're absolutely nothing. You're just this great big blob of flesh," he once said), and the reason I dread any kind of relocation movement that isn't walking or running. When they're not trying to rip you off (a favorite pastime of taxi drivers all over the non-English-speaking world), transportation workers are giving you attitude (we've all encountered those snooty flight attendants who act like coach is acceptable only if you're working in it), or barking at you, or ignoring you altogether.

In the rare instance that a transportation worker is kind to me -- like the lady in Haifa who patiently explained how to get from the bus terminal to my hotel without paying, and smiled while she was doing it! -- I'm completely floored. I feel grateful, as if he or she has done me the greatest favor, not just something that should be a part of their job description.

As I pointed out in a blog post a couple of years ago, taxi drivers are the worst offenders, rigging meters, inflating prices, and making life en route to anywhere fraught with anxiety and/or suspicion. Yesterday I watched as my taxi driver and the woman with whom I was sharing a ride from the HaShalom bus terminal in Tel Aviv to my friend's house outside of the city spent half of the trip yelling at each other in Hebrew because, she reasoned, if he was going to charge me 130 NIS ($37) when I was riding solo, why was he now charging her 70 ($20) and me 90 ($25.50) instead of charging both of us 65 ($18)?

"It's not right, but it's okay," she said, finally giving up, as I'd done before I even got into the taxi. I wondered if she realized that she'd just quoted the late Whitney Houston. I was impressed by both the entertaining pop-cultural reference -- whether intended or not -- and the zest with which she'd stuck up for me (so typical of Israelis, who, transportation workers aside, had been exceedingly gracious to me during my previous five weeks in the country). But I knew the driver, so typical of countless others I'd encountered throughout the world, from his mindless chatter to his oily outstretched palm, wouldn't budge.

Later that day, en route on a bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat, I watched another screaming match, this one between a male and female passenger at the back of the bus over what I presumed was his shouting into his mobile phone at whomever he was talking to while she was trying to nap. For once, I rooted on the driver as he stopped the bus and sent them to opposite sides of it like grade-school kids.

I might have totally missed this Eilat city view sitting
in the back of a taxi.
Taxi and bus experiences like the two above are the reason why I prefer to walk everywhere, which, I suppose, has several advantages, though none quite beneficial enough to redeem transportation workers for their general unpleasantness. You get to know a city better and experience it more intimately when you're walking through it than when you're driving through. And if taxi drivers were better people and bus drivers less impatient, I probably still would have the scrawniest calf muscles on the planet.

Unfortunately, for a frequent traveler like me, some form of public or taxi transportation is unavoidable, unless you can afford a private plane and a chauffeur to greet you at any airport in the world. I'm so conditioned by travel guide books to expect the worst of taxi drivers at airports, in particular, that when I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, and a taxi driver approached me, offering to take me to my rental for what I presumed was an exorbitant fare (160 NIS, or $45), I accused him of trying to rip me off and flounced away.

The joke was on me: I marched over to an "official" taxi, which ended up costing me 30 NIS ($8.50) more. I never took another taxi in Tel Aviv until four weeks later, when I left Tel Aviv to go to Jerusalem, where I was charged 50 NIS ($14) for a ride from Jerusalem's central station to Hillel 11 that the hotel's receptionist who checked me in said should have cost me 30. I never took another taxi in Jerusalem.

In Bangkok, it was never about the money -- taxis there are dirt cheap, even when the drivers are trying to rip you off -- but rather a matter of principle. I once dated a guy who got into a fist fight with three taxi drivers in Bangkok after he scoffed at one of them who had attempted to overcharge him. I was hardly surprised when he told me about the altercation the next day, despite the generally meek and mild disposition of Thai people.

I knew how to handle crooked drivers in Bangkok, but the crabby workers at Warsaw's central train station were beyond my realm of expertise. I knew I'd never be back within minutes of my arrival. Ironically, the first person to be nice to me in Warsaw was also my first and only taxi driver during my three-day stay there. He was friendly, chatty, informative, and he rescued me from having to walk to dinner in the rain.

Naturally, he overcharged me.
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