“Where are you from?”
“Wallah! Speak good English?””Yes.”
“(something in Arabic)”…
More or less this would be my first conversation of the day in Beirut whenever I had to take a ‘service’ (pronounced as in French and not in English), or a taxi to go to the office, for the entire duration of my stay. Enamored by Beirut and its aura, I was slowly growing accustomed to the different lifestyle à la libanaise, all except for the interesting modes of transport.
Beirut was a city of cars par excellence. So much so that I was convinced that if one day all cars disappeared from the streets of Beirut, the city would come to a standstill and the roads would breathe a sigh of relief!
When I entered the city for the first time, the awesome first-world like infrastructure, huge four-lane roads, flyovers, fancy cars, and spectacular highways looked all impressive. However, the more I discovered and roamed the streets with my observant glasses, I could see that that first impression was indeed not the last one.
Since Beirut resembled a high-fi-modern capital city, getting around was not easy. Pedestrians in Lebanon were invisible to the rash drivers and there were hardly any proper crossings. The footpaths were surprisingly in good condition, however they were frequently occupied by cars (yes, cars!) leaving very little space for one to walk. The amazing skills of the Beiruti drivers for double, and occasionally triple, parking were definitely class apart!
The ‘public transport’ in Lebanon mostly existed on paper. There were some buses, but their appearance was so rare, discrete, and meshed so well with the hundreds of other vehicles on the road, that it was just impossible to identify them. Plus, they would ply only on certain routes with very limited and irregular frequency.
At times there were also mini-vans, which trotted around the city, collecting and dropping off passengers, but again they were not the easiest to identify due to their uncoordinated colour combinations. They were occasionally blue, sometimes red, and at other times white. You could identify them by their more-or-less similar sizes, red nameplates, and the honking. They would honk at you the moment they saw you walking on the streets as if to remind you that there was no need to walk when a mini-bus was around!
The same applied to the ‘service’, the only mode of transport that was easily available in Lebanon, though not always affordable. They were omnipresent, but I had been advised that the mini-vans were more reliable than the taxis, as this whole business of ‘taking a service’ wasn’t that simple due to the lack of metering systems, which generally increased the potential of unwanted adventures at 6:45 in the morning.
That day in Lebanon I got to experience one of those early unwanted adventures first-hand.
I started for the office in my usual manner. I had completed the first leg of the journey and I was waiting for the next ‘service’. Three to four comfortable looking taxis went by without stopping. I should mention here that every time I was on the road, I would brace myself for all the unimagined challenges that could pop up at any moment and anywhere. I was doing the same when I hailed the next taxi coming my way.
An old, out-dated beast with its paint peeling off from every inch, brandishing equally battered seats, stopped in front of me. Its old master, who himself resembled the car, wore a torn bonnet and an equally torn brown sweater. He had only two or three teeth left and they were of the same colour as the yellow foam coming out from the seats. He asked me, “wein? (where?). ” I told him the destination and got into the taxi, politely denying his request to sit in front of the car, next to him.
I must mention here that the cab drivers in Beirut loved to talk. The moment they saw that you were not from Lebanon, they wanted to know all about you and put you in some imaginary bracket so that they could decide on how they would like to continue their conversation with you.
So, unsurprisingly the ritual of questions started and his second question blew me off completely:
“Working as a maid?”
“What?! No, I work at the UN!” (I couldn’t digest that ‘offensive’ question and insisted on that last sentence with much pride.)
“Oh, good education?!”
Actually, it wasn’t his fault that he thought that I might have been a maid, as the majority of the Indian-Bangladeshi-Philippino women in Lebanon usually work as maids. When he discovered that I was from India, he told me he loved India and flaunted his ‘Hindi’. I was quite impressed that he could speak such good Hindi!
We were wading through the Beirut traffic. We reached a junction from where I knew that we were supposed to go straight to reach my office, but he turned right for no apparent reason. The roads didn’t look familiar and the neighbourhood seemed even more different than the usual.
I was in an unknown city on unknown roads where all the signs were marked in an unknown language – I was immediately alarmed. When I asked why he turned right instead of going straight, he threw an angry look at me from the rear mirror and yelled at me, clarifying he was the driver and I shouldn’t be telling him which road to take.
Now, you might be able to imagine how worried I must have been after hearing his unexpected reaction.
Was he going to take me to the destination where he thought was appropriate for me? My skin prickled with some unpleasant emotion. I wished I could immediately get out of the taxi, but it was obviously and unfortunately not possible.
This man, whose aunt apparently worked at the same UN Agency where I was working, knew where I wanted to go as he was incessantly asking me questions about my work at the United Nations for the past ten minutes. Suddenly he started blaming me and said the unexpected route was my fault, since I hadn’t mentioned where exactly I wanted to go.
I was so frightened and angry that I yelled back at him. However, the threatening look he gave me and the streak of madness in his eyes silenced me. I let him blabber on about how it was my fault until we reached a familiar locality. He eventually dropped me off a few blocks away from my office, and of course, he charged me extra. Then he proceeded to give me free advice on how I should be careful and should always carry change.
It took a good ten minutes for me to recover from that ride and I was grateful that nothing terrible had happened. Yet, I was shocked to the core just by thinking what could have gone wrong, especially considering the Delhi gang rape case that had happened just before my arrival in Beirut.
It was one of the most disturbing and unforgettable mornings I had ever had in Lebanon!