Have you ever been in a taxi and seriously thought it was going to be your last ever car journey? Well it’s happened to me several times now. They say ‘once bitten, twice shy’, but what happens when you don’t really have a choice?
You see my work has taken me all over Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the past couple of years. Whilst I certainly didn’t expect the car journeys to be anything like what we are accustomed to at home, I also did not expect to feel so flaming scared. It’s a city of taxi nightmare experiences.
Today: Beirut, Lebanon
Whenever you travel on the roads in Beirut, you best be ready to forget all you know about the Highway Code.
First of all, which lane?
Arriving late in the afternoon, I was already jaded. I do not remember the tussle in the queue outside the airport for the taxi. All I know is, there was one.
What does stick in my mind though is the lane discipline. Or rather, the total lack of it. The first time I noticed this was during that initial ride from the airport into town to our hotel.
Hurtling along the road at some breakneck speed, I realised we were fast approaching a tunnel or underpass. Ahead, I could make out the fact the road took a sharp bend to the right. In our way was a large truck, laden with gravel.
Rather than slowing down, the driver sped up. Not only that but he started weaving in and out of vehicles as we raced past the truck and on into the tunnel. That’s when I panicked.
At that point I became rather agitated that attempts to get the seat belt to work had been futile. I steadied myself behind the passenger seat and started to pray!
When we somehow emerged unscathed from that part of the journey, I realised there was another issue. There are so many cars on the roads, the road markings serve only one purpose. Decoration. Allow me to elaborate for a second.
Most of the roads we drove on to get into and out of, as well as around town, had three lanes in either direction painted on the road surface. But you see, I can’t really recall ever seeing three cars driving abreast. It was almost always four. That freaked me out for at least 2 days! Slowly I got used to it. I realised I wasn’t seeing carnage on the roads – in fact, I don’t recall seeing any collisions.
So what do I know?
Oh that’s what the horn is for!
Next up, the car horns. ‘Excuse me!’, ‘Oy!’, ‘Hey you!’, ‘Jerk!’, ‘Watch out!’, ‘Whoa Buster, where do you think you’re going?!’, ‘Come on, come on, I haven’t got all day!’
The incessant tooting of horns is enough to drive you crazy. All day and all night, in every corner of the city you hear them. The car and bike horn replaces dialogue it seems.
For the most part, they serve as a reminder that someone else is coming or about to run into you. Never before though, not even in Paris, have I heard quite so much horn-work. I can still just about hear them ringing in my ears many months later.
Whilst I think of it, beware the scooters and bikes! You better watch out when you are out and about in Beirut because they appear from everywhere. And they do not care which way the traffic is (supposed to be) flowing. No. The scooter and bike riders have a nasty habit of riding in whatever direction they need to to reach their destination. You have been warned.
Be prepared to pay WAY over the odds
I now know what US Dollars are for. They exist so you can be ripped off royally when you’re travelling overseas.
What is the idea of a taxi fare anyway? You pay someone to take you from point a. to point b., right? Well, in some countries, you’re advised to negotiate and fix the rate before you get into the car. In others, it’s suggested you just get in and ride, because it’s cheap anyway – Hong Kong springs to mind.
Now the thing I didn’t realise is this. In Beirut, taxis operate like buses. In other words, they operate as a public transport service. So, if there is someone in a taxi, it doesn’t mean they have exclusive use of that vehicle. Nope. Unless you pay the driver the equivalent of five fares (circa 10,000 Lebanese Pounds) then the driver can and will stop to offer other people a lift in his car during your journey.
Take it from me, in Beirut you’re going to pay whatever the driver pleases. Whilst the 10,000 LBP is a useful guide, we were asked for the equivalent of 30,000 LBP on more than one occasion.
First and foremost, they see you coming. They know you’re ‘not from here’ as soon as you get into the car dressed in your suit. And then you don’t help yourself by giving them the name or address of your destination – in the business district.
And the best bit? It doesn’t even matter if you were born in the same darned country. My travel companion was a Lebanese guy. He got into heated exchanges with the taxi driver over the fares he was being charged on almost every occasion we took a cab.
Those US Dollars you packed, ‘just in case’. They are going to come in very handy and you best be ready to spend them (all!)
Final word – forget about receipts
If you are travelling on business, you know all too well how important it is to get a receipt – for everything! Especially nowadays. No-one trusts you it seems.
Thing is, taxi drivers in Beirut don’t believe in them.
So you will really struggle to get any kind of evidence of the money you spent on taxis during your time there. Best to hope no-one picks up on the fact you are only supposed to pay 10,000 LBP for a trip in Beirut, because you will rarely manage that.
It makes for some very interesting conversations when you get back home and put in the expense claim with no supporting evidence.
Next time: Istanbul, Turkey
In a future episode, I’ll share the experience we had in Istanbul, as it’s also right up there on the ‘fear’ scale. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, I’d love to know your own stories. What’s your worst international taxi ride experience?
Do remember to share this post with your friends and anyone you think might benefit. I always welcome your comments, feedback and suggestions.