The Taxis: A Week in Jeddah

Taxis. Taxis are a government monitored car service that can get non driving folks from one place to another. They operate differently in every country, and most cities on earth. There’s a huge controversy in many countries as “private” services like Lyft and Uber edge in on the taxi market, and while the argument is supposed to be about how expensive it is to maintain ‘high’ standards of safety and insurance for the taxi companies, the fact is, I don’t know anyone who takes Uber because its cheaper. They prefer these private car services because they are faster, cleaner and more pleasant experiences. So if the taxis wanna get back in the market, they need to stop being dirty, late, scamming skeezers and start providing a service people want to pay for. OMG market competition.

So far in life, my favorite place to take a taxi is Beijing. This might be changing, because the last time I was there it was much harder to flag down a taxi without a phone app. But the reasons I liked them: the meter was very clearly visible and used for all short in city trips; it was common to sit in the front seat with the driver so you could see where you were going clearly; the drivers were consistently friendly, curious people who never made me feel uncomfortable or in danger; if you ever wanted to negotiate for a longer drip or a driver to wait for you, you could go off meter and negotiate.

I don’t like taxis in the US for the most part. Outside of New York and DC, you pretty much have to call one and wait around for it to show up, so I don’t use them much.

There are no taxis in Tabuk to speak of. I’m told there might be some at the airport, and the internet says there are taxi companies here, but I never see them on the road. If I want to go anywhere here, I rely on the school driver or I walk to the mall two blocks away.

I thought it would be refreshing to have access to taxi transportation in Jeddah, that it would make it easier for me to play tourist and see all the fun things. To that extent, I’m sure it is true. If I’d had to find a private driver for the week it would have complicated things. My schedule would have had to have been more rigid, and I might have ended up missing out on things or sitting around waiting a lot. So, in this respect, access to taxis in a country where I’m not allowed to drive because of my ovaries is pretty neat.

But holy howling monkies, Batman! They are complete jerks!

Understand that Saudis don’t drive their own taxis, so every one of these men is a foreigner who came to this country because he can make more money than at home. They don’t much like the Saudis and all of them are looking for a way up the next rung on the ladder. In addition, for reasons I’m still not clear on, the taxis in Jeddah have no meters. Supposedly, last fall there was supposed to be mandated meter legislation, but I guess it didn’t happen. This means that you have to negotiate a price for your trip with the driver.

jeddah-taxi-300x224

On to the stories.

The Marriage Proposal

I got picked up from the airport by someone else from our company that I had met a couple weeks earlier, so my first taxi experience was actually on my second day in Jeddah when I wanted to go to the beach. Several issues here, not the least of which was that I didn’t really know where this beach resort was. I told the driver I wanted to go to La Plage, and he said ok, so I got in. He started driving and called a friend of his who spoke English, however, as it turns out, neither of them had heard of the place. So we went back to the hotel so I could try to find it online with the wifi.

I found a place called La Fontaine La Plage, and thought that was it, so we set out again. I thought the drive was going ok, but when we finally got there, it was the wrong place. I called my buddy who lived in Jeddah and had given me the tickets to the beach and we spent the next 15 minutes or so trying to track where I was by landmark to where we needed to be. The beach, being a private resort, had no name sign or address. I thought the driver was being very helpful and patient, driving up and down the road, stopping occasionally to ask other folks for directions.

We finally got there, and he asked what time he should come back to pick me up. So far, I’d been pleased with the ride. He seemed nice, was helpful in getting me to a hard to find place, and I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get a driver to come all the way back out to the beach, so we agreed on 7pm (also known in Saudi time as ‘after Maghrib’) and exchanged numbers in case I needed to change plans.

He called me at about quarter to 7 to say he was there, and we headed back into town. On the trip back he was much chattier. Despite the fact that he did not speak much English. He started talking about America and how great it was and something about a visa. Then came the akward part.

This is like a 50 minute drive, by the way, so I’m stuck in the car with this guy. He says some combination of English and Arabic that I’m reasonably sure means he’s asking me to marry him, but I decide to not understand. The one and only time in my life I have ever been upset about the existence of Google happens here, because on its own, the conversation might have just stopped there. However, he whips out his smart phone and opens Google Translate to try again.

This time I cannot pretend not to understand, so I laugh because my only other option is to get angry miles from another taxi. I say no, and pull out my own Google Translate to make that clear. The next 20 minutes or so is a really good example of why Google Translate won’t replace human translators. First because a lot of people aren’t actually literate in Arabic even when they speak it with native proficiency so Google doesn’t recognize the words, and second because there are just too many nuances to adequately translate all but the simplest phrases from non-related language groups.

So he tries to hit on me some more, I don’t know how you change a girl’s mind about marriage in a taxi ride, but he tried. Most of the Google translate stuff game up as complete garbldy gook in Roman letters, not even English words, just a mess, so I was at least able to go back to not understanding. I’d stare at the phone and say, “no English”.

Finally we got back to my hotel, and he tried to vastly over-charge me for the ride. I thought it was pretty darn foolish of him, after all, he’d already done the driving and hadn’t gotten me to agree on a price. Moreover, he’d been very socially inappropriate which could have gotten him in big trouble if I’d reported him. Lucky for him, I guess, I wasn’t jaded enough to be so mean yet. So I paid him less than he wanted, but more than he deserved and got out.

The touchy-feeley guy

Another night, coming back to the hotel, I got an even more outrageously skeezy guy. I had at this point decided to make sure I got the fare agreed on in advance, but I’ve only been in Saudi a month, and I’m still not in the habbit of refusing handshakes. I’m working on it, but its a lifetime reflex that I have to overcome here. Plus, in Beijing, I really enjoyed chatting with the taxi drivers, so the social reprogramming needed to cope with Saudi taxis was simply not in place.

It was a very short trip and he tried to as for way too much money, we haggled for a bit then came to 13. I know Arabic speakers have trouble with 13 and 30 from teaching them, so I checked, I repeated it, 13 and said one-three. He said ok, I got in.

The guy went through a similar chat about America, are you married, you’re so pretty, etc. At some point he either realized he made a number mistake or just changed his mind and said the fare was 30, three-zero, to which I said no. No changing the fare once I’m in the cab.

Once we reached the hotel, I gave him 20 SAR, because I didn’t have change and didn’t feel like arguing. He took the opportunity of reaching back for the money to brush my leg, and I did get upset at that point, pushing his hand away and raising my voice. He tried to ask for more money again and I refused, holding out the 20 which was still more than the 13 we’d agreed on. Then he puckered up his lips and leaned more into the back seat, trying to get a kiss. Fortunately he didn’t do anything as stupid as try to touch me again, but it made me feel absolutely gross. I pushed the money at him and got out with what I am sure was the purest look of disgust I’ve ever had on my face, then went to my room and spent like an hour talking to friends in the US to calm down before walking out to diner.

The Lazy Liar

Much shorter story, but as I began learning more about negotiating fares and how to act (or not act) in a taxi, my behavior started to change accordingly. I wanted to go to Al Balad souq for the evening and talked a taxi into a 15 SAR fare. In the most passive aggressive way possible, he took me to the very edge of what could be considered Al Balad and claimed he couldn’t get in because the roads were blocked. While the road he stopped at was indeed blocked, there were plenty of cars driving in and out of Balad, so this was a clear lie and a way for him to get more fare for less driving. Not a happy camper, me.

The Wandering Driver

So, at this point I’ve gotten to know the neighborhood and nearest landmarks to my hotel, so I can say them to the drivers. I also can pull up Google maps and show them where I want to go, because the map works pretty well even without any wifi, you just can’t get a route or directions, but you can still see the map. So I tell the driver, show the driver and negotiate a price, then get in the taxi.

After a while, I can see he’s going the wrong way, so I tell him so and show him again on the map. He starts arguing with me (I can’t understand most of the words, but the tone is pretty clear) along the lines of what the hell. I point again to the map, but I’m pretty angry by now and am only yelling in English like a dumb American that this is what I showed him before, and if he didn’t know where it was, why the hell did he tell me to get in the taxi?

When he looks more closely at the map, he then demands more money than we agreed on, which I also refuse, since I’d showed him the map before we agreed on a price and its not my fault if he didn’t understand it or try to ask any questions.

The yelling goes on for a while before he finally tells me in broken English to change taxis. Fine, I say, and open the door. He tried to get me to pay him for the ride so far, and you know, on my first day in Jeddah I might have given him something, believing it was an honest mistake or trying to be nice, but after several days of jerk drivers I’ve completely had it. On top of which, we aren’t even near any place where I’ll be able to catch another taxi at this point, so I refuse to give him any money, pointing at my map again, and get out.

I walked for several blocks of dark empty city before coming to a little strip mall area where I could catch another taxi back to my hotel. Not fun.

The Nice Guy

Lest you think every single taxi driver in Jeddah is a scamming, skeezy douchbag, there were a couple neutral rides and there was one nice guy.

I’d decided after the above experiences that I needed to wear my Hijab when taking a taxi to avoid the impression of being ‘loose’, and to lie about the fact that that I’m not married (which I hate and may talk more about another time). This did get me a couple of less unpleasant taxi rides which do not bear remarking on in any detail except that one of them commented on my hijab saying that too many American women showed their hair and he was pleased to see me covering.

I don’t know if the nice guy was responding to my behavior or if he was just nice, but it was a short ride, and I’d given in at 30 SAR even though I knew it was too much because I was tired and hot. He talked to me, but respectfully, and when we arrived at my hotel and I handed him the 30, he gave me 10 back, saying it was too much and wishing me a good evening with a pleasant smile which I was happy to return.

The Lost on a Straight Road Guy

Finally, on my last day in Jeddah, I wanted to go back to La Plage. Now I knew where it was, could point to it on a map and had a basic understanding of how much it should cost to get there. So armed, I donned my hijab, pulled up my map and flagged a taxi.

I showed him the map, pointing to an empty stretch of coastline where the private beach lay. He questioned me about its name, and I told him, knowing it would do no good, then pointed to the spot on the map again. He took some time to look at the map. Its a straight shot up a single road. The road changes names a few times, from Al Andalus to King Abdul Aziz to Prince Abdullah Al Fiasal, but its really one big highway that follows the coast around a little inlet and into Obhur. No weird turns, no complicated switchbacks. I think I could have followed it without GPS and I get lost in the city I’ve lived in 10 years.

We agree on 70 SAR which is kinda pricey, but not bad for white-person rates. He argues for higher saying that its over 40km, but we settle in the end. This is important later, that he knows its about 40 km away. Don’t forget.

He chats me up, I’m very distant without being directly rude. Talk about my “husband” repeatedly. He tells me he’s Egyptian, and women in his country don’t have to wear abaya and hijab. He asks if we can be friends, and by now I know that’s a bad sign so I politely say  no, we cannot be friends because men and women in Saudi can’t be friends. He tells me its no problem because he is not Saudi he is Egyptian. I tell him no a few more times before the message really sticks. Remember this is a long drive.

Partway there, on the long stretch of highway where there are no turn offs at all, he pulls off on the side of the road, acting like he’s lost. I show him the map again, indicating the little blue dot that is us, and the stretch of beach I want to go to that is further on the road we are on. He continues to act confused. Which is the lamest act I’ve seen in a while. Eventually a cop pulls up beside us. So he explains that he’s got this American in the car who doesn’t speak Arabic and he’s trying to figure out where I want to go.

Seriously, are maps that hard to read? Is this some magical skill my father passed on to me on our family summer road trips? Its not even a paper map, there’s this blue dot that represents where we are! He takes my tablet over to the cop car to show him the map and they talk for a while but I can’t hear them.

Finally he comes back and heads out again. He indicates that I should tell him to stop when we get there, as though that were not my plan already.

When we finally arrive, he doesn’t even pull around to get me to the gate, and he tries to demand more money, acting like he had to drive so much farther than we’d originally agreed on. The fact that our little blue dot is exactly where I pointed to before I got in the taxi, and that his original argument for a higher fare included the distance he now tried to claim ignorance of made the attempt astonishingly pathetic.

There is of course no way I’m asking him to come back to pick me up in the evening. Which leads me to…

UBER

I don’t know what my resistance to using Uber was. I think they were along the lines of I don’t have a smart phone or bank account in Saudi yet. The lack of smart phone makes using the Uber app a little harder because I would be limited to being able to use it only where there was wi-fi which is unreliable in Saudi. The lack of a Saudi bank account means that I have to give Uber my US credit card, which I don’t like because its a pain to get my Saudi salary to my US bank account until I get the bank account here set up. Not impossible, just a pain. I really wanted to use my Saudi salary to take this vacation, and I think I got a little irrationally attached to the idea.

If it hadn’t been a mere three weeks since my arrival in Saudi, these obstacles would not have existed, and I might have been spared all these fantastic taxi experiences. As it was, I finally gave up on my last day and signed up for Uber from the restaurant at La Plage because I really couldn’t handle one more crappy taxi ride.

Once I was all done enjoying my day, I logged into the app and ordered my Uber car. I got a text immediately saying my driver had been dispatched and giving me an ETA. The app itself also showed me a picture of my driver, his name and they type of car he would be driving.

Only complaint was that the Uber estimation of the driver’s eta was off by quite a bit, it took almost 20 minutes longer than expected, but I was kind of way off the beaten track, so I was surprised at the original eta anyway, and I was in a resort while waiting, so not a hardship.

I got another text when the driver was a couple minutes away so I began to wrap up in my abaya and hijab and collect my things. The driver called and I told him to look for the green door and that I would be right out.

The gate guard also wouldn’t leave me until he saw that I had a car, which was nice since its a pretty empty stretch of road.

The car was cleaner and newer than the taxis. The driver had provided cold bottled water in the back seat for his passengers, and he didn’t try to talk to me at all. Its a little sad, because I like meeting people and exchanging ideas, but the reality is, this simply isn’t possible between men and women outside very structured work or school environments in Saudi. So in this case it was a relief to be able to relax on the drive and not have to worry about where the conversation was going or what consequences I would have to deal with for rebuffing advances.

He pulled right up to the door of my hotel, and we never once had to talk about price or exchange money since Uber simply calculates the rate based on GPS, charges my card and emails me a receipt. I actually tipped this driver because I was so relieved by the entire experience.

The Uber charge was 110 SAR. I’d paid 150 SAR for the same ride on my first day, and 70SAR for the ride to the beach that morning, so while its possible I could have saved a few dollars haggling with a taxi, I feel that the security and comfort of the ride, the courtesy of the driver and the simple fact that I didn’t have to argue or haggle or anything was definitely worth a little extra cash.

I took Uber to the airport the next morning as well, and had an equally pleasant ride, similarly paying only slightly more than most people said was normal for an airport taxi.

Live and learn.

What I Learned

Women travelling alone are more vulnerable in Saudi, even in places where its not completely abnormal. I found that when I was in public spaces like the Corniche or a restaurant that I could doff my hijab with no trouble and no change in the way people around me acted toward me. However, when I was in a taxi, wearing the hijab seemed to make a measurable difference in the amount of harassment I received, even if it did not eliminate it altogether.

If you must take a taxi, make sure they really know where they are going and agree on a price before you get in the car. The drivers would say ok and gesture me to get in even when they had no idea where we were going, and then start driving and try to change prices while we were on the road. Any wiggle room that they have to say they didn’t know what you meant will be exploited, so make sure that you’re as clear as possible before you get in.

If you have a smart phone/wi fi use Uber or another car service with set fares and more accountability. Since the drivers are assigned and recorded electronically, its much easier to lodge complaints if they are problematic, so they have more reason to offer good professional service. It might cost a little more, but its worth it, and you’ll never be ripped off, since again, the route is recorded and if they try to drive in circles to get you someplace, you can show the discrepancy in the route they took and the optimum route on the map.

Never let adversity stop you from having an awesome adventure. Live life for the great stories you’ll tell later on. Don’t stay angry, but don’t let being kind make you a doormat. Be excellent to each other and party on.   🙂

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5 thoughts on “The Taxis: A Week in Jeddah

  1. Pingback: Overview: A Week in Jeddah | Gallivantrix

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  4. Pingback: Traditional Saudi Dinner at the Najd Village | Gallivantrix

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