In my street, Jevrejska, there is always a long queue of taxis, lining the sidewalk all the way down to Solunska.
There are a few cheap fast-food grills, which is a reason enough for the taxi drivers to congregate here, but otherwise, I can’t imagine there being any especially high demand for them right here.
When the weather is nice, the cabbies stand around smoking and bickering over something (usually sports or local politics). When it rains or snows they sit inside, sometimes two to a car, and read the newspapers. It’s cheaper than riding around, wasting gas, looking for customers.
Anyhow, it is more common here to call a taxi than flag it on the street because there are unregistered (‘wild’) taxis that are known to swindle a few more dinars. Other than that, the rates are affordable, even cheap.
For some reason they remind me of moto-taxis in Rio’s favelas. Favelas are built upwards into the hills, and most get very steep. A great workout, if you’re up for it, but it does get quite tough if you head up and down a few times a day.
This is why, at the bottom of every favela a cluster of motorcycles can be found, offering a ride at a very cheap fare. The trick is that the fares cost pocket-change so it is tempting to opt for a ride, instead of a climb, more often than not. Everyone does it – the elderly, the housewives, the workmen, the children, the tourists. Of course, the latter get charged the special foreigner tax.
Even in the highest noon heat, or the loneliest pre-dawn hour, there are always one or two motorcycles on standby, hoping to make a few extra reais for the day. In bigger favelas there are swarms of them, and they are unionized (or at last, very organized).
Sometimes I get asked which route I prefer. I have a habit of saying ‘the scenic one’, especially at nighttime. The road encircling the Kalemegdan hill, along the bank of the Sava river, is a great drive, as the citadel and the grounds are superbly illuminated.
This week, the main topic is the amount of snow we’ve had. Last winter was long and harsh, the driver shakes his head, and the heating bills were exorbitant. The snow keeps piling on. No one takes care of it properly, he barks, keen to criticize the city services, as only the main thoroughfares get cleaned, while the snow on all the other streets just gets more hardened and dirtier. It may stay like that until the March thaw. Shame, he says, the city looks ugly and unkempt. I nod.
It’s also dangerous, he adds. Most people are lousy drivers even in normal conditions, let alone in ice, snow, or slush. A few moments later he stops to let a pedestrian pass and the car behind us skids directly into our bumper. He launches into a tirade of curse words in between the “See! This is exactly what I’m saying!”, and jumps out, already loudly arguing with the other driver. Expecting this to last a while, I walk out as well and say that I’ll get going.
Still cursing and sneaking a few apologies to me, he says, ‘go, my dear, go, your fare is on this a##hole’.
I’ve met taxi drivers from all walks of life, so I don’t think it takes a special breed to be one. But, somehow, they all have quite similar personalities. And they tend to get chatty, unsuccessfully hiding curiosity, and unsolicitedly sharing their opinions, suggestions, and advice.
My story is complicated, so I don’t like disclosing too much. If the driver is persistent, I admit, I lie sometimes.
One night in Rio, we hitch a ride up to the hostel. As there is only one driver, he whisks me off first and on the way asks me where I’m from and how come I speak Portuguese. Tired of having to explain it all in detail, I just say I’m from Italy, which, for whatever reason, pleases him.
M, then, arrives next and asks: ‘What’s this deal with you being Italian?”