Sunday, May 20, 2007

“Taxi Drivers” in Penang

“Taxi! Taxi!” The calls came from the crush of Penang taxi drivers, descending upon the pier to snag early-rising cruise-goers filing off the tender and blinking confusedly in the bright morning sunlight. Usually, as recognizable “tourists” in this part of Asia, we’d be prime targets. But we successfully pushed through the crowd of taxi drivers at the pier to walk a few blocks to our first stop of the day: Chinese clan houses built out over the sea.

We had been walking for so long that we were beginning to wonder, when a lone man walked up to us. “Do you need a taxi?” he asked. We explained that no, we were just trying to find the clan piers. Surprisingly, he gave us excellent walking directions, without even a hard sell on the taxi ride. So on our way back, when we saw him again, we took him up on his offer of a taxi ride downtown.

Unfortunately, we soon found out that his car had no resemblence to a taxi at all - not even a single marker that said “TAXI.” And we weren’t reassured when the first thing he did was pull into the nearest gas station to refill his completely empty tank. “Just a moment,” he said, smiling. “Sorry for the delay.” So we waited as he went to talk to the gas station attendant. Strangely, no money changed hands, but our driver soon returned and began filling the tank. He waved significantly at the attendant before we left.

An uneventful ride later, he dropped us off, pocketed his 10 baht, and drove happily away in the direction we had come from. “You know,” Joey said, thoughtfully, “from what I learned in Mumbai, I’d say he’s no taxi driver - just a guy with no money for gas. I’ll bet he just promised the station attendant that he’d be right back with 10 baht, just as soon as he got it from these tourists he was driving downtown.”

Having sworn off Penang “taxis,” as we later left a museum we found our way blocked by a trishaw driver determined to have our business - and, unfortunately for us, his buddy the museum guard, who backed him up. “But it’s a trishaw for one,” said Joey, pointing out the obvious flaw in this particular model. But the driver insisted I could sit in the seat, and Joey could perch on the seat back just in front of him. There was really no getting around it, so we settled on the lowest fee we could manage and gingerly arranged ourselves on the cart.

I’d asked the driver just to take us to the Eastern and Oriental Hotel (E&O), since it wasn’t too far and I’d figured there were no major roads on the way. But suddenly we wheeled into a two-way road with two lanes on each side. Our tiny trishaw was moving at maybe a quarter of the speed limit and weaving gently in the exact center of the road. But the cars didn’t seem to mind, and schoolchildren on the curbs waved happily at us, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to be creaking down a traffic-filled road while balancing precariously on a tiny cart. Our driver, getting quite a kick out of this, even managed to maneuver us over a speed bump without pitching Joey off onto the street.

And that was how we drove right up to the door of the E&O, sister of the Raffles Hotel, icon of refined British colonialism and decorum. The doormen, in perfectly pressed linen and proper pith helmets, were quite nice about it. But it took us a good half hour in the deserted bar (accompanied by at least a quart of fresh mango juice) to feel we were civilized enough to show our faces in the lobby again.

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