The other day, I remembered my first taxi story. Actually, I have tons of them. I don’t think it’s a sign of bad luck, my taxi karma is just stuck in entertainment mode. It was February 2004 (insert dreamy way-back music here), and I wrote this story about a month afterwards….
One Saturday while in the center of town, I could see that it was getting late, and I wanted to get home and settle in before dark. I decided that the quickest way home was to go by taxi instead of the public vans.
So I found a nice taxi driver by the opera, and asked him to take me the 3 mile drive up to the Komitas district. Taxi drivers in Yerevan are an interesting lot. In addition to providing transportation, they are also the experts on nearly everything, especially weather prediction. In fact, they’re the only ones that will provide you with a five-day forecast. The news stations? They don’t see it as a necessity. “What do you need to know for, the weather is what it is! What difference is it going to make in your life if you know?” Most taxi drivers are very nice and friendly, and this one snapped to attention when I got in the cab. Which marked the end of our speedy service.
I glanced at my watch, and it was around 4:15. Plenty of time to get myself home and do a little shopping in the neighborhood. At first, the car wouldn’t start. Another nearby taxi driver, who I thought was his friend, jumped up and helped. They both popped open the hood. I was a little concerned, but decided that if there really was a problem, he would say so and I would get in another cab. After all, these were the experts. They tinkered around with the engine for a few minutes, and got it to start. The driver jumped in and started to pull away. We traveled about 10 feet and the car died again. In the middle of the street. Near the busiest intersection in town. I looked around; he looked around, and then started to wave cars past him as he tried to restart the car. We sat through several light rotations while he continued to apologize for the inconvenience. At this point, I decided that he must really need the fare, and I felt guilty for thinking about getting out. His friend finally sprinted over again, popped the hood, poured gas somewhere, and the car finally started. By their conversation, I figured out that the “friend” as just another taxi driver hanging around.
This is where it turned into a really interesting ride. We made it up to the traffic light and sat with the engine in neutral, while the driver raced the engine like crazy. Knowing the reliability of Russian cars, I fully expected us to go sailing through the intersection at any moment. The light turned green, and thankfully, when he threw it into drive, we started going. But veeeeeery sloooooooowly. It was now 4:30 and we had only made it through the first light.
After leaving the opera, it’s a steady climb up to Komitas. And by now, I was thinking that there was no way this car was going to make the climb. We went slower, and slower and slower until we finally stopped just past the old US Embassy. Again, the driver attempted to restart the engine, over and over and over again. Well, now I was too far into the trip to bail out, but it was 4:45! He got out, poured more gasoline over the engine (how this helps I have no idea, I was just thankful there wasn’t a cigarette dangling from his mouth), and he somehow managed to get the engine started again.
At the second light, he again put it into neutral and revved the engine. This trick seemed to work as we made it through the second green light. We crawled our way up, past the Parliament Building, then the President’s Office, then the University, almost up to Orbeli Street. I could have walked faster that we were traveling. But our progress halted and we died again, right in front of a little grocery store.
This time, he stopped next to another taxi driver (I figure they’re all brothers in some secret union), who got out to help. This time, they opened all the doors. Trunk, hood, front door, back door, they were pulling out all the stops. They used all the conventional car repair tools. Plastic coke bottle filled with water, plastic orange soda bottle filled with oil, a hammer, a rag, etc. Now it was 5:00 and getting dark. But I figured I couldn’t quit now, I was in a bad spot to find another cab, and he was putting so much effort into getting me to my destination. So, as they talked and circled the car, hammered, poked, prodded and talked some more, I sat in the car thinking about what I was working on the next week. I pulled out my day calendar to at least have something to read.
It must have been a few minutes that passed when I suddenly noticed that it had gotten very quiet. They weren’t talking anymore. And, actually, I no longer heard any noise at all. I looked around and discovered that I was sitting there in the car by myself! My driver had left, and the other taxi driver and his car had disappeared. Our car hadn’t originally been pulled over to the curb, and with the departure of the other taxi, there were now no other cars around me. The car was just sitting there out in the open, blocking the lane. I looked up front at the driver’s seat and saw that he had left the keys in the ignition.
Now, the first thought that went through my head wasn’t panic, wasn’t fear, wasn’t even anger. It was horror at the thought that I was probably now on TV! Armenia has its own local version of Candid Camera, and this wouldn’t be out of the range of their stunts. Actually, now I was in a state of anxiety, trying to figure out what to do that would make me look the least ridiculous. How long could I sit there exactly without looking like the rude American OR looking like a clueless fool. I searched for some magic number that would deliver me from this situation with some amount of my dignity still attached.
I had resigned myself to the fact that a TV stunt was the only plausible explanation. It was out of the question that as a part of his customer service plan, the driver had; abandoned the car, with the keys in the ignition, without saying one word! 5 minutes passed, then 10. It was too late. I was now the biggest idiot in Armenia, and they might as well capture it on TV. So I tried to act casual, as if getting stranded in a taxi in the middle of the road was an everyday occurrence. I pondered alternative solutions, maybe I should at least try pushing the car over to the curb? Get out and go into the grocery store for a coke? What would my local friends do in this situation? In a bizarre twist of guilt, I decided that I couldn’t leave the car, the driver had entrusted it to me.
Suddenly out of nowhere, the driver reappeared. He had a plastic coke bottle filled with something that wasn’t soda. He walked around to the side of the car and promptly starting filling the gas tank. Apparently, we had run out of gas. And he had walked to who-knows-where to get more. After emptying the contents of the bottle, amazingly, the car started right up and ran fine after receiving this miraculous liquid. Imagine my surprise that the car was now able to accelerate and travel at normal speeds. The man was a genius.
He continued to apologize during the rest of our journey home. It was now almost 5:30 and had already gotten dark. But still not fully convinced that I wasn’t going to appear on TV, I smiled and kept telling him it was no problem and not to worry. In the end, I felt sorry for him, since he had tried so hard to finish the job of delivering me safely to my home. In a burst of insanity (or possibly just overcome by car fumes) I gave him double the asking fare, and sprinted out of the car when he tried to object. Luckily, my ride never appeared on a TV show. I think.