When you travel to most foreign countries, one of the first rules you learn is DON’T TAKE UNMARKED TAXIS. Just imagine in the United States, if someone pulled up next to you on a curb and offered to give you a ride. You don’t know who they are; they don’t know who you are. You might be a bit sketched out. In fact just last month, Peace Corps sent out a worldwide email about safety in cabs and had this as one of the precautionary measures.
However, one of the first things you learn in (Southern) Kazakhstan, is that this rule need not apply. In some cities, the only taxis available are these “Gypsy Cabs.” (I’m personally not a big fan of the name Gypsy Cab, but that’s what they call it. I think the Roma people get a bad rap too often.) Gypsy Cabs can be anyone that has a car. Sometimes people work as a Gypsy Cab driver to make a living, but other times it is just someone that is driving somewhere and wants to pick up a few extra tenge for benzene.
I think all of us trainees were a little uneasy with this idea when we first heard about it. From young children, we learn not to get into cars with strangers. And from going to South America, I learned anyone that is not a taxi driver who offers to drive me somewhere really just wants to kidnap me and steal all my money. Or kill me. Do something bad at least. But nope, down here in Southern Kazakhstan anyone can be a taxi driver.
There are some rules that apply to Gypsy Cabs in order to ensure your safety though. First, you can wave on any car that you don’t want. Don’t feel pressured to take the first broken down Volga driven by the town drunk. Based on the short interaction of opening the passenger side door and asking the price, you will be able to discern whether or not you want to ride in that car. It’s all about gut instinct. Is this car reliable? Is this man drunk? Do they plan on robbing me? Somehow you are supposed to be able to tell these things from a five second conversation.
There are actually some rules that are good though. If the car is full of people, you may want to pass on it and take the next. If there are seatbelts, then that’s like a plus plus for that car. And once you find a driver that you like, you can get his (I’ve never seen a woman cab driver here) number and call him when you know you need a ride. Also, feel free to get in the backseat rather than the passenger seat. And you can choose to have a conversation with the driver or not; generally, I find being friendly is more fun.
I have to admit that I was at first a little nervous about the Gypsy Cab, but I have grown to embrace them. My village is about a kilometer out from the next nearest village, and if someone see you walking down the long, lonely road, they generally let you hitch hike for free. In fact last week, when I was hopping between sites, my plan was actually, get a ride on the bus to the highway. Then stand there until someone picked me up for 300 tenge. And it worked out just fine.
In addition to growing more at ease through the experience of riding in Gypsy Cabs, seeing the issue from the Gypsy Cab perspective has also helped. While I cannot drive here, I have been a passenger when my friend desperately wanted more passengers to pay for gas. See, twice a week I commute between two small towns down here. My counterpart’s brother is nice enough to drive me for free so far between the two sites. So after picking me up, we don’t just hit the open road. We go to the bus and taxi station and wait. Sometimes it’s five minutes. Sometimes, it’s fifteen. We are looking for anyone headed our way. We may only get just on babushka (grandmother, generally an old woman in Kazakhstan), or we may cram three other people in the backseat with me. And I’ve never once been asked if I mind being squeezed against a door for half an hour; it’s so normal that they just assume I’ll be okay with it.
I remember one morning when we doing going to Shymkent. We were at the taxi station for maybe ten minutes before a mother and her two young girls showed up. There were three guys sitting in the car: me, my counterpart, and his brother. I don’t know if they mother knew them or not. Maybe. She negotiated a price, and then the two young girls ages like six and ten got in the car. We then drove them an hour or so to a different town where they had school. I assume they did this nearly every day. And it’s okay. It works. Somehow they aren’t kidnapped. They get to school and they get home.
I must admit, it is a pretty efficient system. Maybe instead of hitch hiking, I can think of it as carpooling with strangers. You want to get somewhere, they are going somewhere. It only makes sense for you to go together. Imagine if you wanted to get from Savannah to Atlanta and you could just stand by the on ramp to I-16 and catch a ride. Or Athens to Atlanta, and you just waited around the Wal-Mart parking a lot. It’d be great!
At the same time, it does however completely ignore all safety factors. Unknown information is a huge cost that is hard to quantify. Even the small potential of someone exploiting the system and the resulting kidnapping or robbery or death has a high expected value because the cost is so large. But for now, that doesn’t seem to be a problem in Kazakhstan. People trust strangers enough that I don’t even know if that thought crosses their mind.
So for now, I’ll just keep standing on the side of the road with my hand out waiting for whomever to come by and pick me up, as long as it’s a pretty classnaya tacha (cool car), of course.