Friday, May 10, 2013

Death and taxis

FES, MOROCCO - As our cabbie's shoulders tensed and the engine gave its now familiar death rattle, I had an epiphany.

We should have taken the bus.
It wasn't the fact the car had stalled, specifically. Or the fact the poor cabbie was jiggling the keys in the ignition that gave me pause.
No, it was the fact the steering wheel had locked somehow and we were coasting into oncoming traffic - towards a bus - that was, frankly, a little unnerving.
I clearly wasn't the only one feeling this way . The cabbie seemed a tad frantic as he hauled on the wheel - "clunk!" "Clunk." "Clunk!"
"Hmmm," I thought, as the neat white hood bore down on us, "We aren't wearing seat belts."
And we weren't. Not because we were negligent.This vintage beater, with its death rattle tranny, eau du petrol scent and dust-ingrained interior didn't have any.
The bus was closing fast.
Welcome to Morocco.
The trip to Fes seemed easy at first. A bus downtown was 40 dh apiece, about $8 total. Seemed like deal compared to the 150 dh the first cabbie quoted us.
So we were en route to the bus.
And that's when the stout cabbie in a shopworn designer ball cap approached us. The guy had a quick smile, a friendly manner and a grossly hairy neck. He quoted us120 dh, which matched the sum the tourist girl told us a cab would cost, door to door.
Shona and I looked at each other.
This would save flagging a cab in the city centre.
"Sure," we said.
Our cabbie took us down the line of white Mercedes to our battered chariot.
"Thump," went the lock. "Screeeetch!" went the door.
I squeezed in. Between the front bucket seats, a battered vinyl barrier was held in place by raw metal bars, serving no discernible purpose. And, as noted, there were no seat belts.
"Shona, there are no seat belts," I said.
"I see that," she replied.
This, too, was mildly unsettling.
On the plane, we had read about Morocco's legendary traffic accident rate, especially on the N8, the 270-kilometre-long stretch between Marrakesh and Agadir.
People don't respect the rules of the road, they drive aggressively and dangerously, the guidebook said.
Oh, and at night, in the pitch dark, you can legally drive up to 20 km/h without lights, it added. Donkeys, goats and sheep go dark as well, it added, helpfully.
"By law, every driver and passenger is required to wear seat belts," says The Rough Guide to Morocco. "Almost no one does.
"Given Morocco's high accident rate, it is foolhardy not to."
And here we were.
The driver started the car by inserting the key and then pressing a sometimes-on-most-times-off switch. The engine rumbled to life. Then he drove the stick into reverse and it gave its signature grinding rattle, like it wasn't in gear. But it was, sorta.
"Um, that's weird," I thought.
The driver looked back at us, smiled, jiggled the keys and hit the button again.
It roared to life.
We were off. Until the system stalled and locked, that is.
We drifted. The bus came on. Our driver pulled on the wheel, "clunk, clunk...."
And then, mercifully, we were off the road, rolling across huge chunks of rough white gravel. The bus flew by on our right.
"I wonder if this thing has airbags?" I asked Shona.
"Well, it is a Mercedes," she said, and smiled.
The driver got out, opened the hood and played with the engine, manually revving the thing. Then he flagged down another cabbie. An older guy. More gruff talk in accelerated tones, some gesturing.
"We're getting a new cab," I said to Shona.
She grabbed the door latch.
"...or not," I added.
The old guy tossed our cabbie a wrench and drove off with a crunch of the heavy gravel.
Our cabbie grabbed a second set of pliers and set about whacking the engine a bit. Then he lowered the hood and hit the button. The car started.
I turned to Shona.
"That's the nice thing about a Mercedes - they are easy to fix," I said.
Then it stalled.
He started it again and we were off, sans rattle.
And on the remaining 25-minute drive through the busy streets and traffic circles, it worked well.
Until it didn't. But the driver knew the signs and pulled us to the side of the road surprisingly fast, thankfully before we hit any cyclists, pedestrians or other cars.
Eventually we arrived at the New Medina.
"Your Riad is over there," he said, opening the trunk and gesturing across a barren, windswept square above which swallows were dancing.
I handed him the 120 dh.
He smiled.

In Barcelona, no one can hear you scream

Where is Ellen Ripley when you need her?