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Beirut - a nasty run in with a taxi driver

Blimey! Did you know Jon's New Zealand book Squashed Possums is out now - find out more

It was almost sunset as I hailed down an old white Mercedes by the Corniche. "White Tower Hotel?" I asked. "Yes, yes, sit down," the driver instructed. I got into the car and immediately knew I'd made a mistake. The driver's name was Joseph and he was a robust old fella, who looked like he'd survived a few battles in life. "I take you on tour, one hour, fifty dollars, tell you the civil war places," he said. It didn't sound like a question, more an instruction. "No, no, just take me to the White Tower Hotel," I explained. He shrugged reluctantly and drove off. "You have a girlfriend?" he asked, "nice pretty Lebanese students, I know a very good place. Students, good massage..." I declined, as Joseph pulled over, not two hundred yards from where he had picked me up. "White Hotel," indicated Joseph. "Uh no," I replied. "I asked for the White Tower Hotel," thrusting the brochure under his grey whiskery nose. His mood soured noticeably. "You tell me tower, many tower hotel here!" We continue the journey. The roads are heavily congested because of the Ramadan rush-hour. Inside, his car is fully reconditioned and looks expensive. He must have got the money somehow. I should have hailed a taxi earlier than this.
Joseph turns onto a highway. Cars are overtaking relentlessly in every direction. To my surprise, we slow down and pull onto the hard shoulder. For a moment, I'm wondering what's going on.
And then the penny drops. Joseph has backed the car up and is about to turn around. "Where are you going?" I asked, but I think I already know the answer. "Is shortcut. Is too dangerous?" For the first time since being in the Middle East, I'm genuinely scared. He was almost about to drive against the oncoming traffic of a three-lane motorway, traffic moving at 70mph. "Oh no, no!" I tell him, pointing up the road, "that way!" Joseph looks at me with disdain and continues our journey, fortunately on the right side of the road.
We seemed to have been the cab an eternity when Joseph finally pulls over, near the hotel. We haven't arranged a price and there's no meter in the cab, which is not unusual. Now, we're supposed to negotiate a price in broken English. I place 15,000 lire on the dashboard. To say that Joseph is not impressed would be a something of an understatement. He is absolutely bloody furious. "No! Dollar! You give me ten US dollar!" His pale face flushes red with anger. "I don't have any dollars," I explained. "Look, I've taken this journey before and the fare is always 15,000 lire, not ten dollars..." Joseph reaches over and grabs my arm so firmly, it hurts. For an old man, he is strong and has a vice-like grip, tensile like an animals.
I'm in a complete pickle and I don't have many options. Looking him in the eye, I firmly told him to let go of my arm. Joseph loosened his grip and I reach for my wallet again. I'm almost out of cash, just a lonely 5000 lire note sitting in my wallet. I slap it down on the dash with the rest of the money, tell him that's all there is and quickly reach for the door handle. Swinging open the door, I grab my bag and I'm out of the car in a moment. My heart is beating furiously as I walk quickly towards the hotel. Behind me, a car door clicks open, I turn around and Joseph is walking towards me. What else could I do? I sprinted towards the safety of the hotel, taking the steps two at a time, not daring to look behind me. The hotel reception staff give me an odd look as I thump the elevator button. Fumbling for the bedroom key, it's not until I lock the door behind me that I feel safe.
Adrenalin surging, my heart beat a furious rhythm, I needed to relax, so I ran a bath and sat on the edge of my bed and switched on the television. In all the excitement of the day, I hadn't seen nor heard the news. Every channel was broadcasting the same thing, a coffin being carried towards a large grey aircraft on the shoulders of men in full military uniform. Arafat was dead. It was nothing less than the passing of an era. Perhaps it even explained why Joseph had been so eager to kill us both in a pointless traffic accident. But I doubt it. To be honest, it's like that here everyday, and besides, aren't taxi drivers like that the world over?

Blimey! Did you know Jon's New Zealand book Squashed Possums is out now - find out more


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