Tag Archives: tourism

Taxis of the World: Survive Them!

New York TaxisBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

For Today’s Zaman, Kathy Hamilton collected stories about Istanbul taxi drivers, meticulously detailed anecdotes such as we might hear if we sat down with the author over a few beers. She wants us to understand that the horror stories are not typical, but still…. Actually, most of what Hamilton says is probably applicable in any large city on the globe. Here’s a sample of her hard-headed Turkish Taxis 101 advice :

For the day rate, the meter will display the word gündüz. The night rate is in effect from midnight until 6 a.m., and the meter will then display the word gece. If the wrong fare base is displayed, do not hesitate to tell the driver. If he argues, says the meter is broken or offers to drive to your destination for a flat rate, do not take that cab.

Torsa Ghosal, who writes on style and popular culture for the Kolkata Mirror, discusses the difficulty encountered by a journalist when trying to conduct tourist-in-the-street interviews in India. Because they are so incessantly importuned by beggars, visitors soon develop a reflex to repulse anybody. They become kind of unapproachable in general. Interviewees who do stop to talk, tend to feel that the city formerly known as Calcutta is the least westernized Indian metropolis, and the one where you’re most likely to find a truly cosmopolitan population mix.

In The Korea Herald, Yoo Jeong-jin offers an extensive course in how to recover any items you might have lost in a taxi. First, the author notes that the subway has a great tracking system for lost articles, and tells exactly how to activate it, and we do mean exactly. Same with the buses, as well as the taxis. This may be the most thorough advice ever offered on how to retrieve lost belongings, in any city anywhere, ever.

The drivers of taxis in many countries are routinely accused of overcharging, for instance in Kolkata, where a tourist might be hit up for two or three times the standard rate. In some places they are notorious for refusing short trips they deem unworthy of their attention. Anyone who thinks affiliate marketing originated with the Internet has another think coming: a taxi driver might have forged such links with local businesses, that he’ll only take you where you want to go if you stop off, en route, at some of his friends’ establishments. And of course there’s the old take-the-long-way-around trick.

One traveler recommends learning enough of the local language to give the impression that you know what you’re doing. What do you say? When paying the driver, you say “Here is a twenty-dollar bill. I should be getting eight dollars back,” or whatever the local currency is. This person feels that there is power in explictness. And in keeping your eyes peeled, because these scoundrels will try to switch denominations on you. Another good reason to speak the lingo is, as Sian Powell put it, “Asking what the hell is going on in sign language is very difficult from the back of a cab.”

Matters of taxi adequacy are voted on by travelers who compare notes online. Athens, it appears, has the filthiest vehicles, New York the worst drivers, and Paris the rudest. As for survival, it’s always a good idea to look for taxi stands, and only take cabs that wear the regulation colors and accouterments. They should be proudly displaying their phone number on every available surface. Ask the hotel staff beforehand how much it should cost to get someplace, and confirm that with the driver before you get in.

Make sure the inside of the door has a handle. Keep your stuff with you, not in the trunk, in case you feel the need to evacuate the vehicle suddenly. And feel free to bail out, as long as you first drop (or fling, as the case may be) onto the driver’s seat enough cash to cover the distance you’ve gone. Do your homework, have a general idea what direction you’re supposed to be going in – towards or away from the mountains, for instance. Keep an eye on street signs. Pray.

Kevin Dolgin is the nicest fella you’d ever want to meet, not the type to carelessly stereotype or slander his fellow human beings. So, when even he casts a jaundiced eye upon a class of people, it kind of makes you sit up and take notice. “Don’t believe the taxi drivers” is what Kevin says, and plenty else about taxis, in The Third Tower Up From the Road – including his personal survival strategy, which cannot be divulged here.

But we’d like to hear yours.

New York Taxis photo courtesy of shedboy, used under this Creative Commons license

Taxis of the World: Know Them

taxi from Suvarnabhumi AirportBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

The taxi business seems to be one of those areas of modern life that naturally sorts itself into the good, the bad, and the ugly. The common cab is often a traveler’s first introduction to a new place, and more countries seem to be realizing the importance of that first impression. At the very least, you expect the driver, like the doctor, to “First, do no harm.” With luck, the driver will also know where he or she is going. It helps if they’re friendly, too – or at least minimally surly. You don’t want a driver to turn you down because it’s not enough of a fare to bother with. Sian Powell (who writes for The Australian, mostly about Thai politics and government) reports on the state of taxicabbery in the Chinatown of Singapore, where the meek are not blessed. Rather than tell the driver a destination and risk being spurned, Powell recommends the assertive approach:

I prefer to plump myself in and let the driver argue about it later. That way I have the upper hand, although it is true that I have been forced to retreat many times, when the taxi driver flatly refuses to go where I want to go, and I have to get out in a huff.

Powell evokes the dismal vision of 30 wet pedestrians queued up at a taxi stand. It’s very hard to catch a ride in the rain, because the liability costs for even the smallest accidents are too high for the owners to risk. And of course, in the rain is when you need a cab the most.

Kampala, Uganda, sounds like an absolute purgatory, according to Roger de Budo. Foreign tourists are shocked by the murky clouds of stinky exhaust gases, and the noise! He says the taxis “advertise their services not with a single sharp blast of their horns but with something like five or six long blasts every 200 metres.”

The pseudonymous “bfick,” who took the picture on this page, says,

When a car is purchased new, used or passed onto the next owner in Thailand, it’s common for a Monk to bless the car and the new owners; hence the markings on this taxi driver’s roof for good luck.

Which is all very lovely, but Thailand is also a battleground, say Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison of Phuketwan. “Black-plate” taxis are a very big problem, which instigated a crackdown, and led to an airport blockade and other unpleasant events. Apparently it’s been a pretty much constant battle between airport scam artists and the government, with some dramatic acting-out. And many miles away, in the dignified, ancient capital of the Czech Republic, taxi drivers and police recently had a street brawl, we learn from Dinah Spritzer in The New York Times. And that’s only the latest incident in an animosity at least two decades old. The trouble is the city authorities established the rates, and drivers charge two or three times the set amount. A couple of years ago, the mayor went out disguised as an Italian tourist and was charged five times the going rate. Things are better now, but the tourist must do his or her part, and here are the suggested tactics for transportational survival in Prague: get the concierge to call a reputable taxi for you, or you yourself can text-message the legit firms, and make arrangements. When you’re out and about, catch a cab only at the designated taxi stands. The whole industry is always infected with politics. In an Australian city, there’s trouble because foreign students are allowed taxi-driving licenses while native Queenslanders of the same age are not.

London, England, was recently voted Taxi Paradise of the World, so the British reputation for politeness is accurate. Also quite costly. A polite society is an expensive society, apparently. Maybe London cabbies are so cheery because they are now driving something cooler than those old, clunky black things. We learn this from Cathy Smith, author of Write and Sell Travel Articles, who has been at this game for over twenty years and who also provides a history of the word “taxicab” and the notion that the government took over control of this form of transportation because the drivers, historically, engaged in competition too vigorous for the public health and safety.

Harmeet Shah Singh, who writes regularly for CNN International, tells us that the upcoming Commonwealth Games have inspired Indian authorities to bring the auto-rickshaw industry to new heights of visitor-friendly attitude and service. A number of avenues for complaint are reported to be already in place, and soon, government-sponsored English classes will help auto-rickshaw drivers cope with an expected 100,000 tourists in October of next year. 40,000 vehicles are involved, which seems to imply more than 40,000 drivers, because why let a perfectly good vehicle sit idle for part of the day when a brother or cousin could be out there making money with it? Anyway, a reported 8,000 drivers are said to be booked for schooling in not only English, but first aid and life skills. And yoga.

First, it seems like anyone who ekes out a living as an auto-rickshaw driver in India must already possess an abundance of life skills. Second, doesn’t almost everyone in India speak some English already? There’s a bigger proportion of English speakers in India than there are India speakers in the West, you can bet your bottom rupee. Anyhow, the term “psychometric tests” is mentioned, which hints that New Delhi undertakes to guarantee the sanity of its cab drivers, always a sound practice in any metropolis.

This summer, news came from Tehran that tourism taxi service will be given a new look — orange — though the make of car was not quite chosen yet. But the Iranian drivers (who are, through a quirk of bureaucracy, overseen by the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization) are also scheduled to learn English. Fluently.

Is the ubiquity of English a monstrous plot of cultural imperialism? Or is it what Esperanto should have been, a giant step toward a warm fuzzy world where everyone communicates and understands each other? On the other hand, doesn’t a lot of conflict originate between parties who understand each other all too well?

photo courtesy of bfick, used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writing Turned Inside Out in Ireland

cornwall_coast

By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

What we have here is the very opposite of travel writing. It’s host writing. It looks at our favorite subject not as a traveler might, but from the point of view of the inhabitants of a place. In this excellent Dublin Independent piece, Martina Devlin makes comparisons of the cost, and looks at the difference between the tourist experience in France (good) and Ireland (not so good). She explores the three main factors that are responsible: price, service, and quality. Okay, that’s about what you’d expect from any writer with both an aesthetic sense and a grasp of realpolitik. And then she goes brilliant:

What we do have to offer — our unique selling point — is our reputation as the Land of Saints and Scholars; our literary tradition. We can attract tourists by offering well-organised, weather resistant events: one extension of the “smart economy” we should not ignore… If we are to live to tell the tale of this once-in-a-century recession, we need to access those survival-of-the-fittest genes hardwired into our DNA.

In the matter of price, Devlin contends that the Irish don’t have a chance, because of the twin pillars of socialism, namely, high minimum wage and high income tax. As to the causes, agree with her or not — but the evidence is undeniable: it’s no longer an Ireland where visitors “will be content simply to admire the scenery.”

Devlin even provides specific suggestions, by giving examples of what has been successfully done in the literary tourism field. The recent West Cork Literary Festival, for instance, offered a class on travel writing, and encouraged professional travel agents to sign up. It’s that niche marketing concept. For novel-writing classes, about a third of the participants came from outside Ireland, and she believes this trend can be capitalized on to the very great benefit of the local economy. Ireland did just fine in its recent renaissance, and if there’s any country that can make a comeback, this is the one to do it.

Martina Devlin has published four novels and two nonfiction books. Her website offers great advice for writers. This opinion is not necessarily endorsed by Kevin Dolgin or anyone else around here, but the writer of this blog says it loud: Devlin is hot, hot, hot.

Last year, TripAdvisor compiled a list of the top ten literary travel destinations and #4 is Dublin, so things are heading in the right direction. Dublin has Yeats and Joyce, of course. For Harry Potter fans, this Skyscanner page offers a list of 13 possible destinations. Ireland is included on the basis of winning the 1994 Quidditch World Cup, and also on general principles, for being the stomping ground of Imps, Porlocks and Kelpies.

Ireland needs a literary-tourist-magnet on the scale of Menabilly, which is in the British county of Cornwall. That estate was the prototype of the fictitious Manderley in Daphne DuMaurier’s immortal best-seller Rebecca. Apparently, the author fell in love with a house, and wrote a bestseller featuring the house as a character, and made enough money to lease the house and move in. What a great story!

The person who knows the most about it is Justine Picardie, who has just published a book about DuMaurier, and who tells many entertaining details in The Times. Her description of that whole area makes a person want to go there right now. Not to Menabilly itself, of course. It’s not open to the public. But there is a yearly gathering in the nearest town, for devotees of the novel and the house. This article also gives careful directions for the optimal self-guided walking tour of the local countryside.

One reader we asked says that in Ireland, she’d like to see places associated with Maud Gonne. Or Bobby Sands. We’d like to hear more ideas. In Ireland, or any part of the United Kingdom, whose house or neighborhood would you like to have a peek at?

Cornwall coast photo courtesy of Kai Hendry , used under this Creative Commons license

Of Taxis and Tuk-Tuks

Tuk-tuks By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

From the scholarly streets of one of England’s venerable university towns comes the story of the tuk-tuk proposal, as related by Jack Grove in the Cambridge Evening News. Grove, on closer scrutiny, appears to be one of those eclectic-minded journalists who writes about everything. He provides some helpful background to raise our tuk-tuk awareness:

¦ Tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled motorised rickshaw, is named after the spluttering noise emitted from its engine.
¦ They’re very popular in the Indian sub-continent and Far East, particularly in busy cities such as Mumbai, Bangkok and Delhi.
¦ Models proposed for Cambridge would carry a driver and two passengers, would have seatbelts and a maximum speed of 35mph.

These little vehicles, which seem more appropriate to a circus ring than a city street, are cute, but are they safe? A tuk-tuk can roll over, and it’s eggshell-frail, so there is little protection for passengers in the event of collision with, say, a bus. The safety issues are pointed out by the taxicab companies, whose motives are purely altruistic and community-minded.

Thus far, only one entrepreneur has applied for a tuk-tuk license in Cambridge, but worried clingers to the status quo have warned the public that once you let one fleet of tuk-tuks loose on the streets, others will soon follow. And they’re probably right.

The proponents say that tuk-tuks could help alleviate the congestion in the ancient streets, even if all they do is carry around guided tour parties, which is about as far as the idea extends, for the moment at least. They say we have the technology to improve on the Thai or Indian tuk-tuk designs, and with a speed limit of 30 mph they should be safe. Besides, your average tuk-tuk gets 150 miles per gallon of fuel. Which is always a plus.

In The Third Tower Up From the Road, Kevin documents his surprise to find that in Manila, the tuk-tuk is an unknown species. Instead, you find vehicles that are kind of like bicycles with sidecars, some with the same rickety motors, others just with pedals. The passenger compartment is covered on top and open on the sides.

However, he does go on to say a few well-chosen words about Filipino taxi drivers. You might also want to check out his review of the tuk-tuk drivers of Thailand.

In other international taxi-related news, we note that Seoul, Korea, has a fleet of 120 taxis for the exclusive use of foreign visitors, with English- or Japanese-speaking drivers, that can be reserved by phone. In Myanmar, you can still catch a cab that’s so rusted out, the road can be seen through the floor. In the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the government has given up on trying to regulate taxis, much to the detriment of tourist transportation. In Colombia, travelers are warned not to get into a taxi that already has two occupants, and advised to let the driver see that you are memorizing the number on the side before getting in.

China is about to acquire 1,000 London-style taxis, which will be manufactured in Hangzhou. In the Shanghai Daily, Dong Zhen and Ni Yinbin report that Shanghai installation of special rooftop lights in all of the city’s 40,000 taxis. A taxi must signal availability, and then make itself available to any passenger who wants to ride, rather than being picky on the basis of whatever criteria taxi drivers tend to be picky on the basis of. Shanghai also now offers a hotline that travelers who speak English, Japanese, French or German can call for help in communicating with taxi drivers. And Laura Bashraheel reports from Saudi Arabia on the sad and very expensive plight of foreigners and, more importantly, of Saudi women, since neither class of people are allowed to drive. Taxis are not a satisfactory solution.

At TechCrunch, Jose Antonio Gallego Vazquez gives advice specific to Madrid, Spain, while at Associated Content, Jeffrey Hanes offers five handy foreign-taxi-savvy tips, and Jose Soares offers several more. General rules everywhere include: carry plenty of small-denomination money so you don’t encounter a situation where a driver claims he is unable to make change. And always, always check for stray belongings before exiting a car, which is so much easier than trying to track them down after your taxi has driven away.

Sicilian photo courtesy of geoftheref, used under this Creative Commons license; Thai photo courtesy of Marshall Astor – Food Pornographer , used under this Creative Commons license; Cuban photo courtesy of exfordy, used under this Creative Commons license