Taking Rides With Strangers: What I’ve Learned From Drivers Around the World

Whether it’s taxis or Ubers, this writer never misses a chance to strike up conversations.
Taking Rides With Strangers: What I’ve Learned From Drivers Around the World
A taxi in the streets of Kolkata, India. (travelwild/Shutterstock)

It was all meant to be so simple. In search of a couple basic items, some toiletries I had forgotten to pack, I chatted with the concierge at a four-star hotel in Amman, Jordan. The man offered to organize a ride over to a local mall. He would make a call. A few minutes later the hotel’s SUV could be at the front door, ready to shuttle me on my shopping trip. Oh, but the cost? The convenience and comfort would set me back many multiples more than the going rate of a local taxicab.

Being an especially thrifty person when it comes to transportation during travel, I decided to go it alone. Walking a couple blocks, I arrived on the roadside of a major thoroughfare, now teeming with rush-hour traffic. No problem, right? It seemed at least a third of all those cars were well-worn yellow taxis. I held my hand up in what was, ultimately, a failed attempt to flag one down. It seemed hopeless. Taxi after taxi zoomed past, each one with a couple people in the back (or a passenger in the front).

Just when I was ready to retreat back to the hotel, a sleek silver Mercedes pulled to the side of the road. Two distinguished-looking 50-something men sat in the front. The passenger-side window slid down. “Where do you need to go?” the gray-haired man asked, in perfect, Arabic-accented English. I told him. “We are going in that direction. We can give you a ride,” he said. And so, making up my mind quickly, I got in the back. We slid back into the thick-but-moving congestion, the brake lights of hundreds of cars ahead of us stretching to an increasingly dusky horizon.

Talk to Your Driver

Yes, it’s one of those cardinal rules your parents emphasize over and over again, from the youngest age: Don’t accept rides from strangers, and that’s certainly true for adults too, especially on first visits to unfamiliar Middle Eastern cities.

But my travels around the world have taught me this: Talk to your driver. While rides with regular citizens are the best (when it’s safe), you can learn so much from whomever is behind the wheel, whether taxi or Uber or otherwise. So resist the urge to keep your earbuds in and your eyes glued on your texts. Put your phone in your pocket and strike up a conversation.

Think of it this way: This is a rare opportunity to sit down with a local person and get an inside look at day-to-day life in your destination. Getting the ball rolling really isn’t hard. Just ask, “How’s your day going?” More often than not, the chat will go in unexpected and fascinating directions.

One time, I needed a ride in Kigali, Rwanda’s safe, clean, lovely capital. In a country known as the “land of a thousand hills,” the neighborhoods in this city of about 1.2 million are leafy and spill down from undulating ridge lines. I needed a ride  to a lunch a little ways away. Leaving my hotel, I haggled with a group of taxi drivers on the fare, and eventually made a deal for a flat rate with the lowest bidder.

Often the cheapest ride isn’t the best one, and that was certainly the case here. The old, battered cab was held together with plenty of duct tape, plus heavy measures of hope and prayers. The windshield was a spiderweb of cracks, and the engine strained against even modest inclines in the road. When I tried to roll down the window to get a little air, the handle came off in my hand.

But the driver was chatty, and that half-hour trip across town was a true education. I learned about his personal experiences in the horrific 1994 genocide, about family members he had lost—uncles, cousins. He told me about the rebuilding—of infrastructure, as well as social fabric—that’s taken place since then; the fact that everyone in the country, even the president, unites on one day out of the month to (literally) clean up the streets; and his own hopes and fears for his family going forward.

Conversations Across Countries

Not all my rides have produced such dramatic stories. Sometimes it’s just funny, or strange. There was the driver in India who told me to keep my window up during a brief stop for him to sort out a road toll. When I didn’t, an assortment of sellers crowded close, including a snake-charmer who held his dancing cobra inches from my face.

In Argentina, my taxi drivers told me about  the hot rivalries in that year’s football league play. A 60-ish cabbie in Hong Kong explained that he had never once left the territory, but he’d nonetheless led an interesting life, sharing stories about the most compelling passengers he had driven over the years.

In Estonia, my driver told me about strained relations with their Russian minority population, who mostly live in one small enclave of Tallinn. In Paris, I took the chance to practice my super-rusty French, and did a little better than expected. In Costa Rica, my Uber driver explained that, technically, ride-share companies aren’t allowed to drop people at the airport. So when we arrived, on his instructions, we faked a friend farewell, even hugging and slapping each other on the back and talking about the next time we would see each other again.

And back in Amman, I made it to the mall. But it was more than just a happily smooth, incident-free ride. On the way, the two gentlemen told me about their country—the situation of refugees, the popularity of the royal family, and how it balances the two dominant populations of Palestinians and Bedouins.

I learned more during that short ride than I did over the following two-week tour. Walking out of the mall with all the items I needed, I had a much deeper understanding of this place—and couldn’t wait to hear more from whomever would drive me back to the hotel.

A Few Tips

  1.  Safety first, always. Never take a ride that you’re unsure about. Ride-sharing services like Uber tend to be very safe, as are taxis called for you by restaurants and hotels (versus those hailed on the roadside).
  2.   Even if language is a barrier, still try. Simple conversations can still be very good ones, and you might learn a few new words.
  3.   In many countries, it’s common for a taxi passenger to sit in the front—this makes chatting even easier.
  4.   Start with simple topics—even learning a thing or two about the weather can be interesting, and often the talk will go a bit deeper than that.
  5.   Be prepared to share about yourself. For many drivers, the talk with you, a visitor from abroad, might just be the most interesting part of their workaday week (or month).
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.
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