Life is a labyrinth. A twisted maze with delights and horrors lurking around every corner, waiting to expand our life experiences, develop our personality and grow our character. Every day we navigate our way through this maze, exploring and experiencing.
Travelling is the lamp which illuminates hidden tunnels and overgrown trapdoors in the labyrinth of life, leading you on paths you never knew existed.
It is on one of these concealed pathways, lit by my travel stint to China, that I discovered one of my deepest fears: The fear of taxi drivers.
I know all South Africans reading this will be rolling their eyes, thinking that you can discover this fear by merely taking a two-minute drive on the streets of Johannesburg - and save some time and money in the process.
I'm not talking about the fear of taxis, which, as a peak-hour highway user in Johannesburg, I have encountered many moons ago (along with many other intense emotions towards these four-wheeled death traps).
My newly exposed fear is the very real fear of the drivers of these vehicles.
Maybe it is due to cautionary childhood warnings that I should never "get into a stranger's car" - even if it has a colour TV in the back and Gangnam Style blaring from the speakers. Maybe it is my inner, paranoid South African voice, warning me of the many potential evils that could accompany an inconspicuous taxi ride (wasn't a taxi driver involved in the murder of Anni Dewani?).
I am quite content to use any other means of transportation in a new country and will happily travel by metro, bus, train, tram, cable-car or on foot.
Think about it: By using one of these options most of the following variables are known:
- The departure point.
- The route (on foot, a few unscheduled detours might be included).
- The arrival point.
- The travel time.
- The cost.
When using a taxi, none of the above factors are predetermined!
To catch a taxi driver's attention usually requires you to dart into oncoming traffic, waving your arms wildly and shouting "Taxi! Taxi!" at the top of your lungs. Only to realise that the taxi is already occupied and about to run you over.
When a taxi miraculously does stop, at which point in your journey do you raise the alarm that the driver might be a psycho killer about to abduct you? Or worse, leave you stranded in a dodgy neighborhood, without enough money to get back to civilization?
In China, the whole frightening experience is heightened by the fact that your taxi driver does not speak English. Or understand English. Or even read English.
Before getting into a taxi, you therefore need to find an English-speaking, Mandarin-fluent, trustworthy saint to translate your destination into "龙华镇".
It was on a rainy, misty afternoon that I had no other choice but to catch a taxi in peak-hour Shenzhen traffic. After a sigh and the necessary 30-minute arm-waving, shouting and shoving, a taxi finally stopped and I dove into the backseat. I breathlessly handed the taxi driver the card with my destination and he regarded the 布吉镇 thoughtfully. Dusk was falling fast and the greater evil at that stage was trudging along dark roads in a foreign, non-English speaking city. After a minute, in which I held my breath, he handed the card back and sped off like a bullet out of a gun. Which meant he knew where to go. Or at least, that was what I had told myself. I exhaled slowly and held on for dear life.
After twenty minutes of driving, the radio, TV and the driver's phone blaring in unison, he turned around and said something in Mandarin. I smiled, my heart beating in my chest, since whatever he said could have been either "Guess what? I am a psycho killer! Hehehe." or "Here we are!". Both messages were equally horrific news, since we most certainly had not arrived at my destination and night had fallen in the meantime.
I peered out the windows to see if I could recognise a landmark, but the misty clouds had enclosed everything that stretched more than five meters above the ground and all the tall, small-windowed buildings looked like they had been cloned.
"No! No" I squealed to indicate my disagreement with either meaning of his sentence. Then, to add to the gloom, it started to rain.
The taxi slowed down as we turned a corner and then came to a complete stop while the driver said something else in Mandarin. Or he might have repeated his previous sentence. I shook my head and pointed to the buildings around me: "No! No!"
Then, suddenly, I spotted my building though the mist, a few meters from where we stood . I pointed with a shaking finger, relief flooding though me.
I had arrived. And could afford the taxi fare.
Needless to say, the next day I opted for the metro. But I quickly discovered what a French colleague meant when he said that "zee maps in China does not speek English."
All the metro maps were in Mandarin.
Defeated, I headed back into the streets of Shenzhen and proceeded with the flailing of my arms.
For now, I will have to trust my taxi driver and discover this part of my life's labyrinth from the backseat of his taxi.