You can love them, or hate them. You can hate them for sometimes being rude or their driving skills, excessive smoking or continuous talking. Still, I suggest you love them. If not, your life in Beirut will be unnecessarily hard. I am talking about Lebanese taxi drivers of course.
In Beirut, there are two options if you want to go by taxi. As in most countries, you can choose a taxi belonging to an official taxi company – with a taxi sign and the phonenumber of the company written on the side of the car. The car is often quite new, with nice air condition, wifi-service sometimes available, clean leather seats, and a functioning radio, that takes you (and only you) from A to B. You can call them to get picked up at your place, the price is minimum 15 000 LBP (10 USD) and you can pay by credit card (and have a receipt) if you want. Pretty standard.
The more interesting alternative is a Lebanese “servees” taxi, which is quite a different concept. It is usually a really old and rusty Mercedes or BMW, air condition is replaced by all windows open, and there are plenty of wunderbaums and religious symbols dangling from the front mirror. Most importantly, passengers are picked up on the street, and only if the driver is going in the same direction as your destination, you will get a ride. You have to accept that other passengers enter and exit the car as you go, and the route chosen will most likely not be the shortest one. This is why a “servees” ride costs only 2000 LBP, sometimes “serveesein” (4000 LBP) if your destination is considered far away. Oh, and cash is king. The “servees” taxi is very popular, evident by the many slow driving cars honking to grab the attention of potential clients in the city center.
Ok, it is annoying when they try to trick me. Maybe it happens more often to me since I am obviously a foreigner, meaning that I am of course awfully rich. Among others, I have been asked to pay the price of a taxi instead of a “servees” because of extra traffic, been told that the price of a “servees” recently increased to 5000 LBP, and that there is no “service” after 18PM. But hey, I would take a chance too if I had to drive around all day in the horrible Beirut traffic for only a few dollars per ride, it is simply madness. At least they score points for creativity.
That said, it is very rare I have a boring time in a “servees” taxi. There is always conversation. If the car is full, the debate about recent news can be quite loud and heated. (The first times I thought they were about to stop the car and fight, but then I learned it is just how they talk…). If I am the only passenger in the car, conversation is more relaxed. Some things are predictable: The drivers always ask where I am from and what I am doing in Beirut. This is usually followed by a request for me to arrange a travel visa for them. They also ask if I am married, and if I have children, followed by a loud “WHY??” (Are no questions considered private in this country?). No matter my answer, they suggest I meet their handsome son or cousin anyway because “he is the best and most successful man in town”. I have a full box of their home printed business cards if I ever want to accept their kind offers.
Even more, some drivers have really surprised me. One really old guy suddenly started singing a song of Fairuz somewhere along the highway – he had such a beautiful voice! Another one, hearing I am from Scandinavia, suddenly switched to talking perfect Swedish. Other surprises are less pleasant. Once, I went with a really grumpy driver during Ramadan (month of fasting for Muslims). I thought he was just really hungry. He kept cursing everything and everyone. I did not say much. As I got out of the car, I wanted to be polite and wished him a blessed Ramadan (“Ramadan Kareem”) – at which he screamed extremely loud “I am not Ramadan!!! You crazy??”… I almost got a heart attack. I hope he had a good night’s sleep, he really needed it.
What melts me though, is when they show they care for you. One really nice guy waited to make sure that I entered my building safely, and honked once I closed the door. Only once have I had a female driver, and she is perhaps the best example. Her opening line to me as I got into the car, was a simple statement: “You dont eat enough”, of course followed by “Why, you don’t like Lebanese food?”. (I really really love it, just for the record). I kindly declined her offer to take me to the “best shawarma place in town”, but only after I reassured her I was on my way to dinner with friends.
Maybe love is a bit too strong, but I at least kind of like them. Maybe I have just decided to only see the good stuff, as I am totally dependent on them anyway. (I do not have a car, and trust me, it is better for everyone). In the end they are just normal people like you and me, making a living by doing us a favour for almost nothing.