The taxi had just dropped a passenger off at my hotel in Kuala Lumpur when I jumped into it. It was an old car, not one of the swankier blue ‘executive’ taxis I had seen.
The driver, a Chinese man, asked in English: “Where you want to go?” Without thinking, I replied in English – a mistake, because my accent was a dead give-away. The guy probably thought I would be easy prey.
After I explained where I wanted to go, I noticed the meter at the front whirring rather rapidly. It was then that I decided to switch into Cantonese. The following conversation ensued.
Me: “Your meter is going too fast isn’t it?”
Driver: “Oh, you know how to speak Cantonese ah?”
Me: “Of course! I’m Malaysian. Your meter!” I pointed towards the continuously flickering number. “Why is it going so fast?”
Driver: “You don’t like it, you can get out.”
I did. He stopped the car and I walked back to the hotel. Fortunately, we hadn’t travelled far. Unfortunately I was staying at the Mandarin Oriental, a wonderfully plush place but where no taxi comes cheap. The next car I hopped into was somewhat better, but the driver couldn’t find my destination. For what I ended up paying, I could have taken a return journey from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh on the electric train (205 km) with change to spare.
Then, a few weeks ago, my partner and I encountered the neurotic driver. This one was Malay, allocated to us at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport by chance. He too, was unable to find our destination – despite specific instructions over his mobile phone from my cousin. It was when she tried to give him directions that the driver lost his head. He announced that he couldn’t think; instead of listening to my cousin, the driver stormed into every garage we saw, in search of directions! In exasperation, my cousin told him she would come in person to pick us up. At that point, the driver’s panic reached new heights. “I have three children!” he cried. “If you complain, they will suspend me for three days! How to feed my children?”
I looked at the man in astonishment. Neither my partner nor I had said anything to warrant such an outburst; in fact, complaints were the last thing on our minds. When we climbed out of the car to wait, our conversation took an even more bizarre turn.
Neurotic driver: “Get back inside.”
Me: “Sir, my cousin is coming to pick us up. Please take our bags out of the boot.”
Neurotic driver (screaming): “No!”
Me (incredulous): “You mean you won’t give us our bags?”
Something in my voice must have shaken the man, because he finally lifted our suitcases out. We were so relieved to be rid of the guy that we paid the fare and gave him a healthy tip.
These incidents blighted my experience of Malaysia. I dreaded getting into a taxi, knowing we would have an argument either at the beginning (if, despite the meter, you agreed the fare upfront) or at the end (if you hadn’t agreed a fare and weren’t going to pay what the meter purported to show). If I could be treated so abominably, what hope would there be for visitors who don’t speak our local languages?
Just as I was ready to give up hope of ever finding a decent taxi in Malaysia, we discovered a ‘local’ taxi company. ‘Local’ just means they’re not the blue ‘executive’ taxis favoured by tourists. Local taxis may not look as nice, but they are clean and air-conditioned. The drivers are polite, they come on time, they know their roads and most importantly, their meters appear to work as they should.
There’s only one problem: their rude back-office – the people who take your calls. Alas, Malaysian hospitality doesn’t seem to have infected its taxi services. When I called Super Cab yesterday afternoon, the woman on the other end of the line told me, “No taxis at the moment. You have to call back in ten minutes.” When I protested that I only wanted a taxi in thirty minutes, I could hear her sigh as if she were speaking to a belligerent child. “Like I said, no taxis now,” she resumed, her tone weary. “Call back in ten minutes.”
I was the customer, yet I was expected to call them back. Obviously a case of too much demand, not enough supply. I resorted to calling my hotel and asking for an executive taxi. It cost twice as much as Super Cab would have, with no discernible difference in quality, but it saved me much aggravation. Sadly, it seems this drama entitled The Taxi Drivers and I, is set to continue running.