Unexpected Detour

September 14, 2008

I arrived at Brisbane airport late in the afternoon. I knew I would be heading straight into peak hour traffic, but it didn’t matter. All I had to do was check in. The conference didn’t begin until the following morning.

I collected my bag and wheeled on out of the airport following signs to the taxi pick-up area. There was a row of taxis and I was swiftly directed into the second waiting car. A tall man in his mid fifties driving an upmarket cab loaded my bag into his boot (that’s ‘trunk’ for anyone not from Australia).

My driver pulled away from the taxi rank and joined a queue of taxis exiting the airport. As the boom gate opened for each of the preceding cars, we inched forwards in the queue. 

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“Rydges on Southbank”, I replied, “Do you know it?”.

“We’ll find it somehow”, was all he said. I couldn’t see his expression and didn’t know quite how to respond. It was likely he was joking. The laconic attitude is common in people of his generation, particularly in the North. My favorite cousin from Brisbane would have said something similar. I decided to let it go and sat uneasily as he pulled up to the boom gate.

I wouldn’t have noticed the gate had we passed through within the expected rhythm of pausing and slow driving. But for us the gate didn’t open. My driver buzzed the control desk.

“Your bloody gate isn’t working”.

“Its not our gate. You don’t have a tag. Please put two dollars into the chute to exit”.

“Yes I do have a tag. Your gate doesn’t work”.

“Our gate works perfectly. Put in your two dollars. You are holding up the queue”

“My tag has been scanned and now you want me to pay again! I’m not paying double. Open your bloody gate if you want the queue to move.”

In this way my driver and the young man at the control desk argued to and fro. I looked up at the meter and noticed it was continuing to click over. He noticed where my attention had been drawn. “Don’t worry, I’ll turn it off”.

Finally the young man’s voice blasted through the intercom with, “If you’d been less selfish and just put your money in, the other drivers wouldn’t be held up”, before finally opening the gate.

My driver clicked the meter back on and drove through quickly, continuing his argument with me as surrogate other, “Yes, well, I’m not going to pay twice!”. 

As we entered the throngs of peak hour traffic, his mood shifted from argumentative to conversational. He went on to explain the tag system to me.

“I’ve never noticed it before. They may not have it at Melbourne”, I replied, happy to participate in any conversation to pass the journey. He assured me that every air port creamed money from the taxi industry, it was the method only that was different. Some airports charged drivers on entering, and some upon exiting. Taking in that I was from Melbourne he asked why I was in Brisbane and whether it was my first time. I had only been twice. Once as a kid and once over ten years prior. I didn’t know Brisbane well and had come this time to attend a conference. He questioned me about my work and when he established that education was my field mentioned that he had been a teacher before retiring early.

It was as though learning my field of interest gave him a feeling of connection, because he began to speak frankly and openly about his life and work. He believed teaching was an important profession, but his simplistic views on education were vastly different from mine. His retirement was stress-related. He would have been an authoritarian teacher, I thought to myself. I listened and asked the occasional question. But I did not feel like sharing my views.

It was his opinion that taxi drivers should be made to sit an exam before getting their taxi license.

“What? A pen and paper exam?”, I enquired.

A pen and paper exam was exactly what he meant. He believed that the majority of Brisbane’s taxi drivers not only did not know the streets of Brisbane well enough, but that their English was too poor. “They put themselves in danger when they don’t know the language and customs”, he asserted.

I quizzed him to establish his meaning. His main argument centered around situations where the customer could be either drunk or abusive or both. He drew on his personal experience with such customers to illustrate that someone with less local nouse than he, would have ended up in a violent situation. His point was that drunk or aggressive people did not have the patience to cope with drivers with limited language or knowledge of the streets. 

“Couldn’t the driver choose which customers to pick up? You could minimize your personal risk by refusing to stop for people obviously drunk?”, I enquired.

“No. A driver has to have a reason that would stand up in court for refusing to stop. And often its just their word against ours”. 

I hadn’t realised taxi drivers were obligated in such a way. It made more sense to me that they should be able to regulate their own business and make decisions that affected their own safety without having to justify them. But my driver stressed the possibility that persons could be left in unsafe situations by a driver’s refusal to stop. He believed strongly in his obligation to stop.

We drove alongside the Brisbane River and over the Story Bridge. I remarked on the beautiful aspect of the river in the sunset. He spoke at length with pride about the history of their river, and suggested that I take a ride on one of the restaurant boats.

Leaving the river views and turning into a city street, he continued talking as my tour guide, commenting on prominent architecture, points of interest and historical facts. As we neared the city centre and the traffic slowed, he pointed out an Anglican church further along the street. We slowed to a stop behind other cars banked up at a set of lights. Once the traffic was moving again he changed lanes to get a closer view of the church. Its steeples loomed as we approached it slowly, stopping and starting. He explained that the church had remained unfinished for over one hundred years. Appropriately skilled stone masons could not be found in Australia anymore. To finish the church, stone masons had been brought out from Italy. The last wing had been finally completed only recently. He had been christened and married in that church. 

Suddenly, without explanation, he turned out of the traffic into the driveway of the church. It was dark by this stage and the driveway was not well lit. I wondered what he was doing. I was sure this was not the way to my hotel. I shifted in my seat and he must have sensed my uneasiness. As he drove into the deserted church car park, he reached across to the meter and turned it off.

“I won’t charge you for this detour”, he said.

… to be continued.

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9 Responses to “Unexpected Detour”

  1. mennogirl said

    wow, what an interesting encounter, I look forward to finding out what happens next!

  2. ejenne said

    hi Abby, yes it was a little bit frightening actually. Its not often that your taxi driver turns into a dark car park without consulting you first!

  3. JC said

    Can’t wait to hear what happens next – I’d be pretty worried. You obviously lived to tell the tale. Interesting!

  4. ejenne said

    I was worried! At that point I was considering making a run for it.

  5. trousers said

    This had me more and more gripped as I read it, it’s brilliantly told so far, and I am eagerly awaiting the next post!

  6. ejenne said

    Hi trousers and thank you. I had been meaning to write about this encounter for weeks. In one sense it was just a taxi journey. But in another sense it was a unique experience that put my instincts to the test. Could I trust him as the quintessential, laconic, easy going Ausie of a bygone era, or was it a veneer for sinister motives?

  7. trousers said

    Without knowing the outcome as yet (though you’re obviously here to tell the tale) – you definitely have to keep your eyes open at times like this.

    The only thing missing from your reply was “tune in next week…” 🙂

  8. trousers said

    Oh bloody hell I cannot BELIEVE I put “your” not “you’re.”

  9. ejenne said

    🙂 edited for your piece of mind xx

    And part 2 is now up!

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