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Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Taxi Ride of My Life

By Andrew Drwiega

I was standing right by the exit of the arrivals channel at Kabul airport. I was there because flying in with an obscure offshoot of Air India was the only way that I was going to be able to report on the helicopter war in Afghanistan for a third time.

So now, through necessity, I was talking on my mobile phone (which I had previously always been told not to use in-country in case the bad guys monitored it and got the number) to one of the U.S. Military Embed Team who was safe and snug over the other side of the airfield—a car ride away and definitely not walkable. “Let me understand you correctly. I have got to walk out of this civilian airport and hail a taxi to get to your military side of the airport. Me, a tall British guy loaded down with all the trappings a journalist usually packs for this venture—computer, camera, small video camera, background notes—all with the added burden of a body armor and helmet as well as my personal clothes, in one of the most dangerous countries on earth, where kidnappings are rife and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are killing people every few days.”

What choice did I have? I had landed 20 minutes ago and couldn’t go back, not today anyway. And they sure as hell weren’t coming over to get me. Again I heard myself saying, rather incredulously, that I didn’t think it was a good idea. “We’ll meet you at the gate, sir,” came the reply from my contact with a note of finality. Right then I thought, you aren’t going to solve anything by hanging around advertising the fact that you are a ‘stranger in paradise’.

I grabbed the nearest, least shifty looking Afghan airport security guard in view and asked him where the official taxis were. At least three heads turned—and he asked me to repeat it all again—just in case the most furthest away hadn’t quickly surmised my predicament. Another official, well he looked vaguely like one, stepped forward and told me that the taxi rank was outside and the porter would take me there. ‘No way am I falling for that one mate,’ I thought. “Sorry, where exactly is the taxi rank?” I said doing by best impression of a man intent on growing roots through the terminal floor.

“Car park three—he will take you now.” I looked around, trying to read any signs that this was a set up—people backing away, looking oddly at me, a snarled smile in my direction perhaps?

We moved outside and I scanned ahead to see where he might possibly be going—and anything resembling a taxi rank. ‘One more step away from security,’ I thought.

A wiry, bearded local in a luminous jacket (well I’m sure it was once) approached with the familiar ‘taxi sir’ statement, said in a way that both of us knew was already a done deal. “How much?” I said in full knowledge that I was about to get royally ripped off.

“Official rate $25 U.S. sir, anywhere in the city.” I knew the cost was nearer ten but what am I going to do now—start haggling in the middle of the car park with not a friendly face in sight? “Let’s go. ISAF side right now,” I said trying to maintain some authority while also towering over his five-foot four-inch figure with my six-foot-three (and well padded to boot). He turned and we all got in—him, his driver and me—and jolted off up the road. To my immediate relief it did look as though the driver’s chosen route had us skirting the airfield’s perimeter. Also I had noted, these guys hadn’t made any phone calls and my bearded ‘friend’ was making small talk; touting for business—would I take down his name and his mobile number—and a spare number in case the first one was busy? I readily agreed and he spouted out the numbers.

“How long was I going to be in Kabul?” said my new tour guide. He could take me all over the city, he said, adding that he knew the quick and safe routes. ‘So there are unsafe routes then?’ was the thought that raced into my brain. Yes he could take me to Baghram—even Kandahar, although that would be quite expensive! A road trip like that would have been foolish in the extreme—I really doubt I would have made it to the other end.

Finally, thankfully, the chicane and guard post that led to the military base drew nearer and nearer. We stopped agonizingly close, but not close enough for my liking. “This is as far as we can go—you pay now and I help you with your bags,” said my Afghan version of a cabbie. I grabbed the two most valuable bags and stepped into full view of the gate guards as I handed him the money and told him to grab my last bag and lead the way. Solid in the knowledge that he had made a 250 percent profit on the small ride, he did as I bid.

I can honestly say I have never been more relieved to march up to a fully loaded and manned machine gun, pointing in my direction in my life.

Nothing had happened. A man had hailed a taxi which took him from point A to point B as requested. An everyday occurrence. But then, I’m not in Kabul every day.

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