Accidental Tourist

How to trick a smart taxi

This Ugandan guy in Abu Dhabi didn’t know where he was going but figured out how to trick the system ... eventually, writes Sam J Basch

10 March 2019 - 00:00 By Sam J Basch


'Abu Dhabi airport, sir?" The hotel clerk hails a taxi parked nearby. "What time's your flight?"
"Yeah, Abu Dhabi International, 10am."
"You'll be there early, sir! Not yet 7am. Safe journey!"
Most taxis here are in a good state. The silver Toyota sedan picking me up is spotless, the driver wearing a hoodie in the morning chill. He lifts my suitcase into the boot as I get into the rear seat. We head off just as the sun is rising.
Onto the motorway, gaining speed. Strange, I think. The airport is supposed to lie east, where the sun rises. From my room I've watched planes taking off with the morning sun behind - now the sun's on our right.
Occasionally pushing beyond 120km/h, the driver gets a warning on the electronic screen, where the fare is also displayed.
Just then a loud ping emits from the dashboard: low fuel warning.
"Damn!" I swear inaudibly. Is he not supposed to keep the car filled up?
Sun still on my right. I calculate. This is wrong. We never passed a military base coming in, or this sand-coloured mosque. Are we ...?
A large overhead sign on the motorway confirms my suspicions: Dubai. An hour away.
"Why are we going to Dubai? I'm leaving from Abu Dhabi International! Turn around," I instruct. By now the meter has clocked almost double the usual fare for the airport run.
"You go from Abu Dhabi?" he asks, astonished, and turns off at the next junction, round a circle to get back on the motorway, then stops.
"I gotta disconnect," he says and proceeds to attack an aircraft-type harness at the back of the meter. Two thin bolts secure the cable, which he now tries to unscrew. Many minutes tick by.
He looks around for tools he clearly knows he does not have. In the glove box he finds nail clippers, with which he cuts a cable-tie - to no avail.
I suggest he moves to the passenger side for a better view. "Are we making progress?" I ask, checking the time. I must be at the airport at 8am. Returning to his seat, he fiddles more, getting nowhere.
"You turn your leg sideways, sir," he requests lamely. "For the sensor," pointing to the door. I spot something embedded in the side panel. The display apparently still indicates a passenger on board.
"No, better you sit up front here," he decides, and levers the front passenger seat-back to the horizontal position.
I hesitate. "Is this some elaborate trick to get me out of the car and speed away with my luggage?" South African paranoia kicking in.
"Put your feet here, sir." He points to the dashboard. "Lie straight!"
Now I realise he is instead trying to "trick" the sensor in the front-passenger-door panel. At last, the electronic display shows "For Hire", meaning he is no longer transporting a passenger.
With me stretched out on the "lie-flat" front seat, striped socks on the dash and bum in midair, out of the sensor's view, we barrel down the highway. Beeps and pings from the speed and low fuel warnings keep up the stress levels until we stop at Terminal 3 - just after 8am.
At that point I ask: "Where are you from?"
"I'm so sorry, sir!" he blurts out, distressed. "I come from Uganda. So very sorry sir!"
"No worries, man," I pat his arm as I pay and hand him a tip. "We're brothers - from Africa! You get some petrol now and drive safely."
• Do you have a funny or quirky story about your travels? Send 600 words to travelmag@sundaytimes.co.za and include a recent photograph of yourself for publication with the column.

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