Thrill Ride

Ikea at The Avenues

Kuwait has an excess supply of taxi drivers.  I don’t know if the oversupply of driving labor started during the pandemic, or if it is a longstanding tradition.  Taxi drivers in Kuwait have suffered badly from the coronavirus.  The first nationwide lockdown, in May 2020, prohibited residents from exiting their homes for 22 hours a day, and prohibited the use of motor vehicles during the two precious hours of daily freedom.  Cab drivers were simply out of a job.  Even the more gentle curfew, during spring 2021 when this story took place, pummeled the taxi industry as businesses were required to shutter and driving was prohibited after 6:00 in the evening.

——

“Ikea usually has cheap plant pots.”

Tijae speculated a fresh adornment to cure our stark, white flat eight floors above dusty Hawally.  For months we’d been fantasizing about plants to breath new life into our drab, humble home.  Ikea in Kuwait is an adventure in that it involves a trip across town to The Avenues, the 26th largest shopping mall in the world according to Wikipedia.

We went outside and waved down the first cab that approached.

Any place else in the world, the universal signal to hail a cab is to step to the edge of the curb and wave at the cab driver during approach.  That universal signal is irrelevant in Kuwait.  Cab drivers slow down, honk, and even stop to talk to any pedestrian to get the attention of a potential fare.  A cab driver once detoured off the main street and followed us through an expansive parking lot we’d crossed as a short cut, stopping to try to convince us to get into his car.  He was unsuccessful.  I have developed the habit of walking down the street shaking my head and hands “no” to discourage drivers from slowing or honking as they pass.

“How much for The Avenues?”  Tijae opened the back door of the cab that stopped as we stepped out of our building.  He held the door for me and then slid in beside me.

The driver’s credentials that usually hang on a laminated sheet from the back of the driver’s seat was missing.  In all previous cab trips, the driver’s civil ID and driving license had been on display, showing that they had expired.  Some licenses and civil IDs appeared to have fallen prey to the pandemic, expiring since the time government services slowed and shut down in early 2020; others had been expired at least two years prior.  That morning was the first cab to be missing the credentials altogether.

“I’ll get you there very fast,” the driver said as we tooled down Muthana and turned out onto the freeway.  We sat quietly watching the familiar scenery pass.

Gaining speed, I noticed we were following the car in front of us very closely.  Extremely closely.  I tried to estimate the stopping distance when suddenly we swerved into the next lane and picked up even more speed, hurtling toward the car in front of us until just a few inches separated us from its bumper.  We swerved again as a car was passing in the next lane, coming within millimeters of scraping door handles at full Formula One speed.  

Slowly, I reached beside me in search of a seat belt buckle.  The shoulder belt was trapped behind the back seat; the buckle was hidden completely.  I turned my head to look for anything sitting in the back window that would become a projectile aimed at our heads in the event of a sudden stop.  The window was clear.  We accelerated to lightening speed.

Instinctively, I braced.  No, I thought to myself.  Bracing only will ensure you absorb the full impact of the collision.  Let the vehicle absorb it.  Still, I couldn’t relax.  I had no way to avoid getting thrown from the car in the event of a hard stop.

We continued gliding by cars in the neighboring lanes, swerving and sliding through traffic at alarming speeds.  

My phone buzzed with a text message.  Did you see how close we just passed that car?  Tijae shared my unavoidable fear.

We wove across lanes leaving just a few photons between bumpers and doors.  Resigned to bracing, I propped my feet against the base of the driver’s seat to push against something that might might prevent me from taking flight when we stopped.  I shifted my focus from fear of collision to anchoring the growing weight in my stomach to lock me into the seat.

With one heroic swerve, suddenly we glided into an off ramp.

“Anywhere is fine,” Tijae said through his mask.  We were still coasting along rapidly.  “This is fine,” he encouraged the driver to pull over on the shoulder of the off ramp.

“I’ll take you all the way,” the driver gestured a quarter mile ahead to the stop light, which inevitably would require an additional several miles around the mall through a series parking lots and U-turns, exactly to the front door, if such a thing could exist in a compound as voluminous as The Avenues.

“This is The Avenues, right?”

“I’ll take you all the way,” the driver responded.

“We want to get out here.” Tijae was more insistent.  “We are going right there,” he gestured to the adjacent building immediately to the right.

The driver complied, turning at the first opening for a u-turn and into the first available driveway.  I neither knew nor cared where we were.

“Very fast.  I got you here very fast,” the driver beamed.

“Uh . . . . ya, very fast,” Tijae repeated as he handed over a few dinars.

The driver sped away as we stood breathing slowly, contemplating the door at the end of the dark mall driveway.

Inside the mall I cleared my throat.  “I need a minute after that,” I said.

“Was that even a marked cab?”

“Yes,” I confirmed.  In the past we’d been offered rides from drivers of unmarked cars, which we refuse uniformly.  That morning I double checked when we got out, certain we’d made a bleary-eyed mistake.

The trip had been breathtaking.  To our benefit, the mall was very quiet, undoubtedly due to the curfew and prohibition on sitting at restaurants and inside public spaces.  Finally ready for a day at The Avenues, we strolled for some time, feeling comfort with our feet on the solid marble below, after nearly 20 minutes of terror. We stopped for coffee and snacks in takeaway sacks at Dean and Deluca, and window shopped the indoor streets and boulevards for almost two hours.

Even a quiet day at the mall has its limits, especially when sitting down is not an option, and especially after our death cab arrival.  We made our way to Ikea in search of the plant pots that inspired our excursion.  Loaded with stacks of terra cotta pots and plates we shuffled to the curb where other shoppers waited with their purchases.  A row of taxis was parked some 40 yards away.

As we surveyed our best options, a taxi zipped to the curb to help us with our purchases.  Tinged with post-traumatic fear and skepticism from the morning’s joyride, we were both grateful for the insta-service, and hoped for a safer transport home.

A first in our expeditions around Kuwait, the driver’s license and civil ID both were valid, having been renewed since the start of the pandemic—dashing my theory that routine identity and licensure renewal had been impossible due to reduced government services.  Already I felt better about our return trip.

The driver helped us stack the terra cotta in the backseat beside me.  Tijae sat in the front where he could not see that we were about to embark on our first legal cab ride in Kuwait.

Moments after we pulled out from the curb the driver pulled back in immediately and stopped behind a parked car.  A uniformed police officer appeared at the window.  The driver handed the officer documents as they exchanged conversation in Arabic.  The officer disappeared, leaving the cab heavy with unspoken questions and worry.

The officer reappeared to return the documents, and handed the driver a yellow carbonless copy of the citation.  An audible silence pervaded.

Slowly, we pulled away from the curb.  When we finally left the immense Avenues behind us Tijae spoke first.

“What happened?”

“No parking zone,” the driver explained.

“We didn’t know.”

“Neither did I,” responded the driver.  “This was the first time I have picked up anyone at The Avenues.”

I was stunned.  The curb where we met the driver looked like the Ikea loading zone.  We were tired and loaded down with pottery, so maybe we missed a sign.

“How much was the ticket,” Tijae pursued.

“Thirty KD.”

We gasped in unison.  Close to $100.00 fine for picking up a fare in a no parking zone, for the driver who seemed to have done everything else right when no one else had.  The ride back to Hawally would be no more than three dinars.  How many fares would he need to cover the fine?  How long would it take to pay his debt with such an oversupply of competition?  How had the countless unlicensed drivers evaded such scrutiny?  How could he be cited for picking up a fare at the curb, but our driver earlier that morning attracted no one’s attention while he nearly killed us?

No one said another word until we turned onto Muthana.  Tijae directed the driver toward our apartment, again with growing weight in our stomachs for the second time that day.  He handed the driver five dinars for the three dinar fare, and slipped an extra ten dinar with it.  In retrospect, the total cost of the ride seemed paltry—about $50.00 USD.  It was a lesson learned by all, though our financial resources far outpaced the driver’s.

The poverty rate in Kuwait is essentially nonexistent according to the United Nations Development Programme, though ranks 64 in overall human development—better off than Serbia, not as well off as Malaysia.  The stark contrast in our position as well-educated teachers with U.S. passports leaves me to question how our cab driver with a traffic infraction worth ten times a routine fare would interpret those data.

We hobbled in silence into our building, balancing the brown-paper wrapped pots.  Upstairs we unpacked the day into our blank, white, walls.

2 thoughts on “Thrill Ride

  1. Wow!! Alisha, almost sounds like my commute to Hawthorne these days. Portland seems like the wild Wild West. Between gun violence and speeding. It’s crazy! Glad to hear from you. Excellent writings. Sending love, Mary

    Like

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