Sunday, January 24, 2010

An ambassador in every cab

All the cabbies there are Omani nationals – it's the law, one of them told me. In the UAE, your driver might be Pakistani or Bangladeshi or Indian or even Sri Lankan, but he will never, ever be Emirati.

The Omani drivers are proud of their jobs, and proud of their country. They want to show it off, and they want you like it. They want you to like them.

There are no meters in the cabs, and when you ask about it they just shrug and say don't worry, so it's up to you to negotiate a fare. Which is hard to do when you don't know where anything is, and don't know the going rate.

The rookie mistake (which I made, twice) is to not even try to set the price up front. You get where you're going and you offer what seems a fair amount, and they look at you with hurt expressions and say, "Really? Is that all? I thought you liked my taxi ..."

And when you finally draw the line and say "No more," they laugh and clap you on the back and say thanks. I think they they just enjoy the game.

Hussain certainly did. He's the guy in the photo, who drove me up and down the coast around Muscat, from the cool port neighborhood of Muttrah, where I was staying, south to the new Shangri La resort, at the end of a highway cut through the mountains for the sole purpose of getting to the hotel.

Hussain was a trip. He was funny and smart, and proud that he spoke five languages. We were walking down to the beach at the Shangri La and overheard a man and his son talking. "They're speaking Persian. Watch this!" he whispered to me, and called out to them. A five minute conversation ensued, mostly (he told me) about how impressed they were with his excellent Persian skills.

But he was proudest, without a doubt, of his English. He assured me that Americans spoke the best English, and he had trouble understanding the British and Australians, and don't even get him started on the Italians and the French ...

We had lunch together and he told me about his travels and his family, proudly showing off photos of his wife and daughter. He good-naturedly ribbed me about wearing shorts ("Why you not wear trousers? We won't be able to get into the palace!")

Every five minutes he would ask if I was OK, and if I liked his country, and every time I reassured him that yes, Oman is a fine place, he beamed proudly and nodded to himself, happy to have won over another tourist.

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