Ten wild cab rides that you’ll never forget

Everyone has their own way of immersing in a culture. Some jump in knees-deep into the food scene, massacring the local food blogs and munching their ways through every gastic adventure that they can find. Others enjoy the philosophical and soft-edged days of lounging in street side cafes, watching passers-by and drinking coffee in the early afternoon sun. Here at Gadling though, we prefer the good old cab ride.

It’s pretty surprising what you can pick up about a culture from the cabs, each driver with his own background, each car holding thousands of untold stories. Inspired by the works at the outstanding blog known as HACK, we’ve thus put together 10 of our favorite rides from around the planet below.

1. Cairo
One of the most fun and arguably scariest things about Cairo city life is the traffic. Here, traffic signals are rare and crosswalks are non-existant, meaning cars, taxis, trucks, people and donkeys are all jumbled into a free-for-all on the dusty Egyptian roads. It takes nerves of steel to brave these roads, which is why it’s so fun sitting shotgun in an experienced cabbie’s car. An average ride will involve darting through city traffic honking up a storm while barreling past 1960’s-era Fiats, diladapidated buildings and remnants of Cairo history, all for the grand sum of no more than 4USD.

2. Moscow/St Petersburg
The funny thing about cabs in Russia is that there really aren’t any. Instead, the majority of car service is provided by everyday residents looking for an extra few dollars of income. All you have to do to flag a car is hold your arm out low and wait for a passing vehicle to pull over — it could be the remnant of a cold-war era beater or a shiny new Volkswagon — then mutter your destination and you’re off to the races.

This could be a little unnerving for the first time hithchiker, which is why we recommend a few Stoli and tonics before trying your first time. Another handy tip: if you don’t speak Russian, take a photo of your destination and show the driver.

2b. Moscow at 5AM
Traffic is so thick in Moscow that it’s hard to ever really appreciate the passing city while gurgling through the congested streets. For a real taste of Russian ridesharing, try taking a cab to Domodedovo at 5AM when the streets are clear and when your car’s throttle can really open up. Roll down the windows and watch the amazing city of Moscow fly by as you get an uninterrupted view of the beautiful capital city.3. Tokyo
The most mindblowing thing about Tokyo cab rides is the cordiality. Approaching your target cab, the first thing that you’ll notice is that the door automatically opens and shuts for you — all controlled by the white-gloved driver. The rest of your ride is strangely reminiscent of a ride in a London taxi, with black, fancy leather and all the pomp and circumstance of a ride through Oxford Circus. Set that against the high-neon and non-stop glam of Tokyo and you’ve got yourself a formula for travel contrast bliss.

4. Bangkok via motorcycle taxi
Tuk-Tuks and taxi cabs are the mainstays of Bangkok public transportation, but if you really want to make progress then take a motorcycle taxi. You can pick them up at stations around the city and they’ll provide a helmet and the ride of your life — all you have to do is lean and and hold on tight.

5. Delhi via Tuk Tuk as told by Mike Barish

Plenty of places have pedicabs and rickshaws that cater mostly to tourists. They’re alternatives to cabs, but exist only to be kitchy. In India, however, the small cabs know as tuk tuks are commonly used by locals and tourists alike to navigate the incredible congested cities in the nation’s capital.

The tiny three-wheeled vehicles are as ubiquitous in Delhi as cows in the streets and the smells of spices in the air. They’re loud, mostly uncomfortable and expose you to the exhaust fumes from the trucks that suffocate the city’s highways.

All that said, tuk tuks are convenient and get you to where you’re going much quicker than walking. They cost a pittance (think $5 or less), can be found everywhere and usually idle on the side of the street, making it easy to approach and speak with the driver about the price. Once you get going, though, don’t expect to converse much. You’ll be lucky if you can still hear your own thoughts.

6. Enroute to Pudong Airport, Shanghai
The only thing slowing your cab driver down between downtown Shanghai and the international airport at city’s edge is the glaringly obvious radar banks over top of the highway. Imagine yourself comfortably crusing at 95 miles/hour on the People’s highway at 6AM when WHAM, the cabbie slams on the brakes and you slow to 45 for 2000 feet. Get a safe distance away and VRRroooooom, you’re pressed against the back of your seat on your way to the International Space Station once more.

7. Zambia as told by Willy Volk
After our bus from Livingston, Zambia, to Sesheke (a border crossing in the southwest of the country) choked and died, my friend and I sat in the scalding sun waiting for repairs. After about 90 minutes, an approaching pickup stopped when it saw potential passengers sprawled in the dust. Able to outbid the others for seats in the uncovered rear of his truck — we paid the equivalent of $2 each — we high-fived each other, jumped in the back, and sat down … on fifty-kilo bags of uncooked sweet potatoes.

For the next four hours — during which we covered maybe 100 kilometers — we rumbled, bumped, and jounced along southwestern Zambia’s dusty, desolate M10 “highway.” Cinnamon-colored dirt coated my skin and, together with the smoke from roadside fires, filled my nostrils. Bouncing over potholes as large as truck engines, we repeatedly flew in the air and landed hard on the solid, gnarled edges of the sweet potatoes. Bang, bang, bang: our asses smacked those unforgiving, rock-hard bags every 10 seconds for hours. Bang! When we were finally able to crawl out of our tortuous ride, we hobbled to the boat launch — Namibia’s immigration office lay on the other side of the Zambezi River — only to discover we’d missed the day’s final boat and had to be ferried across in a dugout canoe.

8. Technology touts in Taipei as told by Darren Murph
One of the unfortunate results of the broad information infrastructure in Taiwan is that streaming video is everywhere on the island, which means that more than a few cabbies are all-too-distracted by what’s going inside of the cab instead of outside. Darren recounts the full experience with photos over at Engadget.

9. Mexico City
They say tha cabs in Mexico City aren’t the safest in the world, but it’s just so hard to resist the cute little green Volkswagon Beetles that chortle through the street. Provided you have a good command over the Spanish language or at least a good idea of where you’re going, make sure to jump in the back seat of one of these vochos — there’s as much history in these taxis as there is in the city at large.

10. London
Sure, it’s cliche to tout the cultural value of the London taxicab, but there’s no question about it: it’s a rite of passage. From the iconic, black taxi styling to flip-down seats to the near-perfection of every London cabbie the experience is sure to please — just make sure you’ve got enough Sterling to make the trip, UK cabs are among the most expensive on the planet.

[Flickr image via Bruno. C.]

Taiwan’s road signs will make more sense next year

When I lived in Taiwan, I normally didn’t have a clue where I was going. The signage was not particularly helpful. I didn’t read Chinese, and, outside of Taipei, that’s mostly what you saw. Even when there were signs in English, there was an inconsistency with how street names were spelled.

Ask people to spell a word phonetically, and you’ll see variation. In Taiwan, up until recently, there were various systems used to translate words from Chinese into English. Unless there are standardized rules that everyone adheres to, variety might remain the spice of life, but getting from here to there is problematic.

Recognizing that when visitors come to Taiwan, whether for business or pleasure, they have a desire to be able to find their way easily, Taiwan has officially adopted the “hanyu pinyin writing system” for translating Chinese to English. This Reuters article explains the details about how the government is publishing a spelling guide in order to redo road signs in order to reflect the consistency. The changes will start in 2009.

No longer will you see “Minquan Road,” “Minchuan Road,” “Binjiang Street,” and “Pin Chiang Street” on various signs for the exact same street. See what I mean? Wouldn’t that drive you a bit NUTS?!

(Although, as you can see from the Flickr photo by onkio & di’s, some signs in Taiwan do reflect the adage, “A picture speaks a thousand words.” At least the part about the car getting towed.)

Metro logos from around the world

Thanks to Intelligent Travel that has a post on another blog, Prêt à Voyager, here is the heads up on a very cool Web site, metrobits.org.

Metrobits.org, dedicated to subways, lists the various logos of metro systems from around the world and tells the cities where those metros are found. As it turns out, my logo memory is sad. Very sad. So sad.

But, as I browsed the list, I counted up the metros I’ve been on, and if my mind is not faulting me, which is a possibility, I came up with 24. I think. Some of the metros are under construction. The array of cities and countries is dizzying. Several are in the same country.

If you traveled in Taipei or Bangkok before and after the metro systems were put in place, and you’ve probably noticed what a difference a light rail can make. Traveling on both systems make getting around each city actually pleasant and has cut down on pollution.

Which subway logo is the one in the photo? The photo is from the metrobits Web site that features 171 logos so far.

Bilbao, Spain

A Passover Seder in Taiwan (and other places)

One of the more interesting aspects of living in another country, I think, is going to a cultural event that is not part of ones own culture or the culture of the host country. In each place I’ve lived, there have been people from other countries who are also transplants who have brought aspects of their own cultures with them. Such was the case with the Passover Seder I went to at the American Club in Taipei. I’m not Jewish, but a good friend that I taught with in Hsinchu is, and she asked if I wanted to go.

The American Club was merely the location of the event. One didn’t have to be an American to go, or a member of the American Club. There were Jewish folks from all over the world. If I hadn’t been living in Taiwan, I wouldn’t have had this experience–not because there haven’t been Seders that I could have gone to before this, but because it’s so easy to become routine in ones habits. Living overseas gets one out of the routine and, at least to me, opens up other possibilities for cultural exchange.

With Passover coming up, April 19-27, I was reminded of this experience. Here’s a Web site of the Chabad-Lubavitch where you can find Seders to attend all over the world, as well as, a variety of activities and info about Passover. The International Seder Finder lists 2,000 Seders. This link leads to descriptions of the cultural significance of each of the foods shown in the picture.

How to live like Matthew McConaughey

Living like Matthew McConaughey may involve taking your shirt off, as Matt Damon says in his hilarious impression of the often shirtless star while Damon was a guest on David Letterman. (Here is the YouTube video. It explains why I chose the photo I did.)

Another way that is less dramatic, perhaps, is by living with a family overseas. McConaughey was an exchange student to Australia in 1988 and lived with a family who he still visits. (YouTube video)

When I was in college, I was an exchange student and lived with a family in Denmark who I am still in touch with and plan to visit again on my next trip to Europe. I have visited two times already. My Danish sisters have also visited me and my family in the U.S.

When you live with a family there is an impression about a country you can get that’s much richer from traveling there. Although Abha found Copenhagen not worth traveling back to, which I can see if I didn’t know it better, I found the Danish culture a fascinating place to hang out for awhile. When you live with a family, you get to know more about the values and psychology of a place.

I also learned how to make a deep connection with someone who didn’t share my language and I didn’t share his. My Danish father didn’t know any English and I didn’t really learn any more Danish than to say “Thank you for the meal,” “Are you cold?” and “peacock.” I also know how to make a Danish lunch.

For anyone visiting the U.S., living with an American family is a way to understand more about the complexities of American life. We’ve had Japanese exchange teachers live with us on a couple of occasions. Both times it was only for a couple of weeks, but we took them to visit my husband’s parents and each were here for Halloween.

As an adult, there are still ways you can live with a family if your exchange student days are over, although many masters’ degree programs also have programs in other countries that involve staying with families. One of my close friends studied in Taiwan and lived with a family for the summer as part of his program through the University of Southern California. The first time I went to Taiwan, I visited him. Since he was studying urban planning seeing Taipei through his lens was a bonus.

Another way is to search out home stay options. There are organizations that link visitors to families, even for short visits. Here’s one for Nepal that I found, for example.

You can also possibly hook up with an impromptu stay. When we lived in Singapore, we had a few travelers stay with us who we met while we were traveling somewhere else. When they were passing through Singapore, we invited them to stay with us. Be friendly, open, and charming as hell, and you might get lucky.

When I was in the Peace Corps some travelers wandered into my village and guess who the villagers thought they should stay with because they might be more comfortable? Here’s an account of someone who finagled a stay with a nomad family in Mongolia. This stay involved learning a bit about sheep shearing. My Peace Corps visitors ended up going with me to a naming ceremony that involved drumming and dancing. By the way, they were Italian. One of them didn’t know English.

When picking a place for your next vacation, consider staying with a family in order to learn the language better. For that purpose, here’s one in Ecuador through the Cristóbal Colón Spanish school.

Here is a link to the Danish International Student program (DIS) that gives tips on staying with a family. They are worth a look at no matter which family you may stay with, even if it’s for a night or two.