Getting around in our town isn’t too hard. We live in an area where three towns have grown into each other: Dhahran, Khobar and Dammam. We work in Dhahran, and we live in Khobar. When we first arrived, we stuck to the scheduled busses offered from the school to get to work and back home. Then there is our compound bus, which gets us to the malls and grocery stores. And there are taxis. There is no public transport, no public busses or trams or streetcars or subways. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Most men drive themselves. Besides, the town is definitely built for cars—and with gas cheaper than water, why not drive?
So a car became the goal. Not that we mind the taxis and busses, but the car has its own schedule—it goes when we want, exactly where we want, and—we get to choose the radio stations. Arabian Pop!
We tried two taxi services. The first one was a private taxi service. You just phoned him up, and bang—you had a taxi at your door. This was a little unnerving at first because the situation looked shady—just some guy offering rides and asking for money, but everyone in the compound seemed to know this guy: Aziz. A neighbor gave us the phone number, and we called him. He answered in a heavy Indian accent, which is hard enough to understand face to face, but over the phone with no facial expressions, reactions, or wildly flailing hand gestures, it was near impossible without lots of repetition. Just that disembodied voice clipping the sounds and running the words together. This isn’t my mother’s English.
The first time I call, I don’t really bank on anyone showing up. After living overseas for a while, I assume that any venture like this is bound to succeed only a fraction of the time. Maybe that’s a little pessimistic, but when the driver does show up, it feels a little like a birthday. I look out the window watching for anyone driving like a taxi looking for a pick up. The fellow who answered the phone was, in fact, Aziz, and I realize then that he didn’t ask our apartment number. So I keep looking. It has been 25 minutes when I realize that the large white van at the other end of the compound may have been circling for some time, so I go outside.
He comes back around the road to where I am standing now, and I look hopefully at him. He stops. He rolls down the window. His face has no expression. His hands are tamely holding the steering wheel. I’m getting no vibe from him at all. “Aziz?” I ask.
He nods his head. We did it! We called a taxi. And he came. It’s feeling like my birthday. I call Robin and Win down and in moments we are all loading up into an unmarked white van in Saudi Arabia with a man we’ve never met. We have been only in the country for a week, and already we are achieving a kind of independence. Movers and shakers!
He pulls away without a word. And I sink back into the seat, thinking—we are only a week in Saudi Arabia, we have just gotten into an unmarked white van with a man we have never met, who has said hardly a word to us. Wait. What are we doing? I don’t really know who this guy is. I start looking for a place for us to leap out. If he would only stop for longer than a moment.
I strategize. I know that I can get out fast, but there are three of us. Once I leap, he’s off with Robin and Win. I can’t leave them behind. Robin could go first, but she would have to climb over me first, delaying her escape. She could be left on the roadside alone. Then there’s the potential for injury. Leaping from a moving car is fine for stunt men, but I’m not sure I am even insured for death defying, or injury inducing, leaps from moving white unmarked vans.
I smile at Robin, not wanting to give off my uncertainty at our future. She smiles back, sitting there in her black abaya. Win is lost looking out the window.
The man behind the wheel isn’t giving me any chance at all; he rounds corners; he speeds through back roads; he takes speed bumps at generous speeds pushing the shocks past their functional limits.
If we did all get out, how would we get back home anyway? This is the only “taxi” service I know.
He dodges around several slow vehicles. I calculate quickly. We probably could jump from those cars. But we aren’t in them. We are in an unmarked white van.
My breath is coming up short. I grip the seat. My hands are sweaty.
Suddenly, as though the clouds parted and blue sky opened up to us, I see a sign: The Dhahran Mall.
That’s where we are going. We are headed to that mall. We wanted to go to the mall.
He skips through the parking lot pulling a wind of plastic bags behind him. He jerks to a stop outside gate 8, our gateway to the glories of modern consumerism.
I smile at Robin. I knew all along that this was legit. She shouldn’t have worried. This guy is part of the private taxi service. Aziz came through. After hopping out, I look at his stoic face and say, “Thanks Aziz, how much do I owe you.”
“I’m not Aziz,” he says. “Twenty-five rials.” He’s not Aziz.
I pull out my wallet and hand him the money. My hand is shaking.
I have to get a car, I think.