Friday, 12 November 2010

Services and me…

I took my first service in about a year last month and I’ve been doing so fairly frequently since. It got me thinking about services / cheroots / shared taxis, whatever you want to call them.

When I first came to Lebanon (to live, rather than on holiday) in 2004, services were my main mode of transport. Living in Hamra meant that just about everywhere was too far away to contemplate walking on a Friday night and generally getting out and about relied on the use of services.

When I first appeared here, with little or no Arabic (compared to my pidgin-French-English mash, which gets me by these days), services were my worst nightmare.

Ok, so you’re supposed to be able to get to most places for a thou’, or two at most, right? That’s what my Lebanese friends had told me. Try that with a “fresh off the boat”, pale skin tone and a lack of Beiruti jaow. Not going to happen.

So, there I am sitting listening to how the price of petrol has gone up, or that how the guy’s got children to feed. Sure. I’m sure the guy who sells me my Lights also has kids to feed and bills to pay, doesn’t mean I have to haggle over my pack of coffin nails. But, ok, I want to get to Torino to meet my girl, and that means I’m getting in, regardless of the cost.

Whatever, suffice it to say that white guys, yeah, we get screwed when it comes to services.

 "AUB students ahead, I've got the dumb
foreigner,you go for the Lebs, we'll split the 
difference, back here in an hour."

However… they’re also an educational goldmine that all too often goes unexplored. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told about party A, or party B, politician A, or politician B’s inner most thoughts. Now, that might not sound like much, but, as a foreigner first arriving in the city … it’s great. The majority of Lebanese you talk to tow the official party line, they’re at least wary of the fact that you’re a pale face and they don’t want to upset, or confuse you – alternatively, you’re sticking by rule no. 19. Service drivers? Hah. Once they’ve decided that they’ve scammed you enough, they’re a fount of useful (or it is useless?) information. Sure, that information is as biased, screwed up, inaccurate or simply baseless as any other, but it’s delivered with an enthusiasm that, frankly, is often missing in polite society. Whereas other Lebanese might groan and sigh when talking politics, the service driver? It’s his life.

Added to that, around Hamra and Gemayzeh certainly, chances are Service Man speaks at least five languages. English, French, Arabic, Danish and Gaelic are ones I’ve come across. That’s great, but it makes the times when you just want to sit in the back and relax difficult… claim you don’t understand Arabic and he’ll start chatting to you in whatever language you do…

Two enduring service moments remain me with from my early days in Hamra… firstly, sitting in the backseat after having too much to drink, usually via the helping hand of Pacifico’s Tony, head bouncing around, wishing for Malak al Batata to appear ahead … suddenly the tires hit Hamra’s cobblestones and, I’m home. Rashad’s going to hit me up with the best sharwarma on this side of town, a cold bottle of Rim and my bed await upstairs … home sweet home.

The second revolves quickly knocking back a cup of coffee at Younes, back when it was still little more than a corridor with a few chairs outside, cursing as I burnt myself, and then jumping into the back of whatever red-plated monstrosity came around the corner, then off to Saint Joseph for four hours of Arabic language self-flagellation.

Those were the days.

Does anyone have any interesting service tales to tell?