Getting taken for a RIDE (in more ways than one)

Getting taken for a RIDE (in more ways than one)

Transportation around Addis presents challenges and the occasional small victory. That certainly was the case for us yesterday.

We don’t have a car here. If you work with an embassy or NGO of some sort, you can most likely buy one duty-free. The duty, in the case of a car, is nothing to sneeze at. You can expect to pay the government over 200% of the purchase price of a car. And since almost without exception the cars in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa are purchased used, imagine spending around $15,000 for a 2012 Toyota RAV-4 and then paying the another $33,000 in duties. In our case, we’d be paying the duty on a car purchase. So an outright purchase won’t be feasible.

While we’re considering other transportation options (a long-term rental and paying for a driver is our current target), Addis is filled with taxis. I’ll leave aside the rogue mini-buses that most Ethiopians use, which make stops at intersections where back-seat barkers yell out the intended route when they careen to a stop. Chances are high that we’ll never be in that mix (although they are surely the cheapest). Instead, there’s a pecking order of taxis that everyone knows. Yellow cabs are basically a uniform look - sporting a yellow and green color scheme that would look right at home proudly driving around die-hard Oakland A’s fans - and drivers who speak English. The lower tier and often rogue taxis are the independent cabs. They’re essentially all the same make, model and look. A 1990 Toyota Corolla 4-door, painted blue and white. Noice.

The screenshot for Ethiopia’s rideshare app.

The screenshot for Ethiopia’s rideshare app.

However, the taxi scene has been disrupted by Ethiopia’s own UBER/Lyft-like option. They call it RIDE, and they even have an app. There’s also a non-smart phone version that we used once on our first visit back in February (it worked great for us, thanks to a fluent English-speaking driver). But the app-based approach is what we’ve now used a few times. Last night’s experience pretty much summed up the state of the art for RIDE.

We planned for dinner at a restaurant named Temsalet Kitchen, located very nearby our soon-to-be new apartment. Temsalet serves Ethiopian and Italian food (the double-feature most often seen here). It’s truly unique offering, however, is that Temsalet is operated and staffed exclusively by women. The message is all about empowerment. It’s literally and figuratively right up our alley.

To get to Temsalet, we called a RIDE. The app lets you “pin” your pick-up location, followed by a choice of cars (just like the rideshare apps we’ve used elsewhere). The car choices are - Sedan, Corporate, Minivan (Beta) and English Speaking Driver. We’d used it the night before and now know to ask for the English-speaker option whenever possible. This time, we got set a pick-up easily with that option. They invariably call right after you verify. With limited difficulty, I described our location and soon we were looking for the off-duty Yellow taxi (Go A’s!) that would be handling the fare. Not long after, we spotted him while I was being surrounded by a gaggle of Orthodox women singing and setting me up as a Western mark for a quick charitable shakedown (more on that in a later post). Hop in the RIDE. Re-direct somewhat (the GPS mapping doesn’t always jibe with what the driver sees). Arrival (with a little extra backseat driving). You pay in cash because it’s not yet that seamless. But the transparency is a huge leapfrog move forward.

As a quick side note - Temsalet proved wonderful. We didn’t over-order, although the fasting combo was sold out. Another combo (the “Mishierya”) and a few waters (including my first flavored Ambo) satisfied mightily. We left convinced we’ll be coming back often and even strolled within view of our new apartment building. All that remained was to call a RIDE home.

And that’s when we truly learned something about taxis in Addis.

Our attempts to get an English-speaking driver failed, and the app froze up just around the time some pretty serious lightning flashed in the approaching clouds. We’d seen a taxi and mini-bus stand around a block away on prior walks, so we hoofed it over. I approached a Yellow taxi with the passenger-side door open.

“Can you take us to Laphto Mall?” I asked what I thought was the driver.

“Sure,” the presumed driver stood up, and pointed to his indy blue-and-white taxi. “This one.”

He spoke English, and we wanted to beat the rain. I followed, against my gut feeling. “How much?” I asked.

“One twenty.” That’s around $3.50. We knew from not just the evening’s prior RIDE that 100 was a fair fare. Although fares are set on the fly by some sort of haggle-ready sliding calculus. The evening’s storm clouds churned and flashed with almost cinematic precision.

I agreed with the caveat, “that seems high.” All three of us piled into the backseat and we were off.

The driver soon kicked up the Amharic-language pop music and soon enough we resorted to our usual family banter about the day’s adventures. I studied the driver a bit too closely. Young guy. Sporting a neatly-trimmed beard and close-cropped hair, made to look like a few days worth of growth all around. Before I could register any more details, we pulled up to a spot within a comfortable anonymous distance from our temporary apartment building.

“Here is good.” I handed our driver two 100 Birr bills. “Change, please.” I saw him leafing through a handful of bills.

“Do you have twenty?” There is no 20 Birr note. Just 5s, 10s, 50s and 100s in regular circulation.

“I have a 50,” Sarah offered. I asked for one of the 100s back, and handed him Sarah’s 50. Our driver held up three 5 Birr notes.

“I only have 15,” he offered.

There’s a moment in any shakedown, no matter how lame, when you have to make a decision. Argue or give in to the lameness in order to extricate yourself and deal with the disappointment later. This guy wasn’t awful. He didn’t make us feel unsafe and he got us home quickly. But the decision was easy and instantaneous.

“I’m not paying 135 for a ride that’s 100.”

“That’s not 100 for two.”

Never mind his undercount of current passengers, or whatever that might have meant. “No. We know that’s a 100 Birr fare,” Sarah chimed in to verify.

I called his bluff. “That’s 100. Give me back the 50.”

So he did. We got out. No tip. No harsh words. Just a small lesson on the way home from a lovely meal. Another night out in Addis.

Some lessons while adjusting to a new place are small and fall away in no time. Others have real impact and stick with you for months to come. I’m not sure which ones we encountered last night. But we’re learning on a daily basis, either way. Ciao.

Track...and field

Being humbled by high-altitude training

Being humbled by high-altitude training