Friday, March 10, 2006

Cell phone thieves

Abdurakhman is a taxi driver who I call with some regularity. He also charges me fair rates without having to barter about the price. For the past several days, his cell phone was turned off. This was hard to explain, given that he works every day.

Today I tried once again and a woman answered.

“Is Abdurakhman there?” I asked.

“Call XX-XX-XX,” she said.

I called and he picked me up.

“Did you change your cell phone number?” I asked, after I slid into the back seat.

“No, I lost my cell phone and had to get a new one. Did a woman tell you the new number?”


He told me that he’d plugged it into his car to recharge and a female passenger stole the $100 phone.

“So I called her and I told her she could keep the phone, but could she please make sure to give my new number to anyone who called.”

“Why didn’t you tell her to give you the phone back?” The thought of calling the thief and asking for a favor somehow didn’t seem right to me.

“Because I wouldn’t get it back in any case. But I can lose a lot of business from clients who can’t get through to me.”

True. He lost several trips with me alone. I try to imagine what kind of woman could afford to take a taxi (which costs 10 times as much as a marshrutka), yet would stoop to stealing his phone, and calmly answer his call. I guess there are all kinds of people in Bishkek.

I think I’m a magnet for unprofitable taxis. The next taxi I took, one hour later, is another driver I use with some regularity. As we headed toward the office along Chui Prospect, he got stopped by the police.

He pulled his documents out of the glove compartment and went out. I felt uncomfortable sitting alone in the car. I wondered if he worried that I’d find something like a cell phone and steal it.

A few minutes later he returned, opened a drawer and pulled out his money. Obviously, he had to pay the cop off.

When he came back again and we took off, I asked him why he had to pay.

“I don’t have a license,” he said.

At first I thought he meant a driving license and that worried me a little. Then I realized he didn’t have a license to drive a taxi.

“Why don’t you have a license?” I asked.

“I have another job.” He told me that on the weekends he practices arbitrage in the car market, buying cars at low prices and reselling the same vehicle (without doing any repairs) at a slightly higher price. With Bishkek taxi drivers making something like $10-15 a day, he wouldn’t need to add much to the car price to equal a day’s wages.

He had to pay 100 som, twice the price of my fare. He would have been better off refusing to take me, continuing to read his newspaper in the line of taxis waiting for customers.

“Oh,” I realized. “You have the taxi sign on the top of your car.” Many drivers take it off as soon as a passenger gets in. I saw why.

He also realized his mistake. He pursued his lips and stared ahead in the concentration of shock. Lost in his thoughts, he missed my street.

Not wanting to subject any more drivers to problems, I rode my bike home in the evening.

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