I wanted to beat the rush hour. That coffee shop in the rooftops of Tunis was a good place to relax, get my head clear, but it made time disappear. It was only when the sun began to set a little that I woke up from that transe to get up and leave. It was around 17h.
“Back home and maybe dinner somewhere.”
Walking down the Avenue Habib Bourguiba to find a taxi turned out to be harder. Between my broken french and everyone’s broken english, all I could get was that no one wanted to drive me home. Traffic was jammed. People wanted to get out of there, and the road was actually a fighting ring to find a taxi. As soon as someone stepped off, someone would push and shove to get in.
Tired and with my energy sinking, I walked to nearby streets and crossroads with no luck. The road had turned into a stalemate of cars where each pushed, honked and got dangerously close to it’s neighbours to escape.
It was in the center of this chaos that I began approaching taxis in the middle of the road, asking if they would take me back to Ben Arous. Each of them saying no, waiving me off, telling me to go away in arab and french. Except one.
This man was a veteran. His week long beard looked like metal spikes. His skin was so dry from the sun and the dust in the air that the beard had grown sharp and sticked out in shades of white and grey. He was missing a few teeth, and his glasses were as thick as the bottom of a glass. He didn’t understand me at first. Either his hearing was also going away or the noise around us was too much. He waved me in while at the same time threw the Taxi Sign at me, I put it on the roof of the car. We’re off.
Getting in, buckling up and taking a breath, I said ‘merci’ as he stepped on the gas. The arabian Mad Max starts to look around over his shoulder and leaning forward to see through my window. The freeway to Ben Arous was in front of us, but he wasn’t looking for that one.
With a few turns and honks he pushes his way to the side streets, at the first chance he shifts a gear down and speeds up to an intersection, hits the breaks while another car approaches from the left. No part of this surprised me, it’s the driving style of most drivers in Tunis. The car goes on it’s way, Max speeds up again and all of a sudden swirls to the right, into a one-way street. Pedal to the floor and a sudden slow down for a man putting out the trash, and again for the intersection at the end of the street. He doesn’t stop. The car slowed down just enough to avoid any surprises and quickly turned into the new road, packed with cars at the traffic light, with little space to maneuver. He seems to curse in arabic and gestures to the other cars while punching the horn, moving slowly to the right, pressuring the other cars to make way until we reach the traffic light.
The light is still red, but a quick swivel and fast turn to avoid cars coming from the left and he floors it. In a scare and a heartbeat, Max ‘jumped over’ the traffic jam. This still isn’t the main road, and from checking my phone it doesn’t look like we will take the usual route.
Cars are still showing up in every direction and the only surprise is not having bumped or scrapped against the taxi. Fast honks seem to say “I am here and I am not giving way”. Max is determined and shoves his way through it, gesturing, cursing and looking around for every opportunity.
I finally take notice of the car’s interior. There is a small sponge carefully cut to serve as a holder for his cup of coffee, the ashtray is full and each time he puffs the air reaks of tobacco. In the back, I notice the window levers are broken and the windows have shades to keep the passengers cool. That’s all in terms of confort, because the seat belts in the back are tucked away, making them useless.
This new friend is more confident now, less worried about other cars since he can speed up. He relaxes unbuckling his safety belt and lighting up another cigarrete from his shirt pocket. Cars are still coming from left and right, and I see him gesture and yell, grumbling for them to move away as if they could hear him. He turns to me and asks something, which I don’t understand but figure it’s probably “were to in ben arous? - Yesminet”.
He understands enough to speed up again.
We arrive at Ben Arous, I look at the meter and give him the right amount and a few more dinars to pay for a trip I will never forget.