Nothing accentuates the profound difference between our normal, daily routine in Bluff Park compared to that we have in Fes than not having the personal use of an automobile. As a result, we have become unusually dependent on the use of public transportation, specifically the utilization of Petit Taxis. Though we live in what might be termed a suburban neighborhood, it requires about 15 or 20 minutes to get downtown, if it is not during rush hour. If we travel in one of the four daily periods of increased traffic activity, it could take another 10 to 15 minutes.
It is not imperative to own an automobile to be able to take care of one’s required tasks each day since we are obviously managing at the present time. In 1997, we lived here for six months before purchasing a car. And, we have become very aware that in Birmingham, we rarely venture more than a few minutes from the confines of our own yard unless it first involves driving a car. How entirely different it is here for we garden home residents who are accustomed to driving our cars practically into the living room.
Now we walk down three flights of stairs and begin searching immediately for a taxi that is not “amur” or full, if we are involved in an activity away from the apartment. The Petit Taxi can transport no more than three people; thus if we are going somewhere together, we are hoping there is not more than one passenger in the next one we see and encourage to stop for us.
After gaining independence from France in the 1950’s, people who had been involved in the effort to regain Moroccan sovereignty were given the right to apply for a license to become a taxi owner. I could not find out how many licenses were granted initially, but there are obviously a lot of citizens who owe their livelihood to this industry. Each taxi has a number displayed on its door and on the luggage rack fitted on each of the cars. That number corresponds to the license number granted to the franchisee. I have seen the number 2501 on a taxi here in Fes, so one can conclude that there are at least 2500 here in the city. Each city has a particular color assigned to it so that all the Petit Taxis in one municipality are the same. That color is not necessarily unique since both Fes and Casablanca have red Petit Taxis. In Rabat they are blue and in Ifrane they are green.
It is obvious that the original vehicle to which a low number was assigned has been retired long ago. Morocco regained its independence in 1956, so some owners or their descendants have been in the taxi business for more than 50 years. The right to hold that ownership can be sold or traded, and as a result there has been some consolidation as more astute business people have acquired licenses from other owners. None of the drivers I have asked owns their own vehicle.
The drivers work in shifts and thus the taxi stays on the road at least 16 hours. Now that they are equipped with digital odometers which are easily read, I have been amazed at how many kilometers some of these cars actually attain. Almost all have diesel engines and last week I rode in one that had more than 600,000 kilometers (about 372,000 miles) displayed on the odometer. On the other hand, Denise and I managed to snag one today with only a little more than 1200 kilometers (about 744 miles) displayed. We surmised it had probably been put in service last week.
For those of us who almost never do anything without first starting a car, it is difficult to transition to a routine that involves a lot more walking, requires a lot more time, and necessitates a lot more planning. We understand better why folks in this culture, for the most part, shop for meals only one day at a time. Small stores abound and there is almost always a farmer’s market or souk, within a few minutes walking distance where fresh fruits and vegetables are sold. I have mentioned some big box stores that are present in the city, but a vast majority of the populace shop for almost everything in the small businesses that do not require a car for access. I shall address that difference later in the week.
On a lighter note, the numbers on the taxis have intrigued me and I have engaged in several “games” during my many trips over the past few weeks. I wondered if I might be able to actually see the taxi with the number 1 displayed. If in fact there are 2500 taxis in Fes, and they are fairly randomly distributed, the probability of seeing a particular number is only 0.0004. Last week after one ride, I noticed that I had been in number 3, not a bad approximation to 1. But then yesterday while sitting in a café, I saw the coveted #1. I am hoping to see it again, but the probability of that happening is only 0.00000016, almost like winning the lottery. The fact that I even mention such trivia is pretty convincing evidence of the lonely lives mathematicians live.
Though the nicest part of giving up one’s private automobile is letting someone else do the driving, it is also true that putting your life and safety in the hands of these “chauffeurs” requires a lot of faith. The past few years the traffic volume in Fes has increased significantly. The effort required to deal with the additional congestion seems to have emboldened many of the drivers, and the drive downtown often turns into a thrill-ride similar to what might be encountered at an amusement park. None of the taxis have seat belts, so we spend a lot of time holding on to handgrips above the doors, breathing deep to lessen anxiety and praying. Screaming while in the taxi is considered inappropriate, but serial flinching is practically an every-ride occurrence.
We have been lucky in that we have not been involved in an accident (yet) but we have witnessed one fender bender involving a taxi. Were American drivers to engage in the tactics of most drivers here, I am afraid there would be a lot of road rage deaths. Learning the practices and rules by which drivers operate here would try the patience of those of us who learned to drive with a different set of expectations.
Some of what I wrote appears quite critical, but we are happy that we have the ability to get around as needed. Moreover, it is quite reasonable in cost. A ride downtown, maybe 5 or 6 miles, usually costs less than a couple of dollars. The taxis are metered which make it easy to avoid being overcharged. And purchasing gas that runs about $1.50 per liter is an expense I am pleased to avoid.