When I arrived at Lebanon’s Beirut airport, my pre arranged transport did not show (I found out later that someone forgot to book it!). My cell phone did not work and I could not find a working pay phone in the airport. So I stupidly headed to the door of the airport hall following a sign which said “taxis”! (Any other city, this would be logical).
There appeared to be no order or logic to the line up of taxis of drivers outside. In most cities some sort of official or unofficial taxi queue exists and a passenger knows which one to get into. (This does not apply in the Indian cities I have been to and clearly not in Beirut).
I said to one driver where I wanted to go and “it was on for young and old” [out of control]. Drivers came from everywhere surrounding me: “Taxi, Taxi”, “where you want to go”.
I gazed forlornly at a line of “official taxis” beyond the now teeming mass of “official” and “unofficial” taxi drivers. A bidding war had started for my wallet. “$50”, “$45”, “$40”, “$35”. “No sir don’t go with him- he is not official airport driver”. “Monsieur Monsieur, I am real official”. One man showed me his very obviously home made “Official Airport Taxi Driver” badge.
Beirut seems to have more taxi drivers than any other city on earth. I am not sure if its a function of the high unemployment rate in Beirut. Everyone with a spare car seems to have turned it into a taxi. And every driver needs to come with a warning label attached.
Plan A – Duck and Cover
In the meantime, the taxi drivers gathered around me vying for my attention had reached a fever pitch and two had come to blows over who was going to get my attention. I was so stunned, furious and exhausted after 30 hours of travel, that I told them all to “go jump“, turned on my heel and walked back into the terminal. Some followed me and I told them where to go too!
After going to the “Mens” and collecting my thoughts I snuck out another exit and thought about a new plan.
Plan B -Go Official
There was a security booth next to the taxi rank. I marched up to the taxi rank, greeted the soldiers in the booth and asked them in French if they could help locate me a taxi. The soldier nodded and my spirits soared. He stepped out of the booth and in a loud voice shouted “this man needs a taxi“. It was like throwing a sacrificial lamb to a flock of starving wolves.
Gesturing, yelling taxi drivers dropped everything and ran to me standing there with a massive label over my head: “Dumb Tourist“. Some were my original taxi drivers! I was stumped – This is not a place I often find myself in when travelling.
I retreated a second time for the airport terminal and bought myself lunch in the airport cafe!
I knew that the hotel taxi would have cost $25 so I would find a taxi that would charge me $25. So out I came again. ” Hotel $25, I kept repeating. Some drivers shook their heads: “Non Non $35 minimum”. I stood my ground. The crowd of drivers disappeared to stalk other victims.
You are not alone
A small group of Japanese were surrounded. Like me they ran back into the terminal for safety where they hovered vacillating. You could see they were thinking “Return to Japan to face Nuclear fallout would be better than this“. A group of Dutch arrived and were also chased back into the terminal. They did march out and entered into fierce bargaining as a group and vanished in a van. In the meantime, streams of people following drivers with pre booked cars passed.
Every now and then a taxi driver would venture up to me; “$35?” “No $25”. Interestingly, the row of taxis in front of me didn’t move. Lebanese people know better than to catch taxis and the tourists were in a state of terror!
Plan D- Stand Your Ground
Finally, a driver who had been standing in front of his Mercedes taxi near me for some time, said “Okay $25“. I nodded and he grabbed my luggage and headed away from the Mercedes. I said “Hey, this is not your car?”. He said “non” and pointed into the distant car park. I marched up, grabbed my bag and said “well then you are not taking me.” This started a loud conversation between the drivers in Arabic.
At this point a man came up and said “we are very sorry for the way we have treated you today“.
He pointed to the Mercedes that I thought I would be riding in and said: “that is my car and I will take you to your hotel for $25“.
I said “this is your Mercedes“. He nodded.
I said “and you are a licensed driver”. He nodded .
I said: “You know where the hotel is?“. He nodded.
“And you will take me for $25“?. He nodded.
“Okay , lets get out of here“, I said.
As a driver, he turned out to be a nice guy. I even gave him a tip-let that get back to the other drivers!
Comparing War Wounds
When I got to the hotel, I compared taxi horror stories with other guests. One guy had paid $40, another $45. One woman had paid $70! One woman had retreated from the drivers and had huddled in the terminal and managed to use her cell phone to call the hotel to send their official car. She felt relieved to have made it. The war may be over in Beirut but for besieged tourists to Lebanon, there is some work that needs to be done. The Egyptians at the Conference I was attending declared that their taxis were better than the Beirut ones – and Egyptian ones have a bad reputation!!
One of the side effects of the war, is that any public transport initiatives were set back. There are no buses to the airport. Beirut has no streetcar/tram or metro system. If it was a European city which had not experienced such devastation in its war, I imagine it would have both. In the meantime, tourists and visitors remain victims of the taxi drivers of Beirut.
I avoided taxis for most of my visit. The taxis didn’t avoid tourists. They would regularly stop and call out to people they thought were tourists: “Taxi taxi” or honk their horns for attention or both.This seemed to happen to others, more than it happened to me. We decided to catch a taxi from a shopping mall to our hotel, a 4km drive. The taxi driver looked at the four of us and with no shame asked for $50. I exclaimed with disgust and walked off. He dropped the fare to $20, then $15, then $14.
Beirut is a fun, fun city- its taxis are appalling.