I can't tell you what type of Toyota it was, but it instinctively looked sub-Camry, and yet by the same token supra-Corolla. There are some funny looking cars in Dubai. Its confident arrival outside the hotel didn't jangle any internal-alarms, and I hopped in with high hopes for a relaxing, expedient journey.
And I did this because none of us is ever more aware of the way a car and its driver looks, behaves, functions, smells and interacts with its environment than when we experience it from a taxi ride. This example looked fresh, well-tended. Taxis are risky. Lewis H thinks he's synapse-maxed when he heads out into F1 qualifying, but let me tell you that compared to the way I religiously study tread depth, kerbings and coachwork abrasions as a potential ride zips into view, he might as well be a soporific extra from a Cheech & Chong movie. I'm wired. I'm absorbing information – so are you - so that we can de-risk what is clearly potentially the most hazardous thing we'll undertake in our adult lives: a taxi ride in a foreign land.
This Toyota of unknown size and platform-derivation is already causing me some concern: I have no idea what it is or what core dynamic traits to expect. If it slaps over the first bump, do I just shrug and blame the torsion beam under my arse, or do I assume the rear shocks are leaking so profusely they will pitch the nameless-Toyota into a Hagwalah inspired lane-change-oversteer moment that will register as my final memory, alongside that perennially unanswerable problem: "Why does traffic joining a carriageway sometimes look like it's going faster than the traffic it's joining, when in fact it's going slower?"
I just wish I'd taken the precaution of nosing underneath to confirm the rear-axle configuration, but seeking such peace-of-mind is immediately discounted because, wouldn't you believe it, I've somehow chosen the bloke who doesn't understand the concept of distance. That you can't drive an inch from the rear of the bloke in front without having to use the brakes with a frequency and in a manner that will render the poor prick in the back a future medical insurance burden.
And why is the steering wheel worn the way it is, and what can I decipher from the crapped-out gear gaiter and the holes in the dashboard and why isn't the wheel on straight and how do you get fluid onto that part of the headlining?
But most of all I don't get taxi drivers. They simply don't seem to exist in an 'average' form, and by that I mean they are either some of the very worst bipeds to ever be allowed behind the wheel of a motorcar or, more regularly than we'd like to admit, they're blessed with natural skills that deserve far greater rewards. It is irrefutable that the most naturally gifted driver in the world does not drive in F1, he probably drives a taxi in a third world capital in a way that defies the laws of physics.
But the non-exceptions to the rule are two things that scare me – they have such a poor grasp of the skill of driving that I wonder how they don't interface with other objects each time they drive. And, for the duration of your journey, they are in total control of the longevity of your life. You entrust your and often those you love's safety to a man or woman whose inability to judge distance strongly suggests evidence of a frontal lobotomy. Why do we ever get into taxis? Given the statistical dangers of driving and any proximity to the public highway, why aren't all taxi drivers pro-racers paid $300k a year?
I can't tell you what the Burj Khalifa looks like because the semi-android driving me was on-and-off the brakes faster than the latest Bosch ABS software. As he attempted to insert the bland nose of his Toyota Something into the tail-pipes of a Cayenne Turbo, all I could make out was the blurred outline of a long thingy through the window. I still need persuading that it wasn't someone waving a metal pole from the window of an adjacent Camry. There are lots of Toyotas in Dubai.
He was a taxi cliché, this guy. He had the playbook completely covered. No air-con to shave fuel use, pedal sensitivity of a man suffering an extreme attack of the cramps, indiscriminate lane-changes always actioned just after the point at which it became clearly apparent that there was no advantage to be gained. And then the inevitable feigning of not quite knowing the destination, despite having stated to the contrary ten minutes earlier.
And the seating position. What's with the way these people sit in cars? Posture is everything for the pilot, especially when you spend most of your waking hours behind the wheel — so how can taxi drivers invent ways of relating legs, arms and buttocks that would confound a gymnast? My non-Camry driver had for reasons best known to himself chosen to answer the physical conundrum: 'Can you rub your right nipple on the gear lever and still peer over the front scuttle and view the road ahead'? It's just that neither me or anyone else had ever asked him that question. His choosing to answer it anyway was unnerving.
And it stands to reason that every other road user was, in the righteous opinion of this psychopath, a complete arse. The family calmly tracing a completely straight line, within the speed limit, in their Toyota weathered a snarl and lane-learning swipe. I just sat there bedazzled by the insanity of it all – like I'd just walked into a bar and my drinking partner was butt-naked. That's the thing about being a passenger in a terribly driven taxi, you feel morally responsible for the mayhem on display that you are associated with, but of course you aren't accountable and you are powerless to intervene. So you either assume the rictus straight-ahead glance of eye-avoidance, or you passionately attempt ocular-engagement with every poor sod offended by, or recovering from the actions of the mentalist who will actually earn money for doing this to you. That's right, he'll get paid for fucking with your inner karma. So you smile in shame and give the international shrug of apology.
I arrive wired, frazzled and amazed that the humanoid displaying the neocortex sophistication of a single-cell organism has suddenly morphed into the most polite, affable man I've met in the past few days. "Have a good evening sir!" He needs his money, and he'll have his money. And of course I tip him heavily for reminding me of my own mortality.
Taxis. Bloody taxis. And Toyotas.
Illustration: Sam Woolley