Reality Bites: Toughest Place to Be a Taxi Driver

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There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch them all, one at a time.

In my lengthy and casualty-ridden campaign to avoid Bravo programming, I decided to check out a channel not often known for frivolous time wastage, namely, Al Jazeera America.

And wouldn't you know it, the program I finally ended up with was actually re-aired from the BBC. Toughest Place to Be A Taxi Driver is part of that network's (surprise) "Toughest Place to be a..." series, in which seasoned British professionals are thrust into unfamiliar environments in an attempt to do their job, kind of like when Michael Phelps hosted Saturday Night Live.

Previous episodes sent coal miners to Mongolia and midwives to Liberia (presumably pre-Ebola outbreak). The Episode I Watched, on the other hand, sent one of London's vaunted cab drivers to Mumbai, India.

Mason McQueen has spent six years driving London taxis. Personality-wise, he's kind of a cross between Cockney Eric Idle and Arthur Dent, which represents the sum total of my British points of reference. He lives in Epping, northeast of London, with his partner and youngest daughter.

Mason, like all London taxi drivers, had to pass a comprehensive exam called "The Knowledge" for the privilege of driving one of London's famous "black cabs." Now safely ensconced as one of the elite of the personal transportation industry, Mason naturally agrees to travel 6,000 miles away to ply his trade in India's capitol. His fellow drivers are ... not optimistic about his prospects.

And why is that? At less than half the size of London yet home to over three times as many people (30 million to 8 million) and with car ownership doubling in recent years, Mumbai's traffic makes driving in Houston look like the stretch of I-10 between Ft. Stockton and Van Horn. To contend with these formidable stats, Mason will receive a whole week of "training."

Mason's teacher is Pradeep, a 12-year Mumbai taxi veteran, and his first car trip is illuminating, punctuated by several alarmed "Whoas" from Mason (see also: the "Nudge Nudge" sketch). The culture shock continues when Mason visits Pradeep's hiome and sees what living in a lower income bracket in one of the most crowded cities of the world gets you.

The first day's training consists of Mason riding with Pradeep as he competes with 60,000 other cabbies for fares, which in many cases don't match the amount on the meter. Pradeep makes maybe $17 a day, half of which goes to gas and loan payments. After spending a few hours in Mumbai's notorious gridlock and monstrous heat, Mason understandably wonders if he's made a huge mistake.

Day two is driving school, with Mason behind the wheel and Pradeep supervising. I note that they drive on the wrong side of the road in India as well, yet another heartbreaking reminder of the evils of colonialism. The most important lesson appears to be: don't hit the cows. And after watching the collective driving population of South India victimizing Mason during his first hesitant attempts, I'd also add: Mumbai drivers can smell fear. Even better, according to Pradeep, if a driver makes a mistake like colliding with another car or injuring someone, they'll catch a beatin' (I Bostoned that up for you a bit).

Mason gets a whopping three days with an instructor to learn Mumbai's streets, many of which are sporadically marked, if at all. Along the way, he gets a look at the architecture of old Mumbai and meets some of the other drivers. Many (most) are migrants from other parts of the country living hundreds of miles from their families and sending earnings back, barely earning enough at home to rent their cab (white uniforms for drivers who own their car, khaki for those who rent). All the poor drivers use Fiats. I knew that new ad campaign was bullshit.

At first, the setup hardly seems fair. The other drivers talk about routinely needing a year of on-the-job training before they can find their way around with any confidence, but Mason gets thrown to the wolves in a few days. Belated payback for the Raj, I guess.

But perhaps the novelty of a white driver with a camera in the car improves his chances. Mason does all right in his voyages, making 500 rupees (about $8USD), but not killing any cows or humans. Even his neighbors on the street where he's staying throw him a party, though I can't help but think this is a little ... atypical.

Eventually, he goes back to London, gratefully enjoying London's spacious roadways and collecting money from his fellow hacks to send one of the drivers he befriended back in Mumbai home to see his family. Maybe those British aren't so bad after all.

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