Pointe-Noire is a city of taxis. I remember flying into Pointe-Noire’s Aghostino Neto airport in January of 2005 and as we flew in, I could see the shore, the grey waters of the Atlantic, swirling into mud at the shore, and the lush mango and palm trees, the dusty cite and its meander of streets, and thousands upon thousands of taxis. All Toyotas, Celica hatchbacks or four-doors, bright cookie-monster blue with white stripes.
Taxis aren’t the only mode of transportation, there are also mini-buses, called “cent-cent” after the price they used to cost (one hundred CFA francs, now 150, but the old name remains). People have private cars of course, and some people have those little colorful motorcycles that are called “Djakartas” after where some are manufactured, or also caleld “aide-moi a mourrir” (help me to die), the tongue-in-cheek name for these contraptions that are very dangerous to ride on.
All taxis are Toyotas. They’re all bright blue with white decorations, mostly stripes along the sides. Some are decorated with names, like Air France, some have pimped ornaments, eagles and stuff stuck to the hood, like a ship’s prow (is that how you spell that?). One taxi I took was decorated with the Puma theme, and had the leaping feline painted in various places on the body of the car. The insides are what is most fascinating to me. They all, and I mean all, have their taxis decorated with free stickers, or bible quotes, and have grip-sleeve-thingies on the steering wheel, some even have a kind of joystick screwed in, that they palm when they’re doing U-turns and maneuvers.
The seats are all covered with a variety of crazy psychedelic patterns. One taxi was a tartan theme, one was pleather. I took a cab last week with seats covered in long, matted, pea-green fur. One had long, knotted brown fur on the inside. Another one had the most beautiful seat covers, all cream-colored with delicate persian-styled peacocks all over the design. I almost asked him to drive around the block of houses just to enjoy the pretty design on the back seat.
At night, they all have their overhead lights on, and most of them are bright electric neon-blue LED lights that sort of blind you. I think it’s so they’re more visible from the street, and they usually turn them off when you get in. One new development in taxi culture here is a bright yellow New York style “TAXI” sign that they all have, either on top of their roof, or on the dashboard of the passenger side. That’ pretty fancy, and apparently it’s regulation. As if with their uniform car model and color scheme, they needed the extra sign that they are indeed a taxi.
Most of these cabs have at least 100,ooo kilometers on the odometer, most of the older ones have 300,000 and more. They all come from Belgium, where after they lived their lives, they’re packed onto ships and sold here for a pittance, and converted into cabs. A cab ride is 700 CFA Francs, which is around $1. They roam the city and are on the lookout for potential clients, and if they see you walking, they’ll flash their high beams, and if you wave them down, they’ll stop on a dime.
Some taxis double up as “cent-cent” rides when they’re empty, just to make extra money, that is, they’ll honk incessantly, and take up to four customers, all paying 150 CFA and they’ll drive the bee-line route of the mini-buses. When their passengers empty out, they’ll drive as a cab to get customers, and they’ll alternate between the various options they have. Prices are pretty fixed, taxis being one of the few things you know you can count on the price not changing.
If you go really far, the ride can be 1000 CFA. If you go a really short, straight-line distance, you can haggle down to 500, which is pretty fair. A ride to the airport is always 1000, and depending on the time of day, can even be up to 1500. At night, after midnight, rides are all 1000 CFA. If you’re dropping a few people off, you can negotiate a deal, say if you make three stops at 2 AM, instead of 3000 CFA, you can pay 2500. You can rent them by the hour (they cost 2500) if you have a lot of errands to run.
Taxis mostly work for a fleet owner. They have to give the guy 15,000 CFA every single day, when they return the cab. They pay for the gas out of their own pocket, and they can pocket the rest. It’s a hard life, the day shift starting between 5 and 7 AM and ending at 10 or midnight. At the end of the month, they make between 70 and 100,000 CFA if they’re lucky (that’s between $100 and $150).
The drivers are pretty insane, not always stopping at stop signs, passing at 50 kilometers an hour on one-lane roads, honking constantly, barely stopping for pedestrians who jaywalk (it’s the only way to cross the street here). But one crazy thing is that they always, ALWAYS indicate. If you don’t indicate, even when you’re making a three point turn, people will get really mad. One friend of mine was stopped by traffic police after complaints from taxi drivers that she never indicated. It’s the one road rule that everyone, and I mean everyone obeys. My parent’s blinkers don’t work, so we have to find ways to drive places that don’t require us to make turns in public so we don’t get stopped, it gets a little silly sometimes.