How to argue with a taxi driver after midnight in Dar es Salaam

The plane from Kilimanjaro airport to Dar es Salaam was delayed. This was of little consequence to me, as I had nothing planned for the remainder of the day, other than to check into my hotel.

Sitting in the airport, I planned my next moves. I booked and paid for a hotel.  All I had to do was to get some money from an airport ATM, and catch a taxi to the city centre.

I have a thing about taxis. I think the greatest book ever would recount various journeys from airports into city centres. The protagonist would make no attempt to avoid being scammed, and merely go with the flow. I’ve even thought of doing it in my home town by pretending to be a German with no English.

Of course, this idea was born from trouble. I’ve been ripped off from Santiago to Glasgow, and I thought I’d learned a thing or two. I checked the price online – Lonely Planet suggested 20000 KSh to the city centre. Landed said 30000 Ksh.

Sounded reasonable. About $20 AUD.

It was all so smooth, and I congratulated myself on it. After landing, I collected my bag, withdrew some money, and was instantly in contact with an approved taxi.

How much for the fare? I asked.

“35,” he said.

Alright, so 35000 was more than previously suggested, but not by much. It was nearly midnight now, so let’s not complain.

“OK, 35,” I said.

The guy handed me off to one of his drivers. He took my bag and directed me to his vehicle. He loaded up the van, and we were off.

As usual when finding myself in a new city, I glued my face to the window. I was struck by the difference between Dar es Salaam and any other African city of my acquaintance. It was clean and virtually devoid of traffic (contra Nairobi). There were video advertising billboards, sealed pavements, modern buildings and western style shops. It was a bit of a surprise.

The airport is 12 km from the city, and though there was little traffic, it took some time. I again congratulate myself on the slickness of my plans. $20 was, I thought, a reasonable fare.

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We pulled up at the hotel. “How long are you in Dar es Salaam for?” my driver asked.

I had heard this before. The guy wanted to be my personal driver for my entire sojourn, but I had no intention of being saddled with him for the next two days. I muttered something unintelligible while I fished for my wallet. I found 40000 Ksh and stuffed it into his hand, while I fumbled with the lock on the car door.

He looked at me oddly.

“No,” he said. “Not 35000 shillings. $35 USD.” This is about 70000 KSh, more than double the amount any guidebook had the temerity to suggest.

“No.” I said. “That’s not the deal. I negotiated it already.”

He stood there, with a dumb expression.

The hotel porter had, by now, extracted my suitcase from his car, and was holding it gingerly. He was a young fellow, and didn’t want to get involved.

The driver pulled out a sheet of paper. I’ve seen these papers all around the world. It never comes out until this point. There’s a schedule of payments listing the costs from the airport to various set destinations. I last met it in Peru. He pointed to a section, ‘proving’ the cost to be $35 USD, for non-residents (for residents, co-incidentally, the rate was 35000 Ksh).

“I don’t care,” I said. “That’s not what I agreed on. And I’ve never seen that paper before.” This country is, after all, not America. Why should I assume automatically that quotes are in USD?

A crowd was gathering now. Dark, unfamiliar faces. What were they all doing on the streets of Dar es Salaam at midnight anyway? Some came from the hotel, others simply materialised. A porter, security guards, bystanders. A motorbike arrived, and the owner seemed to want to play a role in the drama.

The taxi driver and the crowd became engaged in a heated conversation. I, of course, had no idea what was being said, but he gave a good impression of being hard done by. Maybe he believed it. He had an expression like I had eaten his family’s monthly food supply.

There was arm waving. No one spoke to me, the outsider. I started to feel a bit bored. The conversation continued.

The porter spoke up: “He wants you to put your luggage back in the car.” This was not going to happen, and I started to get agitated.

“No.” I said. “I’m not going to do that.”

More chatter.

And again: “He says you have to get in the cab, and he will take you to his boss.”

“No.” I said again. “I don’t have to do that, and I’m not going to.”

I wondered vaguely whether my safety was at risk. I didn’t feel unsafe, but here I was in Africa, at midnight, arguing about money in a crowd of 20 or so. Objectively, in retrospect, it was a concern.

More conversation.

Motorcycle guy got involved. “Just give this guy some money,” he said. “You’ll have to give him something.”

I was getting sick of this. “Look,” I said, “I’ll give him some more money, but I’m not paying the full amount.” He seemed to think this reasonable, and the Swahili started up again. The taxi driver was not quite so interested in this compromise, it seems. The conversation went on.

After an age, motorcycle guy addressed me again. “Look, man. I’m really tired. Can you just give him 15000.”

I looked in my wallet. I didn’t have change, and I wasn’t going to give him of opportunity to take more. I had 13000. One ten thousand note, and three mangled, 1000s.

“I don’t have change,” I said, extracting the 13000. “He can have this.”

More chatter.

“He says he has change,” said motorcycle. “Just give him the 15000.”

Alright, I thought. I’ve had enough. I gave over 20000 and got change. That made 55000 Ksh, significantly more than recommended. Did I get ripped? Probably, but he played the part well. Most people wouldn’t have kicked like me. I’m now vaguely worried about catching another cab in Dar, or even going to the airport, lest I run into this chap again.

The porter carried my bag into reception. “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding,” he said. He showed me into reception, where I went through the typically tedious check-in process. They found my booking.

“That will be $223 USD,” the manager said.

In my defence, I thought I had paid this on booking, and I said so.

“But I’ve paid it,” I said, and prayed that I was right, after all that had gone before. Spoiler – I was not.

The porter looked at me as if I was a worm. At that moment, he was convinced about who was right about the taxi fare, and it wasn’t me.

The manager checked his records.

“There is no payment,” he said.

I thought it best to back down. I could check my bank records, and If I was right, I could raise it in the morning.

“Alright,” I said. “Sorry. I must be wrong.” I handed over my card chop-chop.

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