It is 1:30am of a Saturday night in Moscow and I feel that I am in what looks like The Land of Toys*: Novi Arbat which during the day is a large, grey and anonymous boulevard, whilst at night its buildings light up in colours â the atmosphere is lively, vibrant and in the bars and nightclubs there is always the unsurpassed offer of amusement. There, sitting in the stopped car, I wait for Candlewick** or Pinocchio, depending on the point of view, here for the sole purpose of ensuring my teenager arrives home unharmed. Suddenly, the rear door of the car opens and some boys looking like the Fox and the Cat*** take a comfortable seat. I think, âHere we go, Pinocchio will follow shortly.â But no! Instead, the Fox and the Cat speak to me in Russian and ask how much I would charge to take them to a specific address. I try to look confused: âSorry, I do not think I am actually understanding.â
I have been mistaken for a Chastnik or Bombila, or gipsy taxi. Since the Soviet time the illegal taxi service, in Russian slang bambitz or isvos, was very common, mainly due to a shortage of official taxis. Even today, despite the law prohibiting illegal races, it is possible to see many people on the streets of Moscow with their arms raised searching for a lift. It is a phenomenon that cuts across all social classes; all potential passengers alike raise their arm when they need it.
There are the drivers who work as Chastniki, who do it as a side job. A Chastnik can even act during breaks off from his main work. For example, he drives his boss to a private dinner at a restaurant, and during the two-hours lunch he throws himself on the market. The lucky passenger will be treated with a clean car and a polite, professional driver, temporarily Chastnik. Similarly, one can be taken on board ambulances when they are off duty. This may be, in the words of my Swedish friend Gunnar, quite convenient when one is (so to say) âchillyâ and is taken home supine.
The Bombila on the other hand are full time illegal drivers. For them it is a profession. So, negotiating with them is harder and more aggressive. Maybe they know the city better, but it is not to be taken for granted. I asked if it was risky to make use of these gipsy taxis â I meant in the sense of possible violence, and was told, by a Russian: âUndoubtedly yes! Actually, many drivers do not even get a licence, they are bought on the black market. Many barely know how to drive and the cars are never serviced. They are mostly Caucasian.â The official law on taxis stipulates that taxi drivers are in possession of a permit, that the vehicle is equipped with a taximeter, checkerboard stripes are to be painted on the side and vehicles are tested regularly. Depending on the region, taxis should be painted in the same colour. The Moscow region chose yellow. Many of the various Chastnik and Bombila ârecycleâ themselves, becoming âlegalâ by working for official companies or by participating with private taxi services or ride-sharing, such as GetTaxi, Yandex Taxi, Uber Taxi, whose cars mostly are coloured yellow. This trend is very well shown on a TripAdvisorâs review: âWell, the only thing non-local about Uber in Russia is the brand â the cars, the drivers are definitely local. The cabs and the cabbies are not imported from New York, thatâs for sure!â In fact, the most prevalent feeling while taking these private taxis is that you have taken a gipsy cab; drivers often do not speak Russian, they do not know the streets of Moscow, and sometimes, ask their passengers to activate the GPS in their smartphone.
The moral is: official taxis, private taxis, gypsy cabs, and even car-pooling, car-sharing, ride-sharing, lift-sharingâ¦ itâs all goodâ¦ all over the world, (or almost), we are people who ask for rides from strangers, hoping and trusting that these will lead us to our destination.