First words that come to my mind when I think about grand taxis – unsafe, illegal, terrifying. The set up: a big old white Mercedes from the 70s, no seat belts, six people plus the driver (3 in the front seats and 4 in the back), generally fast, angry and underpaid drivers, cheap fares, taken across longer distances. When we lived in Ifrane they were pretty much the only option we had to get anywhere else in the country. We took many trips to Fez (70 km away or an hour to an hour and a half of driving) and we always took grand taxis. The first couple of times I thought it was sort of fun and funny, and a very “Moroccan experience”. I soon realized how terrible grand taxis really are.
Ifrane is located in the mountains, and the roads out are one lane each way with essentially non-existent guardrails. And people drive fast. And they pass each other all the time. And road rules are not followed, if they do exist. Needless to say I grew to really hate and fear these taxis. There were times that I was literally in tears because I was so frightened. The time that stands out to me the most is coming back from Fez after a mid-week doctor’s appointment. It was clearly the driver’s last run of the night and he wanted to get home quickly. After crawling through Fez rush hour traffic, a smoggy and loud fiasco, we reached the dark mountain road. It was hard to look away from the speedometer as the driver was turning these guardrail-less corners at 100. This was one of those teary incidents.
I wasn’t always the only one who felt uncomfortable with the driving. There were sometimes other females in the taxi who shared my distress. However, I learned from a student who interviewed grand taxi riders about their perceptions of safety that the majority are not afraid. They believe that they are “in God’s hands”. Well, this is one situation in which I could never, ever say, “we’ll get there safely, Inshallah”. The good news is that we’re now living in a big city we should’t need to take grand taxis to get around. Casablanca drivers are pretty crazy but at least the stress of grand taxis has disappeared.
Just walking around the taxi yards brings a smile (sometimes a grin, smirk or frustrated look) onto my face. The calling of cabbies competing with bbq’d meat and mopeds and various mobile fruit stands ready to run you over. In the distance someone is kneeling mid prayer. Always a bit different than the next. Always kind of the same.
Grad Taxis are a great means to an end for anybody looking to go from city to city, and for the vast population of Moroccans, the only way to keep their jobs in the various cities that surround where they live.
They are cheap, always leave on time (give or take 30 min) and get to their destination in a timely fashion (although sometimes too timely for comfort).
Not for the faint of heart, or the old, or anybody traveling with anybody who has claustrophobia, grand taxis are an excellent mode of transportation in Morrocco. It could not be any cheaper and you can go anywhere within a 150 km range.
You may spend the 90 minute ride with your legs numb hoping to make it alive, or perhaps you sit next to a friendly Syrian gentleman who relentlessly talks your ear off in Arabic (although you make no indications of understanding anything he has said). Regardless, it is always an experience.
Within seconds of approaching a grand taxi stand an air of organized chaos (or sometime just chaos) wafts in your face. While other aromatic distractions assault your senses (idling mercedes and roasting nuts) the calls for cities grab your attention. The way it works is fairly simple yet seems quite mind boggling and hectic.
First, find a man yelling the name of your destination “Fes, Fes” etc. Indicate you are interested in going there and how many occupants in your party. He then will notify a man who walks over scribbling on the back of what seems to be some receipt for who knows where and takes your money (in actuality he is taking tabs on how many people go to which cities each day to allocate payments to drivers). After paying, you stand next to the cab designated to go to the destination of your choice. As a standard, the taxis do not go until they are full. So it usually takes anywhere from 5-30 minutes to wait for others going to the same city as you to fill up the remaining spots. You do have the option of buying the “remaining” seats if you do not wish to wait. When full, all are off on a very cramped and uncomfortable ride to the place of your choice for literally next to nothing. 90 min rides cost about 4 bucks.
As far as iconic symbols go, a late 70’s mercedes will always take the cake. I will forever associate this model of vehicle with the cheap and efficient means of transportation that is a grand taxi; and grand it is.