Continued adventures in Crimean cabs
Several days later, we arrived in Crimea and the coast of the Black Sea, and my grandmother and I had to find a way to get from one city to the next. Each little town has minimal tourist destinations — a castle here, some botanical gardens there — threaded along a winding two-lane highway. It seemed to us that the safest way to procure a cab was to ask front desk staff at our hotel if they knew a good driver.
The woman got on the phone, found a guy, and told us to wait a few minutes. He showed up driving a flashy silver car with fins on the back, and was well-dressed. He agreed to take us to he next town over, and we drove most of the way without talking. Sometimes he’d answer his phone and tell the caller that he was busy; he couldn’t meet them now.
On our way back from our day trip, I started up a conversation with him. We talked about where we were from, where he was born, why we had traveled to Crimea. I learned that his name was Andrei. We kept this up for a few minutes and then sunk back into silence.
My grandmother suggested that I ask him if he could take us to Yalta, a two-hour drive away from our hotel in Koktebel’. I brought it up to him, and he immediately shot it down — too far, too expensive, no one would drive us. I didn’t push him on it. A few minutes later he began again. Well, he could do it, and he would take us on a tour of other places as well, but it would cost a lot. Two hundred. American. I conveyed this to my grandmother, and she thought the price was reasonable. We set the time: 8 a.m., tomorrow morning. Do svidanya, Andrei. Until we meet.
The next day he was waiting for us outside our hotel, car just as swanky, clothing a little fancier. You know when things look far more ominous in retrospect than they did in the moment? This was one of many such moments for that day. We aren’t even out of the parking lot before he stops the car and looks back at me.
“I have two requests,” he starts. First, he wants the cash up front. Second, he wants to know if he can bring his fiancée along with us. She’s never been to Yalta, you see, 15 years she’s lived here, and never been to Yalta. We agreed to both of those, so he and I get to talking about his fiancée.
“We’re going to pick her up in the next town. She Uzbekistani,” he explains, “but I’m Russian.” He meant in descent, not nationality. “But what can you do?” He turned back to look me in the eye, “Lyublyu.” I love. He was smiling.
It has to be said, if you want to truly understand how petty racism is, just listen to someone explain their culture’s prejudices to you. He was the second Russian in the space of a week to explain to me that he’d fallen in love with someone from a country he really shouldn’t be fraternizing with, and on both occasions I just couldn’t muster the words to express just how apathetic I felt about it. Maybe I should have said, “I’m an American. Sure, I understand what prejudice is, but I truly I have no sense of why yours should be important. Does it come from something at least partially legitimate, like an unaddressed genocide? Is this a religion thing, a language thing, or is it just that you think they eat funny food?”
Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t say anything. He seemed to relish that his fiancée was a different ethnicity as it not only gave him a sense of pride, but it was proof of a romantic truth — that love between two people will conquer anything, even animosity between two cultures. We pulled over to pick her up. I wouldn’t have known her ethnicity if he hadn’t told me.
We started off on the rest of our journey. We visited an old convent (which Andrei only referred to as a “women monastery”), botanical gardens commissioned by a czar who wanted to propagate every plant in the world throughout Russia, and a veritable palace that had been built in a hybrid English/Islamic style by a merchant of some sort. By this time it was mid-afternoon.
We drove back into Yalta, which is, for all of its literary and historical significance, a tawdry overcrowded beach town. But maybe my impression of Yalta is just tainted by what happened when I got out of the car.
Andrei pulled over to park, and we agreed that we would meet him back at that corner in half an hour. As I stepped out, I was surprised to see that he had stepped out with me, and was standing very close to me, with his back was against the car.
“I need the rest of the money,” he said (he’d only taken half when he asked the first time), “plus fifty dollars more.”
He went on to explain that since he’d taken us to the palace that was located several kilometers beyond Yalta, we had to pay him a bit extra. Now, before I present myself as a total pushover, let me say that this is a man who had been kind and helpful to us for the last two days. We’d shared a meal with him on the road, we’d talked about our homes, we’d chatted with his fiancée. It was strange and a little upsetting to find him suddenly being pushy, back-handed, and impatient. Also, we were still a four-hour drive away from our hotel. So, I did what came easiest — I told my grandmother that he wanted $150, and explained his reasoning. Neither of us brought up the fact that he was the one who’d told us we should go to the palace without mentioning the hidden fee, and since he was being so pushy she just reached into the money belt she kept under her shirts and well-stocked with greenbacks and paid him. Then we left. After walking along the ugly boardwalk for a little while, we went back to the car, and told him that we just wanted to go home.
As we drove, I listened to him explain to his fiancée how easily we had just given him $250.
“Really, two hundred and fifty.”
This was the first clue that he had forgotten, or at least begun to severely doubt, that I spoke Russian at all. It was not a smart move on his part, and it would lead to cause some extreme anxiety.
(This is part two of an ongoing series. Read part one here.)