When I travel, I like to try out local modes of transport instead of merely hiring a cab. Jeeps, tempos, tongas, rickshaws, rickety boats and local buses add infinitely more local colour than cabs, although they aren’t necessarily more comfortable. So when I reached Shillong, the first thing I checked on was local transport. “You could try buses,” said the manager doubtfully, “but buses don’t ply on all our routes since some roads are too narrow. And since they usually cause traffic jams, you won’t make it in time either…” Cabs were my best option, he opined. I asked him how locals got around. “They take cabs too,” he said. It turned out that Shillong’s public transport consisted chiefly of dodgy buses and shared taxis. “You pay only for your seat in a shared taxi,” he said, explaining that it worked out cheap enough for most people. “It will cost about Rs 400 to hire a full taxi from our hotel to Police Bazaar (the main market where most restaurants and shops are). But a shared taxi will cost you only Rs 10 per person...” he said. It was an unusual system, I commented. The manager agreed: “Yes, it is. But it’s the only way to get the comfort and flexibility of a taxi at a fraction of the actual cost!”
So, of course, I stepped outside the hotel to find the nearest cruising cab. Within minutes, a black and yellow sedan pulled up. There was only one passenger on board, and it was going to Police Bazaar. I jumped in joyously, congratulating myself on having mastered the local transport system so easily and quickly.
Soon after we started moving, we stopped again. Four more people got in, taking the numbers to a cosy six. Then we stopped again. Another passenger squeezed into the front seat. “Isn’t it against the rules to carry so many passengers?” I gasped from the back seat. My co-passengers started to laugh. “Normally about eight commuters are made to fit into a taxi, even if it is a small car,” said one. “During the office rush, I’ve sat in a small cab with 10 people in it,” said another. “Once, the eighth passenger got on with a child that had a fractured leg. He sat on her lap in the back seat with his plaster-encased leg stretched across three other people!” said a third. Amidst general good-natured merriment, the passengers also told me that at times the driver would even ask people sitting in the front to shift gears while he pushed the clutch. “What can I do? When there are too many people in the front, I can’t even reach for the stick. I can just about move the steering wheel!” said our driver defensively.
I tottered thankfully out of the shared taxi, already on the look out for a metered taxi for my ride back to the hotel. But it looked like shared taxis monopolised the market; there weren’t any metered cabs around. Eventually, I legged it back to the hotel. The pine-scented walk took me as much time as the taxi ride since we’d stopped so often to pick up passengers. The next few days in Shillong, I picked up local colour using my own two feet.
Here are, however, pointers for intrepid travellers who’d like to give Shillong’s shared taxis a shot. Bargain hard. Choose a nearly full taxi, else you’ll have to keep stopping to pick up more passengers. And sit in the front — you may be called upon to yank the gear shaft once in a while but at least you won’t get squashed by the local colour…