Archive for October 24, 2010

Kazakh Taxi Drivers Must Have Business Plans

Almost midnight here in Astana, Kazakhstan and there is a FULL moon out.  I am duty bound to do my daily blog and the only title I can come up with on a Sunday evening is the above.  I’ve been thinking about business plans for some time now ever since I’ve been on my new job at the new university since February of this year.  I don’t have a business background but nonetheless, I had to make up a business plan with an executive summary and all the finetuning points.

Of course, there is always the bottomline, how much does everything cost?  So, I had to conceptualize how much each room would need of furniture from wastebaskets to copiers to desks.  I don’t have any prior experience in budgets or business plans but it helped to look at others’ examples.  I have read through about four other business plans from other departments just to proof read the English.  BTW, my plan and budget had to be translated back into Russian from English.  Arduous stuff, these business plans.

I’m convinced our friendly Yerik who brings me to work every day has his own business plan.  He is there every morning to greet me and is more than happy to take me to the new campus for 500 tenge.  Others who are Kazakh can easily get the price for maybe 300 or 400 but since I’m a foreigner, means easy target for price gouging, I have to pay Yerik 500.  Why? because he claims that there are no return fares for him to end up back in the front of our apartment.  He was incredulous that I had walked home one day and it took me a little over an hour.  That means it is only a 3 mile ride on nice three lane highway!  Yerik is definitely overcharging me!

Nevertheless, my husband and I like Yerik, he smiles and makes small talk with me in Russian.  If he is not available then Yaheya (not sure of spelling) is always happy to take me to the new campus.  He is more conversant in English, German and of course Russian.  So between the two guys who hang out by our apartment complex, I’m covered for the ride out to the campus.  I usually take the bus for 60 tenge home, there are plenty busses that go back into town, usually #10 and #12.  The #10 goes all the way out to the airport.

Note to self, never tell the potential taxi drivers when negotiating prices, that the new campus is on the way to the airport.  They hear the word “airport” and the fare automatically goes up.  Because an airport trip usually means 3,000 tenge and the campus is about half way there.  That’s why I think the gypsy cabs that Ken and I take, these guys must have business plans in their heads all the time.  I simply say the name of the university and some guys out of curiosity just want to go out in that direction to see the new campus.  I might get them for 400 tenge but then you better have the right change because all of a sudden they will NOT have change for your 500 tenge note.

Yes, it feels like you are hitchhiking by sticking your hand out for a stranger to pick you up but it is the acceptable way for the drivers to earn extra fares. That way they can pay the police who routinely stop cars for any small infraction or none at all.  Just a friendly little chat, little bribe and the driver is on his way again.  The police are ready to use their baton for the next hapless driver.  It seems all normal.  I understand from my expat friends who drive that it is not fun or normal to pay these guys off.  I knew one British woman in Almaty that would always play dumb and she never paid the officers. They would finally let her go because she would waste their time.  Maybe the police have internal business plans too and “time is money” when it comes to all the other cars with their drivers who WILL pay the bribe.

Back to some of my taxi rides here in Astana, I’ve appreciated being picked up  when leaving the campus especially when I saw a big, threatening cloud of rain about a month ago.  It was hovering over the city and I flagged someone right before it unleashed a torrent.  The driver and I “tsk-tsked” all the other pedestrians who were caught in the rain.  I felt brave and very dry and made it home with my husband waiting with an umbrella for me in the archway of our complex.

The usual conversations the taxi drivers have with me are the following:

Where are you from? (they know I’m an alien foreigner) I tell them the U.S.

What state?  Minnesota (I add close to Canada)

Any children?  (that’s so they can find out if I’m married or not) Then I ask them if they have children.

Where do you work?  I tell them that I’m an English teacher

How long have you been in Kazakhstan? I tell them that I met my husband in KZ in 1993 and that I LOVE Kazakhstan.  They LOVE to hear that, those who are the romantics.  Keep in mind that these typical conversations are usually always in Russian unless there are the guys who want to practice their English.

The last question that *I* ask is what’s their name and they ask me mine.  This is when I’m paying them.  I’ve picked up this habit from my economist husband who doesn’t want to have a money transaction seem impersonal but one that is friendly.  We have had some repeat taxi drivers maybe because Ken is always friendly with the taxi drivers. He sits in the front seat while I sit in the back and work out the money for payment that was agreed upon to pass up to Ken in the front.  He can have much more involved conversations about politics or weather or grain prices because he knows the Russian language from when he studied it in high school.

Anyway, I’m glad that there are the taxi cab drivers who are your regular Joes who want to pick up some extra money.  Rarely have I been picked up by a woman driver and if two guys stop to pick me up, I shake my head and they move on.  Risky to get in the car with two guys, not even the locals will do that.  So, I think that Yerik, our resident driver, has a business plan and I think he has built up his clientele like us, who can trust him.  He is a willing servant and has a happy face for us.  I hope he does well, maybe he will move up to a newer model and then he will be forced to charge me 600 tenge to get me to the university.  (sigh)

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