Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Riding with Strangers

by Kelly Raftery 

I can’t count how many times I repeated this series of events when I lived abroad:  walk to the curb, stand perpendicular to the street, raise hand closest to street to half-mast, wait for a car to stop, negotiate a fare to wherever I had to go, agree on a price, hop in the front seat and grab a ride with a complete stranger. Sometimes the car that stopped was an official taxi, more times than not it was just someone picking up people to earn a little extra money on the side. I am sure my mother would be perfectly appalled to know that this was something I did many times a week when I lived in Russia. 

A rare beast, an official taxi cab.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The chastnik is my all-time favorite form of transportation. Chastnik derives from the Russian adjective “chastnyi” which means “private” as in not official during the Soviet period. Anyone with access to a car could pick up anyone on the side of the road looking for a ride. The experience of a chastnik is completely random, which is why I love it. It’s not the metro with its regular stops ticking by like minutes on a clock, or the hurry, hurry, rush, rush that is air travel. I walk to the street, put out my arm and then who knows? What kind of vehicle will pick me up?  Who will be driving?  Will they think I am an American? Or will they believe it if I say I am Estonian?  If they don’t believe I am Estonian will I have to confess that I am an American and pay more than I agreed to in the first place?  Will the driver hate Americans and not take me all the way to my destination or demand dollar payment for the ride?

Negotiating a price before getting into a chastnik.
Photo by Jan Voigtmann from Wikimedia Commons.

One of my sharpest memories from my study abroad summer is of a chastnik ride. It was 1990 and change was in the air, but it was still the Soviet Union. Western student movements were still tracked and jeans were still a viable commodity on the black market. After months of abysmal dorm food in Leningrad, our group traveled to Moscow, and stood in line at the newly opened McDonald’s near Red Square, which was as close to manna from heaven as a group of college students ever saw. Going back to our hotel, a buddy and I hailed a chastnik. When the driver learned we were Americans, he reached deep under his seat and popped a cassette into the bulky tape player occupying the shotgun position. Moments later “Hotel California” came blaring out and the driver cracked a wide grin, taking delight in his obviously bootlegged stash of Western rock and roll. Today, every time a radio station rolls out this standard, my mind flits back to that chastnik ride and that surreal summer.

Soviet era apartment blocks loom over the street.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
One cold night I was making my way back from a friend’s house on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. Dwarfed by pre-fabricated identical block houses in a pitch dark night, I wondered if I would ever be able to find a ride back to the center of town or even to the nearest metro station. My feet grew cold and my eyes watered, the tears freezing my eyelashes together for a split second when I blinked and so when the first vehicle stopped, I simply hopped in, not caring who it was, or how far they could take me. I remember seeing the dark outline of a jeep, but it wasn’t until I found myself surrounded by baby-faced recruits in greatcoats and fur hats that I realized I had been picked up by a military vehicle. It was one of the most convivial rides I ever had. Another bitterly cold day, I was picked up by a “New Russian” in his tricked out BMW, with heated seats…I wished I could have sat there all day, so enthralled by the luxury of it at a time when the average Russian needed rationing coupons to buy cheese and sausage. 

On one very busy and intense business trip to Moscow, I absently hailed a car to take me back to my hotel. A sleek, black and slightly dangerous looking Mercedes stopped at the curb, with a young man in his early twenties behind the wheel. Too tired to play games, I told him my destination and then admitted to being an American when he asked. The driver promptly looked me over from head to toe and then snaked his hand over to rest on my knee. He then mentioned that he had never slept with an American, but he had already bedded British, French, Spanish and German women, as if this was somehow an inducement for me to follow suit. I looked over at him and said, “I am married.”  The driver looked sidelong at me and scoffed dismissively, “To whom? An American?  It’s no problem.”  I answered, “No, he is Kyrgyz.”  The hand immediately returned to the steering wheel. The rest of the ride passed in blissful silence until I stepped out a block or so from my hotel. It was only later that I explored with Russian friends what the average Russian stereotype is of Kyrgyz men – horseback riding, uncivilized barbarians. Apparently, my driver feared for his life in suggesting he mess around with a Kyrgyz wife, whereas cuckolding an American husband seemed safe enough. This story still garners laughs from Kyrgyz friends and relatives alike.

There is a bit of a thrill of not knowing how the ride will go in a chastnik, or what might happen once lives unexpectedly touch when traveling from Point A to Point B.


  1. Absolutely fascinating, Kelly! I have never heard of this, and yet the first thing that came to mind was your SAFETY! Weren't you worried about predators and the like?? Eeks. I can't imagine having the guts to do this today---in fact, is this practice still around?---but I'm pretty sure I would have been just as nervous about it back in the early '90s as well.

    1. Still standard practice...still doesn't bug me a bit! :-) The last story was from the 2000s...oddly enough, it never bothered me, even as a single woman riding alone. No one ever tried to accost, rob or assault me in all the rides (thousands, I am sure) I took in all the years of living and traveling there.

  2. Really interesting. In Rome, there are non-licensed taxi drivers who hang out at train stations and other places where people need rides and try to push ahead of the regular drivers. In a way, this reminds me of the "slug lines" in the Washington, DC area. It's an impromptu car pooling system that evolved about 20 years ago. People wanting a ride wait at appointed places, and people with empty cars stop and pick up passengers going their way. There's gas sharing, I think. It appears to have become so organized that there are websites, etc. for exchanging information.

  3. Very interesting post, Kelly! They have taxis like this in Iran, but I've never taken one. Do you also negotiate the prices for regular taxis in Russia (like you do in Iran), assuming you can find one of those rare beasts...

  4. Yep, you also negotiated (or negotiated) the price for taxis as well, mostly because by the time I was riding around in one, hyper-inflation had hit, so the meter was just a silly, bulky accessory. There are new taxis (Moscow even has a Porsche Cayenne one I saw online) that may have meters, but I am not sure.

  5. Kelly, I love this, especially the Hotel California scene. Thank you for sharing.