As a Canadian, driving in a Mercedes brings associations of luxury. So I was astonished during my first visit to the city of Bissau, the capital of the small impoverished nation of Guinea-Bissau, to see that all the taxis were Mercedes. And it needs to be said, that these blue and white Mercedes taxis make up probably half of all the cars in this city. But they are not really luxury vehicles. Most are 20-30-year-old D190 models, well-known for their legendary diesel engines that easily last for 500,000+ km.
Though their toca-toca sound is reassuring and their paint often still shiny, their interiors reveal their age. Door panelling is often missing, scratched windscreens have never been replaced, and windshield wipers are hardened with age. And the seats! Well, they are beyond “worn.”
Taxis here operate on the sharing-a-ride principle. You just hold out your arm when you happen to see one. If there is space left for another passenger, they indicate with their left-turn signal. As they drive by, you shout the name of your destination through their always-open windows. (Open windows are a blessing here, with temperatures above 30˚C and high humidity.) If your destination is agreeable to the driver, or happens to be in the direction he is going anyway, he will stop and let you squeeze in. Otherwise, he will just drive on.
Now to the good part! A ride in one of these Mercedes taxis costs only $0.70 standard fare. A bargain for me at least, with a Canadian-level income. However, if you have only $1-2/day to live on, this is still a luxury. But don’t despair. There is another sort of Mercedes taxi there for you.
Officially known as Toca-Tocas, these blue-and-yellow taxis are the privately-operated public buses along major roads. If the blue-and white-Mercedes taxis are worn, these old Mercedes delivery vans are beyond “worn.” Since they were not designed for passenger transport, their owners cut round holes in the sides for windows and fresh air. Seats are benches of wood or steel along the sides and the centre. Any reminders of inside panelling is long gone. Frames and bodies show evidence of multiple welding jobs with round blackened burn marks. But, they are cheap—just $0.10 a ride. Much more affordable!
And now you know why I always take a Mercedes taxi in Bissau!
–Martin Engeler, OneBook Program Manager
On the road in Guinea-Bissau