I arrived in Taupo this week and tried to suss out the working environment. It seemed that the locals mostly used taxis rather than Uber or Ola and I was afraid that I wouldn’t get any business. No business means that I would have to end this crazy trip. I watched it during the week and resolved to drive starting on Thursday. It seemed to me that the people most likely to use Uber were people from somewhere else.
So I looked up the flight arrivals at Taupo’s teeeny tiny airport and headed out for an Auckland arrival. And got a call right away.
Very nice fellow from Auckland, meeting up with his mates for the weekend – when he suggested that he’d have more work for me, going swimming etc. I told him eagerly that I’d be around. My afternoon then was reasonable and that was okay. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was going to be okay. I cleverly figured out a solution! GO me!
Except that was it. No more calls, no other Uber drivers on duty. Nothing. I drove around looking at things. Admired the lake from many different angles. It is a beautiful place. But on that Thursday, it was a very lonely place for an Uber driver. I was thinking of tossing it all around 7 pm, when I finally got a ping. The app told me that the trip would be around 90 minutes long. 90 MINUTES?? Yes, please. Shortly after, I got a message from the rider. “Hey the ride is to Tauranga, is that cool?” I wrote back “no problem”
Four minutes later I pulled up at intersection specified in the pitch black new moon night. “Tauranga?” I said “Really?”
“Yeah” he said getting into the back seat “Tired of hitch-hiking, I’ve been out here for hours”
“Oh man” I said “That’s rough. Hey do you want to request any music? Temperature okay for you? It’s a pretty long ride, just want to make sure you are all good.”
“It’s fine Miss” he said “I’ll be just fine. I have everything I need” He said it in a way that indicated he didn’t really want to talk, but was polite and soft-spoken at the same time. “All good” I said leaving my playlist on low and starting on the long ride.
As I drove, I heard him clicking his phone on and off as he checked messages. I thought to offer to charge his phone, but he had been so definite about being okay that I figured if he needed it he would ask. I mean, after hours hitch hiking it would be running low, right?
He relaxed into the back seat as he got warm. I was silent and focussed on the driving, especially as this wasn’t my usual patch. I focussed so hard that my eyes started to sting. As I drove, I felt anxiety start to ratchet up. I didn’t know why, perhaps it was the strange landscapes we passed – geological oddities, puffs of baby geysers or perhaps it was the silence.
Click. Click. Click went his phone on and off as he checked messages. Everything seemed strange and my thoughts were equally so. I tried to puzzle it out logically, but there was no logic to it. I was really uneasy, in the dark, with a silent man.
I looked in the rear view to find my eyes lock with his with an electric zzzzz shock. I looked away quickly, not really sure what I saw. A few minutes later he said “Will you be able to find another ride back?” I let out the breath I’d been holding and said “Well probably not but maybe I can work across Tauranga, then Rotorua and filter towards Taupo” “You can do that?” he asked.
“Well, if I get lucky, yeah maybe. I feel pretty lucky tonight so……”
I said with bravado and a forced smile.
As we approached Tauranga, I relaxed a little. Until we turned off to the address. He tried to explain how the GPS was wrong and to take this turn and that turn. At this point we are on a dark road, surrounded by two fields, no houses in sight and he says “I’ll get out here” “HERE?” I asked in a tension-tight high voice. “Here.” he said firmly. I stopped with relief and said “Okey Dokey” like the dork I am.
He gathered his stuff, got out and lit a cigarette and started walking. I pulled away but had no idea where I was. I was shaking, but didn’t know why. He was an ideal rider and paid quite a lot of money for that ride. What was my problem?
Needless to say I didn’t get any more rides that night – because the world’s loneliest Uber driver was the only driver on in the three towns of Tauranga, Rotorua and Taupo.
The next morning I was speaking with Julie, my kind and wonderful AirBnb host. I told her the story and how I couldn’t shake my uneasiness. She said “Sounds like he might have been institutionalised in some way, the way he said “Miss” It made sense to me.
In the dark, it’s hard to make out facial features. Hard to imagine someone’s height from the wheel of a car. Someone’s age. The light plays tricks. Lots of people share a name, and the abbreviation of a name. Like the name that took me to Tauranga was an abbreviated version of a name that was on NZ’s wanted to arrest list. It would be hard to tell if it was a true thing logically. But I knew.
I think you do too.