Professional drivers around the world often spend long hours with their vehicles. Cars become the home away from home, and many drivers understandably end up personalising them. While GPS navigators, speed track detectors, diffusers and air fresheners deck the dashboards of the more upmarket cars, there are others around the world full of unselfconscious décor that might resemble a religious shrine or a souvenir shop. The hanging of single pendants from rear-view mirrors is the most popular trend by far, and before long, I actively began noticing the objects on my travels. Not only did the totems reveal what was close to the drivers’ hearts, they also proved to be a natural spur for conversations. The leanings, interests and spiritual beliefs and difficulties faced by taxi drivers reveal a lot about the folks of the region at large. As they hear a lot of news on the go and talk to a variety of passengers, they tend to be well informed with thoughtful opinions. They also tend to have some familiarity with languages and often love to engage with their clients to air their thoughts. Many can be surprisingly forthright – the cosy chamber of one’s own vehicle is a great lubricant for pouring-out those innermost feelings.
As driving can be dangerous, the most commonly hung objects are those that are perceived to bring good luck (and safety), or ward off the evil eye. Horseshoes, fluffy dice, rabbit’s feet and sprigs of four-leafed clover (each side symbolising faith, hope, luck and love) are often seen in the USA and Canada, as bearers of good fortune. The dreamcatchers of the Chippewa native Indians have become a popular symbol (and pendant) as they are deemed to trap all nightmares in their webbed ring.
In India, Ganesh, the elephant deity is favoured for he is considered an obstacle remover. Truck drivers in India often dangle a single black shoe from the body of the vehicle to ward off the evil eye. A string of chillies and a lemon too is considered potent protection against malevolent forces.
The hand of Fatima (Prophet Mohammed’s daughter) is considered to be a protective symbol representing the five pillars of Islam, and can be seen in cabs across the Middle-East and the North-African region known as the Maghreb.
In Turkey and Greece, blue glass discs that look like an ocular stare are meant to dispel any nazar, or evil-eye, caused by jealousy. In Egypt, the eye of Horus, known as the wadjer, is yet another eye-symbol that is believed to protect a person against ill-wishers.
In China, drivers like to strengthen their good chi (life force) by hanging auspicious objects such as the bright-red, tasselled, mystic knots of happiness and eternity. Lucky coin trios, ceramic figurines of dragons, koi carp and lanterns become the focal-points of cabs.
Of the Japanese omamori (lucky charms), the maneki neko (beckoning cat) is the ubiquitous talisman seen in shop windows. Drivers too, prop them on the dash-board in the hope that they will entice plentiful customers. The cat’s waving hand sways endlessly, nudged by the moving vehicle.
In Sao Paolo, Brazil, my taxi driver explained that the clutch of colourful ribbons called fitinhas hung in his car were blessings from the Senhor do Bomfim church in Bahia. Each one was knotted three times, as a wish was made, and when they eventually broke off, the wishes would come true.
Faith in the curative properties of natural crystals makes them potent carry-ons. In a car ride in Cuenca, Ecuador a driver gave me a lesson on the various elements. “Moonstone will make you stable from deep within, get a citrine if you want money, and rose quartz if you’re looking for love. Me, I want protection from crazy drivers so I choose turquoise.”
Wearing one’s religion on one’s vehicle is a popular way to show spiritual and cultural affiliation. Buddha statues in Myanmar, the Star of David in Israel, rosaries in Greece, and crosses on delicate chains in Portugal embellish the vehicles. The successful missions of Hanuman, the flying monkey deity from the Ramayana, makes him a popular car-companion in India.
Drivers all over take comfort from the playing-card sized images of saints, gods and goddesses to see them through their daily travails. Statuettes of the Virgin Mary are particularly popular with Christian drivers. In parts of Iran, especially in the ancient town of Yazd, Ahura Mazda, the winged god of the Zoroastrians takes pride of place in the focal point of vehicles.
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, elaborately designed Coptic crosses made of metal filigree and hung from ribbons clang against each other like victory medals.
Driving up the rugged Altai Mountains in Mongolia to stay with a family of Kazakh eagle hunters, I noticed delicate white feathers with slightly jagged, black lines across them hung on the rear-view mirror. When asked what they were, the driver revealed something extraordinary – they were feathers of the snowy owl, and they were of particular spiritual importance as they resembled the pages of the Quran.
Drivers of safari vehicles in Africa, India, Borneo and other places with plentiful wildlife sometimes hold on to found objects as educational tools and I’ve seen children, in particular, thrill to the close inspection of things such as a porcupine quill, a shed snake skin, a fallen baobab flower, a deer antler or a peacock feather brought out from its perch on the rear-view mirror.
National pride is often close to the heart of taxi-drivers. They may be driving in another country, as a Kyrgyzstani in Russia, a Malawian in South Africa, or a Haitian in Mexico, yet they offer themselves as unofficial representatives of their own nations, and the flags they display reveal their allegiance. An overly-enthusiastic cabbie in St. Lucia in the Caribbean had not just painted the motif of the country’s flag on the entire body, the interior too was doused in blue, yellow, black and white on the seats, mats and matching wheel cover.
National cultural symbols are often the favoured décor. My rides have been enlivened by a miniature Swedish dela horse, a Hawaiian lei, a Mexican sombrero hat and a Papuan pig woven from jute. They’ve been scented with fresh mogra flowers in Madras, a frankincense-doused handkerchief in Oman, dried lavender potpourri in London. In Thailand, a phuang malai, an elaborate paper garland, was sprayed with jasmine scent just as the meter kicked in.
Often there are personal objects that represent the emotional attachments of the drivers. I’ve come across baby’s first booties, amulets, Christmas trees, football team banners, military dog-tags and carved pagodas.
Once, in New York, hung in a traditional yellow medallion cab was a miniature yellow cab. It was a poignant reminder of a dying breed of disrupted vehicles, propped up to highlight the cause the driver was fighting for.
Follow Geetika Jain’s travels on her Instagram (@geetikaforest)