The car icon is slowly moving towards the blue dot. The car is three kilometres away, entering Model Town and moving slower than a bicycle. I am the blue dot. When the car gets to the green location pin I’ll get a message from Careem, “Your captain is here.” Like, I’m ferrying across to Iran.
I’ve been watching the drama unfold on Google Maps — will he make a wrong turn, will he miss my house, have I put in the location for my khala’s place instead? It’s riveting.
Most captains know how to use the Google Maps, although every so often you get one who was sleeping through training and asks you to guide him the old-fashioned way, with plenty of heres and theres and when you see this and that. Personally, I prefer the old-fashioned way: How else can you head for Model Town and end up at Minar-e-Pakistan.
Careem has been doing business since 2012 but it feels like it’s been around forever. It’s a car-booking service started by Magnus Olsson and Mudassir Sheikh, a Scandinavian and a Punjabi. It has a downloadable application for smartphones that lets you book cars with just the press of a few buttons, without the hassle of explaining directions. It claims to operate in 55 cities across the Middle East now, and has a lot of coverage across Pakistan.
I was working in Karachi when I first heard of Careem. I thought it would be expensive considering the kind of cars they were using. Then I took it to work a couple of times and my life was transformed, and I’m not saying this because Careem paid me to. Although I wish they had.
Taxi drivers in Karachi want a small fortune to take you anywhere; like a part of your inheritance, your life savings maybe. Rickshaw drivers are no better. Firstly, they are all Punjabi there so they play the oh-you’re-our-brother card, then say they would never charge their brother too much, and then charge their brother too much.
Careem offered cheap rates, convenience and discretion, in that I didn’t have to go out on the street to hail a ride. This last part is especially convenient for women. All the women I know who don’t drive now avail a Careem. My mother drives but sometimes she’s gone someplace with a friend and will happily take a Careem back home.
My captain’s name is Tariq Mahmood. He’s clean shaven. That’s always a relief. My experiences with bearded captains involve being subjected to sermons on the stereo. I believe I know enough about it, and would rather have some music in the car.
Our ride is uneventful. Which is rare. I suffer from a neuropathic condition so I have to recline my seat all the way to be able to ‘sit’. This brings questions about what’s wrong with me, and then potential reasons for my ailment. Black magic, evil eye, too much sex, not enough dairy in my diet, too much dairy in my diet, sitting in front of a desk too long, and literally a sign of the impending Armageddon!
The captains themselves are from diverse backgrounds. They are not exactly working class people. Obviously they are not English speaking, socially upper class either. Some of them speak patchy English. Some of them are university graduates — MPhils, MBAs, ACCAs. Some of them are using borrowed cars from places they work at, to make some money on the side. Some of them are small business owners. I once met a man who ran a travel agency and specialised in getting visas for Dubai. Business must have been slow enough to drive a cab as well.
The kind of captain you get depends on your luck. Some are very courteous to the point where you feel like inviting them in for a cup of tea. Others, well. I’ll recount an anecdote. Once my captain was this very large man who was filling his seat and still spilling over on either side. He was Pashtun. We were in Islamabad. Nawaz Sharif had just been deposed as prime minister, so I asked him how he felt about that. He said that Sharif had been victimised. And that Imran Khan was a dunce, and the army was just grabbing more power for itself. I was a little taken aback by the ferocity with which these opinions were delivered.
He then told me that his brother had been shot by a colonel and the case was still ongoing seven years to date because the colonel used his military clout to get the hearings postponed.
The trainings at Careem can be improved. They can at least agree upon some standardised behaviour towards passengers. One captain asked me if I could please start the ride on his app for him because it was his first day. Most captains I’ve met who work the graveyard shift were simultaneously doing day jobs and were visibly exhausted; red eyes, slouched shoulders, slow speech.
The captains say that rides themselves don’t make them any money; it’s the bonuses associated with the number of rides they pick up that do. Most say they make anything from Rs50,000-80,000 a month. But because of the rush for rides to make bonuses it becomes very competitive and stressful out in the field. I’ve had two Careem captains show up at the same time both claiming I’m their ride.
I’ve also had Careem drivers refuse to take my ride because my location was showing Jinnah International Airport. A long drive is no use to a captain; he would rather make three or four short drop-offs in the time it takes to get to the airport. Because that’s where the money is.
Most women who use Careem are happy with it and say it offers them the kind of mobility that wasn’t available before; they’re independent now, they don’t have to wait for someone to pick or drop them off. But some of them have had bad experiences. There was the story a few weeks ago about a captain who parked his car in the middle of nowhere and started showing pornography on his phone to the terrified woman in the backseat. Careem apologised and fired the driver the next day but that isn’t any solace to the woman who’s gone through the trauma. Or others who fear they might. My friend always has people track her rides, just in case. Because in this country ‘just in case’ can mean very bad things.
Women also don’t like how captains keep trying to start a conversation when they don’t wish to be talked to. That violates Careem’s policy but the company seems to do little about it. Careem’s marketing gimmicks have been hit or miss too. They made Wasim Akram their CEO for a day. Then they had two days of offering a Rishta Aunty, a professional matchmaker who sits in the backseat with women, asking their preferences and promising to get back to them with a suitable guy. This got enormous backlash online, as it should have. Women who took up the offer complained that the driver was listening in on the conversation between the women and the professional matchmaker, and sometimes even joined in to make things more awkward.
Recently, they had their Qurbani Service, offering to bring a goat to your doorstep, so you don’t have to go the mandi (market). Both promotions seem sardonically similar: marriage and qurbani (sacrifice).
One thing I’ll say from personal experience is that when you take all these complaints to Careem’s customer service, they will address them in a timely and courteous manner. It’s about as good a customer service as I’ve experienced in Pakistan.