The Art of Grabbing A Cab in The Big Wide World.
Mon 24 Aug 09
A few days ago, I got into a cab here in Santiago for a quick, nine block dash to the Metro station. The ride would ostensibly take three minutes....
Twenty six minutes later, the cabbie and I leapt out of our respective doors and stared over the cab roof at each other with angry looks on our faces. The trip definitely did NOT go as planned......
When I was a kid, the idea of taking a cab was tantamount to being a high roller. My Dad thought cabs were a huge waste of money and instilled that in me. I read an article about London cabbies and their extensive training and encyclopedic knowledge of their city. I just assumed that this was the case in EVERY city. Cabs were for the rich, or the intelligencia, or something...Something, whatever it was, that I was not.
When I was 13 I started collecting comics, and I started with Amazing Spiderman 192. In it, Peter Parker takes a cab into the city, and the driver is a slovenly sort, rumpled and wearing a beat up newsie cap. He tries to run up the fare on ol' Pete, and our hero calls him on it. The cabbie's response, I remember clearly, is "Hey! I ain't tryin' ta rook ya, kid!" But Pete handles it. Spiderman showed me that cabbies could be lowlife rip off artists.
I don't remember my first local cab ride...lost in the mist.... But I remember my first foreign cab ride. None other than London, England. I couldn't get wait to get into one of those black clunky vehicles. I had visions of a guy in a suit saying things like "Good day to you Governor!" and "Where will it be, then, young sir?" It wasn't quite like that, but the man was personable, got me to where I was going efficiently, using a side street or two, maneuvering like the pro that he was. It was great.
My second was not so great - Caracas, Venezuela. I considered myself well travelled then with five different countries under my belt. I stood just inside the sliding opaque doors that lead from the safe haven of the country called “Airport” to any country in the world. I steeled myself, and went through. On the other side, the first people I saw were cab drivers. Every one of them had a laminated card that said “Tourist Information” clipped neatly to their lapels. The trouble was, no two of the cards were the same. I was ready for these guys, and just blasted through them. There is a second level to the Caracas airport, and I went up there to sit for fifteen minutes while the hooplah of a new flight full of tourists died down.
While I was up there, a fellow without a tourist badge came up to me and told me in broken English that he knew where to get a trustworthy cab. I bought his line, and followed him out, past the other cabs and into the parking lot. That was mistake number one. (A real cab gets the privilege of pulling up front. The shady operators live in the parking lot... hey, I was new!) The fellow got into the front passenger seat, and the driver started the car. (Mistake number two, and three. Two, if there are two people in the cab, don't get in, unless it's a colectivo. Three, I was getting a shifty feeling and rather than listen to it, I ignored it.... Never do that.)
Oh, I got to my hotel okay. I dropped my stuff. I felt confident that things were going to work out. The two guys were friendly enough and invited me to hang out with them. I spent six hours getting drunk (mistake four...Don't get drunk when you don't know where you are, or how to get back) as the driver drove us to different spots around the city, and the other guy led me into place after place. I never paid a cent, and never found out the price of anything. I actually picked up a girl, but she was shooed away. I was their pigeon to pluck, no free riders.
After the six hours, I was drunk lost and defenseless... Then they stopped the cab and got me out. The driver waited in the car while the other guy introduced me to two tough looking friends. He told me I owed him 400 hundred dollars, or I was going to get tuned up. I only had 200, and had just enough latent toughness not to let them force me to use the ATM they had stopped in front of.... A two hundred dollar lesson I told myself as I staggered down Avenida Sabana Grande at three in the morning towards what I hoped was my hotel.
Since then I've had my ups and downs with drivers. Some are great. Some are horrible. Some are honest, some are lowlife sleaze-buckets who deserve a solid kick in the 'nads with a steel-toed workboot. A guy once stopped and drove me out of a neighbourhood he didn't like for free...and then left me with a medialuna his wife had baked.... Another guy tried to charge me double because I had a backpack. Guys have led me to a good hotel that was cheap when I asked for an overpriced one I'd found in a stray guidebook.... Guys have taken me to broken down hovels when I asked for a decent low-priced option because they got a kickback from the owner.
So, I've developed rules for taxis..
Before you leave my fave country - the Airport - ask someone inside what the regular price of a cab is. Tourist info is fine, but try to ask a cleaner or security guard too. They'll have the lowdown, and now you have some ammo before you go through those magic doors.
The less a cab driver cares if I get into his cab, the more I want to get in.
Bring a compass. I am amazed that people don't do this. At least know the four cardinal points. Not just for cabs but for everything. You save yourself a ton of time on a winding street that started pointing North but now is heading East if you have one of these things.
The less a cab driver cares if I get into his cab, the more I want to get in. If a guy is reading a newspaper on the hood and only begrudgingly gets into the driver's seat....that is my favourite guy. He's not trying to put the moves on me.
Keep a Weather Eye. You're in a new place. Look around for landmarks. If only to see whether you see it twice in the same cab ride.
Seem confident, (even if you ain't) Sit forward, Be squinty and look dubious. Cock an eyebrow every now and again. Make 'em think you won't buy their act, if, indeed they have one.
Check for a meter, make sure they use it. If a cabbie has a meter, the only reason he's going to negotiate a fare is so he comes out ahead. And how are you going to adequately negotiate with no information or local knowledge?
Do your best to know where you're going. If you've reserved a hotel ahead of time, ask the hotel dude(tte) for a local TALL landmark so you have something to shoot for...and you can tell the cabbie that the place is near this landmark, implying you have local knowledge, making you seem informed, and giving the cabbie something to shoot for, because.....
Cabbies don't always know where they're going! It is a myth that cabbies are knowledgeable about the place they patrol. Don't expect a cabbie to know about that cool little hole in the wall down some side street that you heard about online. Half of them are lucky if they know where City Hall is.
If you're in a cab, and the cabbie stops to pick up "my friend" get out. The guy may the cabbie's friend. It may all be on the up and up and they may think you're a goof for getting out. You can live with their low opinion of you....if you get to live.
Don't be afraid to say NO. The guy is working for you. If he's doing something you don't like, tell him to stop, or get out.
If it feels wrong, it is. Don't second guess that feeling. It may be way off, but better safe than sorry.
Friendly and grinning and funny doesn't mean Safe. In fact, I prefer bemused quiet and altogether ambivalent in my cab driver.
AND on a comfort note....If you are in a hot climate, and you are sweating buckets, and need respite...Wave at the cab with the closed windows...A sure sign of air con, kids.
...So there we were staring over the roof at each other. I wasn't mad, in fact I was amused. The cab driver had given me the "run-around" Drove me all over the place, at one point taking me around a roundabout four times. Had driven North, East, South, West, and then back North before back tracking East to the Metro. I'd seen it all, and even though I was late, I was having fun. I took out some big bills as the ride got more expensive on the meter, and let the driver see them. He thought I was buying his trick. I was hoping he'd turn and say, in broken English "I ain't tryin' ta rook ya kid!"
The driver wasn't really mad. I'd paid him what the trip would have cost if he'd played it straight. But you have to play the act.
We looked at each other for about ten seconds. Then the driver shrugged and got back into his cab. I waved and headed to the Metro. We had just wasted each other´s time. I screwed the driver out of about two fifty worth of gas. Just 197.50 left to go before I get even for Caracas.