Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Universal Four Letter Word.

Someone once asked me, what is a four letter word that is the same in every country. My first response was food (you can see my priority), but after a short pause, I realized the word was Taxi. It doesn’t matter where you go, if you say taxi, you invariably have yourself a car and driver at your disposal. What comes after you get in the taxi, may vary from country to country or city to city.

A ride in a taxi may seem like a trivial thing to write about, but it’s a huge part of the whole travel experience. Its usually your first introduction and first impression to a new country. Taxis' can be a source of local information, where to eat, shop or what to see. It can also be a source of stress and anxiety that may cause frequent gripping of the door handle so tightly your knuckles turn white. Specifically, this might occur when your cabby (wanna be formula 1 racer) drives double the speed limit, zig zags in and out of traffic, barely stops at the stop signs, and oh yeah, you don’t have a seat belt.

One of my very worst taxi experiences occurred during the second month I started working as a Quality Assurance Auditor (a.k.a Food inspector) for airline kitchens. It happened in October 2005 in Rome, Italy. I had just landed at Fiumicino airport from an 11 hour flight from NRT-Tokyo at around 9pm. After collecting my baggage I went outside and grabbed the first taxi I saw. My hotel was located in the city center, near Vatican City, and I had no clue how much the taxi cost would be. When we got to my hotel, the price on the meter read 90 euros! I only had about 50 euros on me (the price the taxi should have been, how he fudged the meter I don’t know) but I didn’t know any better. I asked if he took credit card, but of course he didn’t. So we stopped by an ATM machine, so I could take out more money. My laptop bag was in the back seat, and I never thought to take it with me while I took out money. So, after I paid him and asked for a receipt, I tried to turn the light on, but he said it didn’t work. I got out of the taxi, and immediately realized my laptop bag was lighter. I shouted a few obscenities as you can only imagine, but he was gone, and I didn’t get his cab number. The cherry on top of it all, was when I realized he had given me a fake receipt. It read Chica Chica Boom Boom Lap Dancing club. I guess you can say I got screwed twice, he took my laptop and charged me double. But at least I got a free lap dance!

My biggest gripe about taxi drivers is that for a profession that is based on driving people around, they sometimes don’t have maps, cell phones, or are incapable of listening to verbal instructions given either by myself or the hotel (when I don’t speak the local language). I remember a time in South Africa, where I had written instructions that told the driver when to turn left and right on street names, and he still went the wrong way. Other drivers would stop half a dozen times to ask for directions, meanwhile I am being charged by the minute for their in aptitude to listen to instructions.

I get particularly annoyed with taxi drivers in Montreal, Quebec because the taxi drivers hate taking credit card as a method of payment. It clearly states at the airport taxi stand that they take credit card. But, they always try to get you to pay cash, and make a huge deal about taking out there little credit card machine. Of course they make sure to keep the meter running while they slowly take it out of the glove compartment, and try to find a pen.

Another interesting taxi experience was in China, specifically Beijing, Dalian and Xian. The taxi drivers do not speak any English, and you must give them cards written in Chinese so you can find your way to tourist spots, or your hotel. I have actually managed to haggle the price a bit in Chinese, with my Mandarin vocabulary consisting of 20 words. (Basically I asked how much was the price, said it was too expensive, and gave him my price). Sadly, sitting in traffic inhaling fumes, listening to all the cars honk their horns like mad, (even if no one can go anywhere, and honking is futile) can really dampen that Zen feeling. Also, for some reason the taxi drivers think they have a right to be fussy about their fares. I once flagged down a taxi in Beijing to take me to my hotel, but he told me to get out because the ride was too short, and I was at least 30 minutes walking distance from my hotel. How can no money be better than a little bit of money? I hope they give the taxi drivers a little etiquette 101 before the Olympics start in 2008.

To be completely fair, I have had some novel experiences with taxis. For instance, in Japan the drivers where cute little white cotton gloves, and in Cyprus, your regular cab is a Mercedes and not a Ford of Hyundai like in Canada. In Venezuela, my cab driver knew that I liked the music group Aventura that he was playing, so he pumped up the music, and actually gave me his C.D. I have also had a lot of good conversations with taxi drivers, about their country, about my country, the world and politics.

Unfortunately, I think its human nature to remember the bad things more than we remember the good things. Maybe its because they make for better stories, I mean who wants to hear about the really polite driver, that drove the speed limit, and charged you a fair price? Boring. I don’t for a second think that they have an easy job, as a driver, you have to have a lot of patience dealing with customers, other drivers and traffic. So I respect them. All I ask for in return is that you get me to my destination in one piece, that you don’t screw me over too badly, and you leave my laptop alone.

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