Taxis of the World

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Taking a taxi ride is an instant way to form some conclusions about a place. In Beijing, for example, I was assaulted by a silent driver and Chinese rap song that kept going on and on and on.for about 100 minutes. China, it seems, is embracing the rhythms of western economics and culture faster than China’s leaders would like to admit. In a similar musical assault in Brazil a few years ago, Brazilian pop blasted through a torn speaker in back of me as the cabbie blew kisses at young women we passed.who completely ignored this Latin Lothario.

The rhythm is quite different where I live. I live north of San Francisco in a little town called Mill Valley, a place that was once satirized as the epicenter of flaky California culture. There are still cabins in the woods here that have yet to be razed to build mega-mansions. These are still occupied by ’70s dropouts.who also happen to be cab drivers. Most of them are quite talkative: too chirpy at 5:30 in the morning when you are headed to the airport. One told me about a new, perfectly legal hallucinogenic he had tried and outlined his business plan for marketing it.

Can’t afford a grand world tour? Riding New York taxicabs is probably more culturally enriching. And now, in the new Guaillianified New York, most drivers are downright nice. A couple of months ago, a cabbie from Ethiopia gave me the detailed story of his life, his family, his retirement goals. Because he picked us up at the Guggenheim, he shared reviews of the exhibition he had gotten from other passengers. He did all of this in about 20 blocks. Imagine, you have to go to York to find normal, these days.

In some countries it is always a challenge to not get cheated by taxi drivers. I made a deal with a driver in Macau once who was extremely friendly and helpful. Only later did I realize that I had gotten mixed up with my zeros and had paid ten times the going rate. Last week, officials in Korea announced that they would put mobile speakerphones in cabs in Seoul connected to translators to eliminate language mix-ups. Fine, but most of the drivers I have experienced in Seoul know English when they want to: almost all of them have tried to take me for a ride. One stopped the cab twice and screamed at me to get out — once on a busy thoroughfare with no place to walk — because I refused to pay his outrageous fare. I had taken the route many times so I knew the going price. This was not the only incident. Seoul cab drivers, in my opinion, are the worst in the world.

In Greece, taxi fares are very low so I, in a way, sympathize with drivers. It is not easy to get a cab in Athens, especially one to yourself, as they operate like busses, picking up other passengers along the route. Once I was lucky enough to flag one down, I hopped in and we drove off. The driver, of course, didn’t turn on the meter. When I asked him to, he shouted an outrageous fare. I started to bargain, dropping to half. He screamed “no,” refusing to budge. This went back and forth until we reached our destination. I got out and pealed off a couple thousand drachmas.not his offer but something in between. He picked up the wad of bills, looked at it, yelled “You insult me,” threw the onto the street and drove off. I had ridden for free.

Often, the airport taxi hustle is the first experience you have with a place. Do a little research before you go on a trip. Some of the better travel guides such as Lonely Planet have taxi tips. The national tourist offices of many countries are also helpful. It is in their interest to have happy travelers. Luckily, many airports now have information desks that provide honest information about transportation. Just avoid the people waiting for you outside of immigration that are just too eager to help. Be wary people with official-looking cards and badges as well. Those can be phony.

My weirdest exchange with a cab driver happened in Boise, Idaho. I worked late with a business colleague preparing for a seminar we had the next morning. Around midnight I grabbed a taxi back to my hotel. “Hi, how are you?” beamed the young driver. “Tired,” I mumbled, hoping that he would get the hint. “Oh, why?” he asked. “Working”, I grumbled. “What were you working on?” I gave in, “Tomorrow I have to give a three hour speech…ya know…like Fidel Castro does.” “Oh gee,” he said. “I’m sure glad you’re not him. If ya were we’d have to kill ya.”

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