Taxi Drivers: You Wouldn’t Believe The Stuff They See

If you usually only take a taxi while peacefully commuting around town, you might not realize that taxi drivers are thankful when passengers like you get in the car. Why? Because they spend a good chunk of their time driving crazy, drunk, ill-willed, or otherwise kind of scary people around. VICE, bless their heart, recently did a piece focusing on some of the ridiculous things taxi drivers have experienced –- and a drunk person puking in the car doesn’t even make the list. These are stories of getaway cars for bank robberies, death threats, near-fatal accidents and full-on backseat brawls. Check out the full story here.

Robbed By Cab Drivers In Nicaragua And Chicago In The Same Week?

Where the hell is Camilo?

Those were the words that I kept repeating to myself, sometimes replacing the word “hell” with more sinister, unpublishable expletives. I was sitting in the Rancho Marsella restaurant at Playa Marsella, a remote beach that is 20 minutes down a dirt track from San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, wondering where Camilo, a local cab driver who had taken us to the beach and had my $1,200 camera in his trunk, had gone.

Camilo had told me that he planned to hang out at the beach and would be ready to take us back to our hotel whenever we were ready. He seemed eminently trustworthy, so I didn’t think twice about stowing my Nikon D7000 in his trunk after I had taken a few photos of the empty crescent shaped beach.

After an hour of lounging in the beach’s only tiny patch of shade with a group of Italian backpackers, I went to the beachfront restaurant to use the bathroom and noticed that Camilo wasn’t around. I assumed that he must have gone for a walk or a swim, but an hour later when we returned for lunch and saw that he still wasn’t there, I checked the parking lot and saw that his car was gone.


No one at the restaurant knew where he went or had his phone number. I had his phone number written in my notebook, which also had all my notes for the stories I planned to write, but that was inside my camera case – in his trunk. I knew his name but had no idea where he lived or what his license plate number was. We were too far from town, down a brutal, rutted track, for him to try to pick up other fares, and he had explicitly stated that he wasn’t going to leave the beach. Was Camilo off taking photos with his new camera somewhere?

I started to panic and curse myself. Bringing a $1,200 camera to a beach in a poor country like Nicaragua is a bad idea, but as a writer, I take my camera everywhere because you need good photos to accompany stories. Still, why had I given him the temptation of leaving the camera in his trunk? There were no more than a half dozen people on the huge beach, so even if I was in the water, what was the chance it would be stolen?

“He’ll come back,” said Jen, my wife. “He probably got bored sitting around.”

I hoped she was right but feared she was wrong. He wouldn’t be able to get $1,200 for my camera, but its value still probably represented a few months work for him. And something Camilo said on the ride to Marsella stuck in my mind. “We are poor people here in Nicaragua,” he said. The words just kept rattling around in my head. We are poor people.

After 15 or 20 minutes of fretting, one of the guys at the restaurant suggested that Camilo might have gone a mile or two up the road to watch a youth baseball game. But we had passed that game on the way to the beach and when I asked Camilo if he liked baseball, he said “no.”

Still, it was worth a try, and one of the men at the restaurant drove down to the game on his moped and five minutes later, returned with Camilo, who looked aggrieved. I have never been so relieved to see a taxi driver in my life.

“I just went down to check out the game,” he said.

I told him that there was no problem but clearly the guy on the moped must have explained that I looked pissed off because Camilo sat on a step near the bar looking angry while we ordered drinks. I bought him a drink but I could tell he was hurt by the fact that I had doubted him.

On the way back to town, he pointed out his house, a typically humble, working class affair that had a small store attached, and said, “That’s where I live.” He might well have added, “I may not be rich, but I am not a thief.”

Over the next few days, Camilo drove us on a few more outings – to Granada, the ferry to Ometepe and around town – and I even had a chance to visit his home and meet his son, Camilo Jr. (see photo). We became friends and I came to realize that he’s an honest man. My fear that because he came from a poor country he might seize the opportunity to take my camera was unfounded and wrong.

Five days later, we encountered a similar situation upon our return home to Chicago, but this time, Jen and I reversed roles. After a long, grueling day of travel from Granada, Nicaragua, to Chicago, via Houston, our little boys were asleep in the cab when we arrived home at 11 p.m. We were dressed for summer and the temperature outside was below freezing, so Jen and I decided to carry one sleeping child each into their beds and then return to the cab to get our baggage.

But by the time I got back outside after delivering my 3-year-old into his bed, our driver, a young man who appeared to be from East Africa, had what looked like all of our baggage out on the sidewalk and was getting ready to pull away. He mumbled something along the lines of “You’re all set,” and pulled out, just as my wife was bounding into the driveway warning that she had left her backpack and purse in the backseat.

I hadn’t realized that not all of our baggage was in the trunk and apparently our driver didn’t either but it was too late, he was gone. My wife had her work laptop, our passports, her driver’s license, cash, credit cards and more in the bags he had just driven off with.

Jen was on the verge of tears because only some of her work documents were backed up and the loss of this computer would be catastrophic for her. I recalled the young man’s name and we had an emailed receipt from him in my inbox. My wife wracked her brain and thought she remembered the name of the taxi company – Choice Taxi – but wasn’t 100% sure.

We called Choice and the dispatcher initially seemed less than helpful. She claimed that she had no list of company drivers and, even with the guy’s name and a description of the car, she was unable to confirm if he worked for them. She promised to make an announcement over their radio for him to contact her but said that since it was Friday night and their office was closed, we might have to wait until Monday, when the owner would be available, to track the driver down.

My wife kept calling her back every 30 minutes, pleading with her to make more announcements while I researched the cab situation at O’Hare airport. There are dozens of companies, perhaps more than 100, and without a cab number or license plate, trying to find a specific driver is like looking for a needle in a haystack. We called the police and all they could do was offer to take a report for insurance purposes. We found a website where you can email a complaint about a cab driver but that was it.

By 1 a.m., after we had waited two hours for the driver to respond to his dispatcher or return to our house, we called to cancel all our credit cards. My wife felt certain that the driver or perhaps a subsequent passenger had decided to pocket her stuff. But I felt like we’d get our things back. We knew the guy’s name, after all, so he wouldn’t risk his job to steal a laptop, passports and credit cards. And most people who are getting into a cab are unlikely to turn into thieves just because they see some valuable items on the floor of the cab.

Our prayers were answered at 1:30 a.m. when the dispatcher called us back to say that Yosief had (finally!) responded to her calls over their radio system.

“Please tell him to bring us our things tonight,” I begged. “We’ll give him a reward.”

We were overjoyed but also shattered from exhaustion and worry. Nonetheless, we stayed up until Yosief finally arrived at our home at 2:30 a.m.

All of our belongings were intact and I thanked Yosief, who said he was from Eritrea, profusely. I resisted the urge to ask him why he hadn’t responded to the radio calls sooner and felt I probably knew anyway – he spent most of our ride from the airport on the phone and was probably similarly preoccupied while my wife was crying and fretting over her laptop.

I asked Yosief if I could take his photo but he held the reward envelope up over his face and declined.

“That would not be good for me,” he said.

What did we learn from these incidents? Most taxi drivers, even poor ones, are honest. But it’s still a good idea to jot down a license plate number or cab number and know what company you are patronizing when you get into a taxi. And it’s an even better idea to back up your computer as often as possible.

Note: Camilo put the fear of God into me at Marsella Beach, but he charges very fair prices, speaks fluent English and is an honest, trustworthy person. If you want to hire him to drive you around while in Nicaragua, please contact him at (505) 886-72336.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

The World According To A Costa Rican Cab Driver

I would never think of getting in a cab in my hometown of Chicago and asking for a lift to Indianapolis, Iowa City or Milwaukee. But when I’m outside the U.S. without a rental car, I sometimes resort to long-distance taxi rides as a way of getting from point A to point B. On a recent trip to Costa Rica I took a three-hour taxi ride from Heredia, near San Jose, to Manuel Antonio National Park and two more long rides to get from Manuel Antonio to Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula after failing to find a reasonable car rental.

Costa Rica is blessed with incredible natural beauty. It has 26 national parks with a ridiculous array of wildlife and every type of natural terrain you can imagine, from beaches to volcanoes to mountains and more. But like any country, it has some grubby areas as well and while driving in the outskirts of San Jose, I couldn’t help but wonder why so many homes and businesses had barbed wire fences.

“You can buy drugs really cheap here,” said Mario, my 36-year-old taxi driver, when I asked him what was up with all the barbed wire. “Drug addicts need to feed their habits so they steal and people are afraid.”I was surprised to hear that drugs were cheap because it seemed like everything in Costa Rica was expensive.

“You can get some drugs here for like a dollar,” he said.

“Drugs for a buck, what kind?” I asked.

“Crack,” he said.

I was confused by the cut-rate Costa Rican crack but also a little perplexed as to why there were white horses tied up outside tiny, very humble looking urban homes that seemed to have no real space for animals.

“The people like to take their horses into town and show them off for parades,” Mario said, explaining the phenomenon.

Mario spent a huge amount of time fiddling with his mobile phone and I resisted the urge to ask him to concentrate on the road. Eventually I realized that he was trying to stream Toy Story 3 for my children, who were sitting in the back seat of the minivan. My sons were excited to hear Buzz and Woody at an ear-splitting volume but they couldn’t really see the movie from their vantage point on his little phone and quickly lost interest.

As we barreled southbound on the highway, Mario kept fiddling with his phone until he found a song he liked. Sadly, it turned out to be John Waite’s truly reprehensible, “I Ain’t Missing You (At All).”

And it’s my heart that’s breaking down this long-distance line tonight.
I ain’t missing you at all
Since you’ve been gone away.
I ain’t missing you
No matter what my friends say.

He was humming it and tapping his fingers on the steering wheel to its loathsome rhythm and when I noticed that my wife was sleeping and both my boys were entranced in a movie on our Kindle, I decided to nod off myself, hoping to avoid more American power ballads.

I woke up in a town called Jaco to Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love (But It’s Over Now).” The earworm stayed in my head for days.

After DJ Mario played Gangnam Style for us, he told me he learned English working as a waiter on cruise ships. It was good money, by Costa Rican standards, but he worked at least 12 hours a day for 9 months at a time with no days off.

“You can’t even really meet girls,” he said as we motored through a stretch of road that was encircled by dense palm oil plants. “But when you get into the ports, well, you have to do something.”

He signed his first contract without telling his wife he was leaving the country, just days before he leaving town. She was annoyed but got over it. But after four years, once he had saved up enough money to buy a house, he decided it was time to move back to Costa Rica.

“I only needed a little big of money,” he said. “I don’t need to get rich.”

As we approached Quepos, the nearest town to Manuel Antonio, we saw derelict men sleeping off hangovers on benches, lobster-shaded gringos walking on the side of the road with next to no clothing on, and a host of signs advertising surf schools, lodges, adventure tours and even a “gentleman’s club.”

“They got a choice of girls,” Mario explained. “Costa Rican, Colombians, and plenty of Nicaraguans.”

Mario said that Costa Ricans are getting a little soft and there are tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans in the country doing the jobs Costa Ricans supposedly don’t want.

I asked him about Laura Chinchilla, the country’s (first) female president.

“She changes her mind too much and she’s not very powerful,” he said. “But at least she’s honest.”

We caught a few tantalizing glimpses of the Pacific, dotted with a few rocky little islands, and as we pulled up in front of our hotel, Mario handed us his business card.

“I’ll come back and drive you anywhere in the country you want to go,” he said. It made no sense to me at all, but I just thanked him. As he drove off, I wondered what his profit margin on our $150 fare was. And I wondered what horrible American power ballads he planned to blast on the way back to San Jose.

[Photo credit: twicepix on Flickr]

Bangkok Taxi Drivers Will Be Nice Now, Promise

Bangkok’s taxi drivers are a picky bunch. In the past, tell a Bangkok taxi driver that you want to go someplace they don’t like and they simply refused to go there. Giving taxi drivers, in general, a bad name, passengers often were over charged when it came time to pay the fare too. Now, thousands of Bangkok taxi drivers have pledged not to refuse service to passengers in a campaign aimed to reduce complaints.

Aptly called Taxi Jai Dee (means kind, good hearted in Thai) the program was initiated by the Royal Thai Police this week and runs through the 2014 New Year holiday week. More than 2,000 volunteer cab drivers have promised not to refuse service to passengers and to charge fares based on the taxicab’s meter for both local and foreign passengers alike.

Under Thailand’s 1979 Land Traffic Act violators face a maximum fine of 1,000 baht (U.S. $39), 15-day seizure of their driving license and deduction of 20 driving points.

That said, Bangkok taxi drivers want passengers to be fined for violent acts committed and want video cameras installed in every taxi cab.
Last year, three taxi drivers were murdered by their passengers in Bangkok. This week, three passengers attacked 53-year-old taxi driver Boonchuay Thongtae in Thawi Watthana, one of the 50 districts of Bangkok.

Taking a taxi in Bangkok any time soon? Check these tips:

[Photo Credit – Flickr user dominiqueb]

Taxi driver boycott of cruise ships a sign of the times

In Victoria, B.C. Alaska cruise season has just begun but Victoria taxi companies did not exactly roll out the welcome mat for recently all-inclusive Crystal Symphony earlier this week. Seeking a reduction in the annual charge they pay to service the cruise lines, taxi drivers boycotted the ship, refusing to pick up passengers.

The Greater Victoria Taxi Association is at odds with the port authority over the $200 per cab annual fee and wants it reduced. The port authority says the fee is reasonable, every transportation company pays it and that collected fees go towards safety improvements. The taxi association says business is down and fewer ships coming this year means less income for them.

In a recovering, adjusting worldwide economy, things are changing from cruise lines re-deploying ships as demand changes right down on street-level and the taxi cab companies that service cruise ships.

While the $200 annual fee may seem reasonable, cab companies may be going after a reduction to make up for lost income elsewhere.

“In most markets, the average spending per passenger is probably down five to 10 per cent … from pre-recession levels. The recession has had the impact of reducing aggregate spending by cruise passengers” Andrew Moody, president of Pennsylvania-based Business Research and Economic Advisors (BREA) told the Vancouver Sun.

Earlier this month, taxi drivers in Thailand blocked two busloads of passengers from Silversea’s Silver Spirit. Headed out for tours from the Phuket deep sea port, four hours passed before taxi drivers agreed on a 50/50 split between taxi and bus transportation.

This ongoing dispute here finds it’s root with government officials who have failed to find a solution. In an effort to avoid confrontation, high fares and almost no regulation have taken control.

Regardless of the reason, having a cab available to pick up passengers has always been something taken for granted. Passengers get off the ship. Cabs are waiting. Off they go.

Cruise lines have a lot of different elements that go into creating a good travel experience for passengers. Some they have control over, others not so much. It will be interesting to see how other economic factors affect the cruise experience as we watch the cruise industry mature.

Flickr photo by Guwashi999

Related Stories