World Savvy: International taxi tips

One of my linguistic goals in life is to know Brazilian Portuguese well enough to be able to talk with cab drivers in Rio de Janeiro who speak with a Carioca accent, which is much different from anything else I have heard.

On my first trip to Rio, I spoke a version of Portuñol (a blend of Spanish and Portuguese) and wanted to go to the Regente, where I would be staying for a couple of weeks. It was right on Avenida Atlantica on Copacabana beach, not a really famous hotel like the Copacabana Palace, but well known enough.

Very tired from a long flight from Miami, and anxious to get to my beachfront hotel, I got into the cab and asked to go to hotel “Regente” pronouncing it Ray gen tay.

No response from the cabbie, who just shrugged his shoulders.

I tried again, adding “Avenida Atlantica.”

Still no response. Ok, one more time: “Hotel Regente, Avenida Atlantica, Copacabana.”

Finally he got it and said “Ah, Hotel Hay gench.” Hay gench is a long way from Ray gen tay but is still a reminder that you have to figure out the cultural and linguistic lexicon of cabbies wherever you go if you want to be world savvy — or just get to your destination.

In Beijing, where many of the cab drivers don’t speak English at all, you have to present a card with your details written out in Chinese characters to get around. Chinese is very tonal and I have a hard time speaking Chinese words. After all, I am still trying to figure out Carioca Portuguese.

And so it goes. According to a recent taxi survey reported by Reuters in December 2010, London taxi drivers ranked as the world’s best mannered, while New York and Parisian taxi drivers were the rudest. Wherever I go, I create a linguistic cheat sheet containing the local taxi parlance (pretty rude terms actually) written out. And you always ask “how much?” immediately, as this puts the cabbie on the defensive and may save you from “hidden charges,” which are particularly blasphemous in Lagos, Nigeria, and Moscow, Russia.

But of the world’s major cities, New York stands by itself, and you have to be aggressive, if not rude, from the very beginning. New Yorkers, however, perceive rudeness as the norm, and thus don’t take offense. The number of cabs is limited by design, and companies pay incredible amounts for a “shield” to have a licensed cab. You see thousands of banged up, quite dented yellow cabs in front of you, though they are always full. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get one if you are aggressive and shameless enough.

So I find myself in New York at 5 p.m. on a rainy day. The last flight to Minneapolis leaves at 7 p.m. and if I miss it, I have to spend another night in New York, and I just want to get home.

I am standing at a traffic-clogged corner trying to hail a cab, but hundreds pass by and they are all full. So when traffic stops, I go next to a stopped cab with two passengers in the back.

At first the cabdriver thinks I am a crazy man, but he rolls down the window and looks at me.

“I’ll give you $50 to take me to LaGuardia airport,” I say. This in an era when it was a $15 cab ride.

He looks at me and then looks at the people in the back seat and says: “Get out!” They fume and say they will call the taxi commissions and so forth.

On the way to the airport he tells me they were just going a short distance and this ride will redeem his day, for he had spent it hanging out with his girlfriend. Hey, it’s New York, and it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

And then there are more New York cab stories:

The cab driver who didn’t want to take me to Wall Street because the traffic was too heavy. He said:  “I can take you to Midtown instead.”

The (unlicensed) Eastern European gypsy cab driver who had taped an alarm clock to the dashboard and who then figured out your rate by looking at the clock and the odometer.

Or the cab driver who backed up over a mile in heavy traffic when he saw that it would take too long to get over a bridge — I closed my eyes and said not a word, as I was too frightened.

If you are in Beirut, where I have been several times, never believe the cabbie who tells you he knows exactly where that address is. Be prepared to call the person at your destination and let the driver talk to him to get directions. Have your phone at the ready.

Less adventuresome is Tokyo, where the cabbies wear white gloves, know their way around a very orderly town, and will refund money if they take a wrong turn that costs more than it should. In Tokyo look for the light in the front window; red indicates that the cab is available, yellow means it’s not. And don’t open the door to get in and out; it will open automatically.

Tourist cities I have been to, such as Kingston, Jamaica, or Panama City, Panama, have really nice cabbies, as they hope to be able to drive you around to different places during your stay. When my wife Margo and I went to Panama City last year, we were immediately approached by a guy with a wheelchair wearing a Continental Airlines shirt. We had asked for a wheelchair, but he added “I also am a cabbie.”

He wheeled us through customs while the other people waited and we went through the airport with another wheelchair passenger, a former Panamanian Minister of Agriculture. While our fellow passengers were still waiting for their luggage, we were out of the airport in record time and used him several times to take us around the city. Then on the day of our departure, he took us back to the airport. Again we waited in no lines!

Lionel Mellet of Telelingua likes to recount his own experiences. He spent one year commuting between Brussels and Lisbon and knew that the fare to his hotel and back to the airport was 40 escudos. One early Sunday he took a cab, and the driver wanted 100. He got vehement in demanding 100, when Lionel spotted a policemen and said “Let’s ask him.” The cab driver backed down. Another time Lionel was asked to fly to Frankfurt and then drive to a smaller town and find the client’s office. He agreed to pay 50 euros to the driver, who said “I don’t exactly know the address, but we’ll find it.” As they searched, he noticed the driver getting more and more upset. Lionel asked “What’s the matter? You agreed to do this.” Finally, the cabbie stopped, threw Lionel’s baggage out, and told him to leave — yet still pay him the 50 euros. Then he got out a baseball bat and threatened Lionel. Fortunately, if not miraculously, the cabbie stopped where Lionel was supposed to be in the first place.

Sad to say, where visits are pure business, you find the most predatory cabbies. They want to get the most from their fares at once. Moscow, Russia, and Lagos, Nigeria, stand out in this regard. You would have to question people’s judgment if they flew to Moscow and then got a cabbie on their own. When I ran a business in Moscow I always regarded myself as prey. Some of the classic Moscow cab scams:

Dumping confused passengers short of their destination: A cabbie will just run you around a few blocks, charge you a lot and say you arrived.

The driver pretending his cab breaks down — you get out, and he takes off with your possessions.

The driver stopping halfway to your destination and saying if you want to get there you have to pay double.

After giving you a low quote, charging extras, such as baggage and destination fees (I thought that was what your cab fare paid for).

In Mexico City, where I worked for many years, and Bogotá, Colombia, where I lived in the Peace Corps, don’t hail a cab off the street, since you might get kidnapped. There you take the hotel cabs or call to have them come get you.

Then we have this current situation in Minneapolis, where many of the cab drivers are ardent Muslims, many from Somalia. They will turn down passengers who are carrying any alcoholic beverages with them, so if you want to bring a bottle of wine with you on your cab ride, hide it.

I suppose the lesson in all this is always know what the rules are insofar as cabbies are concerned, wherever you are, and keep your cool when dealing with them.

Well, I gotta go, and every time I do, I recall the lyrics to John Denver’s famous song “Leaving on a Jet Plane”: “But the dawn is breaking, it’s early morn/ The taxi’s waiting, he’s blowing his horn.”