Wednesday, September 16, 2009


My most frequent interaction with people in Panama takes place in taxis.

When I first arrived, I hated taxis. For one thing, at orientations we had been warned not to catch a taxi on the street, not to take a taxi if there was another person besides the driver inside, not to stay in a taxi if the driver picked up another passenger, not to go through certain neighborhoods... not to do a lot of things. Good advice, all of it, but not terribly practical.

For one thing, standard taxi operating procedure is to pick up as many passengers as possible to maximize the fares, and calling a taxi is just silly. In some places my requests to call a taxi have met with the advice that it is easier just to catch one on the street, or that a called taxi will never come (and personal experience has taught me that calling a taxi only gives them an excuse to demand more money, because they had to drive to come and get you).

On top of that was/is my continuing lack of Spanish skills, and of course the joys of elevated gringo (aka rich white tourists) pricing.

But the longer I am here, the more I enjoy taking taxis.

For one, there are the thrills of riding. Driving in Panama is an extreme sport -- not for the faint of heart. And taxi drivers are the elite champions of driving.

For example, my cab this morning was gunning for the Panamanian speed record in crossing the city. He didn't talk the whole time, didn't charge me too much, and never once came to a complete stop. Slower traffic was warned with a honk and overtaken by whatever means necessary. This guy was serious about getting me to work.

Other cab rides have been in questionable vehicles -- engine warning lights on, speedometers broken, no door handles, dents, no suspension to speak of. These cabs are going for records in car quality. Some of the cabs I've taken, you hope that you make it to your destination without having to get out and push. So far, I've only had to leave one taxi for mechanical problems, and they started before we got moving.

Cab drivers can be interesting. Lately, I've been running into more and more who speak English -- a very recent event, probably springing from my catching cabs along the Causeway, a highly touristed area of the city. Today I had a cab driver that spoke excellent English, and didn't stop talking the whole time. He was also looking for a wife, and a job with the Smithsonian, so I think he had decided I was the perfect opportunity. I was busy planning an exit strategy, and deflecting requests for my phone number. Other cab drivers are openly hostile to people that are from outside Panama. A friend of mine got involved in a lengthy discussion with the driver about tourism and taxis. As a taxi driver, much of his income relies on tourists, but he refused to believe it (this discussion came about because he was blatantly ripping us off, and being a jerk about it). According to him, his income came from the canal and those big cruise ships that pass through. Those big cruise ships full of... tourists. It was a very entertaining discussion.

Now that I'm not taking cabs with my Spanish speaking friends, the conversation is by necessity much simpler. Usually revolving on basic conversation. So far I haven't run into too many jerks. And haven't been involved in an accident.

So lets keep it that way. On both counts.

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