The taxi service in Barranquilla is a culture in itself. I come from a suburban neighborhood where public transportation is not very convenient, so I wasn’t familiar with taxis in general, let alone Barranquilla cabs. Upon arriving, my school gave me a tiny slip of paper with my address, kind of like what mothers tape to the bottom of their little kids’ shoes, so they don’t get lost. This paper was my lifeline. Wherever I was I could hand it to the taxista, and he would know exactly how to get me home. The first few taxi rides were simple enough; I got to my destination without any significant issues. Little did I know what the next 4 years would tell me about Barranquilla taxi culture.
The first qualm: there are no meters in the taxis. I soon discovered that the cost of your trip should be negotiated before you even get in the cab. I’m not much of a negotiator, accustomed to everything having a set price in the United States. I always know how much public transportation is going to cost in Minnesota. We don’t barter! Therefore, in Barranquilla I often got into the taxi cabs without first agreeing on a price in the good faith that my foreign charm would cast an enchanting spell of honesty into these fine gentlemen. I was horribly mistaken.
Every time we gringos get into a taxicab, drivers assume we are tourists, just arriving on Colombian soil, and we are completely clueless about this strange new land. Whenever we ask how much a ride will cost, it usually results in a quick, overconfident response, two thousand pesos above what’s fair.
My favorite is the diminutive. Instead of saying “peso” when naming a price, they’ll say “pesito,” subtly implying that somehow I am getting a deal because, instead of paying 7 pesos, I only have to pay 7 pesitos (They are exactly the same!). Now, there’s no reason a diminutive would be used in the first place, that is, if the taxi driver didn’t think he was overcharging. If the taxistas think they can take fool you, they’ll throw out a price four thousand pesos higher. That’s when I say in my broken Spanish, “usualmente cuesta ____________, (fill in the blank)” and I get the feigned, painful thought-process of the driver until he mutters an even more feigned sigh, and says, “Ok, vamos.” Sometimes they’ll just say, “vamos,” without actually agreeing to a price, and even though this usually signifies an agreement, it is almost as if they are trying to keep any possible window open just a crack in order to have an opportunity to take advantage of me. I think they’re afraid I will steal a small piece of their soul if I, a foreigner, successfully talks them down in price.
There are, however, rules and regulations that the taxi drivers technically must follow. For example, they all have a laminated, yellow card in the visor above the passenger seat that lists the prices of various distances. It often does little good considering taxis never have an odometer, and if they did at one point, they were probably disabled for obvious reasons. If I am arguing a price, I often grab the yellow card and point at it while I am trying to argue that the distance is not worth the quoted price. Unfortunately, my arguments are usually rebuked with the nails-on-a-chalkboard phrase, “Muy lejos,” very far. Aside from the fact that “muy lejos” is relative, it seems to provide cabbies with the satisfaction of a logical argument. They might even mention the fact that it takes a lot of gas to get to where we are going as if we didn’t already know that combustion engines run on gasoline. Sometimes they pull into a gas station explaining that since YOU want to go as far as you do, it is necessary to fill up the tank first, further emphasizing the fact that cars burn gasoline.
Unfortunately, a fare negotiated before the ride does not necessarily guarantee that the price will be the same by the end of the ride. There may be several variables along the way that could cause the price to fluctuate. For instance, my first week in Barranquilla, I went to a movie with another gringo teacher and a local Colombian intern. This intern was in charge of getting us acclimated to the culture. After the movie got out, the intern told us she would negotiate a price for us before she left on her bus. That was a mistake because that made us gringos look like fresh meat to the taxi driver. He agreed to a low price knowing that eventually he would have two clueless gringos in the car who didn’t speak any Spanish, with whom he could easily make up some rationalization like “muy lejos” for upping the price. Sure enough, he charged us 10,000 pesos on a 6,000 peso cab ride. Without saying a word, he pocketed the 10,000 as we pleaded with him in Spanglish to give us our change – what delicious first taste of Colombian hospitality.
Aside from sheer unfairness, taxistas often try and come up with clever ways to justify paying more than what was negotiated. On one such occasion, two of my fellow gringo teachers were riding home from school when one of them let fly a stinky fart. Now nobody likes a stinky fart when you are riding in a car with the windows up, but people tend to chuckle when it happens, despite the discomfort. To the dismay of my friends, this taxista did not find the silent detonation of flatulence very humorous. Upon arriving he demanded a price that was more than the agreed-upon value. When asked why, the taxista explained that they were being charged more because of the fart.
Laughing, my friends paid and got out of the taxi without checking the yellow laminated card to see if there was a special tax for farting in a cab. Ever since hearing this story, I do my best to hold it in whenever riding in a taxi. I feel like writing my own version of “Civil Disobedience,” but unlike Thoreau’s tax-related protest, I would be rebelling against the fart tax. Flatulence, to me, is not a taxable commodity.
Flatulence, to me, is not a taxable commodity.
There are also a few other annoyances I have come across as I have accustomed myself to the Barranquilla, taxicab culture. First of all, I know my Spanish accent does not function perfectly in Barranquilla. There are many words I don’t pronounce correctly in Spanish, or those that I don’t pronounce like a Barranquillero. I find that taxi drivers have the hardest time understanding me, and I have the hardest time understanding them. I have several theories as to why. One, I believe they try to test foreigners to gauge their cultural competence. In other words, if we, gringos, can’t quickly understand some fast-paced Barranquillero lingua and fire back a response, there is a chance that we might be naïve enough to fall for a scam. Therefore, they will often give me a blank stare when I request to be chauffeured to a popular destination, even asking me where exactly is the place I requested, forcing me to demonstrate my Spanish vocabulary associated with the geography around my desired destination.
Sometimes they completely ignore everything I say. After school I often catch a cab at the end of the road at a busy intersection. As I take this direction every day home from school, I know that this street is much busier than other, faster ways to get home. Therefore, I tell the taxista, “Toma el 59 en lugar de 51B, por favor. 51B esta muy occupada ahora.” “Take 59th instead of 51 B, please. 51B is very busy now” Silence is what I receive in return.
“Senor! Disculpe!” ….more silence.
Perhaps, he doesn’t know I am talking to him, I mean I could be talking to the back of the driver’s seat. Being from Minnesota, and perhaps being a little too polite, I usually sit quietly as we suffer the stop-and-go of 51B all the way home. I don’t want to tell the taxistas how to drive, but after ten days in a row of falling right into a traffic jam that could have easily been avoided with proper navigation, I have to speak up.
Day after day I experience the same thing. I don’t want to tarnish the taxi driver’s pride or pretend like I know much at all about Barranquilla. All I know is that 51B is very busy at that time of day. I am beginning to wonder if they ignore me because they don’t like to be questioned by a foreigner, or if they truly don’t think I am talking to them. There’s also the possibility that they would rather take the longer route in order to rationalize the desire to charge more than the trip is worth. Likely, all my assumptions are wrong, and I simply don’t understand the cultural complexities taking place every time I hop in a cab.