Barranquilla Taxistas Part 2: Vehicular Vernacular

Despite my last post, there are many honest and good-hearted taxistas in Barranquilla. There are drivers who will give you back 1000 pesos when they believe you have given them too much, and those who will complement you on your Spanish, knowing you are from out of town but you are at least trying to speak the language. Some will even give you their personal cell phone numbers to call for any long trips or emergency taxi needs.

My taxi rants come from a year and a half of experience with Barranquilla cab drivers, and I have made generalizations that come off as quite negative, but are also the product of culture shock. In reality, the taxicab culture is quite interesting when you analyze it in depth.

First of all, they have their own language. I am talking about the combination of hand signals, honking, slang, and other interactions with their surroundings. If we listen carefully to each honk, keeping in mind the context in which it sounds, we can decode the complex communication patterns of taxista culture.

Walking down the street in Barranquilla is often a poorly orchestrated musical of honking cars. Without having to even enter a cab, we experience the first connotative honk, the two-tap-and-slow-down, followed by one palm on the wheel and one palm out, facing the roof of the car. It is usually accompanied with a concentrated stare at a pedestrian, or potential rider.


The hand gesture/stare that accompanies the, “You see this yellow car with numbers with ‘taxi’ written on the side? Yes, indeed, it is a taxi. Would you like to ride in this car, which is a taxi? I am a taxi cab driver, and I would like to pick you up, so you can pay me to take you to your destination in this car, which is a taxi” honk.


In gringo terms, this can be translated as, “You see this yellow car with numbers with ‘taxi’ written on the side? Yes, indeed, it is a taxi. Would you like to ride in this car, which is a taxi? I am a taxi cab driver, and I would like to pick you up, so you can pay me to take you to your destination in this car, which is a taxi.” Sometimes I am out jogging, drenched in sweat and quickly approaching the sidewalk as 1 of 20 taxi cabs within the two-block radius slows down to see if maybe I have been running so long because I have been trying to find a taxi cab to ride in. So instead of being able to cross the street during my morning exercise, I have to stop and wave this cab driver past me.

My first few weeks in the culture I usually used a head-shake, or perhaps the “get-out-of-here” wave. But I soon realized that the “get-out-of-here” wave looks dangerously similar to the “stop-and-pick-me-up wave.” Therefore, there is a necessary response that all gringos from Minnesota must learn if they are to successfully walk down the streets without wanting to hail a cab: the finger wiggle. Many have probably heard of the Dikembe Mutombo finger wave, in which he wags his finger back and forth in the face of his opponent. It is usually after blocking a shot and is meant to taunt the opponent, meaning, “not in my house.”

The Barranquilla finger wave definitively means “no.” It’s not rude, it’s not cocky, but it’s downright useful once you get the hang of it. As taxis slow down honking at me to get my attention, I hold up my arm straight out towards the taxista, point my index finger to the sky and simply twitch it. It is more of a finger vibration than a wave, but it has seismic power. I use the finger wiggle for loads of reasons – when I don’t want a bus to stop for me, or when a man is trying to sell me pirated DVD’s – and even when my students try to interrupt me while I am teaching. Now as I approach the intersection, I prepare my finger and reveal that unambiguous wiggling sign to all yellow-coated transports eager to lure me into their grasp.

Simple hold up your finger and twitch - a culturally-acceptable and clear way of saying "no," among other things.

Simple hold up your finger and twitch – a culturally-acceptable and clear way of saying “no,” among other things.

Now, if they succeed in luring me in, the language of honking becomes even more apparent from inside the cab. One particular honk, and my personal least favorite, is the lay-on-the-horn-while-stopped-at-an-intersection honk. This honk says, “I was stopped at a red light, but now it has been a whole millisecond since it turned green and even though I am six cars back, I am not driving twenty miles per hour yet,” or quite possibly, “I am bored, and here’s my chance to honk and be heard! My reason for honking is to get traffic to move faster,” and occasionally, “My taxi’s too fast to be stopped at an intersection behind all these mediocre cars. My car’s awesome; now move so more people can see me zoom past them.” This particular honk really elevates the noise level of Barranquilla. The city’s traffic is actually not too bad, but it sure is loud.

Another honk, this one a little more practical, is horned when approaching an intersection without a stoplight. The appearance of a stop sign is irrelevant for this honk as it only occasionally modifies taxista behavior. Upon realizing that we are coming to an intersection in which we don’t, in fact, have the right-away, my taxi beeps a few warning honks and continues through the intersection. This honk says, “I don’t plan on stopping or slowing down as I approach this intersection, so anyone planning to cross the street, car or pedestrian, better yield to me.” Thee who honketh first, haveth the right-away.

Thee who honketh first, haveth the right-away.

At first I thought it was a little strange how people honked through intersections. Then I realized how many people rely on others on the road to honk at them. These warnings have given people the liberty to ignore all traffic and focus on their own driving until, of course, they are honked at. Driving in Barranquilla is aggressive and fast-paced. Like a well-trained basketball team, without effective communication, there could be collisions, injuries and even fatalities. Most of the time, the traffic works, but it can be a nightmare for easily-enraged expatriates who expect traffic rules to parallel what they are used to. 

Finally, there are the leisure honks. With any complex system of communication, there are intricacies that provide enjoyment and entertainment. One such honk is the short-taps-and-thumb-up. This one means, “Hey amigo. I know you, and I see you are out in the city, as am I. Therefore, look this way and accept my thumbs up, so we can have our moment of connected camaraderie before we go about our normal business.” This is one of my favorites because you don’t really have to know someone very well to give or receive a thumbs-up honk.

To receive the thumbs-up always leaves me with a warm feeling. I assume it’s the feeling you might have if you walked into Cheers, and everyone really did know your name. Especially for a foreigner like myself, receiving a honk of this caliber leaves me feeling like I belong, and that I am important to the society in which I live. The taxista who took my family and me to Santa Marta, I’ll call him Alvaro, sees me from time to time walking down the street. At every sighting, he shoots me a honk and a thumbs up. I can’t wait for the day when I am walking with someone else (preferably a pretty girl) as Alvaro honks at me, and I say, “Yea, people know me here,” and then I casually continue my stride.


The thumbs-up: definitely a show of camaraderie in the Barranquilla culture.

The thumbs-up: definitely a show of camaraderie in the Barranquilla culture.


The final honk is one that I have only experienced in Barranquilla. I call it the rubbernecking-honk. At first I thought it was tacky and chauvinistic. But as of late it has…no, I still hate it. This is one of the honks that are not very distinguishable from the others unless you pay attention to context, i.e., looking out the window and realizing there is no other plausible reason for honking. This honk says, “You are a very pretty woman, and this fact is pertinent enough to require me to honk in your vicinity,” or “wow, you have the curves of a woman who merits a honk,” or finally, “Anyone who puts on high-heals and tight jeans like that to walk a block to the grocery store has a right to the sounding of my horn.”

I used to think the rubbernecking honk was not so common; I assumed it was only the more forward men who took part. I soon found out that it is such an inherent cultural practice that it even seems like an obligation for more taxi drivers.

Recently, when riding home from school, my taxi driver was inflicted with some extreme road rage. Someone cut him off and, after flicking off the perpetrator, yelling, “Hijueputa!” he turned the corner to find a curvaceous woman in high heals and an accentuating summer dress. With a face beat-red and rageful, the driver still had the wherewithal and sense of urgency to give this woman a flattering honk even while venting about the “hijueputa” that had just cut him off.

I for one have mixed feelings about the vehicular ogling that pervades Barranquilla’s streets. Everything in my education and moral code tells me that it is chauvinistic, rude, and downright unfair for a woman to have to avoid catcalls, ogling, and unwanted attention based solely on superficial appearances. What happens then, when we enter into a culture in which catcalls and rubbernecking is 100 times more common than where we grew up? Do we resist and become quickly ostracized? Do we ignore it and gradually become ostracized? Do we laugh along with it, but secretly lash out against the chauvinism?

My strategy has been to ignore it. “Que bonita, eh?” my taxista asks me, trying to get me to join his ogling. I usually pretend that I have other things on my mind. It’s painful to ignore, and I know the importance of standing up for basic human rights, especially when I have the power to do so, but it is more complicated in a place that isn’t quite as progressive as where I learned the importance of gender equity. (See my post “Machismo” for a more in-depth discussion of male chauvinism across cultures.)

Regardless of the ethics behind taxistas’ motives, their culture brings up several ideas about human connection. Often I would like to be left alone to my individual life, but in other moments, I yearn for a positive connection with another human being. One of the reasons why depression is so common in the U.S. is because we are so individualistic, not telling each other what we feel. The limitations we pose on ourselves from a fear of embarrassment or unfavorable impressions often prevents us from being truly honest. We float by so worried about what others think of us until one day we realize nobody even knows who we truly are.

That’s not to say honking at a pretty woman prevents depression and makes people closer. Yes, it is superficial because it recognizes people solely for their looks, but, at times, it seems to be a lighthearted way of giving a perfect stranger a compliment, almost like an abridged version of saying, “Good morning, Mam, you look beautiful today.” The honk is a tool that breaks down the barrier between strangers. Barranquilleros seem to have a lot of these barrier-busting tools, and maybe that is precisely what makes them some of the happiest people in the world. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a male-directed equivalent to the rubbernecking-horn. Although, I have received a few beeps myself, probably only because I am a very tall, skinny white man (not too common in Barranquilla)…but I will take whatever I can get.

Despite my complaints or culture shock related to the Barranquilla taxistas, they are an integral part of the culture. My negative taxi experiences have been one small snapshot of a much larger panorama. Over time, I have begun to learn more and more about taxis. Now in my fourth year, I argue the price less, and now give in to whatever ridiculously high fare they want to charge me. Even though I also take the bus or ride in a colleague’s car whenever I can, I know these drivers are just trying to make a living. There are even certain things I miss about riding in a cab.

One benefit of riding in a Barranquilla taxi is that you rapidly get to where you need to go. This is mainly because taxis often don’t follow the traffic laws, and they rarely follow road etiquette, the unwritten rules that we all can agree on. I might be riding in a cab, stopped behind a long line of cars at a stoplight, when the driver decides to turn into oncoming traffic and pass everyone on the opposite side of the road. Then he will cut in front of the first person waiting at the stop sign like it is his right. When I first noticed a taxi driver doing this, I was like, “Um, hello!” obviously knowing that he wasn’t going to understand my incredulity (since he doesn’t speak English!). What surprised me most though, was the other cars’ acceptance of this egotistical vehicular behavior. Not a single person honked at us. (In this culture, that amazes me.) It is almost as if having a yellow taxi cab gives taxistas a free pass to break all rules in order to get to where they are going quickly. In Minnesota, where we merge by going every other car because it is the considerate thing to do, Barranquilla taxi behavior would catch anyone off guard. Imagine the vehicular Armageddon that would take place if we replaced all Minnesota public transport with Barranquilla public transport (or vice versa).

Imagine the vehicular Armageddon that would take place if we replaced all Minnesota public transport with Barranquilla public transport (or vice versa).

What bothered me most about riding in a cab was, not being taken advantage of by the taxistas, but knowing that the system is taking advantage of them. Many of those cab drivers start their day around 4am, and they drive their cab all day, until well into the night. There’s also a taxi that parks outside my apartment building at night, sleeping in his cab, trying to salvage some rest before he starts collecting fares again. Simply put, taxistas work a lot of hours, but make little money. 


Taxistas will often sleep in their cabs, making it more convenient to work long hours.

Taxistas will often take cab naps, making it more convenient to work long hours.

I once met a cab driver in Chicago, Illinois whose family lived in Ghana. He told me he works hard when he is driving a cab in Chicago, but with his wages earned from a single summer, he is able to support his family for an entire year in Ghana. A taxista in Barranquilla, on the other hand, works year-round, almost 24/7, and often to support a family that he barely gets to see. Needless to say, the Chicago taxi driver didn’t overcharge me. The cab was metered, and we had a friendly conversation. But the worlds of the Chicago driver and that of the Barranquilla driver are entirely different. It is necessary to recognize those taxistas who have chosen this noble profession. There are many that get us to where we need to go, and they do it with a great level of dignity and optimism.

To end my Barranquilla taxi commentary, I want to share an act of kindness that I received from one driver. As I was walking home from the grocery store, it began pouring rain. Half-way home, I was stranded because the intersection between me and my destination was flooded, making it uncrossable on foot. A taxi driver pulled up, honked, and waved me inside. He proceeded to take me safely across the flooded street, and when I offered to pay him for his services he refused to take my money, saying, “No, no, no, todos se ayudan cuando llueve, amigo. Tranquilo. Es lo que se hace.”


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