After being here exactly four months now, there are a few things that have become a part of my everday life here in Quito, and one of these things is: the taxi.
As most of you know (I may have mentioned it once or twice… yes that is sarcasm), I am a New Yorker (speaking of, I was trying to teach an Ecuadorian how to say and use “OY” yesterday… hehe. It was pretty funny, and I think I left him totally confused). I’ve been hailing taxis since I was in fifth grade. In normal non-Quito life, a taxi can be one’s refuge on a cold, rainy night. It becomes a yellow beacon of hope when you are tired, alone and tipsy in the wee hours of the morning. Taxis can be the hero that swoops in and saves you when your feet are killing from a cute pair of shoes and your legs have danced all they can dance. When the first flurries of winter begin to fall and that chill writhers down your spine, or when you get caught in summer’s first flash thunderstorm wearing just a white tank top, a taxi can come to the rescue.
Ahhh, but everything you knew and felt about taxis changes when you get to Quito.
It’s a catch-22: most people know that, in Quito, it is way too dangerous to walk ANYWHERE at night, especially alone. People are instructed by every guidebook and website to take a taxi to their destination once the sun goes down, even if it’s only a few blocks away. The irony is that we are also warned to be extremely vigilant and cautious when it comes to taking a taxi here. Like in many other cities, there are official cabs and then there are unofficial cabs. The official cabs are yellow with a cab company name on the side of the door and a license plate number on the front windshield. These taxis, we are told, are safe.
Of course, some criminals are very clever. There are plenty of impostor taxis that mimic the official ones; they are yellow, with a cab company name on the side, and they have some numbers on the windshield, or on the side door. While often, these are just people trying to make a few bucks, they can also be dangerous thieves waiting to rob you, or worse. Then, there are the normal cars that drive around the city with a home-made TAXI sign, which they only whip out when they see you waiting for a taxi. We are strongly discouraged from using these cabs, but sometimes, when you are standing on a street corner at night for the 20th minute, unable to find an official cab, and there are sketchy men trying to talk to you, you just get the heck into the car. It’s really just a gamble. Most of the time, I’ve found these guys to be the most polite and kind (there is definitely grumpy cab driver syndrome in Quito). I usually judge the safety of the driver the moment I get in, and I am not afraid to get out if some red flag goes off. Usually, I see how they greet me . When they say “Good evening miss, how can I serve you?” which is usually what the nice ones say, I go OK… Green light. I also give them my address, which is quite a mouthful, and most cab drivers don’t know where it is so I always have to direct them in the car (“No pasa nada, puedo avisarte…”). If they listen carefully, they actually want to know where I am going and are planning to take me there. If they don’t respond — sketchy. If they ask questions on how to get there, even better. This is usually what happens, and it gives me comfort.
Hailing a cab here is quite the ordeal. I have never seen such pushy people in my life (ok ok, not all Quitenos are like this, but I have definitely encountered one too many!). During rush hours, it is VERY hard to find a cab, and Quitenos are ruthless. There are some official cab stands, and they will literally walk past the line, cut everyone, and try and hail the cab twenty feet before the line… shamelessly. They will also steal your cab, if you aren’t careful. Pull that shit in NYC and you will get verbally punched in the face, if not physically. Nothing makes my blood boil like trying to be a good samaritan in someone else’s country, and watching them walk all over good people. It’s just wrong! We have to work together in this world, and if you start cutting the taxi line where little old ladies and tired gringos with parasites have been patiently waiting for a taxi in the cold, then you are an ASSHOLE. There. I said it.
Why are these taxi precautions necessary? Well, there are a lot of horror stories out there. One common occurrence is something known here as local kidnappings. Yes, these happen. And often. Basically, a person hails a taxi — an official one even. You get in, say your destination, and then head off on your merry way. At some point, the driver takes a wrong turn. They pull into some dark alley in the middle of nowhere, some guys pop out of the darkness, pull you out of the cab, rob you of everything you’ve got, and abandon you there. Then, there are the stories I’ve heard of people getting into a cab, the cab pulls up somewhere, two guys get in each side with either a knife, screwdriver, or gun digging into you. They rush you somewhere , take everything, punch you in the face or whatever they have to do, and leave you with nothing.
This past weekend, two of my good friends were robbed this way. It’s not just stories you hear about friends of friends of friends; these things happen to your friends, and to you. They are very real and there is a new horrible story every week. I feel particularly guilty about this one, because my friends happened to get robbed after leaving my birthday party. Basically, they live in Tumbaco, a town 30 minutes outside of the city (where I spent the weekend just before I ended up in the hospital with the parasite for the first time). They found what they thought was an official yellow cab at two in the morning, got a good price to get to Tumbaco (every time you get in a cab here, you have to barter with the driver for a price. I’m quite used to it now and definitely wear the pants and get my way almost every time. Or, I get out, at which point they beg me to get back in and take me home.) The driver made friendly conversation with them and they watched carefully as he took them the right way. Then, when they were almost home, he took a wrong turn. They were a little confused and tried to redirect him, but he ignored them. Suddenly, he stopped the car. The driver pepper sprayed them in the face as two guys yanked them out of the cab and demanded they give them everything they had. The thieves kept saying “we aren’t going to do anything to you, just give us your money!” so they gave them their cell phones, their cash, and their change while stunned by the pepper spray, and the guys drove off… leaving them in the dark with nothing and no idea where they were.
They couldn’t see, but they heard music so they followed the sound until they arrived at someone’s doorstep. Some very friendly people let them in and told them the only way to get rid of the burning was to blow smoke in their eyes, so they took turns puffing on cigarettes and blowing smoke into my friends’ eyes. By now it was almost three in the morning. They walked them to a police officer down the street, who eventually drove them home. Luckily, the robbers only took one of their sets of keys; one girl managed to keep hers, so they could get home. They spent the next hour drinking peach schnapps and trying to calm down. But they were ok.
Just another weekend in Quito.
Usually, you get a cab and you feel safe. Here, it’s different. Most drivers have rosary beads dangling from their rear view mirror, and a Madonna statue perched over their dashboard. They have these things to protect them on their journey. What do we have? Common sense? Street smarts? Experience? Gut instincts?
Unfortunately, none of these things promise you anything. Taxis are part of my every day life here; to me, they used to symbolize safety, relief, and an escape route from danger. Now, I know that each one comes with a risk. But that’s life here in Quito. And sometimes you’ve gotta take risks to get where you’re trying to go.