It would be hard, if not impossible, to find a travel brochure for any country that touts its taxi industry as one of its great treasures.
But some of the nicest, kindest and most helpful people I’ve met on the road are those who make their living driving strangers.
Their gestures have ranged from the small but sweet to hilarious, generous and life-affirming.
Grabbing a taxi from my hotel on the Right Bank to a friend’s house on the Left Bank, I mangled my high school French so badly that the taxi driver refused to take any money saying, “It was worth it for the entertainment value.” My French friends remained stunned to this day.
Hitching by the side of the road a cab picked me up assuring me that I wouldn’t have to pay because, “I’m already going that way.”
A taxi driver waiting for riders outside the Cairo Museum took one look at me and handed me several packets of the powder Unicef distributes to sick children to prevent dehydration. (We won’t ask how he came to have them.) When I shrugged it off he ran and got me a soda, mixed in a packet, then implored me to drink it. I couldn’t figure out why but he saw in me what I couldn’t see myself — the sickly white complexion that’s a harbinger of Moctezuma’s revenge.
He turned out to be right and I spent the next 24 hours sick with food poisoning. My only sustenance? The Unicef packets mixed into bottled water.
Mexico City, Mexico
A friend and I were on our way to Guatemala but the only flights we were able to get left us at the Mexico City airport at 2 a.m. with our next flight not booked until 8 a.m. One look at the hard, uncomfortable airport seats made skipping sleep and seeing the sights of Mexico awfully inviting. So we headed out to look for a cab.
No offense to taxi drivers in Mexico City, but to two women alone they all looked a little scary. After much debate over whom we felt we could trust, we got into a cab and took off. For five hours, our driver took us to see everything from the night markets to the nightlife, complete with running commentary on the history, politics and lifestyle of the locals.
Finally, he took us out for coffee and cake, regaling us with stories and sharing pictures of his family. Then he insisted on picking up the check. At 7 a.m., he delivered us back to the airport for our connecting flight.
His parting gift? He only charged one third of the posted price. Nice man. Nice country. Good feelings all around.
A cousin of mine was visiting Russia back when it was still known as the Evil Empire. In those days, the government paid all salaries so there wasn’t a huge incentive for anyone to work hard, including taxi drivers. Leaving a tour of the Kremlin with her 9-year-old in tow, my cousin made her way to the fleet of taxis standing at the edge of Red Square. But as they entered each one, they were told “Nyet,” Russian for “I can’t be bothered.”
Finally, in desperation she jumped in the last car in line, hauled in her daughter and when the man said, “Nyet,” she refused to get out, commanding him to go. He shrugged and took her back to her hotel. Now all smiles, she got out her rubles and went to pay but the man refused to take it.
Calling over the doorman at the hotel, he had him explain that he wasn’t a taxi driver at all. He was waiting to pick up his wife from work. But when my cousin seemed so desperate he decided to take her.
By Jamie Simons for PeterGreenberg.com.
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