Crabby Cabbies

This post starts off with a disclaimer: the following may not be as nice as the usual tone of my average posts.  But I am sitting in the backseat of a taxi right now, hoping I’m on my way to the airport, still trying to quell my tense unease.
It started about 10 minutes ago when I walked out of my very fancy hotel room, in a major American city and right downtown, into the misty rainy night.   I saw three taxi cabs at the curb right in front of me, and I hesitated for a moment in case there was a queue. I tried to make eye contact with the drivers of each to see if there was an order, and when none seemed to move I took another step forward. The driver of the cab directly in front of me smiled, so I started towards that car. He opened the trunk and just as he was lifting my bag there was a furious blare of a horn behind us. For a split second I instinctively thought a car crash was happening in the intersection, but as my eyes registered the angry arms and clenched fists I saw it was clearly no accident. Into our stunned immobility started walking a sight that added another layer to my disbelief of the current events. Long white hair, stringy, uneven and matted, topped a faded black denim coat layered open over a green plaid flannel jacket and dirty t-shirt. The most nightmarish Santa-in-opposite you could imagine.  This was the other driver, coming out of a branded and licensed city taxi cab, livid over an accidental slight. The first driver set down my bag and started backing away with apologies in an attempt to appease.  I stopped him and said I didn’t want to ride in a car with such a furious driver.  By this time the doorman of the hotel appeared and tried to diffuse the situation.    The angry driver was placated and I was informed he had been in line and was the next due for a passenger. I shrank back, and said again I wasn’t comfortable getting into that car now on my own and I would like take another ride. To which the doorman asked “hey, you spooked her. Are you ok to drive?” as he Placed.My.Bag.In.The.Trunk!  I still didn’t move and was protesting again when I realized that I seemed to be the only one fazed by this outburst.   I suddenly noticed a uniformed security guard standing about a metre away, eyes down, and many other people at the hotel entrance and on the sidewalk. The doorman’s voice pulled back at my attention and I heard him say softly “it’s ok now, he’ll be alright. Get in, you’ll be fine.”

So I did. 

And my stomach clenched with unease the entire time. 

In the time it took me to write the above paragraphs I arrived at my destination but the story isn’t finished yet.  At least now you know I’m safe.  The ride was anything but fine, though, with my internal monologue churning; asking myself if this guy was drunk (probably not) or homeless (so what if he is? It’s good he’s working, right!?) to wondering if I should worry about being kidnapped (doubtful) or not arriving at the airport on time (much more likely).  The first five or so minutes of the drive passed with the car giving the little chime warning of a seatbelt undone.  I watched as he spent a few minutes reaching behind him and fussing with the seatbelt he had fastened behind him, then suddenly he tells me “I’m not going anywhere” as he stops the car in the middle of a residential street. My fight-or-flight response revved high again as he opens his door and got out; and I’m not sure it was actually relief when I saw he was only getting up to stretch the still-buckled shoulder harness across him.  As we drove off again he explained to me that “this seatbelt was the trickiest one he’d ever seen.”  We lurched on in the darkness, the car constantly changing speed as he see-sawed his foot on the gas pedal with sporadic regularity.  Any time I would look up at him or our surroundings I would imagine myself peeping through my fingers, though of course I was much too polite to actually let him know I was terrified, other than a quiet frightened gasp that escaped my lips once.  He cursed to himself after veering for an exit and missing it, which prompted me to stop writing and look again at my google maps. “Did we make a wrong turn?” I asked him sweetly when I saw we were not where we should be and he grumbled he missed the North Access road in a manner suggesting someone else was at fault. I watched him as he hunched forward over the steering wheel to peer out past the windshield wipers and rain and I spent the rest of the drive simultaneously in silent prayer, writing the beginning of this post, AND watching my map to help guide him. 
An eternity later, I finally stepped out of the car and collected my suitcase, nearly 45 minutes after I walked out of the hotel. It seemed exponentially longer than the 30-35 minutes I had expected! I asked the driver his name, and made a mental note of the car number and company with the full intention of writing a complaint to the company and also the hotel…. maybe I still will, but by now I’m not so sure. As I sit safely in my cozy airplane seat, writing out the rest of this, my main emotion is sadness for this driver.  I feel bad for him, because as I spoke to him briefly he seemed to brighten, giving me a glimpse that he’s probably had a very hard life and I worry how my complaint may affect him. Then I think that even though he may need the job, should he really be driving the public?? I don’t know yet what I’ll do…. 

——————

The ironic part of me writing out this story (Entirely True Story!) is that I had been mulling a bit about crabby cabbies already before this happened. Last week I was on the other side of the USA in a small city with a decidedly back-woods vibe. (I’m choosing to withhold names, obviously)  Again, as it was tonight, that morning I was alone leaving a hotel and on my way to an airplane.  When the taxi finally pulled up, my first thought was to giggle and look around if I was being pranked.  The car was an ancient rust bucket painted lime green.  I could smell old cigarettes before I even got in, and as the driver opened his door to stow my suitcase he drawled “I hope you haven’t been waiting too long… I had to stop and make sure my Momma ate her lunch.”  This was going to be my most crazy cab story – until tonight!  During our short drive he proceeded to tell me all about his family squabbles; a nephew that stole his mother’s car, a good-for-nothin’ brother, and his sweet momma with her dementia.  All this and much more I learned over the blast of his old classic rock radio, while I did my best to nod and not look too shocked.  When I handed him my visa to pay he launched into a tirade against big banks, and how he gets charged for each credit purchase… At least he was sweet in his complaining.  He spoke to me as if I were a trusted co-conspirator with him, us against my the world, and the grin he gave me when I was able to find enough cash to pay with instead of my card made me glad I was able to.

I feel like I should wrap up with saying that this is not my normal transportation experience.  I haven’t run the stats, but for effect I’d say 95% of the taxi and Uber drivers I’ve had have been great, 4.9% have just been fine, and only 0.1% make me worry.     But a good driver isn’t likely to make a good blog story! 

Being Brave in Bogota 

My first impressions of Colombia’s capital city are admittedly coloured by its dangerous reputation, so it’s not very surprising that the things I notice on my first day here seem to line up with that.  Confirmation Bias – “I think I’m right so I subconsciously look for things that prove my opinion” – can be tricky to overcome.

I knew that Bogota has been an immensely dangerous city, and that within the 8 million or so people living here the extremes between extravagant wealth and utter poverty are jarring.  So when I arrived and saw a city full of graffiti and security guards with rifles, police with dogs, or soldiers on every block it just seemed scary to me. 

As I was thinking further about it, though, I came to realize that the heavy police presence was a good thing, and an indicator of the city’s efforts to stop the crime that had been so rampant.  Once I had that shift in my thinking it became easier for me to see the good side of Bogota, and I ended up really enjoying exploring some of the sights.   I was still careful as I made my way though the city streets alone, staying aware of what was surrounding me.  Before I left my room I also prepared for the possibility of being mugged by only bringing a small amount of cash with me at a time and by hiding my phone in a secret pocket in my scarf.  (If you haven’t heard of these yet, check out what I consider my “security blanket” for when I’m out….. Travel scarf.  I love it!!)   Don’t worry though – I ended up completely safe without any close calls and instead found people here to be very generous and helpful!

Everyone says the best tourist thing to see in Bogota is the view from Monserrate, a mountain right at the centre of the city.  My hotel happens to be close to the base of Monserrate, so I was able to walk and in about 20 minutes I reached the ticket office to purchase my cable car ride to the top.  Here’s a little tip for you if you plan to go see for yourself:  Anyone afraid of heights should try to stand in the middle of the cable car, the huge windows mean it can be very clearly seen that the car is dangling from high above the steep face of the mountain; and anyone claustrophobic should avoid the middle of the car that is packed shoulder to shoulder with other people and at least try to be squished up against the window. If you suffer from both, well, there is a path to walk up to the peak, if you’re patient!

On the way up
As far as my eyes could see – Bogota


As well as the panoramic views of a city seemingly unending, there are gardens with plants that look like they sprung to life straight from a Dr. Seuss book. 

I was delighted by the flowers, but I’m sure most people spend more time noticing the church, as it’s a popular pilgrimage destination, or the souvenir shops or restaurant.  Whatever the draw, a great way to spend a morning!

My next stop on my own Discover Bogota initiative is the Gold Museum, as it’s the other item always listed in the guidebooks and blogs.  I loved the museum!  It’s so well laid out over 4 floors of a large building and jam-packed with the history of civilizations that inhabited the Northern part of South America, telling about these lives by what was done with gold and other precious metals.  The entrance cost me about $1.35 and I could have easily spent more time here, so this will be back on my list of things to see when I return to Colombia one day.

Another shift I’m beginning to notice while I spend more time out in Bogota is the artistic vibe as an undercurrent throughout the community, even in the graffiti that first seemed so unsettling.  Some of the street art I stumbled across appears to be a social commentary, others beautiful murals.  See for yourself:

Maybe sometimes being brave isn’t about surviving something scary, once in a while it might be about the hard work needed to overcome an incorrect bias.

And finally, since I can’t get Dr. Seuss out of my head, here are some of his words to send us off with.

 

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Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss

Suddenly

It’s funny how quickly situations in life can change sometimes.  Not long ago I was bemoaning the loneliness that can set in with solo travel, and then in the metaphorical blink of an eye I found myself so busy socializing that I could barely manage the time to keep up with my writing.  (A problem I will happily choose any time!)    My other big change has been location again…. Yes, I realize this is a travel blog and so it’s not news that I’ve travelled…  But I’ve left Europe and I think that any continent change deserves specific mention.   Friday morning I flew out of Warsaw, enjoyed a 5 hour layover in Amsterdam, and wound up clearing customs in Edmonton.  This city isn’t home for me, but close enough that I have my own people here.  People like Tricia, who will be in most of my stories this post.  I’ll give a visual to help while you continue reading; she’s the blue-eyed beauty on the left.  You’re welcome.  😉


And a little foreshadowing… she’ll feature prominently in this blog when we go to another new continent, Asia, this fall.

When I set out on my travels I had people say to me  “aren’t you worried about the dangers?”,  and my answer was always along the lines of  “of course I am, but I’ll be careful. Plus who says home is safer anyway??”    So not that I’m keeping score or anything, but I have two new examples proving MY point on this issue. 

Number 1 – Crime:   It seemed like a man was following us in a store last night, and just after we started paying closer attention he set down his basket full to the brim with items and bent over it for a moment as if looking for something.  Suddenly he’s dashing straight out the door and into an SUV that screeched up to the entrance.  My theory is that he was using us as a distraction cover while he boldly shoplifted a ton of stuff.  Jerk. 

Number 2 – Wildlife:  I still can’t quite believe this happened, and it happened to me, with witnesses!  Walking along the river valley in an Edmonton park, on a paved pathway through the trees, I nearly stepped on a snake. (!!!!!!)  Good thing the snake was fast, and it disappeared away into the bushes along the path before my heart was able to resume beating.  It was BIG! And black with a bright green/yellow stripe down the length of it.  As my foot was about to come down on it, and it began to move away I gave a startled yelp and hopped back/over away. That’s how I remember it, but another version is that I ‘screamed like a girl’ and jolted over to the other side of the path.  Sounds a little dramatic to me…. I prefer to think I kept a bit of dignity in that moment, but who knows?!  One thing for sure is I was awfully jumpy for the next hour.   A Google search has me convinced this was a Prairie Garter Snake, which can grow to be about a metre long.  I had no idea there were snakes like this in Alberta.  I think I liked it better in that ignorance. 

So since I’ve established that home (home province)  does not equal an automatically safer environment, it’s easier to announce that my next trip begins in a day from now.    I’ll be on my way to another country again early Tuesday morning.   See what I mean about change happening  quickly?