Tuesday, May 22, 2007

When it Rains, You're Stuck

Lately I’ve been using the taxis from a five star hotel near my house. For my most common destinations, they charge me the same price as other radio taxis (those you call, and are more secure than taxis caught off the street). Plus, it’s convenient to be able to walk out and get a taxi whenever I need one, since I never know how long it will take a radio taxi to arrive.

I also find that these are the only taxi drivers I feel completely comfortable with. The cars tend to be in better condition. But much more importantly, they are calm, professional, reliable and they all know each other. One of them couldn’t do anything wrong and get away with it. With any other drivers, even the radio taxis, I feel a certain caution and nervousness, as though at any minute the driver could pull something. None have yet, and the majority are good, honest people. But there have been enough cases of bad taxis that the typical local understands the need to be careful and is quick to offer tips. Only in these hotel taxis can I relax and do without that nervous caution.

I woke up at 5 a.m. this morning to a powerful rainstorm. When I left for work, it was still raining lightly. I commented to the driver on how little traffic there was.

“Yes, most people live on the outskirts of the city. And when it rains, they have a hard time leaving their homes because of the muddy roads.”

He told me that he himself lives on the outskirts, and had a hard time getting out this morning. The roads are truly terrible, made of dirt and dust. Even a little bit of water can turn them into a muddy soup. I’ve driven on some of them and each time, I’m amazed at how vehicles, buses and pedestrians make their way through.

I asked him whether the government was making any progress in paving some of these roads. It seems a shame to prevent people from getting to work whenever it rains, especially since those who tend to live in these areas tend to be people who need the income.

“No,” he said. “They just fill the holes in the road. Our area is very low-lying. A while ago, they whole place was flooded.”

During the day, I had a hard time getting a cab off the street, with one of them trying to charge me 50 percent more because of the water. I approached one at the same time as a man and the frustration I felt when he jumped in made me feel like I was in New York City.

In the evening, I couldn’t get a ride at all. The radio-mobile company I usually use didn’t answer the phone. I caught a ride with a coworker to a supermarket, where there are always taxis. Tonight, there weren’t. I called the company and was told they didn’t have any taxis available.

I stood there for quite a while, with no luck. When I saw a hotel taxi approach, I jumped on it, but the passenger had asked the driver to wait for him. I asked the driver if he could call another hotel taxi to come get me. Several minutes later, I finally had a ride.

The driver told me that taxis don’t want to work when it’s raining, both because of the muddy roads, but also because the puddles make it difficult to see holes in the road. He told me how he took someone to a city market in the rain and his tire was damaged when he hit a hole that was underwater.

“But we work regardless of the weather,” he said. “And we only work with a limited clientele – people from the hotel and people who live in the surrounding condominiums. That way, it’s safer for us. We have less problems and it’s better for the passengers as well. They can trust us. If anyone ever forgets something in the car, they know they’ll get it back.”

He told me he’s been working as a taxi driver for the past six months. Before that, he worked as a police officer. He told me he earned about $120 a month and worked 10 hour days. But he didn’t like that he frequently had to travel to the site of disturbances, so he couldn’t have lunch with his family. Plus, he didn’t like the danger and the fighting.

I asked what the most frequent problem was.

“Protests,” he said, without pause. I asked him if it was true that police don’t have the right to prevent protestors from blocking roads.

“Yes,” he said. “Because this is a democracy and people have the right to express themselves in public. As long as they aren’t damaging anything, they have the right to organize.”

“But why can’t they organize in a park?” I asked. “Don’t other people have the right to use public roads and to be able to get to work and lead their lives?”

He agreed, but didn’t seem to think much could be done. “Just this morning, the college students were protesting at the airport and disturbing flights,” he said.

When I asked Oscar why the government just can’t pass a law prohibiting blocking transportation routes and give the police the power to break them up, he answered, “Because this is a government that came into power through blocking streets.”

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