Monday, January 25, 2010

Things they never told us about Taxi Drivers in Buenos Aires Part 2

(Continued from previous post)

One night past midnight we had just finished attending the closing milonga of Camicando at La Baldosa. La Baldosa on Friday nights is held at Salon El Pial, in the barrio of Flores. We needed to get to Sin Rumbo, all the way in Villa Urquiza, but how? Inexperienced, we failed ask the organizer to call a taxi or a remise for us.

The salon itself is in the middle of a maze of quiet, dark residential streets. There were no taxis to be found on the street in front of the salon, so we had to wend our way out of the residential subdivision - keeping our eye out for danger and observing the numerous prostitutes waiting for customers to pass by on the street corners or under doorways as we hurried along.

Finally we reached a main thoroughfare - however, it was very late at night and there was very little traffic. We stood waiting for a good ten minutes without any luck. Finally, we spotted a taxi. But it was a non-radio taxi. Should we get in? We decided to take a chance.

Of course we were nervous taking a non-radio taxi that we flagged down in the middle of the night in a middle of an unfamiliar area going to another unfamiliar area away from the safety and numbers of downtown. I think that is about as risky as it gets when it gets to taking taxis in Buenos Aires itself.

The driver was a young man, which actually makes it riskier (see below). We kept an eye on the areas that we were traveling in - made sure that the driver was taking the main routes, where there were still lots of people about, and lots of restaurants, bars, cafes and clubs still open. We could still jump out and call for help if necessary! But the other thing I tried to do was to talk to the driver. We would observe what was going on in the road - there happened to be a bunch of cars that were racing each other along the road that we were traveling - and make remarks like "Peligroso!" (Dangerous) or "Que pasa!" (What's happening?) to see what our driver would say. If he had bad intentions, we figured that by engaging him in conversation and observing his replies and reactions, we would be able to detect it if somethings was "off" about him, and we would cut short our ride accordingly.

We were about 2/3 of the way (and it is a long trip) to Villa Urquiza, and so far, so good. Our driver was a little quiet, but polite and normal. Then, we passed by a group of people in front of a seedy-looking bar. Our driver waved to them.

What was that all about? Worst case scenario: he could have been signaling to other people in his "gang" of taxi-passenger robbers. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“Amigos!” I exclaimed.

Our driver confirmed with a smile that he was indeed waving to his “amigos” (as opposed to a bunch of “bandidos”). After this, our driver cheered up considerably and became quite talkative – friendship is a big thing to the Portenos. We had just edged into Villa Urquiza and it turned out that yes, those were the driver’s friends from the neighbourhood. He actually grew up in Villa Urquiza – in fact, just a few streets from Sin Rumbo.

The lesson to be learned from this? Well, we took a chance and scared ourselves silly. But we minimized the risk by talking (nicely) to the taxi driver and making sure he knew that we were aware of what he was doing – without putting him off and giving an impression that we were "just another bunch of paranoid, rude and uptight gringos”. Good manners like your mother taught you and a friendly attitude can also be used as a tactic - for safety.

6. For safety reasons, choose an old taxi driver and not a young one.

In our experience, the older drivers (50+) are calmer and more professional. Having driven a taxi for eons, there’s nothing that they haven’t seen before and they are less likely to take risks in the street. They are more likely to be raised to have the good manners in vogue decades ago - which makes for a better taxi ride and less risk at the end of that ride of the driver trying to defraud you. The plain truth: what you hope to find in a good milonguero (good navigation, manners, familiarity with the culture of El Tango, calmness on la pista) you are more likely to find in a taxi driver who is around the same age as most good milongueros.

As for the young ones (40 and under) – some of them can be gentle, like the one who drove us to Villa Urquiza, but most of them, we suspect, would rather be doing something else rather than taxi-ing gringos around town.

This resentment can manifest itself as surly, bitter silence and barely perceptible grunts of acknowledgement when you communicate your destination address and when you pay your fare. Or it can manifest itself in road-rage at break-neck speeds. In the worst case we have experienced, our driver got caught up in a shouting match with a bunch of truck drivers in the middle of traffic – and almost got into a fist fight over the pressing question of “whose mother came from a country village and whose didn’t”.

7. Some Taxi Drivers can be a treasure trove of tango lore

Tango is a great way to break the ice with Portenos - that includes with Porteno taxi drivers. If we ever get into a taxi in which tango is playing on the radio, we will always comment on the music. Bonus points for recognizing harder to name pieces, like Pugliese's version of "El Encopao!"

If the taxi driver is at all interested in tango, he may give recommendations on where you could go to dance - we heard about Viejo Correo for the very first time from a taxi driver who went there to dance in between shifts. He may even point out tango landmarks, like the time our driver pointed out the stadium "Racing Club", for which a tango had been written.

Some taxi drivers may even be milongueros who have been featured on Youtube. On our second trip, we wanted to meet Osvaldo Centeno - and guess what, we found ourselves sitting in his taxi one night totally by chance!

Osvaldo Centeno with Ana Maria Schapira dancing to D'Arienzo's "Amarras"
If you are lucky like us you might get to ride in his taxi too and have a chat with him about tango!

8. The "Remise"

As far as we understand, the "Remise" is an unlicensed taxi. That means that there's no regulation, probably no insurance (for the commercial purpose of transporting passengers - god forbid you get into a crash) and the fares are rather mysterious. One driver told us that the return trip back to town will cost "the same as what you paid to get out here." Other drivers couldn't tell us how much it would cost in advance - all they can say is that they will know "when they get there." This is because the fare is dependent on the number of kilometres you had to travel based on the driver's reading of the odometer multiplied by a figure that isn't on a posted chart but is rather something that sprung out of the driver's noggin. Strangely enough, this fantastic figure still results in a fare that is substantially cheaper than for a taxi.

Nevertheless, the "Remise" seem to be an accepted way for people to get around - ask for the organizer or the doorperson at the barrio milongas to call a "taxi", and nine times out of ten they will call their handy number for a "Remise". Logically, it is safer to take a "Remise" that has been called by the organizer at a milonga than a non-radio taxi just off the street - I think we are supposed to be reassured by the fact that the "Remise" driver service is probably known by the organizers and used on a regular basis. In fact, one night getting into a Remise after a milonga, our driver realized that the previous passenger had left their handbag in the car - and rushed out to notify and give the handbag to the milonga organizer so that the item could be returned to its owner.

That being said, we've had some strange hair-raising rides on "Remises" - like the time our Remise driver ran through every single red light going into town. Was there a law that permitted Remise drivers to run red lights after 3:00 a.m.? Perhaps "Remise" drivers are known for risky driving practices - when Osvaldo and Coca called one for us to take us back into town after our visit to their house, Osvaldo told the driver he better drive well because Osvaldo had his "eye" on him!

9. Tip your taxi driver well for better karma

We don't live in Buenos Aires so there are many things we are unfamiliar with - like the layout of the city, like the language, like what the money looks like, etc.

The information that we get from the internet indicates that you don't have to tip taxi drivers much - half a peso or a peso seem to be the norm.

But since we are just tourists and not particularly sharp at spotting counterfeit bills or "switcheroos", we have to go by goodwill and good luck. Hopefully, the friendly conversation we have had with the taxi driver may have made him less inclined to defraud us. In addition, clear communication of a generous tip may also help.

We aim for around 10 percent, rounded up to the nearest peso. So, if the taxi ride is 13.5 pesos, we may give the taxi driver a 20 peso note and clearly indicate, "Podria darme cinco (5) pesos"? If it is a 25 peso taxi ride, we may give the taxi driver 30 and ask for 2 pesos back.

This is not because we like to be lavish big spender gringos. It is actually a psychological tactic. Firstly, we have done our calculation and we know exactly what we want back. Secondly, the driver will realize that since we are dealing with whole pesos, he could keep his precious change - the last time we checked Argentina is still in a crisis over "monedas". Lastly, the driver can do a little cost-benefit analysis and realize that it would take less effort to just take the generous tip than engage in risky sleight-of-hand with the bills.

Conclusion: Taxis are a great way to get around Buenos Aires - if you take a few precautions and have a positive, friendly attitude

It's not easy for a taxi driver to earn his living in Buenos Aires. The traffic is crazy, and the street layout is impossible, and there are all sorts of characters on the streets. Driving through that mess hour after hour, day after day can induce nervous breakdown.

It's even harder than before to make a good living, with the gas prices rising and the recession. Last March, in the middle of the recession, we had never encountered so many empty and available cabs.

We have it good as foreign tourists with favourable exchange rates - taxis are a good deal for visitors like us. Why not take a taxi if you could? Getting from place to place in a taxi is fast and efficient. You'd also be putting some money into the local economy. And who knows, even though we won't guarantee that your taxi driver will be treating you to empanadas at El Sanjuanino - you might even get to see and learn a little about Buenos Aires - and about tango - through the eyes of a taxi driver.


tangocherie said...

I think the taxistas in this city are nothing short of marvelous!

The first time I took a BsAs taxi ride was in 1997 and the worse experience I've had since then is one time years ago I had a 20 peso bill switched to counterfeit (in the days of one-to-one.)

Generally I find the drivers philosophical, political, curious, interesting, knowledgeble, and gentlemen, whether they are driving radio taxis or plain wrap.

The truth is that I don't pay attention to whether it's a radio taxi or not, but if the driver is smoking, and now, in the summertime, if there's air conditioning.

Irene and Man Yung said...

Dear Cherie,

Thanks for sharing your positive experiences that you've had with the taxistas - we had read all sorts of warnings and negative things on the web but our personal experience tells us that Buenos Aires taxi drivers are actually pretty wonderful!

Ahhh summer weather in Buenos Aires... today in Toronto we had light snow and blustering wild winds!

Thank you for your comment,

Irene and Man Yung

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