Adventures in Yellow Cabs

A friend recently blogged about their adventure in a cab in Bangkok, Thailand and it took me back to our trip to Panama in February. Our cab experience is fondly referred to as “the cab ride from Hell”.

Here’s how it went:
Our daughter and son-in-law were heading home a day ahead of us and they had the rental car so we got them to drop us off at the boat dock in order that we might take a day trip to the island of Taboga (picture a very run-down Catalina).  While waiting for the boat to take us there, my wife thought it would be good to know how much it would be to get a cab ride back to our hotel so she wandered over to the taxi stand and next thing I know she’s on the cab driver’s cell phone talking to his dispatcher (because the driver didn’t speak English and she didn’t speak Spanish).  It turned out to be about $14 for the cab ride and we leave knowing we can catch a cab when we get back.

So late in the afternoon we pull back in to the dock on the return boat (there’s only one boat out and one boat back each day) and lo and behold there waits the same cabbie – a fairly big rustic-looking fellow (like a character in a Hemingway story) in his 60s, I’d guess.  He beckons us over and we climb aboard his yellow cab.  We ask him to stop on the way back, close to the boats to pick up some ceviche from a restaurant we had previously dined in, and out of gratitude we buy him some too.  Before we leave the restaurant he indicates the time of day and tries to squeeze more money out of us for the fare because of rush hour traffic (don’t ask me how that was all communicated, but it was somehow!).  My wife says “No – $14!”.  Well, off we go.  “Westin – Playa Bonita” we tell him.  It’s about a 10 minute ride west over the Panama Canal.  The first notion that something wasn’t quite right was when he went past the turn-off to go west.  “Westin – Playa Bonita” we stress again.  He nods his head “Si, si!” (Now there had been a lot of traffic diversions because of the Iron Man triathlon that weekend) so, with some apprehension, we sit back as we head north.

Then the fun really begins.  We turn off the expressway onto an exit ramp that heads east towards a rather seedy-looking part of the city.  Have you seen the movie “Contraband” starring Mark Wahlberg?  Well, a good part of it was filmed in Panama City in those neighborhoods – especially the robbery and big shoot-out scene.  And there we were.  By now I was beginning to wonder if we were being kidnapped to be held for ransom (these thoughts go through your mind at a time like that) and was thinking the only thing I had was my shoe-laces and could I strangle him with one if I had to?  I know – I’ve been watching too many action movies.  Of course, I couldn’t let on to my wife who was getting very stressed out that I was worried – I kept trying to reassure her that everything was fine.

Meanwhile, the neighborhoods got worse as we got further into the city and we began to take a dizzying number of turns and the traffic was getting thicker as the rush hour piled on.  Our cabbie – with typical latin machismo – jostles with every other driver on the road, forcing his way in and out of the traffic while getting noticeably tenser with some steering wheel thumping and gesticulating arms thrown in the air, sprinkled with the occasional “Santa Maria!” and other such ejaculations.  At one point he pulls onto a broad sidewalk and we go flying past pedestrians like something from the “Bourne” movies or “The Italian Job”.  By this time we’re rather wide-eyed and my wife’s finger are leaving deep impressions on my arm.

After about an hour of this we find ourselves back in the downtown area (which is mildly comforting because it doesn’t seem like we’re being kidnapped after all) and we pull up in front of (you’ll never guess!) the Best Western Hotel!  Aaargh!!!  He wants us to get out of the cab and pay him there (and believe me, we were tempted to!), but we were a good distance away from our hotel.  “No, no, no!” my wife says.  “Westin – Playa Bonita – not Best Western!” and shows him a water bottle with the hotel’s name on it.  We should have done that in the first place, in retrospect.  Then he goes ballistic!  Have you ever seen a grown man completely lose it in the middle of the street?  Not a pretty sight!  It was just as well we couldn’t understand what he was saying.  So after he calms down a little we all get back in the cab and he indicates by pointing to his watch and check out ticket that he was due to get his cab back to the lot and didn’t have time to take us to our hotel.

Another hair-raising ride later, we pull into the cab depot and he goes off to speak to his dispatcher.  We scramble from the car which smells like it is ready to burst into flames because the brakes and engine have been so abused and by now my wife is on full meltdown mode.  There is an armed guard on the gate (who doesn’t speak English either) and she is telling him (with much arm waving) that the driver is “Loco!”.  Our driver comes back out and had obviously got an extension to his time in order to take us back and signals for us to get back in the car which my wife adamantly refuses to do.  He becomes somewhat insistent so she takes $17 (all the cash we had on us at that point in time), pushes it into his shirt pocket and starts “going off” on him (with more arm waving) telling him to go away – there was no way she was getting back in his cab.  He wanders off mumbling and complaining while we wait for another driver who understands enough English to get us back to the right hotel.  It cost us another $20 but it was money well spent.  Finally, what should have been a ten-minute cab ride and turned into a two-hour or more adventure came to a close as we pulled back into out hotel.

Looking at it in the rear-view mirror, so to speak, it is rather amusing and is a fun story to recount (but not so much at the time).  I just wonder how successful I would have been with my shoe-lace if it had come down to that?