Our current time zone: GMT +8 (We're home in Singapore!)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The CON-veniences of getting a taxi

While we were enjoying our 2D1N stay in Vieques, Puerto Rico, we were also primed and ready for a long journey the next day.

We were supposed to wake by 5am, leave the hotel by 6am, reach the ferry terminal by 6.15am, take the ferry at 6.30am, arrive in mainland Puerto Rico by 8am, catch a taxi to the Puerto Rico International Airport by 10am, take our flight to Orlando at 12.17pm, arrive Orlando at 3.21pm, take the next flight to Bogota at 5.35pm, arrive Bogota at 8.29pm, catch another taxi and arrive at our hostel "as early as possible" because it might get dangerous here when dark.

Needless to say, while we were watching the clock, we were also concerned about the cost of our taxi (also known as publico) rides. The publico ride from the Puerto Rico ferry terminal to the airport is about 2 hours long. When we had tried earlier to bargain for a good fare on our way to Vieques, the lowest rate we got was USD 80. Gulp.

When we arrived in Puerto Rico, however, we were pleasantly surprised that there were numerous publico drivers crowded around our arrival gate, offering rides to the airport at USD 50. Without hesitation, we selected a driver and set off.

The driver, a lady aptly named Mercedes, explained to us USD 50 is a very low fare, and enroute to the airport, she may be picking up additional passengers, since she travels on a fixed route. We agreed, since we were taking a van that could easily seat 10 passengers.

Along the way, she kept emphasising to us that the fare she offered us was very cheap, and even asked us for payment in advance so that she could top up the gas! A family board the publico and got off. Another lady also boarded and got off. And that were all the other passengers our publico was able to get.

At about this time, Mercedes switched into bargaining mode. She stressed that the ride was supposed to cost USD 80, and she offered the USD 50 fare because she expected to pick up more passengers by going a more leisurely pace. But she was unable to do so because we had to check in for our flight at 10am, so it was only fair that we pay her more.

We flatly refused, of course.

She then switched tactics.

"Why don't you give me just another USD 10, and I will bring you directly to the airport. No more going around town to see if anyone else is taking the flight?"

We were a little cheesed off by then, and right in the nick of time, noticed her passing a road sign that pointed to the airport. Knowing that we were nearby, we again refused and said that we have already been reasonable in allowing her to pick up additional passengers. Not our fault if there are none!

And before we knew it, we had arrived at the airport. With no additional stops or time wasted. Just goes to show that Mercedes was just trying her luck at getting more $$$ from us!

It is such a pity our last impression of Puerto Rico was of someone trying to cheat tourists.

-- 10.5 hours later --

We arrived in Bogota, Colombia, our first stop for the South America leg of our journey. Before our arrival, we had read about how we should be taking the authorised taxis from the airport. This is where you are supposed to go to a counter, tell the person where you wanted to go, and he would write you a ticket with the taxi fare on it.

If only it was so simple.

After the usual chaos of immigration, claiming our luggage and going through security, we found ourselves at the Arrival Hall, which was really not much more than a landing for the escalator. No taxi counters or directional signs in sight. We moved towards the usual crowd of touts and drivers greeting their guests, and saw a friendly face asking if we needed a taxi.

"We want an authorised taxi."
"Yes, sure! Must only take authorised taxi." He held up an official-looking identity card, "I'm authorised taxi. Follow me."

We followed him and he brought us directly to a taxi.

"No. We have to go to the counter to get a ticket."
"No more counter. We give you a ticket."

Riiiiiiight. Sighing, we piled in and gave the driver the address of our hostel, and were quoted either USD 17 or COP 35,000 (COP stands for Colombian Pesos).

Maybe we should have asked for a lower fare, but I doubt it would have made much of a difference.

"And you can tip me USD 10, USD 15... up to you."


By this time, Mr Friendly Face had also gotten into the taxi and the taxi had already taken off. Muttering under our breaths, we decided that our tip to him would be no more than USD 1. How can we give almost the cost of the ride as a tip?

His mention of a tip also got me suspicious. But mindful of the dangers we face in a foreign country that speaks a language we don't understand, I could only probe a little as the taxi sped on.

"Why are you in the car with us?"
"Because this is an authorised taxi, and I have to make sure the driver bring you to the correct place. I'm a bit like a tourist police."

So here's a tourist police, or at least a government official asking for tips? Didn't make sense.

But whatever said and done, we did get to our hostel safely. Yi Lin paid the driver COP 40,000 and left the other COP 5,000 (approx USD 2) as a tip. As we were struggling to get our bags into the hostel, the taxi suddenly stopped, and Mr Friendly Face came to us again.

"Excuse me, sorry. You gave too little."

And he showed in his hands a COP 20,000 note and a COP 2,000 note. Aghast, we immediately gave another COP 20,000 to him, and took back the smaller note, thinking that we had been shortchanged at the currency exchange counter at the airport.

It wasn't until later that we were convinced that it was Mr Friendly Face who conned us instead. Why? Because at the currency exchange counter, both Yi Lin and I counted the money received. So there could have been no mistake there. That only leaves Mr Friendly Face as the scum who gave us our first negative impression of Colombia.

And oh, according to the hostel, taxi fare from the airport should cost only COP 7,000.

Using a phrase I picked up from Wild Junket, (which was also featured in Straits Times), me cago en todo en Senor Friendly Face!



WeLoveRoy said...

This is all part of traveling in the 3rd world... you guys just need to do more homework and toughen up. Always remember its your choice to say "NO"! to these people. Its better to be a little nasty and then dwell over the money lost after.. haha we are Singaporeans after all!

Dannie said...

WeLoveRoy: Yeah, I think the war not to get conned by taxi drivers is the same almost everywhere. I wouldn't say Singapore is totally clean too, though I would love to believe it.

We hope this post may help other travelers to Puerto Rico and Bogota - maybe not now, but it's possible someone may chance upon my entry and be better prepared!

Yi Lin said...

Yeah, it was just an ultra bad day for us and we didn´t have the upperhand in both these situations with the cab drivers - i.e. rushing for a flight, arriving late at night in a pitch-black city we didn´t know much about, handling currency we were unfamiliar with, bleary from 16 hours of travel over sea, land and air.

Definitely a world of difference from our sheltered lives back home. Life on the road in the US and Caribbean is also relatively easy. Must toughen up! Grrrrrr!!!

Carol Mei Mei said...

Hi Dannie and Yi Lin,

No worries, practice makes perfect. You'll have a lot of practice on the road in SA. Chin up!! =)

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