The descent into Santiago was steep. A couple of times we had that falling feeling you get in airplanes where you momentarily feel a few stones lighter, like when your lift drops a little too rapidly. We even shared a few gasps. The plane hit the tarmac with several severe jolts, safely putting the pilot in last place in the league table of landings. Somehow that seemed to suit the Latin-American temperament and it certainly wasn’t to be my last jumpy transport experience.
We eased through the airport – which was dull and clearly under instruction to save on lighting. Through a further baggage check. I think I looked quite Chilean on my 1990 passport photo, but clearly not sufficiently like an international terrorist. So our cases were x-rayed and I found myself deposited in the arrivals lounge, clearly looking rather lost.
The taxi drivers must have licked their lips, like lions coming across a confused gazelle in an unfamiliar jungle. The first man who approached me looked quite official. A uniform, albeit scruffy and a walkie-talkie. Maybe he was genuine. One of the problems is that the genuine people and the fraudsters all wear the same clothes, speak the same language and have the same smile and handshake. He asked, in very broken English, whether I wanted a taxi. I said I wanted an airport bus. “No buses” he informed me. He was “Mr information” giving the impression he was airport staff. And maybe he was!
I said I needed to get money and spied an ATM machine. No sooner had I extracted my 50 pesos than he was magically there again. Such a helpful chap, trying his best to help a tourist into his country. Such customer service – if genuine – was wonderful! So, now I had money, and was fattened up. Maybe he saw the 50 pesos and decided 80% of it would be a reasonable percentage for him and his associates.
And so he passed me over to Pedro (or was it Jim? – he was a very confusing man), who put his hand on my case and wheeled it and me off to his taxi. The trap was sprung, the money, with my case in his boot, and my cash in my bum-bag was effectively his. I have never met a more friendly taxi driver. I climbed into the front seat of his old, battered vehicle. No machine clocking up the fare. I was reassured to see something looking like a licence on his front window, but this was clearly the sort of mini-cab they tell you never to get into, even in London.
It was scruffy, stenched with smoke and most probably unroad worthy. I wound the window down a little to get some sweet, cool air. And so Pedro set off. Driving one-handed, smoking with another, using his mobile with another, and talking to me incessantly in Spanish, gesticulating to overcome the language barrier, often with all of his hands as the car drove itself, meandering across lanes, braking late and breaking whatever speed limits were suggested.
I didn’t catch what he said most of the time. He pointed out buildings. We both understood the word ‘football’ and I think he was also telling me about some woman who had large breasts and he lusted after (some international gestures are easily translated). He was happy that he knew where my Fundero Hotel was and seemed very jolly and friendly and typically Latin-American. A big chap with a big heart and a big swindler.
I never actually felt scared but, as we began to talk about money, I realised that this guy had my suitcase in his boot and could probably stop the car any time and deposit me without my suitcase. I needed him to get to the hotel and was glad that I only had 50 pesos. The thought crossed my mind that I could be driven into a forest and become another ‘missing person’ in Santiago. Would Debbie pin my picture onto the Santiago streets with “have you seen this man?” as I lay in a shallow grave following a blow to my head, administered by big, smiling Pedro and a man in a uniform on his walkie-tallkie?
And so the negotiation for the fare began. Not that I had anything to negotiate with except the Lonely Planet guide of circa 20,000 pesos, less if your Spanish was good. He counted on his fingers as the car drove itself. One-two-three-four. I carefully extracted a 5,000 pesos note in the vain and optimistic hope that this was a cheap/discount taxi and he meant 4,000 pesos. Clearly not. Eventually, I carefully extracted a 10,000 pesos note (about £10) and his eyes lit up. Again he counted on his fingers. “Too much” I protested. He just counted his fingers again. One (pointing at my 10,000 note)-two-three-four.
Feeling angry, but helpless (which is why I felt angry I guess), I again protested that this was all my money. He either didn’t understand, didn’t care, or didn’t believe me (after all I clearly had plastic as seen at the ATM machine and access to all my western resources). He had called someone on his mobile and this was the fare. And so I handed it over……one-two-three-four x 10,000 pesos, consoling myself that we were at least now in the city and the exchange rate was slightly more than 10,000 pesos to the pound, so maybe it was nearer £30. But the money wasn’t really the issue, it was the principle. I was paying £40 for a journey in a dirty, smoky, beaten-up vehicle and a manic driver.
Next, having extracted my 40,000 pesos, he wanted a “teep”. He told me the money I’d paid was for the “company” and put his hand on his chest and then held it out. He wanted money for himself and, while it took a few minutes, I understood, but pretended not to. A ‘teep’ I repeated quizzically, “I don’t understand”. By now we were in Santiago, speeding down the wide, straight, main thoroughfare. He pointed out buildings.
He persevered for a while about the “teep” and I mentally dug my heels in. I felt a terrible frustration from him and he stopped talking for a while. I finally felt I had the upper hand. It was his turn to wonder whether I didn’t understand or did understand. Whether it was genuine or not. So we reached the city centre and he turned right towards the hotel. I got my map out and pointed at the hotel and he made it clear he knew where it was and I could put my map away.
He tried again for a “teep” and the “company”. I shrugged my shoulders and feigned ignorance. And he gave up, “Okay”. We were now sat in traffic and he walked his fingers as if to say it would be quicker to walk. Or, more likely, he thought “no teep, no door-to-door.” So he let me out, opened the boot, and shook my hand. No hard feelings, Pedro! A home victory for him, but not by so big a margin as he would have liked and, there was some consolation in that.
Extracted from Around the World in 13 Days from 2005