By Ken Merena
I would like to share a little tip with the rest of the expat community that has served me well in dealing with dishonest taxi drivers.
Ever since the use of taximeters became the law in Cuenca, I have occasionally run into taxi drivers who don’t use the meter, thinking they can charge more than the legal fare to unknowing gringos or other foreigners.
I used to get upset over this practice and would occasionally get into intense arguments with these taxi drivers. Then one day, I decided on a different approach. I got into a taxi and the driver didn’t turn on the meter when we began the trip. I said nothing. When we got to my destination, I remained calm and told the driver that he had two choices; either the trip was free, or I would call the police because he illegally ran a fare without the meter. The first time I did this, the driver just smiled and told me in Spanish, “okay, sir, it is my gift to you” and he calmly drove off. Needless to say, I was a bit surprised but very pleased. I had occasion to do this four more times with essentially the same result, before another revealing incident occurred.
I took a taxi to my house and the driver didn’t run the meter. I didn’t say a word to him until we got to my destination and then I gave him the line I just described. His response was, “go ahead, call the police”. So I did. I have learned to never bluff about anything because if you do and someone calls your bluff, your credibility is permanently destroyed with that person. I dialed 911 and was surprised that the police came in less than three minutes. In a few minutes more several other police officers arrived as I was explaining to the first officer what had happened. Without hesitation, they handcuffed the driver and hauled him off to jail. They later told me that the driver spent the weekend (three days) in jail and paid a multa (fine) of $76 and had to pay to get his cab out of the impound yard. If you think for one second that I felt badly for that driver because he had to suffer for his own illegal actions, you are wrong. I figured he might tell a few of his fellow drivers what happened to him and the practice which most of us have experienced would not occur as frequently.
That incident happened over a year ago and, in the intervening time, I have had several taxistas do the “no meter” thing again. Each time, it worked as it had the first several times and frankly, I don’t mind getting an occasional free ride from a dishonest taxi driver.
This happened about a month ago when my girlfriend was in a cab with me and I did what I just described. Yesterday, my girlfriend came home with a huge smile on her face. I knew something was up so I asked what the Cheshire Cat grin was about. My girlfriend is Colombian and is instantly identified as a such because of her accent. She told me that a taxi driver pulled the “no meter” thing on her when she took a cab into El Centro. It is normally a $1.75 ride from where she began and she didn’t say a word to the driver about him not using the meter. When she got to her destination, she calmly asked the driver how much the fare was. She was fully prepared to pay if he had responded with the correct fare of $1.75, but when he told her he wanted $3.50, she calmly told him she wasn’t going to pay a penny and if he didn’t like it, she would call the police. She had already gotten out of the cab — something you should always do before paying, even if the driver is honest and uses the meter — but much to her surprise he told her to call the police. Foolish, foolish taxista. Did I mention, she is Colombian? You don’t mess with Colombians. Everybody knows they are assassins. I tease her about that all the time. There were a pair of Transit Policemen right across the street and when she called for them to come over, they did so immediately and the taxista drove off, quickly. She explained what happened and they reassured her that they were able to get his cab number and would deal with him in the “usual manner”, whatever that is. Apparently, police are dealing with dishonest taxi drivers routinely in a harsh manner.
You can imagine how proud I am of my girlfriend. It was then that I thought I’d like to share this with other expats, thinking that if enough of us take a stand, the dishonest taxi drivers might think twice about ripping off what they perceive as being easy gringo targets.
I would like to head off criticism from those that may think I am heartless in doing this. I attended university for 11 years and for eight of those years, I drove a cab at night to support myself. I have great empathy for honest cab drivers and would never treat one unfairly. For instance, when I call my regular taxi company, and another cruising cab offers me a ride, I always reject it even if it would save me time. It is just unethical to take such a ride, even if it saves you a few minutes. Here are a few suggestions I have for the riding public, in general.
- Always carry change in your pocket so the cab driver doesn’t have to break a paper bill for you. He will appreciate it because it saves time and you will avoid the dishonest driver that may tell you he can’t change your $5 bill, thus charging you more than the correct fare.
- Tip only for exceptional service. This may seem harsh, coming from an ex-cab driver, but here, tipping is the exception, not the rule. Virtually no Ecuadorians tip.
- When you do get exceptional service, by all means, do tip. I always round up to the next higher 25 cent increment anyway. I don’t carry pennies, nickels or dimes.
- I buy $150 worth of change as needed at the Central Bank outlet behind the “hippie market” on Mariscal Lamar near Benigno Malo.
- Always exit the cab before paying the fare. Always check for your belongings before exiting.
- Learn how to activate and use the “Tia Poli” system on your cell phone. This could save your life in a true emergency. Talk to any police officer about setting this up for you. Basically, it entails having an officer come and take a picture of your cedula and then registering your cell phone number with central dispatch at the police department. He will then program the police number into your phone for you and even call it “Tia Poli” in your phone directory. Put this entry on speed dial. If you call this number, you won’t have to say a word. Police dispatch will know you are in trouble and will come to your location, using the GPS locator on your phone to find you. Naturally, this means you must keep that locator on. If you haven’t turned it off, it is on by default so don’t worry about it.
- Tell your friends about this. The more people that do this, the stronger the message will be to the few bad taxi drivers that try to take advantage of unsuspecting passengers.