Michael, Michael!….We are going to have to turn back we left a bag at the airport!!…………These words were spoken to our taxi driver who had just collected us from Yekaterinburg Airport, Russia, in June 2018. In our haste to locate his taxi we had left a carry-on piece of luggage in the airport car park. Michael or to be more accurate Mikael zipped down to the next motorway junction before speeding us back to the airport. Fortunately the bag was still there and after some negotioating with the local police, who thought it may have had a a bomb inside, we were able to retrieve it. An auspicious start to meeting our friendly Russian taxi driver, but by the end of the week we would be sharing vodka shots with him and his friends in his local bar. Our accommodation in Yekaterinburg was 15 miles out from the centre, on the edge of a forest. With no public transport and the language barrier likely to be a huge problem in this un-touristy part of Russia having Mikael as our link was a godsend. His English was good and he became our personal chaperone through the week, we simply sent him a Whataspp and he would pick us up at any time of day or night, he never once overcharged us, a real hero.
Taxi drivers have saved me from several dodgy situations many times before. Stranded on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa in Honduras after the late night bus broke down, I was able to negotiate with some locals with a car to take me to a hotel. The alternative was spend the night at a dodgy bus station until morning. Again these guys did not take advantage and try over-charge me, they were just happy to help a gringo out. In Brasil during World Cup 2014 our group had to get from Recife to Natal, but found that all inter-city buses were fully booked for 2 days. Fortunately for us there were several local taxi drivers operating out of a dodgy back street behind the bus station. After 20 minutes of negotiating we secured a good price for them to drive us the 4 hours up the coastal road. We especially enjoyed overtaking the bus we had earlier tried to book on!
Speaking the local vernacular always helps when abroad of course. I have had some of my best conversations with local taxi drivers after one too many beverages had embouldered my confidence to speak in their langauge. Taxi drivers are an easy way to meet a local person and have a good chat with them about their culture. Some simply want the fare and to get on with the job but the majority I have found want to learn where you are from and also to teach you about their own country and culture.
In a lot of countries you can negotiate a taxi for the day to take you around. We did this in Siem Reap with a local tuk-tuk driver who for the grand sum of $20 took to us around all the main sights of the town and Angkor Wat. For them having a full days fare guaranteed is better than lots of little jobs.
Not all taxi drivers are good though. I remember hearing tales in my Buenos Aires hostel of drivers passing off fake banknotes to unwitting tourists and then laughing as they drove off when challenged. Then there is the ubiquitous overcharging that is prevalent in all, not just poorer, countries. Always agree a price up front and don’t feel sorry for them like the Bucharesti taxi driver who told us about his ‘Quatro Bambino‘ as he asked for more money than we had agreed.
On the whole though we should salute these global heroes. Always there when you need them, a door to local culture and a great way to practice speaking the local language. Who knows you may even end up on a drinking session with them!