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The art of bargaining with Ecuador’s taxi drivers


In 2011 our son Gavin was living and working in Ecuador so it was an easy decision to visit. We knew we were in for adventure, we just weren’t sure what type. Taxis, cops and the wildest cab ride ever – wow, and that was just the first day. The grocery shopping was meant to be an attempt at recuperation. That didn’t happen.

Sunset over Quito, Ecuador

The first stop on our tour was la Ciudad Mitad del Mundo – roughly translated the City at the Middle of the World – the Equator. It traverses the north end of Quito so was not too far a journey. Gavin’s Spanish impressed me as he hailed the first cab. It’s always best to negotiate a price before you start if it’s anything more than a few blocks. Gavin asked and was told, “Quince.”

“Fifteen! No way! Ten! Diez!” The driver agreed and we hopped in and were on our way. I absolutely love these cab rides. They are better than anything you could find in an amusement park. It may be scary to some but I find it very enjoyable. They weave in and out of traffic constantly. I think the drivers find it a challenge and treat it as a contest. They have to beat their personal best to any given destination. Safety is an after thought, if a thought at all. The driver did indicate to Gavin in the front seat to put his seat belt on as we entered a random police inspection station. He didn’t give much warning so Gavin only got the belt across his shoulder as we drove through unencumbered. These cab rides are also a wonderful way to see how the locals live – to learn a little of their culture.

The equator is fun for the whole family. It’s a 2 dollar general admission, more if you want to go to the planetarium, then there’s an additional fee if you want to go to the onsite museum. There is serious controversy that the placement of the massive stone monument is not on the equator at all. Apparently, according to scientists armed with modern GPS technology, it is about 300 metres off. Not bad considering what was available at the time that this monument was built. It is possible that it’s the museum that is on the correct line.

The Ecuator, Ecuador

Upon our departure from the equator Gavin flagged down another cab and we got in. He asked how much to the Colegio Alberto Einstein and the driver responded, “Ocho.”

Ocho, no! Quatro.” Gavin argued but the driver was adamant. He saw gringo and Spanish or not he stuck with ocho. So we got out of the cab and flagged down another one. As Gavin was discussing the fare with the new driver damned if the first guy didn’t come over and tell the new driver ocho. Gavin was getting angry now as the second cab departed. He turned to me and said, “If he does it again I’ll just push him out of the way. I don’t mind getting in a fight with him.”

Of course Mom piped in, “”Well I mind you getting in a fight!” Gavin was successful this time and they agreed on cinco, 5 dollars.

The Colegio Alberto Einstein, where Gavin taught, is a good school by Quito standards. Gavin indicated it is ranked about 5th out of perhaps dozens in the city. Like everything else here, it’s different. For starters the sculptures and graffiti-like paintings on the grounds are fabulous. There are no internal corridors so the school is designed with central courtyards throughout. The kids’ lockers are all outside and there is obvious attention paid to sports; soccer and basketball in particular. Karen and I noticed when we arrived that sports are important here. Every park has a soccer team practising and this morning we saw huge cheerleading squads rehearsing. Gavin indicated that cheerleading is not for the sports but is conducted at a competitive level in Ecuador.

School sculpture, Ecuador

We collected our licenses on the way out. They had been taken as we entered. Say what you will about their lack of traffic safety, but when it comes to security Ecuador rules. Gavin’s apartment has 3 levels of security. There is a locked gate/door at the front of his building on the street. You then walk through a bit of a courtyard, along a short driveway to the door to his and 2 other apartments. Here there is a key and keypad entry requirement. Finally at the top of 4 flights of stairs they enter their own apartment. Here there is a locked door with the added security of an iron gate which closes over the front door and locks.

The cab ride from the school to the apartment was the wildest and the best yet. As we left the school we passed a bank that was surrounded by about a dozen police officers on motorcycles with lights flashing. I can only guess a bank robbery or an attempted one had just occurred.

I swear that the drivers here all think they are playing a video game every time they get behind the wheel. I’ve always maintained, “Don’t let anybody in; just drive.” That is certainly the best way in Quito. A hundred and twenty kilometres an hour on the straightaways through the centre of the city – wow, that will either get your adrenalin going or stop your heart, one or the other. Red lights? Merely decoration. If you’re first in line just look around and if there’s an opening (not necessarily a safe one) then you’re good to go – full speed ahead. Finally, signals are easily replaced by horns. Horns are also used to politely indicate to the driver in front of you that the light has changed. It is sounded harshly about 4 nanoseconds after the light changes.

If we take anything away with us from Ecuador it will be that things are really different there. The mall was just like any North American mall. The clothing stores, hobbies and games, book stores and food courts were all just like you see in any mall. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Spanish signs, you would never know you weren’t at home. I did however get a real kick out of a young military guard with a powerful shotgun in his hands. I asked Gavin why he was here. The response was that he was likely the security guard for the fried chicken establishment in the mall. Jumpin’ Jesus! How much of that stuff do they sell around here!?

More by this author on his website and blog.

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