The Taxi Chronicles – Part 6 – Conquering a mountain by moto

Conquering a mountain by moto

Local transportation is always an adventure and you just simply have to go with the flow. When I made plans to go to Tubagua for the weekend, I had great directions from the owner, Tim, saying that I needed to take a carro publico from Sosua to Gran Parada and then a moto concho to Tubagua – el hotel el Tim en kilometre 19.

I had purposely tried to pack light for the weekend, but that is hard when you are carrying photography gear for work! I had my camera gear in one back pack and my clothes in another, so I thought that maybe it might be better to take a taxi rather than a carro publico and then a moto conch. I got Tanya, the school director to call a taxi that Tim had recommended and thank goodness she did because she had a difficult time communicating with him and she speaks fluent spanish! I wouldn’t have made it past Hola! In the end, we discovered that the taxi was only from Gran Parada to Tubagua, not from Sosua. So, off I headed on my local transportation adventure.

I left Sosua around 4:45pm from my Spanish school, Casa Goethe. I walked about six or eight blocks to the carro publico ‘station’. By station, I mean one area where the carros line up and fill up with people before taking off. It is actually quite organized as the cars are often in a line.

I explained to him, in very slow Spanish, that I needed to go toward Puerto Plata, but get out at Gran Parada. I asked him how much and he told me 50 Pesos. I thought he told me 500 though so I told him that was too much and he dropped it to 45 Pesos. HA HA HA YAY me! I sure drive a hard bargain!

They asked me to put my bags in the trunk. This was scary for me because I was carrying $10 000 in camera equipment! I didn’t really want to let it out of my site, but impossible to keep your bags on your lap inside a carro publico. There just isn’t enough room. It didn’t help that the carro publico was a smaller car than usual which meant that it was nearly impossible to fit the four standard people in the back seat. However, somehow we all squished in on top of each other. I was sitting in the back seat, on the edge of the seat, holding on to the head rest in front of me for support against the bumps and turns. I bravely explained to the driver (in Spanish) that I needed to get out at Gran Parada and tried to explain that I needed to be in the direction to Santiago. He didn’t understand and then he thought I was going TO Santiago … So, I had to re-explain and a couple of the locals in the car kicked in with their Spanish explanations too. The driver said he understood, the little ‘neon’ size car was packed with seven of us and off we went.

By about five minutes into the drive one of my legs was bruised from banging against the back of the arm rest, the other foot was asleep and I was tired of holding on to the head rest of the seat in front of me! Comfortable is not a word to describe this form of transportation.

About ten minutes into the drive, someone got out … unfortunately from the front seat, so no relief for the four of us who were sardined into the back seat. The total drive took about 15 minutes from Sosua to Gran Parada. The other gentleman that I was sitting almost on top of, and who tried to sell me cashews when I got in the car, told me (in Spanish) that he thought I needed to get out. I panicked a little and asked the driver. He had misunderstood and still thought I was heading to Santiago, but now he understood I needed Gran Parada and indeed, we had just passed Gran Parada! He pulled over, let me out and I grabbed my stuff from the trunk. Phew! It was still there!

I headed back down the road about 200 meters to where the moto conchos were all lined up. As soon as I got out of the car a guy on a moto concho was trying to get my attention. I wasn’t giving him the ok until I got closer and could see him and his bike though. As I approached, they both looked acceptable (man and bike), so I gave a nod and he immediately sped off to pick me up on the opposite side of the road.

I explained (in Spanish) that I needed to go to Tubagua and he immediately said ‘El Hotel de Tim?’ Phew! At least he knew where I was headed.

I slung my 30 pounds of camera gear on to my pack and my light weight backpack with clothing on my front and awkwardly tried to balance while swinging my leg over the bike. It was going to be a long drive to kilometre 19 on a bad road with backpacks on front and back! Ha! Little did I know that it was going to get worse!

The first part of the road was a little bumpy. My driver skillfully avoided as many of the bumps as he could and I felt fairly safe on the back of the bike. Then the road got a little worse and was a little bumpier. The road is paved but has sections which are only dirt or really bad pot holes. Cars go very slowly through these areas as they cannot avoid the bumps. Moto conchos go a little faster because they can weave easier.

I’m not sure at what kilometre we left flat road and started up the mountain, but I would guess maybe kilometre five. As we started up the mountain, I reached around and held on to the handle behind my bum. I really had no choice as I had 30 lbs of camera gear making me ‘back heavy’ and I couldn’t hold on to the moto concho driver because we were separated by the backpack on my chest. As the incline steepened, as did my fear. Now, I wasn’t really ‘scared’, more just uncomfortable. I seriously was going up a mountain with 30 lbs of stuff pulling me backwards and trying to hold on with one hand behind my bum, my stomach muscles tightened and my thighs probably gripping the guys legs pretty tightly. Let’s not forget the clenched teeth too!

By about kilometre 10 and still going up the mountain I started to wonder if I could clench all of these muscles and hold on for another nine kilometres. I had a hot / cold flash as I thought about the possibility of falling backwards off the bike with no helmet on … and I clenched my legs tighter.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have been afraid at all if I was holding on to the guy in front of me or if I didn’t have the 30 lbs of camera gear on my back. I’m sure the moto concho guy would have loved for me to wrap my arms around him for the 19 kilometre drive, but, alas, it isn’t really appropriate to hold on with a death grip to your taxi driver! So, I refrained.

At some point as we bounced around and dodged pot holes, I asked my driver for his name. Surprisingly I only had to ask twice to understand that it was Miguel. I didn’t understand much else of what he said though. More because of the wind than anything though.

Shortly before arriving at Tubagua, Miguel pulled over and said hello to a woman who came over to the moto concho and hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I had no idea what was going on … why was my moto concho stopping on the side of the road to introduce me to a woman? Was I supposed to get off here? If so, where was the lodge? And, did he really know where he was taking me? He told me I wasn’t getting off there, and after the introduction was done, we continued on, up up up the hill for another couple of kilometres where he pulled over again by a small hut with a group of young guys sitting around.

I tried to get off the bike, but one of my backpack straps had gotten caught during the ride. Luckily one of the guys rushed to my assistance to untangle me. My dismount from the bike was certainly less than graceful with my front and back, back packs! And then, when both feet were on the ground I was stuck with a cord between my legs and it was stuck on the other side of the bike. For a brief moment I was having a flash back to my Galapagos Adventures with the Lifejacket Complications.

The young man quickly freed the cord and I was able to move. I asked ‘Cuanto cuesta’ (how much) and the same young man responded ‘One hundred’ (Pesos that is, not dollars). A moment later he was sitting down talking to his friends (in Spanish) and telling them that I speak English. Being brave, I piped up … ‘And Spanish too’. Well, I guess they were impressed! I then lost my bravery and followed up with ‘poquito’, meaning a little.

They then pointed up the hill and off I started trekking up the dirt road, to where, I still didn’t know. I hadn’t seen a sign for the Lodge and from the bottom of the hill I couldn’t really see anything that resembled a lodge. None the less, up the hill I went with two backpacks. I was happy to be on my own two feet and excited that I had conquered the mountain by moto concho!

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The taxi Chronicles – Part 5 – Carros Publico

Transportation in other countries is always an interesting topic of conversation because it varies greatly from location to location. Having traveled to many countries and used many types of transportation, not a whole lot surprises me any more. It does however amaze me that there are not more deaths by ‘fender’ in these countries.

My first day of school also became my first experience with the public cars (el carro publico), which are kind of a cross between buses and taxis here. Right now I am living in the Zona Colonial which is about 15 minutes by carro pulico to my school. I walked with my house – sisters about 5 or 6 blocks from our home to a street where there are various beat up old cars with their roofs painted either green or yellow. That is how you know they are an official carro publico.

Let me just say this … No one, I mean really, NO ONE in Canada drives a car as dented, rickety, mismatched and questionable as about 60% of the cars here. An additional 25% are about the same as what we consider old beaters at home and then the remaining 5% are new (made within the past five years) vehicles. In fact, I walked passed the KIA dealership here today!

Here in Santo Domingo, you can take three modes of local transportation:
1. Guaguas, which are city buses. I haven’t been on one in the city yet, but they work similar to other cities, where they have set routes and there are marked stops on the side of the roads where you can get on or off.
2. Taxis are the cars you call (or stop on the street) when you want to go somewhere without anyone else in the vehicle, when you need to get somewhere specific as quickly as possible or when all else fails!
3. Carros Publicos are cars, but they carry multiple people, cost a set rate per usage and operate only on a specific route. You can ask them to drop you off at any point on the street close to your destination, and if they have room, they will stop anywhere on their route to pick you up, you just have to wait for them.

Carros Publico work like this:
You find out which streets have the main routes for carros publicos. For us, we get a car about six blocks from our house, very close to Parque Indepencia. As you walk up the street there is a line up of the green or yellow topped cars parked along the side of the street. Really, you are taking your chances in any of them, but you look for the one that looks to be in the best condition, with a friendly looking driver and cram yourself in. The carros publico do not move until they are full. This means that you squeeze four adult bodies in the back seat of a small car and the driver plus two more adults in the front seat. Luckily there are three of us always traveling together, so we are mainly squished against each other, but if you are traveling alone, you get up close and personal with the other people in the car. Often this means nearly sitting on someone’s lap, putting your arm around someone, all while holding on for dear life!

To further help you get the feel for the entire experience, picture cramming yourself in a box with only a couple of cut outs for windows, heated to 40 degrees and then invite four strangers to join you. Then, wait three to five more excruciatingly hot minutes for one more person to squeeze themselves in. By the time you start moving in the little hot box of a car, you are dripping with sweat and sharing that sweat with those around you. There is no way not to sweat on each other in a carro publico and there is no room for personal space!

It takes us about 15 minutes in the car to make our way to the school. The traffic is congested, often three cars wide with only two lanes. No one uses signal lights (I doubt they even work in the cars) and everyone uses their horns! Although, they actually use their horns much less here than I remember in Quito, Ecuador where it was a symphony of horns constantly! Occasionally drivers obey stop lights, but they very rarely stop for pedestrians or even bother to slow down to avoid them.

A few short little details about things I’ve found interesting or funny about carros publico.

1. Because four people are crammed in the back seat, it almost always takes the fourth person two or three tries to get the car door closed.
2. Similarly, when someone needs to get out of the back seat the pressure is released and it is like the gates of a dam opening. You have to catch yourself from being swept away in the rushing waters of bodies falling out of the crammed car! It is kind of funny when you open the door and feel your balance shifting to the outside of the car. You really have to catch yourself to not completely fall out.
3. Having said that, sometimes the car doors do not shut so well. So, it is possible to be driving down the road and the car door that has jammed you into the car might just give way and open up. Mine did this the other day, but thankfully there were only three of us in the back seat at the time, so I did not fall out. I think we hit a bump and the door jiggled open. I quickly gave it a tug and then made sure the handle was secured back in place to hold the door shut.
4. The interior of the car is never clean. These cars see a hundred different people a day, hot and sweaty, sometimes people dirty from having worked outside all day. One day in particular, the group of us got in a car that had no fabric lining on the inside of the car doors. I noticed after I pulled on the metal of the door to shut it that my hands were immediately filthy. It is near impossible to stay clean here. I haven’t bothered to even wear my white shorts here yet!

Overall, the carros publicos are quite efficient. They get us to where we want to go for just 25 Pesos (approximately $.60cents). Yes, that’s right, a 15 minute cab ride (albeit very crowded and hot), for less than $1. It is definitely cheap here! Once you know where to get the car that goes on the route you want, they are easy to find, easy to use and well, pretty much as safe as it gets here.

The Taxi Chronicles – Part 4 – The Attack

March 1, 2012

Just a short, funny story for you to enjoy (at my expense) …

On our final night in Lima, our G Adventures guide took us out for a lovely anticuchos supper ( similar to kebabs). I hadn’t been feeling well since Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. It seems that traveler’s diarrhea had taken a hold. We were at a restaurant that is very well known for it’s anticuchos and I didn’t want to miss out on the great local food, so I ordered chicken with corn. Yummy! It really was a great meal. I was careful not to over eat because my tummy was upset, but none-the-less, I needed food!

After supper we took a short walk around the area and then Andres (our guide) hailed a group of cabs for us so we could head to our next ‘surprise’ destination. He wouldn’t tell us where we were going, just put us in taxis and off we went.

Lori and I were in the back seat of the taxi having a nice little conversation. I remember very clearly that we were driving down a main highway when the attack came!

My tummy started to grumble at me. I continued my conversation, but it got more laboured to speak.

For anyone who has ever suffered from IBS or traveler’s diarrhea, you understand the panic that comes over you when you have to go to the bathroom immediately. Ok, I can already hear some of you laughing! I know it has happened to you. When I say immediately, I truly mean it. There is no warning. There is no spare time. In fact, if I was sitting comfortably in my living room at home, I might not even make it to the nearest bathroom! It is immediate. It is an attack!

In the middle of my conversation, in the middle of a sentence … I stopped talking.

Then a moment later I told Lori … ‘I’m sorry I can’t talk right now. I think I need a bathroom.’

This, however, was a problem as we barrelled down the huge highway with no idea where we were headed. What was I going to do? How would I ever tell the taxi driver (in my extremely broken spanish) that I needed a bathroom immediately? And, even if he pulled over to the side of the highway, it isn’t like that was going to do me any good!

Bless her heart, I remember very clearly Lori saying ‘It’s ok Shari. Is there anything I can do? Do you need to hold or squeeze my hand?’.

It took everything I had in me to concentrate on breathing through the pain and quite honestly, to hold it in so I didn’t have an accident! I am not exaggerating! I closed my eyes and breathed, just hoping and praying that we got to our destination soon and that there would be a bathroom. Lori understood and sat in silence.

After a few excruciating minutes, the pain subsided, the emergency lessened and I was able to breathe almost normally .. Still very aware that it would likely come again!

We exited from the highway and in to a sketchy area of town. The taxi driver immediately told me to put my phone and camera away, roll up the window and lock the door. Like I needed the shit scared out of me at this point! (ha ha ha)

He didn’t have to tell me twice, that’s for sure! Just looking out the window at the characters on the street made me want to move to the middle of the car and cower!

We arrived safely, and miraculously, the urgency had passed. I didn’t feel the need to rush to a bathroom at all. And good thing, because I think most people were just using the sidewalk as their ‘stall’.

Just another adventure in my travels … traveler’s diarrhea – attacks in taxi.

The Taxi Chronicles – Part 3

Feb 26, 2012

After a wonderful cultural day in the community of Taray with our home stay families from Ccaccaccollo, we walked across a foot bridge and then into the town of Pisac.

Foot bridge Taray, Peru

Foot bridge Taray, Peru

I thought that the bridge was for pedestrian traffic only, but quickly found out that the rickety old bridge was used for tuk tuks too. Yikes! Better get out of the way and off the bridge. The river is raging below!

In Pisac, we sat down for coffee and dessert at a cafe and for a breath of civilization after having spent 48 hours in Ccaccaccollo which was a pretty big adjustment for all of us.

After dessert, it was time to head back to our home stay families to tuck into bed for the night. Andres (our G Adventures guide), walked out to the main road and began talking to the taxi drivers to find one who would take all six of us to Ccaccaccollo. It was a bit of a challenge because most of the taxis were cars, not vans. And, most of them were hoping for fares headed to Cusco where they could get return business to Pisac, not to Ccaccaccollo which there would be no chance of getting someone to hire them to come back down. Not to mention that it was night and the road up the mountain was dangerous in the day time!

Andres finally found a driver willing to do the trip. Edward stuffed himself in the front seat where there would be the most room for his long legs. The girls smooshed in the back seat and that left Steve and Andres to hop in the trunk … well, more like the hatchback part, not really a trunk. It was a little like sardines for the next 30-45 minutes around big turns, up steep hills and in the dark. I was glad that I was looking forward and not sitting in the hatchback because it seemed even scarier to think of not being able to see what was in front of you and the height that we were traveling up and up and up!

It very much made me stop and appreciate all of the safety rules we have in Canada that are just not even considered in other countries! Seat belts are almost never worn in Peru. Maybe be a very responsible driver and possibly for children, but generally speaking, most passengers do not wear seat belts. It is quite common for there to be several extra people piled in a car than there are seats for. People ride in the trunks / hatchbacks of cars or on the open back of a half tonne truck without even thinking twice about it. Children sit on adult’s laps, or in the front seat. There are no booster seats or car seats for young ones.

It really makes you think when you start to realize all of the differences and the advances that we have in Canada in comparison.

About 3/4’s of the way up the steep mountain to Ccaccaccollo, we met another taxi coming down the long winding road in the opposite direction. Let me just say I was very thankful to have been on the inside of the road instead of nearing the edge of a cliff. The cars stopped dead in their tracks and then inched by each other nearly scraping paint off the sides of each other’s vehicles. It was incredibly nerve wracking just to see it take place and absolutely amazing that it could be done!

A couple of minutes later, our taxi driver let us off at the community plaza and we all went our separate directions to our homes. I crossed my fingers for him that he wouldn’t meet any further traffic on the way down the mountain because once was enough stress for anyone!

The Taxi Chronicles – Part 2

I learned very quickly about safety while in a cab! On my first full day in Quito, Ecuador, I had walked from my hotel in the new part of the city to the Old Town. You can read my post here about one scary little incident I had along the way. After my lovely tour of the beautiful churches in Old Town, I started my walk back out of town. Um, No. That wasn’t going to happen! Just in case you aren’t aware, Quito is in the mountains at about 8000ft. On my first day there, the several kms of walking up and down crazy hills was not my best idea! (although I’m glad I did it!). When I left Old town, about half way up my first hill, I saw a cab … walked over while he was stuck in traffic and sputtered breathlessly ‘Cuantros a teleferico?’ Meaning – ‘How much to go to the cable car?’

I honestly don’t remember the amount at this point, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I wasn’t in a negotiating mood, I just needed to sit down and catch my breath! So, as long as I had enough money to cover the trip there and the trip back to my hotel, I was good!

I jumped in the back seat of the taxi and tried to catch my breath. We had moved about 100 meters when the cab driver started speaking to me in Spanish. I had no idea what he was trying to tell me. At first I just assumed he was being friendly and trying to make conversation. Then he turned around and locked the back door on the driver’s side and motioned for me to do the same.

I remember at the time not really realizing why it was so important to lock my door, but I did it anyway. Was he just taking extra precautions? What could possibly happen? Was someone really going to try to get into the cab while I was in it?

This was the first time when it really sunk in that it wasn’t a particularly safe place and that it was so very different than home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It wasn’t so much the area that I was in right at that moment, so much as the area that we would drive through to get to the Teleferico.

It is one thing to wander into a seemingly fine area to be told you need to leave immediately, but it is another thing to be in a moving vehicle, with a local, and have to worry about thugs just opening the doors and stealing you, or your valuables. I’d like to think that the car could speed away and the thug would roll down the nasty hill that I couldn’t bear to walk up any further, but I guess that doesn’t happen if you are stuck in bumper to bumper traffic!

I had already been warned and warned and warned again about safety in Quito, especially as a young, blonde girl, traveling alone … but when a cab driver makes you lock your door, it really sinks in!

I wasn’t really scared at the time, just thankful that he told me to lock my door. We didn’t have any incidents. No one came pounding on the car or trying to open the doors when we were at stop lights, but knowing that my door was locked was a little extra protection between me and the big bad world out there.

We did drive through a few sketchy areas that day. This was more so outside the city once we entered the residential areas. Every city has areas that are the ‘slums’ of that particular city. For us, in Halifax, we have a few questionable areas such as Highfield Park and Gottingen Street. If you have ever felt unsafe in one of those two areas in Halifax then you might rattle to the breaking point with fear in some of the areas that I traveled through. Let me say, very thankfully, that I was in the back seat of a taxi with the doors locked!

The Taxi Chronicles – Part 1

In our little Canadian bubble, we would like to generally believe that Taxis are a ligit mode of transportation. Easy enough, you call a company that sends a car for you, you tell the driver where you are going and when you arrive, you pay him. Hmmm … seems simple.

What is normal and simple in Canada, is NOT the way it is in most of the rest of the world! I can’t stress this enough. Canada is one small part of the world and we live very well here, but it is unlike the majority of countries in the world. I can’t tackle all of the world’s differences in one post, so let’s start with taxis.

When you travel to other countries, you have to be careful about your taxis. In some countries you can call for a cab from your apartment or hotel, in other countries that is simply unheard of. In some cities you stand on the street and hail a cab (picture New York City), in other cities you wave frantically and they just keep driving by (Halifax – we don’t ‘hail’ cabs here!). In Lima, Peru taxis are actively out looking for you! I didn’t realize this at first, but once I figured it out, I learned to love it! If you are walking down the street, standing on the corner or just about anywhere, if a cab is coming toward you and doesn’t have a passenger, they’ll toot their horn. If you need a ride you make eye contact or give a little wave and they’ll pull over for you. You are NEVER stuck waiting for a cab, they are everywhere and they want your business. Now, it is your choice if you want to negotiate with several, but you never have to wait long!

No matter where you are traveling, if you are going to be paying for a ride, you should find out the customs and procedures for traveling by taxi. You might want to start with which companies are reputable and how to recognize them.

We’ve all heard horror stories of someone visiting a country where they thought they were getting into a taxi, but in the end they were kidnapped or murdered. Not all countries regulate their taxis like we do here in Canada, in fact, most don’t! In many places, any John Doe can pull up beside you and offer you a ride and take your money. That doesn’t mean you should take them up on that offer! Or at least not if you value your life.

While I was traveling in Ecuador and Peru, I made sure that I was always looking for the taxi sign on top of the car, as well as their ID badge or operators permit. When I could, I took pre-arranged transfers with tour companies or asked my hotel to arrange a cab for me. In most places this worked well, but it is a more expensive route. Airport transfers cost in the vicinity of double what I would have paid if I just caught a regular taxi on my own. However, having someone waiting for me at the airport with my name on a sign was always a relief as well, so maybe sometimes it is worth double! In fact, when traveling alone, not being able to speak the language and landing in a country late at night … I think the extra $10-$20 is well worth the piece of mind!

At Hotel Britania in the Miraflores district of Lima, our hotel was great about hailing cabs for me any time I needed one. They would also negotiate the price for you. If you told them you needed to go somewhere and you were willing to pay five Soles, they would hail four or five cabs until they found one who would take you for that price. If no luck, you could always pay a little more to the next cab if they said no to the five Soles.

One of the most important pieces of advice to remember is to ALWAYS negotiate your price before you take off in a cab. Most times I negotiated at the driver’s window before ever getting in the cab. Some taxis have meters, others don’t … some are regulated to use them, some simply don’t give a damn. I’m sure many of them are either working for themselves, or at least are skimming off the top to pay themselves a little extra. This is just the way it is in other countries. In Canada, that isn’t acceptable. In South America, it is an everyday occurrence.

Another important tip is to always travel with small bills and local currency. Taxi drivers do not keep an abundance of cash on hand and often are not able to make change for you. Because of the high theft rates they can’t keep a lot of cash in their cab for their own safety. Taxis are generally very inexpensive, so trying to pay them with a 50 Soles bill for a five Soles ride is just simply not possible. If you only have a large bill, you should ask the driver before you get in if he can change it. The word for change in Spanish is ‘cambio’.

More information about Taxis in Peru here.