Ticket to ride or being taken for a ride? Photo: Getty Images

Faster Thinking

Can you judge a city by its cab drivers?

A taxi ride can be as integral a part of a trip as a flight, but they’re not just about taking you from point A to point B. According to travel writer Ben Groundwater, they can also give you an interesting insight into the destination you’re visiting.

The taxi driver was mumbling to himself. Actually, it had started as a mumble but he was now practically yelling.

Not being able to speak Spanish, it was difficult for me to tell what was going on. He might have been reciting his shopping list, berating himself for running a red light or perhaps he was completely bonkers. 

Five minutes before, I’d been so grateful to find a taxi that I would have jumped into just about anything. Bogota at rush hour is not a great place to be. The Colombian capital morphs into angry knots of traffic that become ever more tangled and the drivers all the more intense.

It was raining, so I’d been pleased to finally hail a cab, thinking my problems were over. Really, they’d just begun.

First, the driver cut across four lanes of traffic in an attempt to take a side street. Unfortunately the street was steep and his taxi was old, so it was never going to make it. It chugged and coughed before slowly rolling back into the four lanes of traffic. Cars honked.

“Muy bien!” yelled my driver, laughing as he indicated to change lanes. Of course he couldn’t indicate properly because he didn’t have an indicator – it had fallen off. He just put the hazard lights on and squeezed his arm out of the window to point.

I find foreign taxis like these fascinating. Not just the vehicles themselves, but the drivers. They’re stories on wheels. They are often the first locals you meet, and the last to whom you say goodbye.

Can you judge a country by its cab drivers? Sometimes. 

Indian rickshaw drivers are characters. They are painful at times, with their insistence on haggling and a reluctance to look at the road. But they’re never dull.

Iranian taxi drivers are incredibly friendly. In Tehran I caught a cab from the airport, and a few minutes into that first journey, while driving at 140km/h, my driver flipped open the glove box, pulled out an English phrasebook, studied it for a few seconds, then turned to me, smiling, and said, “Welcome in Iran!”

Glaswegian taxi drivers are storytellers. Their only downfall is they won’t let you out of the cab when they’re mid story. You’ve paid your fare, they’ve turned the meter off, and still they won’t let you out.

What about China? I was in a taxi in Beijing for about two minutes before the driver shared a little secret, “I am Beijing number one taxi driver!” Then he turned on the karaoke machine. Only it wasn’t for the passengers, but purely for the use and amusement of Beijing’s number one taxi driver.

Some drivers aren’t so representative of their country. Most Bangkok taxi drivers have tried to rip me off. Cabbies in Prague drive like lunatics. But it’s always an experience, always something to write home about.

Back in Bogota, I finally got out at my hotel, paid, and watched as the driver pulled away, still talking to himself, hazard lights still on, radio still up, arms still out the window, and rattled off into the rainy night.