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Panama By Taxi   1 | 2 

30 Nov 2001

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA — I don't have enough experience with taxis to know whether what we've seen here is consistent the world over. I've been on a few crazy cab rides in New York City — there, it's mostly just a race to move into that one free fifteen-foot space six lanes over. New York cabs are notorious for their weaving and speeding, but are even better known for their chilling accuracy. You're definitely safe in a cab there, even if the faces of terror you see flashing by the windshield suggest otherwise.

In Panama, however, I can't honestly tell where it's safe to be.

Our first chilling cab experience of the day came after lunch, trying to get from the eastern downtown area to our hotel. We thought we were putting our lives into our hands briefly by crossing the busy five-lane street to grab a cab on the far side, but we were only just getting started. We hopped in a vacant cab and named our destination, somewhat loudly, since the driver never turned his stereo down from 11. With the loud mambo music enveloping a 50-foot radius around our car, and the bass clipping and rattling my ear drums, we set out into traffic.

Even though traffic was solid as a rock, and barely moving, our driver weaved from lane to lane, continuously tapping his horn like a drum. One minute, we were stuck behind a line of cars, then the next thing we knew, we were three lanes further to the left or right, and Erin was in my lap or vice versa. Speed limits were mere suggestions to this driver, as he would go from 0 to 50 with no stopping in between, even on a crowded city street. He could stop on a dime if someone dared to challenge his presence in the lane, although he never did — just a long honk, a swerve, and the ever-continuous forward motion.

Sometimes, we'd be on a narrower road packed with only two lanes of solid traffic. That still wouldn't slow him down: he'd just hop over the double yellow line, and drive the wrong way past half a dozen cars until he found about three feet of space in between two cars to wedge his bumper into. In California, we surely would have been shot for this. I kept waiting to see what kind of retaliation the other drivers would launch, though nothing came, presumably because we never held still long enough.

At one point, about sixteen turns and five moving violations later, we were speeding along a straightaway, when we saw what may have been the most frightening thing of all: he frantically tugged and put on his seat belt. If ever there was a cue for us to do the same, that would have to be it. But then, thirty seconds later, he slowly passed by a policeman on the street, whom he greeted most overenthusiastically. Five seconds later, the seat belt came right back off, and we were back to doing 50. Come to think of it, the only other time he slowed to less than 10 mph was to ogle a woman in a tight skirt crossing the street.

Two blocks before our hotel, he picked up a new fare (also an attractive woman). However, in his haste or misjudgement, he ended up two blocks east of our hotel, on a busy four-lane, one-way street going east. But this cab driver wasn't about to be stopped now: he actually put the cab in reverse and backed up another block — even crossing intersecting traffic to do it. We made it to our hotel alive, and all for a mere $2.

How the heck do you tip for something like that?

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Last updated: 11 Dec 2001 08:03:31