Into Santiago

The following is a true story. Pick your taxi driver carefully!

With only five hours of intermittent, groggy sleep over a full day of traveling, barely awake after digesting course after course of First Class food, I walked out of the international airport in Santiago, Chile, and handed my bags to Ricardo, my newly acquired taxi driver. How I had managed to acquire him, I'm not sure. He seemed to magically appear at my side as I walked out of customs and into the mob of frenzied people that seem to be located outside the customs area at every Latin American airport.

"Santiago Park Plaza, por favor," I said to Ricardo, as he lobbed the bags into the trunk of a weary Datsun.

"In Providencia?"

"Si."

My impromptu linguistic abilities nearly exhausted, it soon became clear, however, that Ricardo knew less English than I did Spanish. No matter, as initially Ricardo was more interested in showing me exactly how fast the cab could accelerate while approximately pointing the vehicle at the airport exit. Only after getting the vehicle doing its best Formula One imitation did Ricardo turn and look at me, rattling off a few lines of Spanish brogadaccio that, to my point of view, were moving faster than the already speeding taxi.

The guidebooks warn you about this kind of driver, providing all kinds of ways to say slow down ("Podria conducir mas despacio?").

On the highway outside the airport it also soon became obvious that Ricardo had no desire to stay in any one lane for no more than a second. If he wasn't darting from side to side looking for that narrow passageway that would allow him to pass without losing more than one layer of paint., he would keep his options open by exactly straddling two lanes.

I chose this time to try out a line I had memorized from the phrasebook, Wicked Spanish:

"Por favor denos cascos," I said, politely asking for a helmet.

"Si," this was indeed funny, we agreed moments later.

Unfortunately, this simple exchange had a deleterious effect on Ricardo's already questionable driving. In retrospect, I suppose it is a bit difficult to control a fast-moving vehicle while facing backwards and laughing heartily. Moments after our exchange, he managed to enter the median at 120 kph and run over the curb of a road that crossed the divided highway.

Wump, wump, thwap, thwap, thwap, thwap...came the incredible noises from an undercarriage being done grave injustice. My head bounced off the bare metal roof of the cab.

Within a moment, all four tire hubs neatly acquired a notch exactly the shape of the curb. What rubber remained in the aging, bald tires was instantly disintegrated into a toxic black cloud that rose behind us.

Thwap, thwap, thwap, thwap...screech, screech, screech. Rubber on two of the tires gave way to notched metal.

The previously muy macho Ricardo had in my mind just become the venerably macho (and mucho loco) Ricardo.

But Ricardo wasn't done amazing me. His shock appeared to last no more than ten seconds. He quickly pulled his injured steed off the highway, got out, and shook his head seriously as he took in the damage. Out came the jack. Up went the car. From the roadside he scavenged some pieces of wood, and in moments, my former chariot was up on blocks, sans tires.

"Diez minutos," Ricardo said to me, quoting the standard Latin American time estimate.

Yeah, right.

Ricardo next hailed a passing bus, threw what was left of the tires in, and then climbed in after them, leaving me alone at the side of a busy, dusty highway in the middle of nowhere. What was once a taxi now looked like a candidate for extended parts scavenging. With a gringo standing next to it.

I thought I'd be okay--just grab my stuff from the trunk and hail one of the empty cabs I occasionally saw heading towards the airport on the other side of the highway. But Ricardo wasn't having any of that. Unnoticed by me, he had locked the trunk, and there was no inside release. With five thousand dollars worth of camera equipment now entombed, no way I was going anywhere.

But I refused to panic.

I looked for an alternate key. I looked everywhere for a hidden release. I tentatively examined and yanked on the backseat for possible access. Nothing doing.

So I waited. If this was some new-fangled tourist scam, it sure was a complicated (and slow moving) one. I fended off a passing pedestrian and a curious taxi driver who suspected opportunity. With no obvious, simple out, I was going to see what Ricardo came up with.

What he came up with was a set of workable tires. From what I have now dubbed the Divine Bus of the Tire Gods came Ricardo, smile on his face, rolling what looked like real wheels down the steps. Almost exactly an hour after he left, he was back and eagerly engaged in mounting his horse's new shoes.

Of course, close examination showed that these new shoes weren't exactly new. One had a mysterious bulge on the inside, while another showed the signs of having been forced into some semblance of round by an unidentified blunt force. Perhaps they were new to Ricardo--they were certainly new to me. All I cared about at this point was that they would last long enough to get me to the hotel (they did).

As Ricardo tightened the last lug nut, he looked up at me. A big, silly grin burst across his face. "Bienvenido a Chile!" he said.

Welcome, indeed.

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