The news this month that New York City cab drivers could soon be fined for "conversations of a sexual nature" with passengers, will please young female travellers, who have endured suggestive banter from Big Apple cabbies. The regulations, still to be passed, also cover "unwelcome touching and ejaculation". Hurrah for that.
As an older woman, my conversations with cab drivers are more likely to be related to the weather (London), politics (Italy) and the All Blacks (anywhere in the world). No hazards there. But the risks of jumping in a strange car with a strange man in a strange land don't stop at flirting. Some of my best experiences have been with cab drivers who know the best places to eat and shop, but I have had my share of doozies and downright dangerous drives, which have heightened my antennae when hailing a cab.
One was in Noto, a beautiful city in Sicily, famous for its baroque buildings. I arrived from Taormina by bus at twilight. The terminal was deserted apart from one car and two men. "Taxi?" I asked tentatively, hoping for a steer to the nearest rank. "Si," they said, popping the boot of their beat-up Fiat and reaching for my bag.
The boot was littered with tools, and there was no beacon above the car that indicated it was for hire. All my instincts told me to walk away. But I was tired, plus Noto is a long way from the Badlands of Palermo.
Noto is a small city, about the same size as Timaru. You could circumnavigate it in 30 minutes. In the 20 minutes it took to reach my B&B, I uttered fatuous phrases like, "Questa e una bellissima citta [This is a beautiful city]," to build a relationship. They eventually dropped me off and charged €35 ($57). The next day, I walked the five minutes to the bus station.
I have also been taken for a ride in Rome in a cab where the meter wasn't on. When I asked the driver, he replied it was "rotto" (broken). The fare was a long way north of what I had expected. In another, the driver sighed apologetically, when I offered an €20 note for a €15 fare and said he had no change.
Most drivers are honest, but some prey on the naive or plain stupid. Others are downright bizarre.
In Hong Kong this month with family, I had a day to kill in the city between flights, and decided to head to Ngong Ping 360 on Lantau Island, where a spectacular gondola takes you to the Po Lin Monastery and Tian Tan Buddha. The weather was borderline and when we arrived at the gondola port the winds had reached gale strength. Nothing for it but to head into central Hong Kong. At the nearby cab rank, we asked for the fare in advance. "Maybe HK$200 [$37]," said the driver, a young chap wearing a Chelsea football club shirt. Time was tight and the driver was friendly, so we jumped in. At the first roundabout, we circled twice then left the way we'd come in. We laughed, sympathetically. At the second roundabout, the same thing happened. We were headed back to the airport. "Sorry," said our driver as we passed the departure drop-off, "I am new to this." The meter had already passed HK$100 ($19). "Best let us off here, mate," said my son, who had bonded with the driver over football chat. We paid $20 for a trip to nowhere. In this case, I chose to believe it wasn't a scam; just a guy who genuinely didn't know where he was going.
I hope he has a day job.
Simple steps for safer rides
In the interests of sanity and safety, this is my checklist before I hail a cab:
• Before you travel check out typical fares from the airport to your destination. Excellent websites such as TaxiFareFinder.com, WorldTaximeter.com or TaxiWiz.com offer advice on hidden extras. Travel guidebooks also provide information about taxi fares.
• Some taxi fare calculator websites show maps of destination cities. Bear in mind, cab drivers often know different ways to get from point A to point B, in case of snarl-ups. The shortest way isn't always the best way, particularly in rush hour.
• Know which taxi firms are licensed. Never get into an unlicensed cab.
• Don't get into a cab without a working meter.
• Carry small change so you can pay the exact fare and a tip.
• Familiarise yourself with taxi scams in places you visit.
• Ask for the fare in advance. If you know the fare should be around €30, you can turn down a driver's €50 with confidence.
• When in doubt, get out - especially if there is a risk of ejaculation.
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