This week is Road Safety Week, which got me thinking about the different modes of transport that I’ve ended up in abroad. I’ve found myself in an eclectic mix of vehicles; from the back of an open top truck filled with crabs on the Pan-American Highway, to racing auto-rickshaws in India, to the unexpected luxury of a Dutch yacht in Greece. Strangely, however, the most danger I have felt myself to be in was in the backseat of a taxi.
Coming from a small Somerset village, my move to Ecuador’s third-largest city at the start of my gap year was my first ever experience of living in a city. My village unfortunately cannot boast the presence of a particularly frequent bus service, which means that in order to get anywhere you are reliant on travel by car, bike or magic carpet. Of course there is the other option of a taxi, but seeing as that costs a minimum of £40 to the nearest big place, only your rogue millionaires are able to see this as a regular option. Therefore when I arrived in Cuenca, and realised that I could get anywhere I wanted for $2, my world was revolutionised. No longer did I have to plan transport and worry about how to get to places, I simply had to step out onto the street, put out my hand, and be on my way.
However, my caring Ecuadorian host family were less happy about the situation than I was. During the first Sunday lunch in my new home, the Grandfather took me aside and vehemently told me to avoid hailing taxis on the street, as for a female foreigner this was very dangerous. I’m now ashamed to say that I did the opposite of his advice; instead I tried to be independent and live like a local rather than actually listening to a local who knew better. On my second night in Cuenca I found myself alone in a hailed taxi, unable to speak Spanish and without a working phone, with my only aid being a scrap of paper with my destination written on it. I was then subjected to 20 minutes of panic sweat as horrible express-kidnapping scenarios crowded my brain as we sped out of town into the dark Ecuadorian countryside. I’m sure you’ve gathered from the fact that you’re reading this that I was taken to the right house and everything was fine. This, however, meant that my blasé confidence grew, and from that moment on I disregarded the potential taxi danger I had heard about from my hosts and read about on the Foreign Office website, and continued to jump into cabs without a second thought.
Six months later I was still doing the same thing, which led to me finally finding myself in real danger. Coming out of a club at 5am in a small town, my friend and I planned to make our way home to where we were staying in the neighbouring place. Walking up the road outside we expected to see several taxis, however there were none to be found. At this point we started to worry. We had no taxi numbers as we’d never pre-booked before, and in the middle of the night there was no internet to look them up. The street was empty, apart from a group of men who had just come around the corner and were making their way towards us. At this point a yellow car turned onto the street and we quickly hailed it. We did not even give a glance to see if the vehicle had any official taxi signage, and it was only once we had climbed into the back that we saw there were two men in the front, not one. When we had first arrived in Ecuador we had been to the British Embassy for a safety talk in which they had expressly said that we should not get into a taxi with more than one person in it. However, in a bid to get off that intimidating street, we told the driver where we wanted to go and he pulled off.
Once the journey had started we began to relax; as of course it would be fine. It was only as we reached the outskirts of the next town and the driver took a left turn instead of a right that we began to worry. When he and the other man in the passenger seat began to argue, their raised voices filling the car, our tension in the back seat increased. The driver then did an emergency stop and threw the other man out of the car, speeding away from him into the depths of the town’s backstreets. For the second time we asked him if he knew where he was going, but he ignored us and increased his speed. I wanted to ask him to let us out but knew that perhaps our fate could be just as bad if we found ourselves lost in an unknown part of town. As he was forced to stop at a set of traffic lights I glimpsed a policeman on the side of the road, at which point we threw the driver 30 dollars and opened the door, running to the safety of a uniform. The policeman then found us a taxi which he deemed to be safe, and half an hour later we sat shaking in our hostel after being shouted at by the receptionist for our stupidity.
The more I think about it the luckier I know we were, and after reading some of the stories on the FCO website about people who got away less lightly I am almost sickened. However, there is plenty of FCO information about how to get it right and not make the same mistakes in areas where taxi travel can be dangerous. It is always best to book a taxi in advance with a well-known company, and it is no more effort to make a 2 minute call than to stand on the street and wait. However, if you have to hail one on the street, make sure that the taxi has the municipality registration number sticker displayed; the orange license plates or the new white plates with an orange strip on the top; and video cameras inside. Those details are specific to Ecuador, so check out what the FCO has to say about taxis in the country you are going to, and take note of what to look for before you get there. By all means get taxi happy, but taking risks in a stranger’s car just isn’t worth it!
For more information on how to get taxi travel right in Ecuador, follow this link. If you’re looking to research taxis in another country, head to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office website here and just search for the country or territory that you want to check out, and then chose the ‘Safety and Security’ section.