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Riding a taxi in Panama City can provoke just as many emotions as a free fall roller coaster ride, but at only a dollar a pop. Similar to the roller coaster, you can expect to jerk from left to right, feel your stomach drop, tense your muscles and squeal with excitement and/or fear in a Panama City cab. Like most taxis, especially in third world countries, the ride can make you fear for your life. But, there are some unique characteristics about a Panama City taxi ride that make each one out of the ordinary.
Exterior and Interior of Taxi
Though rumor has it that all taxis will eventually be yellow (like New York City), it is still possible to observe the vast array of shapes, styles and sizes managing the streets of Panama City. Some are new and air conditioned, while others look as though they are from circa 1970 and have survived a serious fire and numerous robberies.
The exterior of taxis have a substantially higher amount of dents and dings than other cars in Panama City. Taxis drivers have one objective when working, to get the passenger to their destination so that they can pick up another passenger, thus increasing their cash flow. Therefore, taxi drivers do not seem to have the same reservations about making incredibly risky moves, and consequently getting in more accidents. The speed in Panama City is never so fast that there is any serious damage, but the remnants of these failed attempts are blatantly obvious. And, once the initial damage has been incurred, what’s another dent?!
The interiors of taxis can bring a smile to almost anyone’s face. The interior decoration of Panama City taxis almost always includes a flag or football (not the American kind) dangling from the rear view mirror, or the space where a rear view mirror should be, just obstructing the line of vision enough to make things interesting. In the United States and other like countries, our idea of what a car needs in order to function is relatively superfluous compared to Panama. I mean, is an interior really necessary for driving? Absolutely not!
Array of Honks
Many people complain about the noise population on the streets of Panama City. However, if we listen carefully, it is more like an urban symphony. Some honks are the typical “beep beep,” while others are analogous to the whoops and whistles of men trying desperately to get the attention of a pretty girl, or the whistle you teach your Cockatiel Pretty Bird. Either way, it is obvious that taxi drivers go to a lot of trouble to personalize their horns and feel a certain sense of pride, given they exercise the right to honk at every available chance.
Conversations with Drivers
One of my favorite pastimes in Panama, and in any foreign environment, is chatting with the locals. It is undeniable that one of the best ways to become acquainted with a culture is by interacting with the natives, in their mother tongue. In Panama, taxi drivers provide an interesting and entertaining interpretation of life in the city. My conversations with them generally start off, “Are you Swiss? You look like the girl from the hot chocolate!” Then, after clarifying that I am not from 19th century Switzerland, we embark upon an undoubtedly colorful conversion, sure to be the subject of dinnertime conversion (if appropriate).
A particularly exciting day was when I took a taxi driver on a goose chase with me to fix my car battery. As is a normal daily occurrence in Panama City, a passenger was already in the cab when I was picked up. So, I hopped in the front seat and we were on our way. This particular passenger, a woman about 60 years old, was undoubtedly a foreigner, most likely American, Canadian or European. Shortly after I got on board, we arrived at her destination. She handed the driver seventy five cents, and all fares in Panama City are at least one dollar. The driver said in heavily accented English, “One dolla’!” I turned around and translated, “One dollar.” She spat back, like him, in heavily accented English, “He took me around the entire city!” Apparently, she felt as though the driver had taken her on a while goose chase with the hopes of pulling a fast one. After listening to her short, heated explanation, she leaped out of the taxi and soon disappeared from our sight. So, the driver gave up and we left for my destination. On the way, he muttered to himself about the “whats and whys” of the recent situation. After five minutes of being stuck in traffic and the driver leaning over me to throw his eaten meal out the window into a garbage can, our rapport had obviously gone through the roof, and he began to inquire about why my “paisana” (countrywoman) did such an awful thing. “Doesn’t she know I have to eat?!” So, I explained to him that, although she wasn’t my “paisana,” foreigners generally implement the taxi protocol born from the etiquette of their mother land. Another day, another dollar for him, and a mini lecture about the cultural differences between one country and another.
It is never a dull day in a Panama City taxi.