Highway to the heart of a city

Caroline Berdon and Michael Wayne
(Australian Associated Press)

 

Overseas travel, for many of us, means taxis. If the airport is a city’s socket connecting it to the world, taxis are the energy that feeds it.

Cabbies see travellers at their best and their worst. They see them alive and elated, on an adventure and reconnected with loved ones. They see them after teary goodbyes, or when they’re jetlagged, grumpy and culture shocked. Some travellers forget the driver is there at all, subjecting him or her to intimate moments of love, or mean squabbles, or both.

For the lost tourist, the cabbie becomes – for a little while at least – the city itself.

And with the right combination of driver and passenger, the city can open up like a flower.

THE INSIGHTFUL HERO IN BUENOS AIRES

I’m feeling smug. I’ve got plenty of time for check-in for my flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago de Chile, and I’m looking forward to kicking back with my book in the bar.

Then confusion at the check-in counter. “Senora, you are at the wrong airport.”

“Que?”

I’m told I need to be at Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, in the city. I’m at the Aeropuerto Internacional Ezeiza, 22km to the south.

I panic. I have just over two hours until departure. In peak hour traffic, my airport is an hour and a half across town. I race to the taxi rank.

Enter Joaquin, my insightful hero.

Even though I’m moving, my panic’s still in high gear. So is Joaquin: we’re whizzing along nature strips, inching between buses and cutting onto freeways. I might end up a statistic, but I may just make it.

Oblivious to my chaos, Joaquin turns on the radio. The soundtrack of the city bursts incongruously from the speakers.

Tango may have a happy name but it’s beautiful and unspeakably sad. Created by immigrants in the city’s working-class slums in the early 19th century, the mournful tones and distressed lyrics cry of struggle and pain.

As the taxi radio wails, Joaquin shows me the streets and tells me the stories of his city. The music seems to voice today’s pain in a country where 30 per cent now live below the poverty line. I see a tiny part of it.

Endless rows of shabby unit blocks burst with life. Dirty air-con units protrude from the ugly buildings, a thankful relief for residents given most have no balconies. Teenagers loiter, looking bored and threatening.

My own, immediate problem takes a back seat. By immersing me in his culture, Joaquin becomes my hero. Thank goodness I mixed up my airports.

“What’s happened to Argentina?” I ask. We didn’t see places like this on my half-day city tour.

I hear about rising living costs, unemployment, inflation and corruption. We were told by our guide that during Argentina’s golden years, it was the fifth richest country in the world.

“It’s the government. But we have a new one now,” says Joaquin. All hopes are on new president Maurico Macri to turn things around.

But Joaquin seems jaded, resigned, helpless. I turn the conversation around. “Do you dance the tango?”

“Sometimes,” he says, “to forget the day, forget problems. Portenos love to dance. Tango is a connection, it brings people close.”

He’s smiling as we pull up at the Aeroparque. My insightful hero flicks off the tango’s melancholy tune and, in a flash, my connection to Buenos Aires is severed in exchange for the airport’s bright, sterile internationality. Oh yes, my plane!

As Joaquin unloads my luggage. I want to hug him, but consider this may cross the line.

It’s a strange relationship. We don’t know each other but in that dark car he saw me vulnerable, let me into his own head a little and he shared some of his city’s secrets. He also risked his car, our lives and police fines to get me here.

To get me home.

But this is any normal day for him. I settle with a good tip (the remainder of my pesos) and a huge smile. “Muchas gracias!”

Then I run.

THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR IN HONOLULU

My friend Richard and I need to get to Honolulu International, and thanks to an unexpected sleep-in, we need to fit a 45-minute taxi ride into 20 minutes.

We need a hero.

Enter the Man Without Fear.

He may have arrived at the taxi rank like a cool summer breeze, but once we explain our situation, the Man Without Fear becomes the eye of a hurricane.

The flag drops, and we’re hurtling through the streets of Honolulu. “I know a back way,” he says with a smile. “We get there no worries!”

Taxi drivers know their cities with the intimacy of a lover.

From the way he glides around the coarse streets of Honolulu, the Man Without Fear seems an experienced and confident one.

He’s still smiling when we tear around a corner to the back of a very long line of traffic. Beside us, pedestrians saunter up the empty footpath unhindered. We won’t catch them anytime soon.

The roads from the airport are designed to showcase Waikiki beach. Going back the other way, however, through an unfinished jigsaw of urban decay, is an exercise in futility.

Up ahead, the light is green, but we’re not moving.

TMWF is still smiling. I don’t know why.

It’s now that Richard pipes up. “I need a toilet,” he says. “I didn’t get to go this morning.”

TMWF’s smile only broadens. “Toilet! I know the one,” he says. We’re jerked to one side as he tears out of the line and down a side street.

“Is this toilet far?” I ask, my eyes fixed on the clock because I can no longer bring myself to look at the meter. “It’s good!” he replies as we turn a corner at speed.

Aptly, we stop at the Emergency Room of the local hospital. Richard bolts from the car.

“We get there, you’ll see,” says the Man Without Fear. There’s nothing reassuring about his tone or his smile, or the way he gets out of the car to have a cigarette – with the meter still running.

By the time Richard emerges from the hospital, we only have five minutes to get to the airport. I alert my driver. He grins.

“We’re already there,” he says cryptically.

We scream out of the hospital car park and cross four lanes of traffic. He forces his chariot down a tiny, one-way lane that appears to be going in the opposite direction to the airport.

I’m ready to give up.

But I’ve committed the ultimate taxi faux-pas: I didn’t have faith in my pilot. He pours it on, and the city parts her legs.

The lane spews us out onto Nimitz Highway, minutes from the airport. How this is possible, I’ll never know.

The Man Without Fear makes no further conversation. He doesn’t have to: by sharing with us his way with the city – fast and loose – he’s said more about both him and his cruel mistress than words ever could.

We blow into the departures drop-off point like a cool summer breeze, but Richard and I are both sweating. The fare is nothing to sneeze at, but we double it.

“You’re a wild man,” I tell him.

“I’m the man,” he says with a wink.

So he can blink after all.

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