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Volume 13, Issue 2: Pictura

The Mad Taxi

Nathan D. Wilson

His nametag said, "Victor Hugo." I suppose it was his name.

"Visa." I said, and held out my card. His face bore a condescending look and the reply came.
"No more. It is paid. No more." And he smiled at me holding his hands up as if my card were something too hot to touch. I set my bag back down and looked around the lobby. The feel was different in the morning light. The marble floors seemed more tired and the woodwork was acting older. I had expected the opposite. My eyes found their way back to my wifeís and then to Victor Hugoís.
"Who paid for it?" she asked me.
"Who paid for it?" I asked him. He didnít seem to understand, but he was not confused. His face said that we were. Then something dawned on him.
"Oh! Paid. You had voucher?" This was accompanied with gestures. "Airline," he hinted. My wife and I consulted each other with empty faces. Mr. Hugo was smiling again, but he didnít seem to believe in it as much.
"Which airline?" I asked, and suddenly the full absurdity of the entire trip began to rehatch in my mind. I was watching a large African Colombian with a shaved head scamper over to his computer to find out why our bill had been paid. I took a picture of his nametag. His glasses lit up with the blue of the screen.
My wife and I were leaning against a large, dark desk in the nicest hotel I have ever occupied. Outside a beat-up Peugot, provided by the hotel, was pretending to be a taxi. It waited to take us back to the Bogata airport. At the door stood the smiling Colombian in the red, brass-buttoned jacket who had been practicing his English on me. Back toward the wall were the roses that our Lebanese friend had been hiding behind the night before. Upstairs, on the third floor, facing the street, was a suite with a marble bathroom. In front of me was a man named Victor Hugo, attempting to discover who had paid for it. It was our honeymoon.


We had come into Bogata from Santa Marta on a domestic airline and planned on things going the same way they had the last time we had spent a night in Bogata, only a few days earlier. Things had not been planned then. It was simply an arrangement of the circumstances. The nightís end had found us at the Hotel Capital gazing at a harpist and a doorman with a sidearm. We had planned to see them again. But Bogata doesnít take kindly to plans. It finds them frivolous.
We both stood, backs clad in our packs, looking out the glass doors. The night was dark, as nights tend to be, but it was also frantic. And not an American frantic, though they will tell you that South is just as American as North. It isnít. It lacks the dental pragmatism of the North. People were wandering aimlessly, but quickly. Taxi drivers were laughing or chasing potential passengers or both. Those the terminal had just spat up toted impractical luggage to taxis and buses, some of it probably not belonging to them. The whole scene looked as if it should have been shrouded with the sweat we call humidity. But it wasnít. We were breathing the cool mountain air of the Andes, with a sweet, fresh opening and a coughing, diesel follow through.
Buses rattled by, and taxis honked their way out of the lineup. As far as the eye could penetrate the night, there was something worth seeing. A man walked by in an Italian suit too flashy for an Italian to wear. This man, as did the others like him, had a driver, shades to keep the starlight out, and a woman wearing purple on his arm. He walked slowly through the crowd, and the noise it made was as if it were nothing more than the cloud of exhaust we were all breathing. The cloud closed behind him.
Most of the crowd stayed close to the glass box protecting the international terminal exit. They held signs, wore uniforms, or just smoked. We did none of these things. We stood there and needed Colombian money. The previous week had depleted our stash of pesos and looking Bogata once more in the eye made the felt need for pesos immediate.
A currency exchange booth was not hard to find. There was one huddling under a green awning right in front of us. I kicked both our bags under its counter to make them inaccessible to the bustle and waited for the currency man. We kept our backpacks on. The booth formed part of the wall between the interior of the international terminal and the great, mad, world called Bogata. I waited. The heart and soul of the booth had his back to me, dealing his goods to those about to enter the glass, protective box, to be stared at by the occupants of the sidewalk and street. When he turned to me he did not speak, but simply looked at the twenties I had slid through the slot to him, and pointed at the sign that told me to present my passport as well. I slid him my passport.
"Thereís a lady from the Capital. Should I run grab her?" I looked back over my shoulder at my wife, and my eyes followed her finger to where she was pointing. There by the door to the glass box, stood safety. She was holding a sign that no doubt had somebodyís name on it. She was very small, and she was an escort for the Hotel Capital. She did not drive a shuttle, or anything else as far as we knew, but she collected international travelers who had reservations with her hotel and escorted them safely to their shuttle. When we had first arrived in Bogata we had been told not to leave the protective, glass box until such an escort arrived. Then we would be safe.
I watched as my wife caught her and began speaking to her in Spanish. My wife was no longer at my back and immediately a few others were. Three men stood behind me as if they had been produced in a magic trick. Just three of the many sights to see in Bogata. See the cathedral; see the salt mines; but if you miss those, as we did, be sure not to miss the magical men who will try to unzip your backpack when you arenít looking, thinking or feeling. If I turned away, my backpack was jostled without any apparent attempts at subtlety. If I looked at them they simply looked absently away, but held their ground. I took my pack off and set it on the other bags in front of me and tied my sweatshirt over my wallet pocket.
The currency man was still consulting his computer. An awfully long time, I thought. I looked back over at my wife to see if she still had her backpack. But she was safe. She was with the little girl from the Capital. The escorts from the Hotel Capital filled me with amaze. Having been told inside the airport that I would not be safe outside unless one of these girls came, I had been expecting something a bit scarier than mini-skirts, capes, and shirts that look like the word "blouse" sounds. Actual capes. Fastened around the neck and draped behind them. Perhaps the capes are what made them so protective. Or perhaps it was the fact that along with their signs, they carried walkie-talkies. The Capital girl that my wife had captured was using hers now, and my wife was motioning for me to come over.
The crazy, cool, airport activity that felt sweaty had, if anything, picked up. My currency was stowed in safety before I joined my wife in the protective aura of the blue cape. More international flights had apparently unloaded.
My eyes bumped into and rested on the pole of the crowd, the fixed point around which the bustle spun like hands on a clock. He had not been there long, and I wondered why we hadnít missed him before he came. He was central to the whole scene. I was still and watched him. He was still. All else was moving. His gleaming shoes were planted not too far from where my toes breathed through the freedom of sandals. In a black, fitted, wool coat that hit his knees, he proclaimed the fact that he did not belong in Bogata at all. He stood and grinned, and the world spun. I stood and grinned, and for a moment both giddy and solemn, the world kept spinning, and we were still. The tide of the crowd roared around us, and we were untouched. Then my bag jerked in my hand, and I was washed away.

The Ride

Bogata night was streaming thick and oily around the taxi. Cold air was hitting my face from the window the man in the wool coat was using to vent his cigarette. By his own report, he was Lebanese. He was pressed up against my left side smoking intently. Still sedately confused, his smile had never left his face. My wife was on my other side. The three of us more than filled the back seat of the diesel powered cab. Driving was a very small man, with a very small face that looked as if it hadnít always been small. His brow hung very low, like the heavy lip of an eroding bank. His nose was hooked down and over lips that rode high on the saddle of his chin. His bald head was bordered with feather down, and his eyes, which I stared at in the mirror, were dancing like boys about to do a trick. In the seat opposite him there sat a woman of unknown origin. We did not know where she had come from, but we knew what she was doing.
It had been a high-paced dash. My wifeís bag had been taken from her--a porter. She had stood next to me and watched a bald head run out into the street, her bag in its wake. I had shared the handle of my bag with another eager porter. He had pointed madly at the departing bag as if he did not want the two friends parted. The Capital girl had jabbered, while she led us off in the same direction. My bag then left me and scampered on ahead.
ďThe Capital is full." My wife had informed me. "But sheís called and made reservations with another hotel. Sheís taking us to a taxi." And so she was.
We had arrived at the cab in a flurry of baggage, Spanish and people. My wife and I had stood by the door and watched the trunk packed with conviction. The Capital girl had managed to vanish, and we were left with our baggage handlers. A tip was extorted.
When I had looked up from the packing, I was once again staring at a pale, smiling face above a black, fitted, wool coat. He was standing just as he had been outside the terminal, only now he was stationed by the door of our taxi. More bags were being put into the trunk. I had looked from them to him and back again. He didnít seem to notice me. Not sure whether this was his taxi, and he was taking our bags, or if it was ours and we were taking his, or if we were sharing this small chariot as the data seemed to indicate. We had seemed to be beyond the human chaos that lapped the sides of the terminal, but chaos remained, the chaos of taxis, buses and half buses, all parked, parking, leaving and honking their potent South American horns.
The wool coat had climbed in first. I had ducked after him, and my wife after me. A woman had jumped into the front seat.

"I have not had a cigarette in eleven hours." His smiling face pulled at the cigarette and then blew the smoke out the window to add its flavor to Bogataís. "From London, I have not been able." His accent was tired, but always laughing. He spoke in English, not for our benefit, but because he did not know Spanish, and the woman in the front seat had addressed him in English. She had already claimed to know his brother. He had looked dubious. She had also claimed to be a diplomat. We had looked dubious. We just wanted to know why she was in our taxi and where we were going.

"It is not cold here." He continued, and once again offered me a cigarette. The woman in the front seat had lit his, and was still twisted around in her seat.
"Ah, we have all weathers in Colombia. North it is warm, but in Bogata, it is very cold." She spoke as if she were agreeing. The Lebanese guy noticed the discrepancy, and grinned wider without any apparent curiosity as to which party had miscommunicated. He pondered his cigarette for a moment, and then seemed to find common ground.
"In Russia, it is cold." And he pulled at his cigarette. I laughed, my wife laughed, the woman in the front seat chuckled trying to get the joke, but the Lebanese guy laughed loudest, for he had the laugh of one who speaks in a second language and is unsure of what he has said. He was confused, lost, and calm, but he was enjoying the success of his comedy. "I was in the Ukrainium for two months." He added. "It was so cold, when you reach for money to buy something, hands turn ice." And he showed me his hand. They didnít look as if they had ever worked at anything. They were as well-tended as his hair. "Ice." He repeated. "Only Lebanese were out."
"Is it cold in Lebanon?" my wife asked.
"No. Like here." He said, and pointed at everything with his cigarette. At this point I addressed the woman in the front seat. She seemed to have control of our driver, a situation that did not sit comfortably with me.
"Where are we going?" It was a basic question and it got a basic answer.
"To a hotel. It is on the north side."
"Is that close to the airport?"
"No. Very far."
"Then why are we going there? We all have flights out tomorrow."
"It is very nice. Very expensive. Maybe too expensive. We can take you somewhere else perhaps?" Wanting to keep this night as simple as possible, I answered in the negative. She was forced to address the Lebanese guy in English, she didnít seem interested in us, and this was far more difficult with us listening in. Or so I thought.
"The north side of Bogata." I said.
"Very expensive." She replied. It was at this point that our taxi driver joined the conversation. He was the only occupant of the taxi who did not know English and he was feeling left out. The taxi had been bouncing and shaking its way through traffic and around circles since the airport. He pushed the small car to what I can only assume was its full potential while we zigged between cars and buses and around corners. But now he was not content with simply demonstrating his driving prowess. Throwing his right hand to his head, he twirled his fingers around his ear and joined the conversation.
"I not crazy! No problem!" Having finished his speech, he laughed out loud and began grabbing for the womanís leg while we wove around the road. He caught her leg, and laughing in victory, received a smack on the back of his head. His hand went back to the wheel, and the woman laughingly began to rub his bald head. He was a success. Conversation was derailed for some time. When it returned, it did not last long.
"Where are you going?" my wife asked our new Lebanese friend. He was smoking another cigarette, this time, one of the front seat womanís.
"Belize." We bounced over a particularly rough patch of road, and found smooth again. At least by South American standards.
"Oh, I hear it is really nice there." My wife meant what she said and spoke with friendly conviction. The Lebanese guy looked surprised, but very pleased.
"You like my hair?" He grinned with pleasure and his hand went to the side of his head. His hair was spectacular. It was thick and black, and I had looked upon its splendor more than once during our drive. He had it slicked straight back along the sides and top of his head to a rapid of thick, black curls that ran down the back. We all laughed for different reasons.
"When we finally arrived at the hotel, we found that it was very nice. Marble, woodwork, books, and roses. The woman from the front seat had tried to check us in, and my wife had to take the papers from her. She was checking the Lebanese guy in, but he was nowhere to be found. They needed his identification and signature, but he was missing. I found him behind the large bouquet of roses running the heels of his hands along his hair in front of a mirror. He had come back to the desk and refused to admit that he had identification. They gave him a room anyway. Our suite was magnificent, and we disappeared into the oblivion of a king size bed.


The Sunday sun was up, and we were once again bouncing through Bogata in a small taxi. This time there were just the two of us. Victor Hugo had discovered that our room had been paid for by Avianca, the Lebanese guyís airline. He had left that morning long before we had. Mr. Hugo had remedied the situation and charged us 66,000 pesos. About thirty-three dollars for a suite that included breakfast and cab fare. The day was beautifully well-behaved, and my wife and I stared out of our windows at a city we were leaving behind. My wife asked the driver a question in Spanish. He answered. In Bogata, every Sunday is bicycle day.

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