Monday, 9 April 2012

Taxi Driver

SOMETHING FELT WRONG as soon as we got into the car. Call it a sixth sense, a nose for danger; it just didn't feel right. I’d walked up to the junction at Zipolite’s main road with Alan, a fellow Englishman. As there were no ATMs in the village, we’d have to get a ride to the nearest town, Pochutla, to withdraw cash. On reaching the junction we saw a waiting taxi; he started his motor and approached us slowly.

The taxi cabs in México run in one of two ways: either you hire them privately, or they operate as a collectivo, in which case the driver will pick up other passengers along the route to maximise the profit on his trip, and you all pay a set fare. We had chosen the latter option. Security didn’t seem to be an issue in this corner of the country. Or so we thought.

We discussed the price, and the taxi driver asked us if we were going to use the ATM? We were. Two women crossed the dusty junction and climbed in. Alan looked at me and nodded. He got into the passenger side and I got into the back with the two women, sitting on the right behind him. A third woman joined us, and squeezed in alongside my compatriot in front. The driver heaved on the wheel and with a crunch of gravel we turned out into the potholed road, heading for Puerto Angel. The young woman in the middle next to me offered me a piece of her orange; I smiled and politely declined.

The taxista had addressed us in heavily American-accented English when he pulled up, and I guessed that this guy had been educated in the States, or at least spent a good deal of time there; he’d exchanged a few terse remarks with the local women as we’d been getting in. They seemed familiar to him. As we drove I noted that he hadn’t asked where the women were going, and I queried, in Spanish, if we would be first out and how far away the town was? He studied me in the mirror as he answered, and I noticed him make eye contact with the woman who sat beside me.

There was something in his manner that I didn’t quite like. I made smalltalk: was he local, and where did he learn such good English? He gave me vague answers and, realising that I knew enough Spanish to understand them, didn’t speak further to the two women. Slowing a little, he took out his cell phone and sent a couple of text messages. I watched the beads of sweat trickle from his temple, across his pockmarked cheek, disappearing into the open neck of his shirt. He seemed a little agitated. The woman next to me read a message and typed a reply; a minute or two the driver was checking his phone again, and eyeing me in the mirror. I watched the sea from my window and told myself to calm down...that I was imagining things.

We hit the outskirts of Puerto Angel, the next town on from Zipolite. Remembering that there was also a bank here, I asked the driver to stop. Myself and Alan jumped out to check, but the ATM was out of order. When we returned to the car, the woman from the front seat was gone. Alan had the front all to himself, and I took the seat in the back again. We set off in the direction of Pochutla.

I had significantly less room in the back than I’d had five minutes previously. The young woman had shifted over, and her legs were pressed rather firmly against mine; she was almost leaning into me. She texted on her phone. A few seconds later the driver was checking his and looking at me in the mirror. In my peripheral vision, I could see the woman turning to look at me every ten seconds. I returned one look and smiled. She didn’t smile back, turning away. Her face was hard, emotionless. It occurred to me that she resembled Marta, the machinegun-wielding Colombian from the chainsaw scene in Scarface. Not a good look. I was looking ahead, but could see her turning to regard me with the same frequency. Whenever I turned to look back at her, she would look over her shoulder, out of the rear window, then back at me, before looking to the driver. I noticed her nostrils were flaring wide; she was breathing heavily, so much so that I could hear her. Her leg muscles were tensed, like a cat; a coiled spring. She leaned away and whispered something in the older woman’s ear. The latter reached into the handbag on her lap, and left her hand inside it. Strange. Her companion looked out of the the opposite window when I caught her eye.

My heart was thumping so hard by now that I was sure they could hear it. I folded my arms to stop my hands shaking, and also to give myself some protection. My elbow was in a good position if I needed to use it. I felt almost as if the young woman was purposely not giving me much room for manoeuvre. She shifted in her seat, moving closer still, looked again out of the back window yet again and then back at me. Was I just being paranoid? I tried to convince myself that this was the case, but the behaviour from this trio had set alarm bells ringing. She checked behind her again and again. I could feel the blood pounding in my ears.

We neared the edge of town and picked up speed. The driver gripped the steering wheel with both hands. My mind was reeling; a dry copper tang filled my mouth: the taste of fear. Ahead of us was another taxi and a truck which had slowed right down. I spotted the speed hump. And my opportunity. “Stop the car…stop the car!” I shouted. The driver whirled round at me, confused. “I’m going to be sick!” I told him. It had just popped into my head as the thing most likely to get a taxi driver to pull over. Instinctively he halted, and I flung the car door open, leapt out. I pulled open the passenger door. Alan, bewildered “Are you alright, mate?” he asked. “Get out, Al” I told him. He looked confused “Just get out” I insisted. He obeyed and I gave the driver a few pesos, trying to appear normal. He said nothing, fixing me with his gaze, the muscles in his clenched jaw pulsing. The two women stared. As the taxi pulled away at speed, they both turned and leered at us from the rear window, like grinning ghouls in the flashing sunlight flickering across the glass. All very, very sinister.

My heart rate slowed and I caught my breath. I reassured Alan that I was OK and told him that no, it wasn’t car sickness, merely a ruse to get the driver to stop. I relayed to him what had gone on; he said he’d been oblivious to it all in the front of the car. I felt like I’d behaved foolishly and apologised for my paranoia, but he told me that it was better to be safe than sorry: they could well have been preparing to rob us. It happens. Maybe it pays to be a little paranoid?

This incident was, for me, a wake-up call against complacency. Despite the amiable people I’d encountered so far, this was a stark reminder: in México, not everyone wants to be your friend.