So often, in tense cross-cultural situations, I try to remember that they are almost always based in misunderstanding. Something may seem frustrating and ridiculous to me, but so often it seems that way because I’m missing a critical piece of information. I’m missing language, tone, or something else entirely that is resulting in anger and frustration all around. Case in point:
Kelly was headed out of the country back to the US on the same day that Matt and I were headed to Phnom Penh. This was handy, because it allowed us to take a taxi to the airport together, rather than catching a shuttle. Kelly felt better heading to the airport with us. I felt better about not riding in an unknown shuttle. Matt was just fine with whatever plan we worked out.
Being the Thailand-travel savvy person that I am, I have a bias against waiting taxis. In my experience, the waiting taxis hanging out around touristy areas exist to rip-off tourists who don’t know any better. Flagging down a moving cab is much more likely to result in finding a fair, metered ride. So when we headed out from our hotel at 4 am to catch a ride to the airport, I scanned the road for moving cabs, ignoring the crowd of cab drivers who were poised at the mouth of our guest house alley.
“There’s one!” said Matt.
He was correct, in that the taxi was moving. But I had just seen it take off from down the road. I was wary. Still, I was ready to be in a cab and on our way, so I opened the door of the cab and asked, “meter?”
“Where you going? Name a price,” the driver replied.
“No.” I said, shutting the door of the cab, and turning to walk away. When a driver has a fair, standard way to charge you that he chooses not to employ, you had better believe he’s doing it for a reason. The reason being that he can rip you off. I don’t deal with fixed price cabs.
“Okay! Okay!” he shouted after me, pushing the door open again.
We piled our things into the trunk and settled in for the hour long ride. And then Matt glanced at the gas gauge, which was hovering just below empty. The gas light was lit. Oh dear.
“You need gas?” Matt asked, pointing to the gauge.
“Yes, yes,” said the driver smiling.
“You’re going to stop at a gas station?” Matt pressed, frowning. The driver nodded a bit, and then continued to drive.
Five minutes later, I looked at Matt nervously. We had not yet stopped, and we were just about to head out of the city, making finding another cab difficult if we ran into trouble. I pointed to the gas gauge again, and said, “We need gas.” He nodded, pointing to the gauge. “Yes,” he said.
I watched Kelly’s eyes turn worried. Matt looked at me. We were stopped at a red light. I looked back and saw an unoccupied taxi behind us. “I think we should pay and get out,” I said. Matt and Kelly quickly nodded in agreement. Matt dug through his pocket for the amount on the meter. I tapped on the trunk, as Matt and Kelly asked him to open it. I flagged the cab driver behind us.
Small problem, the cab driver refused to open the trunk. We started out one at a time, asking him to please open the trunk. He gestured to the gas gauge, and said, “No.” Our chorus grew louder, until we shouted in angry unison, “Open the trunk!”
“We’re going to call the police,” said Kelly, and Matt started to pull out his phone. The trunk popped open. We grabbed our luggage and scuttled quickly to the waiting cab, all three of us shaking. The new driver quickly flipped on the meter, and we settled in for the ride, coursing with adrenaline. Matt and Kelly equally conceded that my gut feeling had been correct. I hadn’t felt good about that driver. I told Kelly that perhaps her initial instinct was right, we should’ve taken the shuttle. We all felt very unified by our Bangkok Taxi Driver Bad Experience: Take 2.
Cut to three days later. Matt and I are in a restaurant in Cambodia, recalling the incident over a french dinner in a cute little cafe.
“Wow, that was…” Matt said shaking his head, recalling the moment of our escape.
“Ya, I know,” I said, “I mean, I think we were generally safe. I’m thinking maybe he would have taken us out to a more remote gas station and made us pay for the gas or something. ”
“Ya, probably. One thing I just can’t figure out, he kept pointing to the right side of the dashboard…oh…my…gosh…” Matt trailed off, his eyes widening in a moment of clarity. “It was natural gas.”
“What? What does that have to do with anything.” I asked.
“The taxi…it ran on natural gas. I saw the fuel tank in the trunk…oh..” Matt said, shaking his head, “He was pointing to the side because there was a separate meter. He was trying to tell us that he had plenty of gas.”
“Oh. Oh no…” I breathed out, as I replayed the moment in my head. The indignation. The righteous anger. “Bummer.”
We continued to shake our heads for awhile. To be fair, our defenses were raised by his first refusal to use the meter. And our defenses were further raised by the language confusion surrounding the gas meter. But still, I think about the confusion that the driver must have felt. The frustration at losing a lucrative business deal for no apparent reason. And I wince still.
How many times must it happen? Someone thinks they have been ripped off, taken advantage of, cheated. When really, they are just thoroughly confused. The other day, I read rant on a Chinese hotel review website from a woman who was convinced that people at the front desk were pretending not to speak English when she wanted to hire a taxi not associated with the hotel. Her complaints piled up one after the other. She hated the reserved room she was shown and then they “conveniently” showed her a different more expensive room, which was “worse than the first.”
Coming off of my own bumbling tourist trip up, I read that review with different eyes. Maybe she was getting ripped off. That’s pretty much standard dues for budget travel in Asia. But I’m willing to bet that at least some part of it was the same old language/cultural misunderstandings that caused me to shout at a taxi driver who was just trying to give us a ride to the airport.