In San José, the Costa Rican capital, it is common to find unmarked taxis, popularly known as piratas, or pirate taxis, that will pick you up and take you anywhere in the city, just like a regular cab. These taxis are illegal, falling outside the normal permit system set up by the josefino authorities.
Riding in these cabs can best be called “sketchy.” You would often hop in the car amid torn seat cushions, with no safety belts or meter to be found, and subjected to whatever loud, blaring music the driver happened to be into at the time. Rates were best negotiated on the spot, lest you arrive at your destination and find the cabby demands an exorbitant fee, to which you generally have little recourse other than to grab a wad of bills, throw them in the front seat, and dart out the door into the night.
The piratas can be used as a metaphor for the Costa Rican capital in general – dirty, loud, random, filled with dark corners and unexpected sticky places, and sometimes dangerous. Riding in cabs in any country is almost always representative of the culture, and forms a special part of the travel experience. San José was part international travel hub and part Wild West, the piratas representing the latter.
Living in Costa Rica for two years, one often became jaded to these cultural idiosyncrasies. For that reason, it was always interesting moving through the city with new volunteers or visitors, watching them go wide-eyed as we passed scores of street entertainers and narrowly missed getting hit by a half-dozen cars on the narrow streets. San José had a special stink to it, and I suppose in some way we became more than a little used to it, which we wore with a sort of stubborn pride.
Returning to the U.S., I often became aware, like my Peace Corps peers, of how many behaviors we experienced in Costa Rica would be wildly unacceptable here in the U.S. For instance, it was not normal to wake up in the morning, open your fridge, and find yourself staring at a large, bloody cow heart and shelves stuffed with freshly butchered meat, the result of last night’s failed calf birth. It wasn’t normal to be asked to hold the baby of a complete stranger while they situated themselves on the bus, only to have the child later drooling and crying all over you during the rest of the three hour journey down the windy, dusty highway.
Thankfully, these things did not happen back in the states. But finding myself in the U.S., there were times when I wanted to share those experiences with my fellow Americans. I wanted to bring a touch of San José back to D.C.
It was for that reason that last Saturday, upon seeing a middle-aged woman outside of the Rayburn Congressional Offices holding up her arm to hail a taxi, I pulled over – directly in front of her. I rolled down the window, “Where you headed?” I asked.
Confused, and possibly thinking I was trying to help her with directions, she demurred, “Oh, thanks. I’m alright.” “No, really. Where are you headed? I can take you there,” I insisted.
“Ummm, no thanks. I think I’ll just hail a cab.”
“I’m a taxi,” I responded matter-of-factly.
“A pirate taxi,” I said. “I’m not licensed by the city. I do this on the side to make a little money. I can take you wherever you like to go.”
She thought a moment. There was obviously a bit of internal debate going on. “Is this for real?” is probably what was going through her head.
“Where are you headed?” I said once again.
“Logan Circle,” she responded, as if in a daze.
“I know it. Come on.” I said. Amazingly, and I really didn’t think things would go this far, she acquiesced and opened the back door. In true pirate cab fashion, I had to move a half-dozen small odds and ends I was transporting in the back – some papers, an old wristwatch, a basketball, and a nine iron.
Her name was Sharon. I offered her my iPod in case she wanted to pick the music. This is the kind of special value only piratas can offer – a sort of homey feel. Naturally, I wanted her to have the full experience.
Mistake #1 (other than getting in the “cab” with me): Sharon forgot to negotiate a rate. I made a mental note to fully exploit this upon arriving at her destination.
I abruptly jerked the car around in an illegal U-turn across the better half of four lanes on an empty Independence Avenue, and proceed west down the gentle slope of Capitol Hill. I alternated between gunning the engine and braking at random segments of the road as we made our way towards 14st street, just for funsies.
Sharon was a legislative aide, whatever that means. She was working through the morning that Saturday on a special piece of legislation for her boss, whom she neglected to mention.
I took a right on 14th street, braked quickly at the next intersection, and leaned out the window, yelling a string of obscenities in Spanish at the passing pedestrians. “?Que cajones haces? !Muevese hijo de puta!” A portly gentleman crossing the street turned and looked at me, feelings obviously hurt. Despite the language barrier, he knew I was really screaming at him.
My passenger became distressed at this show of aggression, and I turned and assured her that everything was alright. Speaking in English now I assured her that no one would get hurt as long as these people moved quickly out the way. Disappointingly, she did not seem to be calmed.
It was at that moment that I began to talk to her in an overly familiar manner, which really makes people wary. Without receiving any clues that would make me believe she was interested in hearing anything personal about my life, I began talking to her in great detail about the plans my brother and I had to launch a web-based wellness business. This pirate taxiing stuff was only temporary, I said.
I asked Sharon if she was comfortable with the temperature, to which she responded no. I met her response with an awkward silence.
We moved down 14th street in silence, past Commerce Department, and up the hill by Franklin Square without saying a word.
At this point the heat in the car was unbearable, even to me. I rolled down all the windows in the car and cranked up the volume to the car stereo.
I took a quick right onto Rhode Island Avenue, and pulled off to the side as we neared Logan Circle.
“This is not exactly where I need to be,” said Sharon, “Can you please pull around the circle and go up 13th Street a block?”
Ughhh. I couldn’t believe she was being so demanding. I made a dramatic show of putting the car back into drive.
We pulled around the circle and she pointed me to the corner of the street. I pulled over.
“How much do I owe you?” Sharon asked.
“Twenty-two dollars,” I responded, trying hard to suppress a laugh. This was too easy.
“That’s totally ridiculous…here’s 10 bucks.”
At this point I became irate, reminding her how I pulled around the circle just because she asked me to. Sharon was unmoved and bolted out of the car.
I pocketed the $10, and continued down the road – my first mission as a pirate taxi complete.