Tales from a Taxi Cab

Date
Oct
23
20181023

Tales from a Taxi Cab

Taxi drivers are, without question, some of the most interesting people to talk to in any country one may visit. They usually have their fingers firmly pressed on one of the country in question’s pulses and are ready and waiting to fire off a volley of opinions on almost any subject you’d care to name. Taxi drivers are also quite talented linguists – I can recall several occasions on which a cabbie’s clear and concise description of the nature and use of a certain word or term has helped me unmuddle a puzzling linguistic item which no amount of dictionaries had theretofore put straight.

Only last week I caught a cab to the intercity bus station in Buenos Aires. The taxi ride in question followed very soon after a particularly foul lunch served in what was an otherwise very attractive neighbourhood café. Buenos Aires is chock-a-block with places just like the one I ate at and the food is usually unspeakably dreadful in all of them. This particular lunch consisted of schnitzel and mashed potato (a very typical Argentine meal) in which the schnitzel was of factory provenance and had been defrosted, fried and then possibly microwave reheated before serving. The mashed potato was simply potato that had been mashed – no other seasoning or ingredient had been used in its preparation, unless you count water. I was reflecting on how bad my lunch had been when the taxi driver, a somewhat reserved and very courteous man, initiated a monologue on the dangers of eating while abroad. 

“The food is terrible,” he began. “It doesn’t matter where you go: Peru, Brazil, anywhere – they are all given to the same vice: their cooking is horribly over-seasoned.” The driver said these words with lapidary emphasis. “That’s the difference between Argentine food and the food elsewhere. Here the raw materials are of such high quality that there’s no need to hide their flavour with strange spices and what-have-you. Our food is more … Mediterranean. We eat meat, potatoes and …” Here he paused while searching his mental menu. “Pizza.” That was his final word. 

This particular cab-driver had expressed a view that is close to the Argentine heart. Argentines like their food plain and regard any kind of seasoning as monstrous adulteration, just as my taxi driver had put it. His apologia for his national cuisine reflected not only a widely-held disdain for culinary heterodoxy but also an earthy nationalism: Argentine meat is better, and so are the potatoes. I once went to a pasta shop where the vendor told me that Argentine wheat was better than the Italian variety. My taxi driver had summarised the view and provided it with theoretical underpinning.

Before my sojourn in Buenos Aires I had spent a few days in Asunción, the crumbling Paraguayan capital. On the day I was to leave I had also found myself in a taxi, chatting with an amicable driver. In this particular case, the journey began in silence. The concierge at the hotel had called the taxi for me and I had been dismayed by the sight of it: the bonnet was extensively dented. Once I got inside it became clear that the window didn’t open properly. I had already noted the almost total absence of traffic lights from Asunción’s streets and, now in the passenger seat of a car, became uncomfortably aware of the apparent chaos that reigned in the streets. Was it chaos, or was there a method to the madness?

“How does the traffic work?” I asked the driver.
“It’s chaos!” he replied, before launching into a diatribe on the total irresponsibility of the authorities and the hair-raising number deaths due to traffic accidents that occurred every day in the city (fifteen to twenty, according to him). “And then there are the terrible mutilations due to motorcycle accidents, primarily affecting the young. And think of how young the Paraguayan population is!” He was right: there are lots of young people in Paraguay and one of their main activities is riding motorcycles without helmets. “The government here is made up of a bunch of parasites,” he went on, “and people keep voting for them.”
I then asked him what life was like during the Stroessner dictatorship.
“It was hell,” he said. “Brutal repression, neglect of people’s needs. Horrible. It’s hard to imagine how anything could be worse than that.”
The cab driver was in his sixties; he had spent his formative years under Stroessner’s ghastly rule. I changed the subject and asked him about Guarani. Did he speak Guarani at home or Spanish?
“Both,” he replied. “Everyone here does.” He then explained a few words to me and we talked about the unusual linguistic situation in the country. Like every other Paraguayan I have ever met, his face lit up as soon as I asked about the language. He had had a difficult life and drove a beat-up cab but he had retained his Paraguayan charm and good manners.

My Asunción taxi driver was very much the archetypal asunceño and was also, with his battered taxi, something of an embodiment of the city. Asunción, like everywhere else in Paraguay, looks somewhat down at heel but is home to gentle, kind and charming people who invariably smile when you express anything more than the most cursory interest in their country.

Nowadays, in Brazil, I am reluctant to converse too freely with cab drivers as the risk of a political argument breaking out is higher than at any time in the last decade. The country is bitterly divided and the violent discourse of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro has fomented violence on the streets. Nonetheless, if dealt with properly, difficult subjects can still be broached. A few weeks ago some friends and I caught an Uber to go to a party. The driver was a polite and well-spoken young man who made it quite clear that his vote would be going to the far right. We spent some time trying to dissuade him, but he had a “yes, but” ready for every argument. He was, as I said, polite and well-spoken. It was and remains hard to understand how such an apparently sympathetic individual could vote for someone as appalling as Bolsonaro but, presumably, he did.

Now, thinking about him, I am reminded again of the Buenos Aires taxi driver, who had talked about more than food. He also provided me with his view of politics. “We go from one extreme to another,” he said. “We never find any kind of equilibrium here in Argentina, or in Brazil or anywhere in this part of the world. That’s the tragedy of Latin America.”