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Taxi Driver – Vanuatu

June 13, 2012

The taxi driver was a short round chap, half asleep and lying reposed in the window of his beaten up little Suzuki van.  And it was surely a wreck with little to commend it other than at midnight it was going to save us a walk in the rain back to the hotel. We stepped down to the street from where we had dined. The road was completely empty of traffic.   But the driver was alert, despite his slothful posture. A flash of lights on our left, from where he was perfectly poised to catch diners, drinkers or gamblers leaving the premises. But the concierge had already called for a cab and one appeared on our right, slowly rolling down hill towards us. The Suzuki wouldn’t start. Then when it did the driver tried to ride it out of the shallow culvert he was parked in by using third gear. Numerous false starts, each increasingly desperate as his competition rolled ever closer. In a final lurch of noise and sliding clutch he arrived at our feet moments before the other taxi swung across the road towards us.

 

 

After a struggle with the door we slid inside and asked the driver to take us to our hotel. He barely moved from his resting spot in the window where he was half leaning, engaged third gear and ground off up the road, the engine protesting, coral crunching and foul exhaust drifting in and biting. We crawled through dark streets, passing shadowy figures drifting along in the midnight heat, and pulled to a stop as three young men stepped out of our way. His slothful attitude remained as we arrived and he asked for 500 vatu. The fair fare but he claimed he had no change. Kirk rummaged around in his pockets for some loose coin but discovered he had none.   So he delivered a reluctant 1000 vatu instead. Grumbling, we walked away marveling at the numerous ways in which you can get ripped off when you travel. Mind you, the exchange rate was in our favour and the difference nothing to worry about.

 

As the Suzuki conducted a noisy and fussy  U-turn and departed the way he had come Kirk patted his pockets and discovered he was without his phone. We spun around but the Suzuki bomb had vanished into the night. We bolted for our rooms, loose plan being to grab my phone in order to call it. Which I did to no effect. Next plan – find that taxi. We did a bolt back over the hill counting on Mr Sloth reposing in the same ambush spot on the side of the road. (Kirk spent the  walking time cursing the loss and imagining the worst). Sure enough, there he was, much to our relief. Kirk shot into the restaurant in case it was left there. Mr Sloth was transformed.

Those three boys

Yes?

I gave them a lift to the bakery

At midnight?

Yes, to the bakery. Come, jump, in we will find them. They will have the phone.

(Thinks “yeah sure thing”)

Kirk emerges from the restaurant and I can see there is no phone.

C’mon mate, driver here reckons the three boys up at our hotel are the best bet.

Really? (Same degree of skepticism)

Yes, yes, c’mon – our driver was now on a mission and we shot off the curb in third gear once again but with a lot more alacrity than on the first trip.

Sure enough we pull into a bakery, its lights on and people moving around inside. It’s after midnight and the bakers are baking. The driver shoots inside then returns to the vehicle.

Those boys, they were here.

And?

They went up this way.

He points into  the dark.

Kirk and I look at each other. Three very dark skinned boys find a very expensive phone and are walking around unlit streets which are more jungle than asphalt. This is needle in a haystack stuff but the driver is undeterred and leaps back into his seat and grinds out up the road.

I think they are drinking kava

(I bet they are)

I will have a look up here.

He pulls over and stops in front of a darkened tin shed.

We get out and follow the driver into an area of bare earth under spreading mango trees. It is almost totally dark and the kava drinkers are mere shadows. The only light is a small amount of LED light that spills across the counter which is barricaded not unlike an old wild west bank – slide your money through the  slot and get your kava returned in a small bowl.  There is a rapid fire conversation from the driver and he disappears towards some benches on the back wall. We could barely see there were customers there. A murmured conversation and the driver reappears, even more animated than previously.

He dives into his truck and we follow.

Those boys came past here only a few minutes ago. They had bread.

I hope so, they were at the bakery.

He charges up the road, swings left through a stop sign without pausing – ironically there is a vehicle coming on our right, possibly the only other driver on the streets tonight.

We crawl up the  next street. Its dark and hazy with smoke, Potholed and rough and with very little lighting – just enough for us to see a crowd of shadows drift across the road about one hundred metres in front of us. Something about them unnerve our driver and he carries out an awkward three point turn and heads back out, then turns right into the next street and there they are. Three shadows, heading our way. But no bread.

That’s them. That’s the boys. Our driver is very excited. We can hardly believe it. We wonder what the next evolution might be and the driver partly answers it for us.

He tumbles out of his van exclaiming ‘They have the phone. These boys have the phone.” The boys nod their affirmation. We pile out as well.

One of the lads shakes my hand.

The phone, it’s at the hotel. I will take you there.

I look at the driver who is beaming. No more sloth about him at all. He extends a chubby hand.

Very good, very good. Night boys.

Thanks mate, See you later.

We follow the boys down the lane to the front gate of the hotel.

You are very lucky.

Yes, very lucky. Kirk was very worried about his phone.

No need to worry with us. You will get it back (Easy for you to say now)

But I agree. Yes, we are very lucky.

What is the fair price for the boys who found the phone (the other two are walking behind me with Kirk) asks the apparent ringleader.

Ah, that’s for Kirk to sort out.

Okay.

We come to a stop at the front gate of the hotel.

It’s here.

What? At reception? Or with one of the guards?

No, no, the boys have it in their pocket. What is the price?

We both twig and Kirk extracts his wallet. The ransom was about $60, a small price to pay for a business phone with all those contacts and so on recorded on it.

They happily accept and hand over the phone.

Night boys.

Good night my friends. Enjoy your stay.

They amble off into the night and we grin to each other.

That’s a lot of kava we just gave those lads.

Sure is – they are going to feel that for a long time to come.

 

They are not quite as lily white as they appeared. The phone has been opened, the SIM card extracted and then inserted the wrong way. In the darkened streets that is hardly surprising. And they needed  a PIN to get past the front panel. Its obvious they have explored the possibilities of commandeering it for themselves before deciding there would be more merit in getting a reward.

 

Funny how it worked out. If we had the correct change chances are the phone would not have been put down.

The sloth is a creature of habit and repositioned himself where we first found him. Finding the same taxi again is a rare thing, especially in this place as there is no taxi registration system.

The lack of change meant he got double his money.

Which in turn meant that he was motivated to help us.

The three boys shopping for bread saw us alight in the dark and head towards one of any number of hotels along that stretch of road. They guessed the correct one.

They had made their transit from the bakery to the kava house towards our digs known to those who sit and watch the streets at night.

The sloth turned into a sleuth and an adept one at that.

There was sufficient emergency funding in Kirk’s wallet to incentivise the three lads to  hand over their prize.

 

Phew. Said with feeling. By Kirk.

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