Santiago

Notes from the Street: Manuel & The Taxi Pirata

Who drives you from A to B? Meet Manuel, who drives a taxi pirata in Recoleta, and glimpse into his life working hard to provide the necessities for his family

“Never trust a Chilean!”

Not quite what I had expected Manuel to say after telling him how much I loved living in Chile. What on Earth, I wondered, had caused such as explosive statement?

“They will be the first to talk about you behind your back.  They are lazy and will think nothing of taking you for a ride.  Trust me … NEVER TRUST A CHILEAN!”

Ironically, Manuel works in the profession that has the biggest reputation for ripping off people. He is a taxi driver, and works the day shift for a company that has an office near to where I live. The cars are not official and they do not use a meter, and as such offer cheaper fares than your regular black and yellow official taxi.

I seem to be the only gringa in Santiago that has rarely had a problem in a Santiago taxi. I actually love taking them. The majority of my Spanish vocabulary has come courtesy of taxistas, who all seem to have a burning interest in what I am doing here. I enjoy talking to them, but I do suppose I am biased because Luis is also a taxi driver.

Manuel has to be my all time favorite driver. Middle-aged and short with perfectly smooth black hair and a pair of black sunglasses permanently attached to his face, he is always the epitome of pleasantness. He hails from the north, near to Chiquicamata, and for many years worked in the mines. He came to Santiago in search of different work opportunities, and it is here that he met his wife, who is from Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

When I got in the car with him this time, the first thing he says is how exhausted he is.

“I just cannot keep up with how much my family eats. Every time I make money it goes on food and then -” he snaps his fingers, “it is gone! All day every day I am working and all I have to show for it is food that is always disappearing. I love my family but ahhh how I remember the days when I could relax!”

“Don’t you have time to relax now?” I ask him.

“I like a beer but I am a family man. And I work seven days a week, all day every day. But I cannot afford all the things my family needs! My body is so stressed that I cannot sleep. All the time I am twitching – stress controls my life!”

It is easy to sympathize with Manuel. Santiago seems to run off of the hours put in working. While some say Santaguinos do not work very hard (and let’s be honest, have you ever had customer service here?!), many of them seem to have much longer work hours than I am used to in NZ. In service based jobs, the wages are generally very low and Santiago is not a cheap city to live in. Hence why extended family members tend to live together and why teenagers don’t leave home straight away. Before I went to work, we lived solely off of Luis’ wages and we did alright, if that meant that we could afford food. But it was impossible to do anything else, like save, buy things Emilio or the house needed, do something recreational, leave the city or pay off debts. And when our calefon broke, we could not afford to buy a new one (and I was even working then) so we went without hot water for THREE MONTHS!!! Do you know how irritating it is in the cold to boil water for a bath (our kettle broke at the same time!). We took it to be fixed but no-one had any idea what was wrong with it. Luckily, Luis fiddled about with it one day and it magically worked. “The Mysterious Incident of the Calefon” – we never did find out the reason.

So when Manuel told me his difficulties, I got it. Chile is a lot cheaper for food than NZ but the little things add up quickly when you don’t earn much. I like Manuel because he is like a breath of fresh air. His views are honest – sometimes quirky and profound – but always honest. Although I wonder if he includes himself as one of the Chileans to be “wary of.”

“Just trust me Helen.  Things are very different in Chile to Norway.”

“Nueva Zelanda.”

“Yes. Nueva Zelanda. And what is the weather like in Norway?”

* Giggle*  I have given up correcting him. I am just happy that he understands my Spanish and that I (mostly) understand him! Manuel is a lovely, trustworthy man who provided me endless support when Emilio was hospitalized a few months back. The whole street rallied around us then. But that is a story for another day. I shall sign off here and brave the ice berg that is my bathroom before finally hitting the hay. If you encounter a silver car in Recoleta with a happy guy wearing sunglasses you may just be lucky enough to be travelling with Manuel – say hi, listen to his stories and tip him well!

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