We’re not gonna make it…

I’m late. I’ve missed it. There’s no way I can make this flight.

It’s my fault. I slept in, but the taxi ride also didn’t help.

Upon waking, I’d slowly cleared the sleep from my eyes and glanced nonchalantly at the clock. Then, In one terrifying instant, I realised I had about 65 minutes to get on the plane to Easter Island. Not 65 minutes to arrive at the airport with sufficient time to check in and drop off my luggage and walk to the departure gate and spend my life savings on an airport coffee… 65 minutes until take-off.

That’s impossible.

How did I not wake up? Did I not set the alarm, did I sleep through it, was the room too dark, was it too quiet – how, it was in the middle of Santiago, the bustling and busy capital of Chile?

Anyway, I didn’t have time to ponder. I had to get to the airport- fast.

Luckily, I’d packed my bags and left out essential items the night before – including my now redundant watch. I threw on some clothes, threw the key at reception and raced outside to find a taxi – in the middle of Santiago, the bustling and busy capital of Chile.

I’m not gonna make it, I’m not gonna make it…I kept repeating in my head. Idiot!, stupid fool! I’d paid a lot of money for this flight to see one of the true wonders of the world. It was one of the destinations around which I’d arranged my nine-month round-the-world trip, and now I was about to miss out.

You fool!

Taxis flew by ferrying Chileans to work, and I tried in vain to catch the attention of one taxi, any taxi. I was having as much luck hailing a taxi as I do hailing waitstaff at cafes – then my stomach growled. Taxi after taxi streamed by, until one finally crossed two lanes of traffic and stopped abruptly at my feet. Horns honked and motorists shouted abuse, but neither the taxi driver nor I took any notice. I needed a ride, he needed the fare. I threw my pack on the back seat and jumped into the passenger seat.

He said something. I didn’t understand.

He said it again. I still didn’t understand.

Then I saw it.

As I glanced up from my daypack and the seatbelt buckle, I noticed his face. He had a cleft lip and subsequent speech impediment. That in itself wasn’t a problem. After all, this good man may have just saved my bacon, because although I wasn’t hopeful of making the flight on time, it was still mathematically and physically possible.

The problem was that his cleft lip made his speech very difficult to understand, and my Spanish was rudimentary at best. This would complicate matters.

I deduced from context that he’d asked where I wanted to go,

Aeropuerto! I said, hoping that we could at least set off in the direction of the airport while we tried to provide each other with the details.

“And I’ll give you another 50 if you get me there on time,” I was about to say, but this was no time for Hollywood cliches. Somehow, though, I managed to communicate to him that I was running late – very late.

He spoke again – I had no idea what he said. He tried again, and the whole time the clock was winding down. On his third of fourth attempt, I think I heard the Spanish equivalent of ‘international’ and ‘domestic’.

Good question.

Domestic, I proffered, and he changed lanes in the direction of what was hopefully the domestic airport or terminal.

Wait- is that right, I asked myself. In my highly flummoxed state, maybe I’d confused myself. Easter Island is technically part of Chile, despite lying a long way from the mainland. This fact could save me, because I wasn’t required to arrive at the airport so early…

On the other hand, it could be an international flight. I couldn’t remember. LAN Chile was carrying me to the mythical island (if I made it) and the national carrier sometimes stopped at Easter Island before continuing to Pape’ete, and Auckland on its way to Sydney. So, was it international? If so, was that a different terminal or a different airport? We were heading in the direction of the domestic terminal, I think, and requesting a change of direction in my woeful Spanish would have been very difficult. I’ll just leave it. It’s too late now.

But what if I’m wrong?

Then my stomach growled again.

I was about to dive into my daypack for my itinerary and or my Lonely Planet when the driver asked me another question.

I didn’t understand a word. Again he tried. I apologised that I didn’t know what he was saying. I could sense his awareness that his cleft lip was hindering communication as much as the language barrier. I could also sense he was becoming annoyed as he thrust his old taxi more aggressively in and out of traffic to the displeasure of fellow motorists.

I felt insensitive and incompetent. I should have set two alarms.

I fished for my itinerary, because this was in the days of paper flight tickets – remember them? I found the paper and searched for any information which I would relay to the driver which might allow us to pull off a miracle.

LAN Chile, I said, before reading out the flight time, the terminal, the destination and any other information I could find. I don’t know how much of this was necessary, but at least this stopped me from looking at my watch every two seconds. He seemed satisfied and he stepped on the accelerator and tore through the traffic. Even if I don’t make it, this guy deserves a tip, I thought. He can use it to buy himself a drink, or pay a speeding fine.

Soon, my spirits lifted as I saw signs for Aeropuerto. Still the driver swerved through traffic with reckless abandon. I still wasn’t sure if he was committed to delivering his passenger on time, or just releasing his frustration via the accelerator.

Closer and closer we crept and somehow the traffic seemed to clear. He kept his foot planted and his eyes fixed on the road and I saw planes circling, landing and taking off. We might just make it; or that LAN Chile plane I just saw could be on its way to Easter Island.

We tore along the expressway and soon approached the airport entrance. The driver said something which I also didn’t understand, but I determined he was asking me if I wanted him to drop me at the airport entrance or continue to the departure gates. I think the answer was obvious, but he signalled money.

Don’t worry, you’ll definitely get a tip.

He snaked his way through the clogged traffic of the drop off point and stopped the cab in the middle of the road, with hazard lights blinking. I threw him a wad of cash, which he indicated was sufficient, then I grabbed my pack, thanked him profusely and sprinted towards the check in.

In the space of a few minutes, I somehow managed to push my way to the front of the check in line, dump my pack, pass through security and dash to the departure gate. I sprinted through the airport gates past bewildered passengers, with barely enough time to flash my boarding pass at airline staff and squeeze through the closing doors and on to the plane.

That’s one way to avoid spending your life savings on an airport coffee.

Image: Ulvi Safari

Getting Around in China.

How do you get where you need to be in China? How do you negotiate your way around a country of more than one billion people?

You can cram yourself into an overcrowded bus. You can squeeze your way into the back door and feel it close on you as you are sandwiched between the door and your fellow passengers. Be sure to pass your 1 or 2 yuan bill to the front of the bus via the rest of the passengers. You never know which day of the year an inspector will board the bus, and if you’re found to have ridden without paying, the penalty is severe.

You could avoid paying altogether if you copy Tim. Tim, nice but dim, was a friendly but hapless ‘Gap’ student working at a private school in China, who discovered a novel way to travel for free. He ‘scanned’ his 1 yuan note on the ticket machine. He didn’t have a transport card to scan, and he knew that money sufficed in lieu of a card, so he scanned his money. It worked, until someone pointed out that waving a note over the scanner does not constitute payment.

The standard issue communist-era utility vehicle is a reliable option. Functional, easy to park, no-frills transport which was once ubiquitous on the streets of China. If you painted it blue, the three-wheeled mobile would look a lot like Mr. Bean’s nemesis.

Another mode of transport which was even more ubiquitous on the streets of China is the bicycle. Sturdy, heavy cumbersome bikes that carried citizens and their possessions from one place to another and formed a sea of two-wheeled humanity. The car has largely replaced the bicycle as Capitalist-Communism replaced Socialism, but the humble bicycle is still serving its purpose for many citizens.

You could drive a private car. If you can afford one, and if you’re willing to negotiate the notoriously dangerous traffic and ‘creative’ driving which always seems to find its way onto ‘World’s Craziest Drivers’

In Harbin, northern China, walking is not always an option in winter. The daytime temperature drops below zero and after the snow melts, then snaps cold again, the footpaths turn into ice rinks. Its better to take a taxi, and to take whatever taxi you can find. Even if that taxi is fuelled by coal. Not refined coal transformed into fuel and dispensed at a bowser of some description, but pure coal. Coal that is shovelled into the engine by the driver while he is driving. Coal that is inserted straight into a furnace sitting by the driver’s feet, and which exits the vehicle via a chimney running along the side of the vehicle.

Sorry I don’t have a photo. I was afraid my fingers would fall off if I’d removed my gloves to extract the camera from my pocket.

If you’re averse to suffocating on the fumes of coal-powered taxi, you could progress a few decades into a gas-powered taxi. You’ll have to get out of the taxi, though, when it fills up at the gas station. Sitting in the taxi while it fills up is too big a risk, in case the taxi blows up, but apparently standing one metre away from the taxi, while the driver smokes a cigarette and plays on his phone, is perfectly safe.

Advance a few more decades and you can travel in comfort and style in a far more sustainable vehicle. Hop on one of the tourist buses in Hangzhou and admire the impossibly beautifully lakes and gardens of this popular city.

Sun protection is vital. Protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays and prevent skin cancer. As you’re in China, it’s also imperative that you avoid a tan because you will never land yourself a wealthy husband unless you have fair skin. Also, it is considered chivalrous to provide comfortable seating for your female passengers.

A visor at the front of the vehicle doesn’t just look great, it also protects your eyes from the dust, and keeps your perm in place.

If you have a few goats to transfer from one place to another, why walk them through the busy streets of Xiamen? After all, if you can hire an Uber for your pet dog, why can’t you carry goats in a minivan?

What if you find yourself in a canal city? If you need to traverse a canal city such as Suzhou, which formed part of the enormous canal system that stretched from northern to southern China, how would you best get around? Driving could prove slow and frustrating in a city of narrow crowded streets, so why not take to the water, for a faster and more peaceful trip, perhaps in the company of some cormorants.

At times, speed is of the essence, and a water-borne craft with an outboard motor is the only vehicle which will suffice. Especially if you’re chasing the catch of the day or nipping between Gulangyu and the mainland.

God bless my Taxi.

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We craned our necks for the source of the excitement. We could hear it but we couldn’t see it.

What was it?

Horns blaring, engines roaring, people shouting, music blaring, bells ringing.

From atop the hill we had a great vantage point over Zacatecas and its surrounds, yet we still couldn’t determine the source of the noise.

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Was it a protest, was it a celebration, a festival, a fiesta, a beauty contest, a football game…?

It’s often hard to tell in Mexico, as any event seems to be a perfect pretext to become boisterous. Any day, any time.

The origin of the pandemonium eventually revealed itself. A fleet of brightly decorated taxis rounded the bend and climbed the hill in a convoy of commotion. Vehicles were draped in streamers, covered in balloons and painted or wrapped in the national flag. Red, white and green dominated the scene as more and more taxis wound their way up the hill to the church.

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Why?

To be blessed, of course.

On this particular day, the taxis of Zacatecas were receiving their annual blessing from the priest and, through him, the almighty. They were asking for protection and, no doubt, many lucrative fairs for the next 12 months.

Patriotically-adorned taxis and motorised mayhem lined up outside the church and the noise eventually subsided as the drivers and their family and friends waited for the priest to bless every vehicle in turn.

While the event certainly surprised me, it was not entirely unexpected. Sure, I’d never seen taxis blessed in my own country, but I had noticed during my time travelling in Latin America that taxi drivers would bless themselves every time they drove past a house of worship.

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The procession of taxis had interrupted our quiet inspection of La Quemada archaeological ruins, so we decided to return to the city. With tired legs and the burden of history upon us, we realised the best way to return to the city safely, and saintly, was by taxi.

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Getting around in China.

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The streets of China are bursting with vehicles. Cities and towns of every dimension are clogged with an array of transportation.

The country’s population explosion has led to the emergence of small vehicles which serve as personal transport, taxi services and delivery vehicles.

In the cities surrounding Xiamen, in southern China, there too existed a proliferation of small vehicles, and most of them carried one prominent appendage; sun protection.

The vehicles hurtled down the streets furnished with some form of shade, be it permanently attached or loosely fixed. A number of passengers were clutching umbrellas, and one guy was just wearing a hat. Almost everyone seemed determined to avoid sun exposure.

Why?

I can only surmise that they wished to remain as fair as possible, because in China fair skin is a sign of high status, as its bearer is said to be of sufficient wealth to avoid toiling in the sun day after day.

They can’t have been concerned about skin cancer, because most of them were destined for lung cancer due to their chain smoking. Maybe lung cancer is a more glorious way to die.

In Harbin, northern China, I caught a ride in a very unique taxi. It was coal powered. Not coal powered in the sense that the earth’s minerals had at some point been extracted and converted, through a complex scientific process, into liquid form that was fed into the tiny taxi through the convenience of a petrol bowser. No, it was literally coal powered.

The driver negotiated the crowded streets of the icy city with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a spade, which he regularly thrust into a bucket of coal beside him, and fed directly into the boiling furnace which kept the ramshackle piece of tin putting along the road.

A makeshift pipe extracted the fumes from the taxi and straight into the atmosphere. This driver was certainly doing his bit for global warming. Maybe he was just sick of the bitter cold winters in Harbin. I know I was, after only three days of traipsing around the sculptures during the famous snow and ice festival. They are spectacular, by the way. It’s just so damn cold. Too cold for me to remove my gloves and take a photo of the coal taxi. Sorry, but I wasn’t willing to risk frostbite to bring you a photo of the unique contraption.

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Speaking of fuel sources, myself and some friends caught a taxi in Qingdao, China, which was powered by gas. This in itself is not unusual. What was memorable on this occasion was being told by the driver to step out of the taxi while he filled up. For safety, he said. Thus, if we’d remained seated in the taxi, we were in mortal danger, but if we stood only one metre away while he filled up, we were perfectly safe – even as other motorists and nearby pedestrians puffed on cigarettes.

Back in Xiamen, meanwhile, vehicles were also being used for other purposes. It’s not only humans who need to get from A to B.