Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Trusting Your Instincts

Regardless of how carefully you research travel in advance, sometimes things go awry and you are forced to fall back on your instincts. I can recall a couple of times when I have arrived late in a city and been required to rely on non-professional taxi drivers. Today with Uber and phone aps this is less likely to happen, but it still can, especially in non-Western countries.

The first time was in Washington, DC. I arrived by bus from Montreal after a long day's journey only to find that there were no cabs waiting outside the bus station, which lies northeast of the U.S. Capitol in an area I do not know well. I was headed to a friend's home in Georgetown in the northwestern part of town. A large group of African-American men were hanging around the station, offering rides to arriving passengers. One of them was especially persistent, and finally I agreed to let him take me to my destination.

We rode in a big old car and I could see that the fuel gauge was close to empty. The driver claimed to know where Georgetown was, but when he began to cross the bridge on Massachusetts Avenue near the mosque, I knew he did not. So I told him to turn around, and at last we reached my destination. He was a chatty fellow, and I tipped him well, hoping he would use some of the money to buy gas.

A few years later I had a similar encounter in St. Petersburg, Russia. I had travelled by train from Helsinki because I wanted to arrive, as V.I. Lenin had in 1917, at the Finland Station. The trip was uneventful until its end, when we arrived at a newer station farther from the city centre. My guidebook said the trains from Helsinki still went to the Finland Station, but clearly it was out of date. Again I did not see any official taxis, and finally agreed to ride with one of the most persistent of the many unemployed men who hang out at the station. He was tall and brawny, spoke reasonable English and wore the black leather jacket and the heavy gold cross favoured by Russian men of the
thuggish type.

His car was a gleaming black Mercedes, and I settled back into its leather seat to gaze out the window at gaudy neon lights proclaiming the presence of a casino, a hotel, and various restaurants and shops. I was hoping  my driver was not planning to kidnap me and hold me for ransom somewhere. Again I was in luck, and arrived at my destination unharmed  if somewhat overcharged for the fare.

I'm not sure what I learned from these encounters, other than to try to schedule travel not to arrive late at night when I will be tired and transportation options may be few. And, of course, the lesson that most people in most situations are trustworthy, even if they look and behave differently from us.  Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts and hope that things will work out.


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