Saturday, September 12, 2009

Spanish Speaking Milestone

While on vacation a few weeks ago in Chile, my parents, Cat and I returned to Santiago from Viña del Mar via a bus. When we arrived at the bus station a taxi driver greeted us at the bus and offered to take us to our hotel. Cab drivers normally approach bus passengers and offer to drive them to their hotels, apartments, etc. so this was nothing abnormal. We decided to go with this particular driver for whatever reason and piled into his car.

The driver suggested that we take the freeway to our hotel because it would be faster and easier than taking surface streets. Based on what little I knew about the city (having been there only once before) it sounded reasonable and not like he was trying to take advantage of us out-of-towners.

As promised, the ride was fast and easy. I sat in the front and enjoyed a nice conversation with the driver. When we arrived at the hotel everyone else unloaded the luggage from the trunk while I paid the driver the fare plus a small tip. However, this did not seem to satisfy him. He pulled out a 1000 peso bill and gestured vigorously at me with it.

The following took place entirely in Spanish.
The cab driver told me that I still owed him 1000 pesos. Wanting to make sure I understood him correctly, I asked him to repeat what he just said? He said again that I owed him 1000 pesos. Surprised, I asked why I owed the extra money? He told me that the freeways were in fact toll roads and that I owed him for those tolls. I asked why he did not tell me this beforehand so I could decide whether to take said toll roads (and incur the extra charges) or stick to the surface streets. Instead of answering my question he pointed to the bill and told me that I owed him more money. Refusing to yield, I kept asking him why he didn't tell me about the extra charge. To which he again pointed to the 1000 peso bill and told me that I owed him more money. Finally, after he realized that I wouldn't pay until he answered my question, he relented. He told me that he didn't tell me about the extra charge because he thought I knew about it. Laughing out of disbelief, I asked him how I could possibly know about it when I am from the United States. Oddly enough the driver could offer no explanation. By this time my dad came over and asked me what was going on. I explained everything and my dad said to just walk away and not pay. Taking his advice, I told the driver that I was not going to pay. I shut the passenger door and started walking toward the hotel entrance. The driver got out of the car and yelled something inaudible. Obviously my dad understood what he said because he told him that he had his number and was going to report him. Upon hearing this, the driver immediately got back into his car and drove off.
My parents, Cat, and I surmised that we probably did owe the driver the extra toll charge, but we were upset that he never told us. Instead, he assumed we already knew (or at least that is what he said). We also found it difficult to believe that the extra charge was 1000 pesos. Based on that number (about $2 for every 4-5 miles), freeway/tollway driving in Chile is one very expensive undertaking. And I thought the new tollways in and around Austin were pricey.

Now the point of this blog is not to complain about possibly crooked Santiago cabbies or the cost of driving in Chile. Rather, it is to mention a milestone. I argued completely in Spanish with a cab driver and we both knew exactly what the other person was saying. In other words, I understood his Spanish and he understood mine. Despite the unpleasant ending to the ride, I was very happy that I could even have the argument. If only all my conversations in Spanish were as clear.

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