The backpack in happier times.

The taxi driver popped the boot open without moving from his seat and Leo and I shoved our backpacks in. After a 26-hour bus trip, we were finally back in Santiago. We had been on the road for almost three weeks and it was nice to be back among the city’s familiar landmarks. The statue of the Virgin Mary perched above the San Cristobal Hill glowed spotlight white against the dark outline of the Andes while the Mapocho River trickled a silent welcome.

But as well as being excited, we were also weary. It was approaching 1am and most of the city had already fallen asleep. We wanted to join them as soon as possible.

Leo climbed into the back of the car and I slid my tired frame into the front, next to the driver. He was a large man who had had barely managed to wedge his corpulent body into the seat, filling the space in front of the steering wheel like a plug. An unpleasant smell hung in the air around him but I was in no position to complain; my last shower had been more than 48 hours earlier, back at the ambitiously named but reasonably priced Hotel Majestic in La Paz. Besides, he seemed friendly.

“Where to?” he asked with a slight chuckle as he flicked the meter over to the 250 peso flagfall.

“Independencia,” replied Leo, who was going to stay at his mum’s place. We had agreed beforehand that he would pay for the first leg of the trip and that I would pick up the tab for my journey out to Quilicura.

“Where have you been?” the driver asked.

“Up north,” I replied, yawning. “And into Peru and Bolivia.”

“We’ve just caught a bus back from Arica,” Leo added. “What’s been happening in Santiago? Has it been quiet?”

“Yeah,” said the driver. He breathed heavily as he spoke, swallowing his syllables. “You haven’t missed out on much. A lot of people have gone away for the summer so there’s not a lot of traffic on the roads but everything’s the same on the TV; gossip and murder and corruption just like always. Scandals.” He laughed again

Like taxi drivers the world over, our jolly chauffeur drove aggressively, accelarating hard before slamming on the brakes, causing the car to lurch and shudder. But apart from the occasional bump or jolt, the journey from the La Borja terminal in the Estación Central district to Independencia was uneventful. Leo and I chatted in English, pausing occasionally to chat to the driver in Spanish as he sped us through the emptied, late-night streets.

“See you,” I called out to Leo as he hopped out of the taxi. “Don’t forget your backpack in the boot.”

He walked around to the back of the car, dragged the bag onto his shoulder and headed off slowly down the street.

“Bye mate. Get a good rest,” Leo said, turning back.

“Yeah, you too. See you soon,” I replied, yawning.

The cabbie put the car into gear and turned to me.

“So where are you going?”

“Quilicura…around M. A. Matta Ave.”

There was an awkward silence.

“…Quilicura? You didn’t say that before,” he sighed. “I don’t really like that area very much and it’s a long way away.

“Let’s forget about this then,” he said, reaching in front of my face and pointing a podgy finger at the meter hanging in front of me.

“Tell me, what do you think would be a good price?”

Worn out and weary from the 26-hour bus trip, the last thing I felt like doing was bargaining with a cabbie. I just wanted to get home and go to sleep. In my own bed. So I made my first mistake.

“I’m not sure. What do you think is be a good price? To be honest, I don’t really use taxis very much. You tell me”

There was another awkward silence. Despite what I’d said, I thought a reasonable fare would be something like 10,000 or perhaps even 15,000 pesos. I should have said so but I didn’t. Instead, I waited and after a long pause, the driver replied.

“20,000 pesos.”

It seemed a bit too expensive but I was willing to accept it. I didn’t want to argue.

“OK.”

Once, again, we sped off into the night, the taxi dipping and rolling as the driver threw his lead foot around with reckless abandon. Instead of following the Panamericana motorway as I would have done, he chose a series of dimly lit backstreets, criss-crossing his way through the ugly part of Renca. I wasn’t completely familiar with the route but I had passed through the same streets before with Leo. There was no cause for concern.

“So where are you from?” the driver asked.

“Australia. But I’ve been living here for a year, teaching English. It’s been good.”

“How was your trip? What was it like when you passed through customs?”

“It was fine for me. Interesting really. They never really checked my backpack thoroughly – they just asked me if I was only carrying clothing, I said yes and they let me pass. They checked the bags of all the Peruvians and Bolivians carefully but they let all the Chileans and gringos go through. It seemed a bit racist.”

“Yes, but they know that the Peruvians and Bolivians often try to bring drugs into the country.”

“Hmmm, well the best strategy would be to get gringos to smuggle the drugs because nobody would check their bags,” I said trying to make joke. In hindsight, it was another mistake.

The conversation continued in the same manner as we darted through Renca; the driver asked me questions and I answered. Perhaps excessively.

But then the driver’s tone changed.

“I really don’t want to go to Quilicura. I was robbed there once and they took off with my meter and those machines really cost a lot. No, I don’t like it there at all. Do you know how much these things are worth?” he asked, once again pointing his finger at the switched off gadget hanging in front of my face. His whole arm was shaking and his plump belly quivered.

“No.”

“200,000 pesos,” he answered slowly and with added emphasis.

“But look,” I shot back, “I’ve been living in Quilicura for a year now and it’s not a bad place really. There’s nothing to worry about. Anyway, who was it that stole from the meter from you? Your passengers?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you’ve got nothing like that to worry about from me. I just want to get home. I’m not going to give you any trouble.

The cabbie continued on his way but just a few blocks later he slowed right down to a crawl. About five minutes later, the driver turned to me.

“We’re almost there now, that’s M. A. Matta Ave there. Do you know where it is from here?”

“But we haven’t even got to Quilicura yet,” I replied, frustrated. “We’re still in Renca. We haven’t crossed the Americo Vespucio motorway.”

“Oh, you mean that M. A. Matta Ave. I didn’t realise how far it was going to be. I might have to charge you more.”

I was starting to get angry. “Look, we agreed that you would take to me Quilicura for 20,000. Let’s just stick to what we said.”

“But I didn’t know how far it was. And I’m scared,” he said again, lifting up his shaking hand to prove his point.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” I said, half feeling sorry for him despite my frustration. “Just take me there and then you can go. Nothing is going to happen.”

He sped up a little and we continued on our way once again. About 10 minutes later we arrived in Quilicura, where the driver pulled up at a red light. His hands started shaking. Again.

“I really don’t want to go any further. Why don’t I drop you off here?”

“No. You agreed to take me home. It’s late, I’m tired, I have a heavy backpack and it’s still a long walk to my place from here.”

“OK, give me 30,000 pesos now and I’ll take you to your house.”

I was shocked at his audacity but I coughed up the cash. It was getting ridiculous and I didn’t care about being ripped off. I just wanted to get home.

We took off again, snaking our way through the empty streets of Quilicura. Eventually, the driver swung the car onto M. A. Matta Ave and pointed the car in the direction of home. Cruising down the street, we passed a Carabineros patrol car that was parked on the side of the street. Two officers were on the footpath, talking to another motorist.

“Look, there’s no-one dangerous on the streets and even the police are out. It’s going to be fine…just drop me off at the next main intersection: San Enrique St.”

“OK…but let me turn the car around so I can get away quickly,” he said doing a U-turn.

“Sure,” I consented without thinking.

The car stopped, I opened the door and got ready to step out. Then I stopped.

“Hey, remember, I’ve got my backpack in the boot.”

“Yeah, I’ve popped it open.”

I climbed out, closed the passenger door and walked around to the back of the car to collect my bag. The boot wasn’t open. I reached out my hand to tap on the bootlid and let the driver know but I never made contact. There was a rev of the engine and a screech of tyres and the taxi took off with my borrowed backpack still inside.

“Hey!” I yelled. “HEEEEEEEEEEY!”

Without thinking, I started running in pursuit of the taxi but soon it was out of sight. Not knowing what to do, I kept running for three blocks until I caught up to the patrol car I had seen a couple of minutes earlier.

“Hey!” I panted. “I’ve been robbed. A taxi driver just took off with my backpack.”

One of the officers turned to me. “Did you get the number plate?”

The number plate!

“No…I wasn’t thinking straight. I was in shock.”

“Well I don’t think there’s much we can do. We’ll go for a drive around the block when we’ve finished here but he’s probably long gone now.” He paused before adding: “There are a lot of taxis in Santiago, you know.”

There was nothing more to say. I’d been taken for a ride.

"There are a lot of taxis in Santiago."

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