Almost any story, no matter how tragic, can seem amusing after putting some distance between yourself and the crisis. In editing this story, I found myself laughing, but at the time, I can assure you I felt no mirth whatsoever. Now that I can achieve a little perspective, I think I can write this in such a way as to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek while offering a cautionary tale about traveling when you have a disability, and share some lessons learned.
Recently I returned from a business trip, and was anxious to get home. After collecting my luggage from the airport baggage claim, I sought the taxi stand. I live less than a half hour from the airport, and after such a long trip, culminating in a seemingly interminable travel day, I was thrilled to be headed home. Unfortunately, the last thirty minutes of the trip proved to be the most hazardous. Here is my tale of woe, shared in hope of helping other blind travelers to avoid my mistakes.
As the first taxi van pulled up to the front of the line, the airport public service attendant who assisted me with my luggage commented, "I know this guy. He’s a friend of mine. He’ll take care of you." Mistake number one: Accepting the word of one stranger about the trustworthiness of another stranger.
Seasoned traveler that I am, I learned long ago some important safety tips regarding getting into a vehicle that I cannot see. After all, just because someone says it’s a taxi, doesn’t mean that it is. With no way to verify this information, I am very careful about only getting into a vehicle that I have requested in advance, whereupon the driver will confirm my name and other information. I am usually vigilant about getting the name of the driver and the cab company before I get into the vehicle. In this case, though, I was catching the cab spontaneously from the public taxi stand, and had not thought to gather this information in the moment. So, I took the luggage porter at his word that he knew the cab driver.
As my luggage was being loaded into the back of the taxi, I asked the driver to estimate the cost of the ride. Since I took a taxi to get to the airport to begin with, I knew about how much the fare should be, but I always ask just in case the possibility of transporting a blind woman might inspire a taxi driver to lie.
In this case, he did not lie, he was silent. I repeated the question. He stuttered and stammered and then said in barely comprehensible English that he did not know. I asked him to phone in to the dispatcher for the estimate. he said he couldn’t do that. I asked him why not. After a number of excruciating minutes, I gleaned that he had never heard of the city in which I live, and he said he needed to plug my address into his GPS, then he could tell me the fare. Mistake number two: Never enter a vehicle with someone who is incapable of communicating in your language.
Mistake number 3: If he cannot speak your language, ensure his technology can speak HIS language.
The luggage porter was still standing nearby, so I turned to him. "You are telling me that this guy is okay?" I asked in an effort to confirm the driver was legit. "Sure," repeated the porter, "he’ll take care of you."
All of my instincts were telling me not to get into the cab, but I was anxious to get home, so I did it anyway.
Mistake number 4: Always trust your instincts. Always. .
My first clue that this was going to be a nightmare was when he could not understand me when I gave him my address, which he was struggling to enter into the GPS while struggling to drive off the airport property. At rush hour on a weekday, navigating the airport passenger pickup area and departing from the terminals area is a scary proposition under the best of circumstances, but combine that with an uncomprehending driver who cannot operate a GPS unit and you have a ride like a demolition derby. Granted, I may not be able to fully appreciate the nuances of adept driving, but based upon the number of blaring horns I heard in response to what the driver was doing, it was quite the symphony of road rage out there.
No matter how many times I repeated my address, spelled the name of my street (two one-syllable words), or repeated and spelled the name of the exit off the freeway, there would be no getting through. He was a stranger in a strange land, an alien with a fundamental illiteracy that would soon put me in danger. Weaving through and swerving around traffic, and using his foot like a jackhammer on the gas pedal, we lurched onto the freeway. He ignored my every effort to offer suggestions as to how to get me home, while he repeatedly attempted to type my address into his device. "No work," he muttered, asking me to repeat my street name yet again. "Not here." Out of frustration, I finally insisted that he phone his dispatcher to get directions. "Please understand," I implored, "I am blind, and if you miss the exit off the freeway I will be of little help to you. I cannot give you directions other than what I know," I finished weakly, realizing that I had been living in my new city just a few months, and had not yet fully grasped the lay of the land. "I don’t have much cash on hand…if we get lost, the fare may amount to more cash than I have. I cannot afford to pay for your inability to use your GPS." Mistake number 5: Know how to tell someone else how to get to your home by more than one route. Learn your new city layout as quickly as you learn your new address and phone number.
The driver pulled out his phone and called a person he described as a friend. this friend was supposed to give him directions, based upon my address, presumably consulting his own GPS, or Google maps, or his Magic 8 Ball, or something, and passing along instructions to my wild-eyed cab driver.
I became alarmed. I realized that the radio I was hearing in the vehicle may in fact have been tuned to a dispatch channel, but it was not a channel apparently meant for him. This man had absolutely no idea where he was, or where he was going. He could not understand a word I said. he could not function with the GPS. He was weaving wildly all over the freeway. He could not pronounce, even with a spelling, the name of my street, and began to shout at me to say the names of the freeway exit and the name of my street over and over. Still, even if he grasped this information, I realized that I would still need to explain how to proceed through the points in between. I do not live twenty steps from the freeway exit. There are a number of streets in between the freeway and home, and I had no idea how I would communicate this to him. He was still jabbering into the phone, stabbing at the GPS with one finger, as if by random chance it might suddenly announce my destination, and trying to steer all at once. "He say no street! No street!" He insisted, going back and forth between me and the mystery dispatcher.
By now, we were shouting at each other. He refused to let me out of the car, call a home office, or tell me the meter reading on the fare. He also would not tell me the name of the cab company or his own name. I frantically searched the inside of the vehicle for pamphlets or business cards or anything that had his cab ID on it. There was no Braille inside the van which provided the phone number for the taxi oversight authority. I realized now that I was in a vehicle that I could not identify operated by a man I could not identify. he could take me anywhere. Then, he became so disoriented and agitated, he came to a stop on the freeway.
"Are you crazy?" I shrieked. "Are you crazy? We are on a freeway! You can’t stop on a freeway!" he told me to shut up and calm down, while he spoke in rapid-fire utterances to the person on the phone. I wasn’t even sure I knew what language he was speaking. Cars were streaking by us, rocking the van from side to side with the air displacement as they whipped by. "I’m calling the police." I announced, taking out my phone and turning it on, cursing myself that I had not done so when I deplaned. "You are crazy, you are going to get us killed." I declared, believing those to be my last words on this Earth.
"Calm down," the driver yelled at me, "I’m trying to figure it out."
My phone battery was dead. It wouldn’t dial out. Mistake number 6: Ensure your technology is fully charged at all times while traveling.
While I was silently praying I would survive the trip home, the driver shot forward into the flow of traffic. "Okay, found exit," he announced, as though that ought to quiet me. "We go. All fine."
The story continues to deteriorate from here. I’ll skip the rest. The upshot is that I did eventually get home, and after three stops at the side of various streets for consultation with his phone friend the cartographer and his uncooperative GPS, I handed the driver every cent I had with me, which totaled fifty-seven dollars, almost twice the typical fare. Unfortunately, though, this was a few cents short of the amount due. Fearing that he would drive off with my luggage in the back of the car, I waited to exit the vehicle until it was unloaded, then handed him the cash folded up so that he had to stop to count it while I was dragging my bags up my driveway.
"You really should tip me." he demanded. "this is not enough. The fare was more than this," he called after me, suddenly able to communicate.
I was incredulous. "Well, maybe it wouldn’t have been, had you not been running the meter while you stopped on the freeway and three other times trying to find my address." I snapped. "That’s all I’ve got, so take it and go." I shoved my bags into my garage, quickly closed the door, and ran inside before he could assault me. He waited outside my home for a long time before pulling away.
I wish I had thought to take a photo with my phone. I might have been able to snap a picture sufficient to identify the driver or the vehicle to the authorities at some point later. but I didn’t, and I realize now that I could not have anyway, since my phone battery was dead. So, with no identifying information about the driver, the vehicle, or the cab company, I had no one to whom to complain.
I did make a half-hearted effort to appeal to the local taxi authority, but with no supporting evidence, I came across as though I had conjured up the entire ordeal out of thin air.
The moral of this story is that one just cannot be too careful, and that hazards await at every turn, even those leading to your own driveway. Please comment below and share your own travel nightmares. Do you have any of your own tips for travelers who have disabilities? Let’s start a list.