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Documentary : Zen and the Art of Taxi Driving in Mexico City : You see, there are two types of cabbies: laid-back and kamikaze. You'd better hope you don't get the latter.


MEXICO CITY — If Sisyphus were condemned to eternal toil today, he might well be assigned to drive a taxi around the smog-smothered, traffic-choked streets of Mexico City.

Then again, he might be made to ride in one.

During the four years that I have taken taxis to and from work and all about this megalopolis, I've had plenty of hellish experiences. I've also managed to size up a fair number of the city's 60,000 taxistas . Each time I step into a cab, I look at the cross and rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror and ask myself: Is this a cautious man who seeks extra protection? Or a wild man who needs all the insurance he can get?

I have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of Mexico City cabdrivers fall into one of two categories: Zen or kamikaze.

Zen drivers are those calm creatures who accept that their fate is one with the machine. They are careful drivers who believe that honking will wear out their battery before it will move traffic, who smile and chat or sense that you are too tired to talk and put on the news.

Their cabs are decorated with little fuzzy animals or pictures of their children or the Pope. They ask if it is too cold for you with the window open and move slowly but graciously with the rhythm of traffic.

"Why get upset?" asked Zen cabby Ramon Flores, 36. "This is my job and I have to do it the best way possible and with pleasure. Because it's what I do all day and I'll die before I'll ever fix the problem."

Kamikaze drivers, on the other hand, believe that Mexico City is something to confront and conquer. To beat the traffic, they plow into the freeways' pygmy on-ramps and charge in the wrong direction down narrow, one-way streets. These frenetic drivers believe that if they just go fast enough they can fly over crater-like potholes rather than fall into them--which is why they have no shock absorbers.

They fight inch by inch through an obstacle course of mongrel dogs, garbage trucks and cyclists with five-foot stacks of newspapers on the back of their bikes. They speed up behind trucks with bumper stickers that read "Frequent Stops," weave in and out among 50,000 minibuses and many more street vendors. In a city of 18 million people, the kamikaze drivers seem drawn by fate to the most suicidal pedestrians, and they go head to head.

Most taxis in Mexico City are Volkswagen Beetles with the shotgun seat removed. This makes it easier for passengers to climb into the back, but as far as I am concerned, it also makes it easier to fly through the windshield from the back seat of a kamikaze's cab.

These drivers use their horns instead of brakes, which they consider a last resort. I try to calm myself during these white-knuckle rides with brain teasers--like, if a Volkswagen traveling at a rate of "x" miles per hour were to rear-end a Grand Marquis that stopped suddenly, at what speed would the passenger fly. . . .

The upside of a kamikaze cab is that you don't need coffee in the morning because you get an adrenaline rush from the ride. You do, however, need the adrenaline to remain conscious amid the gas fumes. Kamikaze cars tend not to be well-tuned.

Kamikaze drivers play ranchera music at full blast from speakers set directly behind your ears. Their dashboards are plastered with race-car stickers or sayings like "Dios y Suerte"--God and Luck. While Zen drivers wear surgical masks against the smog, kamikazes chain-smoke cigarettes.

Now admittedly, I may not be the easiest cab passenger in Mexico City. Like Holly Hunter's character in "Broadcast News," I tend to tell the driver what route to take.

"Where are you going?" the driver asks as I get in.

"Go to the light and turn left," I say.

"Where are you going?" he asks again.

"Right at the next light and straight."

And so on. In the United States, this might be enough turn a Zen driver into a kamikaze, but as often as not Mexico City cabbies are happy to be absolved of responsibility.

It so happens that the most direct route from my home to work requires the driver to cut across four lanes of traffic within a short block in order to make a right turn--a maneuver the driver never seems to mind. Nor I. For as we all know about driving, somebody else's offense is an outrage, while your own is just fine.

If you ever want to befriend a cabdriver, just start commiserating with him about cops and corruption. "There's a rat in training," a 67-year-old cabby named Jorge said pointing to a police officer at the corner. "See his whiskers growing. I tell you, I've seen the corruption and lack of respect get worse and worse. They pull you over and start with, 'What are we going to do about this?' and, 'How about something to buy a little cup of coffee, a little soft drink?' "

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