They call him “Speedy.” It fits–fast talker, faster driver. He met us in one of the parks and quietly herded us and another five or six passengers with all their shopping bags to his van. It was clear that he had a silly sense of humor that laughed at everything and no one, and he had these warm brown eyes that reminded me of your favorite uncle. They tell me that once upon a time he also had a slim, sleek physical build to match his nickname, but these days he’s round in every direction. He lovingly packed us all in to the van “My lovely lady, you wouldn’t mind moving to the [cramped] back seat so this grandma can sit by the door, would you?” and threw it into gear. He seemed to know every driver on the road, and every curve was an old friend. I suppose he should; he drives this route twice a day. He flashed his lights and tooted his horn at more than half the cars he passed, and in between greetings he carried on a nonstop stream of chatter and jokes with any and all passengers within earshot of the driver’s seat. Even though with his thick local accent I only understood maybe one word out of every ten, I liked him on the spot.
Speedy is the head of a clan here in town. They all look like cookie-cutter versions of each other: the same warm, brown eyes, same round face, same ski-jump pert nose. They all drive black market taxis. The taxis are the cheapest way to get to the next town. There’s a commercial bus service that runs as well, but not as often and it’s slower and more expensive. The taxis load 8-10 passengers in a truck or van (or a compact car for those just starting out) and they zip back and forth between our small town and the next large urban center, dropping off passengers and picking up new ones along the way, sometimes barely rolling to a stop to open a passenger door before accelerating once again. Also since the drivers wait in town until their scheduled departure times more than one passenger leaves their larger purchases with them for safe keeping. Talk about your bargains–a ride home and bulky goods storage for the afternoon all for R$10 (USD$5).
The mayor in this neighboring city is out to get the taxi drivers—rumor has it he’s in the bus companies’ pocket. Fact: he instituted a local ordinance that they can’t work within the city and local police will stop a filled van with little to no pretext, issuing hefty fines if you’re caught. They caught us one Saturday, and six police officers coalesced to take the information from all twelve of us and to scold the driver. No seatbelts on anyone—oops—so a hefty fine (over R$1000 total) and a nasty black mark on his driving record (three of those and he’ll lose his license). They took down all our names—in case they needed to call us as witnesses—but since they had no way of holding or transporting twelve travelers back to their home city, they let us all get back in the van and go home. It seems really futile. These sorts of stops seem to piss off everyone but the mayor, and perhaps the police. It’s not like the local police in Brazil don’t have other things to worry about, and they certainly don’t have a surplus of manpower to spend time chasing the vans. Don’t ask me why the buses don’t become more competitive and add more frequent routes with smaller, more agile vehicles. Instead we have this game of David and Goliath. They stomp down on the taxi drivers, and the drivers scatter. But they’re not gone because the university students need to get home from school at odd hours, the housewives need to go shopping, and despite the risks the drivers can make a solid wage to support a family.* The taxi runs continue.
I’m a former community organizer, so of course as soon as I watched this drama unfold I tried to imagine which union organizer I could invite to come here to help these underdogs (reality check: I don’t know a single one who speaks Portuguese). I started envisioning protests, central square filled with parked taxis refusing to move, receipts of commerce brought into the city, petitions from local businesses, regional boycotts, legislation to legalize this type of employment. This is a country with a strong labor movement, frequent strikes, and a scrappy love of taking on The Man. The drivers have organized themselves enough that with the increasing surveillance they run the taxis on a schedule, ensuring that all drivers make a day’s wages but that no one draws too much attention to their continued existence. That seems to be it for now. I’m curious to see them bend around the increased pressure instead of openly resisting. I wonder what will happen if the mayor and bus lines stomp down again. Who knows how to use a slingshot?
* The math: R$10 multiplied by 8 riders, multiplied by two trips—there and back; that’s R$160 per day. Multiplied by 5 days/week (many work 6 days/week) and 4 weeks per month that’s a $3200 monthly income. Even with the costs of gasoline (R$50-75/round trip) and vehicle maintenance, you still have a R$1200-$1500 monthly wage. Minimum wage in Brazil is R$600, and a good salary is R$1000. Driving is worth the risks.