Taxis in Dili are a fairly convenient form of transportation… until around 6.30pm at night. Then things get a bit tricky. Night taxis can have their own special post down the track, but this is my guide to using the bright yellow taxis plying the streets of Dili in the daylight hours.
Identifying a taxi
Taxis in Dili are painted yellow. Some have taxi signs on the roof, or cut out black letters on the door saying ‘taxi’. Others are just yellow cars. Others are screenprinted with various football club logos or random female names.
What all taxis seem to have, besides yellow paint, is dark black tinted windows that make it difficult to see whether an approaching taxi is full or empty. They always have bags of air freshener swinging about head or eye level and often the entire dashboard and front window is blinged up with anything from fake flowers, statues of Mary and Jesus, tiny circular mirrors stuck all over the windscreen, stuffed animals, more soccer paraphernalia and more air fresheners. Spotted in this last month have been several taxis with an in-car DVD player that hangs where the sun visor should be. If you get in one of these cabs, it is your job to watch the road while the driver watches Indonesian music video clips on the tiny screen.
Another identifying feature is loud music blaring out the window, or the fact that the vehicle is driving extremely slowly. Dili is one of the only cities in the world where you will ever feel the need to ask a taxi driver to go faster. According to the drivers, they use less fuel if they go really slowly. Plus, it looks ‘cool’.
If you are waiting to hail a cab, and a taxi honks at you, the honk can mean “i’m empty and about to pull over” or “i’m full and I’m going to drive right past you”.
If a taxi flashes its lights at you while you wait, it could mean “i’m empty and about to pull over” or “i’m full and I’m going to drive right past you”.
If a taxi driver sticks a finger out the window, it could mean “one passenger? I’m pulling over!” or it could mean “there’s already a passenger in here and I’m going to drive right past you”.
If a taxi slows down and swerves to approach you, it could mean that it is pulling over for you, or that it is trying to avoid a pothole to continue past you but it may drive right at you in the process.
So you’ve identified a taxi, interpreted the code and somehow found an empty one — the next thing is to figure out a price for the trip. I would say that you should always arrange the price before getting in to avoid confrontations and problems (sometimes its not possible, i.e. heavy rain, but it should be the usual rule).
Travel guides say its $1 for a short trip and $2 for a long trip… well, that isn’t really the case nowadays, especially for malae. It can cost you $3-$4 to get from one end of town to the other. Also, even fairly short trips can be $1.50-$2. Out to Areia Branca beach from town it is often $5-$6. I don’t consider myself especially crap at haggling, and I’m not especially mean either, but for a foreigner, its difficult to get the price down to the $1/$2 model that the guide books say, so be prepared for that.
Also, the driver is not likely to have change for big notes (definitely not for $20s or $50s, maybe for $10s and $5s are usually OK). Your best option to break a note in one of these situations is to buy some pulsa from one of the guys selling it alongside every road in town.
Another thing… if you share a cab with Timorese colleagues, they typically won’t negotiate a price and will just jump in. But be careful! If you are dropping them off somewhere and then continuing home on your own, then you should tell the driver that and negotiate a price for the full journey at the beginning of the trip, otherwise confrontations can arise at the end.
Dili doesn’t really have many streets with names, and the taxi drivers will often not know the road names anyway, so its best to give directions suburb first, then proximity from a landmark (i.e. Vila Verde, before Obrigada Barracks). Some places the taxi drivers will know right away by name — most of the government offices and ministries, embassies, universities, some large NGOs, apartment complexes, hotels, etc.
My Tetum is still rubbish so I typically use Indonesian for directions and haven’t had any real problems doing that so far.
The music will often be extremely loud. If you yell ‘maun’, tap your ear and wave your hand in a downward direction, the volume may be lowered to a tolerable level.
The journey will also be very slow. This gives plenty of opportunity to talk about ‘estrada a’at’ (damaged roads).
The driver may ask you if they can smoke in the cab. You can definitely say no if it bothers you… if you don’t want to seem uncool while saying no, apologize, point in the vague direction of your respiratory system and say ‘alergik’ (allergic) or ‘moras’ (sick).
Enjoy the conversation, if it is audible.
I think the taxis in Dili are quite safe, though I unfortunately did have one incident last month where I was grabbed and had the driver pull my hair and try to grab my bag after he changed the agreed fare at the end of the trip. Luckily, we were on a busy street, so I got away unscathed. I also had a taxi driver change the fare on me another time (by a ridiculous amount) and throw the money I had paid back in my face and grab my arm. I said to him “para”(stop) in a firm voice and then we had a discussion and I paid one dollar more and got out of the cab and left. He had wanted more than double the original fare. In that situation, I had been travelling with friends and we agreed to a fare, then when I was on my own he played up. He had a friend in the cab with him, which hadn’t concerned me when I had two friends in the car too, but it was clearly an issue on my own because it became two against one (even though I was only in the cab on my own for two blocks!).
So clearly, safety first!
1. Don’t get in taxis that have other people in them (besides the driver). Sometimes this is unavoidable (when there are events and not many taxis around or something). But it is just safer. Sometimes the taxi driver will stop along the way to pick up more passengers… you can ask them not to do this, though they might then ask for more money.
2. Take note of how the taxi doors open when you get in, in case you need to get out quickly. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t need to ride a cab where the door only opens using the outside handle that you access by winding down the window. But in Dili, this is not uncommon. Also, look for wire hook things sticking out of the side of the inside door instead of a handle (be careful of getting skirts/dresses caught on them too).
3. It’s often safer to pay $1 or $2 more or whatever if the taxi driver changes price/ rips you off/ turns dodgy. Remember, its better to lose some small change than to end up in the middle of a big problem.
4. When I’m travelling alone, I tend to sit in the back on the passenger side. This way, I can see what the driver is doing, we can have a conversation, and if any problems arise, the driver would have to run around to the other side of the car to catch me if I had to get away. Plus, I’m not getting out of the cab into the flow of traffic. However, some people like to sit behind the driver, because they can pull back on the seatbelt to restrain the driver if needed and the driver can’t grab them easily.
5. Negotiate and agree on the price before getting in. It doesn’t eliminate all problems, but it certainly helps manage expectations in most cases. Also, if gives you a chance to check if the driver is looking really scary or is giving you creepy eyes or something before you get in.
6. If the driver starts to get confrontational on price at the end of a journey, pull your handbag up under your arm on the side away from the driver — they may make a grab for it. Also, make sure you open the door immediately while trying to come to some agreement with them (in case they grab your hair and you need to get out, like they did in my mini-drama).
7. If you are in a cab and feeling uncomfortable, fake an SMS from a friend and a change of plans and get out early (as long as you are in a busy/safe part of the city). Pay the initially agreed rate for the whole journey.
8. If you find a driver you really like/feel good about, get their number so you can call them directly when you need a taxi.
Hmm, that’s about all my tips so far. I’ve been taking taxis here every day for two months now, so I think I’ve already sampled a fairly large portion of the city’s yellow clangers!
Please, fellow Dili-ites past and present, offer your own tips in the comments sections below!