As I wrote in a previous post I was a bundle of nerves about my first ever solo trip to Penang. As it turns out, solo travel is pretty fantastic. And I was ecstatic that my three-day jaunt to Malaysia went off without a hitch – well, it almost went off without a hitch.
I spent my last hours in Penang cruising around George Town, taking as many photos as I could and buying vegetable samosas from my favorite street stall in Little India – I had promised to bring some to Aaron. After five hours of walking around Penang, two delayed plane flights and one layover on Sumatra my plane finally landed in Jakarta at 11pm. After a long day I was eager to get back to my apartment and just crash out.
It’s probably important to note that I’d never hailed a cab at Jakarta’s airport before. All I knew was that Blue Bird was the most reputable company. So I hailed a Blue Bird taxi and, as I always do, I told the driver that I was going to Podomoro City (not only the complex in which I live but also a well-known landmark in Jakarta). The smiling driver repeated the name, nodded his head and off we went.
Since it was so late at night there was no traffic (an anomaly in traffic-riddled Jakarta) and from previous experience I knew the trip should take around 25 minutes and cost 100,000 rupiah. I called Aaron to let him know that I was on my way. He asked me where I was and I couldn’t help but laugh at this question. I said, “I have no idea.” While I’d done this drive before, this city is still incredibly foreign to me. I don’t know freeway exits or landmarks or anything really. Not to mention everything looks different at night. So I replied, “We just passed the second toll booth.” Aaron’s exact words were, “Where are you going? There should only be one toll booth.” That’s when I got a little freaked out. But given that no cabbie has ever had an issue getting to Podomoro City I shrugged it off, told Aaron I’d be home soon and I got off the phone.
As the minutes passed the high rises stared to fade into the distance. A half hour later the meter was already at 100,000 rupiah, and as we got off the freeway I didn’t recognize my surroundings. I had this feeling in my stomach that something wasn’t right. The cabbie sped through the dark back roads of Jakarta. And he finally pulled up to a dark apartment building and said, “This is Podomoro.”
It wasn’t. I looked at the sign and it read Sunshine Villas (or something that in no way resembled Podomoro). He assured me that it was in fact Podomoro, as if I didn’t know where I lived. There was no one around. The streets weren’t lit. There were no taxi cabs in sight. I had no idea what to do. I didn’t budge from my seat and insisted that this wasn’t Podomoro. Without a word, the cabbie started driving again. When I asked if he knew where Podomoro was he said “Yes, yes.” Suffice it to say I wasn’t reassured. I had no clue what to do in this situation. I don’t speak any bahasa Indonesia and he didn’t speak much English. I didn’t have an internet package on my phone so I wasn’t able to look up our location on Google Maps. I’m unfamiliar with the city and I had no way of directing him toward my apartment.
I pulled out a business card with my address on it in order to clarify where I wanted to go. And that’s when the previously nice driver became uncomfortably angry. He pointed at the street name on the card and insisted that we were in fact on the street on the card. For the next 10 minutes the cabbie kept driving even though he clearly had no clue where he was going. At one point I had to forcefully tell him to pull over so I could regroup and think of a landmark that was near my apartment that he might be familiar with. I named Central Park Mall – a very well-known mall in Jakarta. He didn’t say a word and he just started driving. I asked a few times if he knew where Central Park Mall was and finally he humored me with a terse, “Yes, yes.” Again, his words did not put me at ease.
After 10 more minutes I recognized a well-known sculpture that was nowhere near my apartment building and I realized we weren’t heading to the right place. I asked again if he knew where we were going and but at that point he’d stopped responding to me altogether.
I had been in the car for over an hour. The meter was up to 200,000 rupiah. Typically I would have gotten out of the cab and just found another taxi. But it was the middle of the night, in an unsafe city and there was no one around. To make matters worse the driver was mostly sticking to freeways so there was no way to get out of the car even if I’d wanted to.
As we sped along the highway it became increasingly clear to me that I was being taken for a ride. No matter how many landmarks I mentioned or addresses I showed him, he wasn’t going to stop driving until the meter ticked up to an amount he was satisfied with. I had been an all-too-easy target. I sat in the backseat feeling utterly helpless and purely terrified. My biggest concern was that he would just leave me in the middle of nowhere and I would be stranded in a sketchy city, in the middle of the night, with no one to help me.
I was scared. But I took a deep breath and realized that getting upset with the driver or showing my fear wasn’t going to help matters. I decided to just be as nice as possible. I politely asked the driver if he knew of the Taman Anggrek mall (which is a 10-minute walk from my apartment). He said he did – though I was sure he was lying – and he got on another freeway and drove. There was nothing to do but stare out the window, fight back the tears, and hope that we weren’t going to drive further outside of town.
After another 10 minutes my eyes widened when I saw the giant lit-up sign that read Podomoro City. I pointed and said, “Podomoro! Podomoro!” The driver started yelling at me. Slapping his forehead with his palm saying, “You’re wrong. You’re wrong.” I didn’t really know what to make of this reaction. He raced past the complex and merged onto another freeway. I quickly got turned around and was immediately unsure of which direction my apartment was in. My stomach sank. Why had he gotten onto another freeway?
As each minute passed I was sure that we weren’t going back to Podomoro. I seriously almost wept with joy when I finally saw the entrance to Podomoro City and told him to turn into the complex. Again he raised his voice, started slapping his forehead and repeating, “You’re wrong. You’re wrong.” When we pulled up to my building he said, “You say Podomoro Center, no Podomoro City.” I hadn’t. And I’m not even sure that “Podomoro Center” exists. The meter read 229,000 rupiah and I had been in the cab for one and a half hours – an hour longer than the trip should have taken. Defeated, I halfheartedly tried to explain that I didn’t want to pay that much. But because I was near tears and I couldn’t listen to him say, “you’re wrong” one more time, I paid him the full amount and just got out of the car.
I walked through my apartment door and just broke down in tears. I had felt so helpless, so frustrated, so panicked. Maybe I overreacted. Maybe it really was a case of miscommunication. But as I’ve heard time and again, even Indonesians get scammed by taxi drivers in Jakarta. And they live here and speak the language! I’m a foreigner, I’m a woman, I was alone. I was an easy target. In the end I learned a valuable lesson. I need to have a backup plan for these situations. And, never again will I take a cab alone in the middle of the night in Jakarta.
For anyone who’s going to take this same journey make sure to get a cab from the official Blue Bird taxi stand outside of the airport. Do not just flag one off the street, like I did. You should stand in line, tell the attendant where you’re going and you’ll be issued a white slip with your destination. All taxis are metered. There is a small surcharge (roughly $1 USD) but for this small fee you’ll be protected from getting scammed, like I was.
Have you ever had a bad taxi cab experience in a foreign country?