ANECDOTES. Entry Number Two: Gypsy Cab

It is a chilly Easter Sunday morning in Paris and today Molly and I are preparing to depart from Beauvais Airport to Ireland. Last night, to prepare for our morning commute, we walked the route from our hotel to the Metro station and took the necessary sequence of underground trains to the central above-ground train depot where we would catch our ride to Beauvais. Beauvais is a little town about one hour north of Paris and because of the distance, we have to take the train. It's worth it though, as flights from Beauvais are almost half the cost of the larger Charles De Gaulle Airport. We were careful to note the exact amount of time it took to get to the bus depot. When we set our alarm before bed we allowed for a few extra minutes in case checking out of the hotel or packing our bags took a little longer than usual. As usual, we needed those extra minutes and a few more. Nothing that we couldn't handle though.

One thing we didn't plan on however, was the Easter Sunday Metro schedule.

It seems that on Easter Sunday, the Paris Metro only runs half of the regular number of subway trains. We have three trains to catch on our way to the depot. Instead of five or ten minutes between arriving trains, we are waiting almost twenty minutes for each train. We didn't figure on this. Easter Sunday is devouring our alotted bank of time. We're starting to get anxious as we look at my watch and see the hands cranking their way to the departure of our above-ground train to the airport. If we miss that train, we might miss our flight! As the final Metro Train stops at the depot, we rudely push our way to the sliding doors and with a death grip on our luggage, burst from the platform and run to catch our train. Something isn't right, though. This is not where we got off during last night's practice session.


We're on the opposite side of the depot, but it's fine. We'll just follow the signs and we still have...seven minutes before our train leaves the station. The signs say the station is up on the next level. Just run! Not so easy. The escalators are broken down and roped off for repairs. Where are the stairs? How can there not be any stairs?! Let's find someone to help us. We are spinning in confused circles. Nobody in sight! How can there be no one working in this place today?!  Oh, Easter Sunday.

My watch reads seven-oh-five and that means our train is gone. We're deflated. We're exhausted. We're lost in a train station.

It's twenty minutes later and we are staring at the place where our train to the airport sat less than one half hour ago. The next train won't leave for over an hour and it will be too late to catch our flight. Molly is waiting sadly in the cafe' and I am in line at the ticket window attempting to exchange our train passes for the later train, a train that will not get us to the airport on time but will get us there nonetheless. The girl at the ticket window could probably care less about our predicament but I am telling her every grisly detail anyway. She is smiling and saying that I'm in luck. The later train just happens to be an express train directly to Beauvais. It's twice as fast as the other train and has no stops. She says it will arrive only twenty minutes later than the first train that we missed.


Molly and I are now sitting in the plush comfort of the express train, snacking on croissants and sipping coffee. The French countryside is whizzing by in a blur and we are happy again. Once we arrive in Beauvais, we will catch the shuttle bus for a short twelve minute ride to the airport. Next stop, Beauvais.

Wow, Beauvais is a tiny little town. It's peaceful and quaint and totally silent. Departing the train we post up at the shuttle bus stop. Looking to the right we can see an older man standing slightly hunched, wearing a newsboy cap and smoking a hand rolled cigarette. Across the street we see a suspicious looking middle aged guy with a pencil thin mustache wearing a Member's Only jacket. He's pacing the sidewalk and watching our every move. We hope that the shuttle comes soon. We are getting impatient and a little freaked out by the constant staring of Mr. Member's Only and decide to head in to the train station to inquire about the shuttle.

The shuttle doesn't run for another three hours. We are reminded that it's Easter Sunday. Thanks, we almost forgot.

We are handed a list of cab companies and we head to the pay phone to call for a ride. This one looks good. No answer. Try the next one. No answer. How about this one? Nothing. Every cab company appears to observe the Easter Sunday transportation blackout. Mr. Member's Only is waiting outside of the phone booth like a chubby, poorly mustachioed vulture. He offers us a ride. We decline and walk away. The cigarette smoking old man, who I just noticed has a patch on his jacket shaped like a car and some official enough looking logo, looks at us and says two words, "Taxi? Aeroport?" Oh yes, thank you. Mr. Member's Only is disappointed. As we walk with the old man to his car Molly is tugging my sleeve and whsipering that she doesn't feel good about this. We get to the car and see that it's not a taxi at all. It's a faded blue beat up two door hatchback from the early 1980's. He pops open the trunk and we detect the faint smell of urine. He points for us to put our bags in. I ask him how much the ride will cost. He wants twenty euros. Molly's nervous panic rubs off on me and we give him the universal facial expression for thanks-but-no-thanks and start back to the station. He looks angry as he waves us away with a flip of his hands.

Mr. Member's Only has been watching this whole exchange and he now makes another attempt to lure us in to his car. He is undercutting the old man by five euros. But he is just too darn creepy and we decline again. Another check of the time reveals that we need to be at the airport in thirty minutes or we miss our plane. We have made it this far and I don't want to give up. I am going out on a limb and against Molly's wishes as I approach the old man and signal that we'll take his offer. "Twenty?" he says. I reach in to my pocket and to my horror pull out only twelve euros and change. He flips his hands in disgust again. I scan the area for an ATM but there is none. There doesn't seem to be a bank or business in the entire town. We have been defeated. Twelve minutes away is the plane that we almost caught. The morning has been a rollercoaster ride and now we are sick to our stomachs with hopelessness. Molly and I exchange heartbroken glances and head to the station to take a seat and mourn our loss.

All of the sudden we hear someone whistle. It's the old man. He is waving us over to his car. I approach humbly and hold out the twelve euros and change. He gives me a look of pity and shakes his head as if to say, "I can't stand to see you two stupid kids stuck here. Come on." I am grateful and excited. Molly is still terrified. She is convinced that this is going to turn out bad.

What if he takes us out in to a field, steals our stuff, and then leaves us? Or even worse...KILLS US?!

We can't think like that now. We have to get to the airport. Let's go!

Our luggage goes in the back. I ride shotgun. Molly clears the garbage off of the rear seat and hops in. The old man gets in and I make sure he knows we need to get to the airport in a hurry. I speak in French but he doesn't seem to understand. I try English but he doesn't comprehend that either. I have no clue as to his nationality. Maybe Italian? He just nods and says, "Aeroport," then out of nowhere adds, "NO POLICE!" That doesn't sound good. He repeats, "NO POLICE!" and raises his eyebrows in anticipation of my agreement. I say, "Oh no, no police." He seems pleased. He rolls another cigarette and we're off. The windows don't roll down and the smoke and urine smell are making us ill. I try to hand him the money but he won't take it. He lifts a pile of envelopes and newspapers from the dashboard and motions for me to stash the money under the pile. Turning to look at Molly I can see that she is still awaiting our robbery and possible murder.

Like a gift from heaven, the road signs indicate that the next exit is the airport. We still have time to catch the plane! We exit the road and can see the airport to the right. The old man makes a left. We can see the planes getting smaller as we head in the wrong direction. Was Molly right? Are we going to end up dead in a gutter somewhere? I start to squirm in my seat and Molly's knuckles are turning white as she grips the door handle. The old man pulls in to a residential neighborhood. Oh great, we'll end up dead in someone's basement! He brings the car to the curb, turns off the ignition, exits the car, and unloads our bags on the street. We're confused. We get out and meet him behind the car. Before I can ask what is going on, he stoops down, looks past us, and points to a worn out dirt path that leads to a small patch of woods behind the houses. "Aeroport." We thank him, grab our bags, and head down the path. We trek through the small wooded area until it opens up to a big field, revealing the airport in all of it's half-priced glory. We have five minutes before the flight check-in desk closes. We sprint to the facility and reach the check-in desk with only two mintues to spare.

We made it.

Molly tells me to look out the big windows to the passenger drop off area. A police car has pulled over an illegal taxi, a gypsy cab, driven by Mr. Member's Only. They have detained the driver and passengers and are searching the car and luggage. That could have been us if we went with Mr. Member's Only. We would have made it to the airport only to be stopped just short of checking in. Instead, we were delivered to a secret path by a dirty old professional who gives discounts and who knew to avoid the police and hide the money. Suddenly, the beat up car, the smoke, and the urine smell didn't seem so bad after all.



Staying Connected

What gadgets can't you travel without? Phone, camera, GPS, MP3 player, laptop? In Europe last Spring I found myself sitting on a plane, tangled in devices and cables and batteries and headphones - all in an effort to stay connected. I needed to simplify.

PC World just put out a helpful "best-of" article on travel-friendly netbooks, laptops, and smartphones. Read it here:


When I travel I want to stay connected and document my trip while struggling to keep my packing weight and my expenses to a minimum. Recently I took up the task of finding a new travel-friendly smartphone for domestic and international trips. After weeks of research and awkward visits to the mobile phone store ("Oh, you again. Are you ever going to buy a new phone?") I decided on the Samsung Omnia:

Con: This is not a GSM (global-ready) phone. I thought a GSM phone was what I wanted but after looking at several I found that they lacked a lot of the key features I needed. In addition, the cost of maintaining the monthly global calling plan, plus the increased per-minute rate, was just too expensive. The simple solution for international calling is to buy a cheap pre-paid calling card and use public phones to make your calls. I estimated that by using a calling card on my last week long trip out of the United States I saved over $100.00 compared to having made the same calls on a world phone.

Pros: Tons of features that eliminate the need to carry five or six different devices. 5 MP camera - one of the highest for camera phones, 16 GB of storage - perfect for music and video, full HTML web browsing with WI-FI connectivity - great for e-mail and blogging, Windows Mobile 6.1 - if you need to keep up on work while you're away, full QWERTY touch screen keyboard, GPS, tons of apps - Facebook, Google Maps.

This is the only device I take with me now. Everything I need in one small package. I look forward to taking a break in a little coffee shop or bar that offers free WI-FI. I'll sit for an hour or so, listen to music, catch up on e-mail, update blogs, edit some photos and videos and upload them for friends and family to see, then throw the phone in my pocket and move on.



Don't Let Flu Season Get You Down!

With all the talk of the impending doom about to be let loose in the form of H1-N1, a.k.a. "THE SWINE FLU," us fellow travelers need to watch out for each other. Nothing would ruin your next trip like finding out you are riddled with SWINE FLU and not allowed to board your plane to wherever. On that note, I present the authority on flu prevention, Elmo:


Gypsy Cabs

Illegal taxi service, sometimes referred to as a "gypsy cab," can be found in most major worldwide cities. These cabs wait at busy tourist areas like city centers, airports, bus depots, etc. In a pinch a traveler may feel that an unlicensed taxi is the way to go. There are pros (convenience, negotiable price) and cons (unregulated safety standards, potential theft, impact on legitamate taxi service) so the savvy traveler should exercise caution.

In the next installment of ANECDOTES, you can read of our first hand account with illegal taxi service in France and decide from our experience if it's worth it or not.