The Bulgarian Taxis That Will Take You for a Ride
The burly or, some would say, just fat cab driver is reading some of them cheap, bad-quality papers in his taxi parked in front of a large mall in downtown Sofia when a jeep with a tinted windshield slowly pulls over, and four young muscular guys in dark clothes get out of it.
The cab driver doesn't realize yet what is about to happen. His bald forehead is sweating in the summer heat. His bushy beard, nasty face, and large bronze chains on his neck give him looks that many consider scary.
Not the four guys in dark suits. The first one of them opens the cabbie's door and with one swift motion pulls the 130-kg driver out of the car. Next think you know, the driver is in on the ground lying in a puddle of his own blood. It takes the four guys 2-3 minutes to – as it turns out – to “punish” him.
One shouldn't really bother asking why none of the hundreds of passers-by intervened to help the poor cabbie with the bad-ass looks.
For one thing, the four guys did what they came for pretty quickly and efficiently, and just as quickly – though without creating the impression of being in a hurry – got back in their jeep and drove away. For another, they must be clearly some kind of sportsmen-turned-gangsters that regular Bulgarians do shy away from wanting to deal with.
But why didn't any of the 30-40 other taxi drivers witnessing the scene intervene to help their colleague?
Taxi drivers, at least in Sofia, are not the kind of guys who are afraid. Not even of the so called “mutri” - the stereotypical antroponym for Bulgarian gangsters from the 1990s, most of whom used to be talented wrestlers back in the communist days.
“Get out of the f... way, you m... f...,” shouted the driver of the taxi that I took home one night. It was well past midnight, and we got stuck in a kind of a traffic jam in one of the narrow downtown Sofia streets lined with hundreds of parked cars on both sides because a black jeep had pulled over right there on the street.
“You sold a kilo of heroin, bought a jeep, and you think you're a big deal, ha!,” kept shouting the cabbie at the driver of the jeep adding all sorts of really nasty insults and swearwords. The black jeep slowly moved forward, and made a turn at the first crossroads.
“Did you see that? They are scared of us,” the gleeful taxi driver told mе explaining that even a mid-level Sofia gangster would be afraid of him and his colleagues because they have the means to wedge him in with their cars almost immediately, and then to proceed to other forms of street justice.
“We are disciplining them! These are disciplinary measures. But they know better by now. If he had gotten out of the car to mess with me, I would've brought here 50 cars in 2 minutes. We could just get his car stuck here, and he won't have anything to do,” said the taxi driver explaining to me the mechanism through which the Sofia cabbies would “discipline” the mutri or anybody else of the sort.
The cabs in Sofia could easily become something like the mechanized units of the Wehrmacht – they are highly mobile, highly organized, and highly united. At one point in the late 1990s they blockaded the downtown and nearly brought down the Bulgarian government after breaking news that the 5-year-old son of one of their colleagues was kidnapped from the hands of his mother. This later proved to be false (the mentally unstable mother was found to have killed the kid) but then Prime Minister Kostov had very tough several hours dealing with the taxi blitzkrieg.
So the Sofia cabbies are not afraid. Many of them can be nice, many of them can be bad, but all of them have seen too much. Why did they abandon that poor driver with the bad-ass looks to be thrashed?
The answer is simple. He is not one of them. He is a solo player. He belongs to no taxi firm. He works for himself – with all the risks ensuing from this status. He is what the others call in Bulgaria “shanadzhiya” - or a “hustler” in plain American English. In Bulgaria, the term is most often used for drug dealers who try to be independent and to work for nobody but it also goes for this special kind of taxi drivers.
This is exactly the kind of taxi driver in whose car you don't want to end up in Sofia, especially if you are a foreigner, and especially if your nice looks create the impression that you might have some money.
Ask former Greens MEP David Hammerstein who in October 2008 got charged BGN 105 for a taxi ride from the Sofia International Airport to the Dondukov Blvd in the downtown. It was rather sad yet somewhat funny to see the nice but outraged MEP hold on to his receipt hoping that it would help him find some kind of justice. The receipt, of course, turned out to be fake, from a non-existing firm.
“This case with the taxi was my first impression from Bulgaria. I told the Transport Minister about it today but he said that he couldn't do anything about it,” Hammerstein told the Bulgarian papers. His MEP colleagues and he said upon leaving that they were shocked by the lawlessness reigning in Bulgaria.
Or ask the nice American woman who called the police when the taxi driver demanded BGN 250 for driving her from the airport to the downtown. The policemen, of course, couldn't do anything as the woman supposedly agreed to the crazy rate of the cab driver when she got in the taxi. Just for the record, the distance from the Sofia Airport to the downtown is no more than 10-12 km.
This crime becomes even more brutal in the numerous cases daily in which poor Bulgarians from the rural provinces coming to visit a sick family member in a Sofia hospital get tricked into a rogue taxi. In that case chances are the hustler will get the family's only money that is supposed to buy medicines for the sick family member.
So why did those four muscular chaps beat the heck out of that hustler cabbie? Did they want to force him to join their taxi firm? Or were they just a racketeering squad? None of the above, I am told by one of the witnesses, a cabbie from one of the decent Sofia taxi companies that don't overcharge their clients.
The reason for his beating lies with the hustler's tactics. He doesn't pick up many clients daily. But he is very much like a predator stalking his prey who then skins it completely after catching it.
Most people from Sofia are generally aware of the rogue taxis and avoid them. Most people who come from outside of Sofia, however, have a very high chance of falling into the trap. Sometimes Sofia residents could end up in a rogue cab, too, by not paying enough attention as the hustler is skillful at employing mimicry. So the regular cabbie might drive around the city all day, while the hustler may spend hours waiting but still make the same BGN 50 or BGN 100 – from just one client.
Even if the victim realizes before they reached their destination are given a hefty bill – or just demanded orally to pay one that they got into a rogue taxi, even if they figure it out during the ride, it is usually too late to avoid the ripoff, unless they are very courageous.
Because the hustler would most often and most likely try to intimidate you. He would start telling stories about how he was in prison, or how he got that scar or that tattoo. One can't tell if these stories are true – but they might as well be.
Sure, there are ways for the potential victim to resist but if it is a teenager, an elderly person, a woman, a guy from outside of Sofia who just came to the “big city,” or, especially, a nice, cultured Westerner, the most likely result will be that the hustler will get what they want.
So, once again, back to the beating of the fat, bald, bearded cabbie in front of the mall in downtown Sofia. What was he punished for?
It turns out the day before two attractive young girls got in his taxi without realizing what they had gotten themselves into. During the ride the hustler shocked them with scary stories about his time in prison, etc, so when they reached their destination they were intimidated enough and paid the BGN 60 he asked from them.
Yet, the young ladies were pretty outraged. Unluckily for the cab driver, one of them turned out to be the girlfriend of... let's just say, a well-connected man. A man who, as it happened, could send in a punitive squad. All the girl had to do was to memorize the license plate number of the hustler, and thus she allowed her boyfriend to “protect” her “consumer rights,” though in an unorthodox way, at least as far as Western standards are concerned.
The four energetic chaps who went to punish the hustler did not get any money from him, they just wanted to hurt him. In that case, it was not about money. It was more about honor. Or about “consumer gratification”.
This true story (as are the other facts mentioned above) did not end up in a police investigation. It is only left in the memory of the Sofia cab drivers – both the proper and the rogue ones. And they actually have much more shocking true stories. One just can't help but wonder who is the victim in these circumstances – the “good” taxi firms, the clients, even the hustlers, or even those customers who can afford to use gangster justice?
One thing is for sure – the legal and law enforcement system in the city of Sofia is pretty rotten as far as the taxi services are concerned. And don't even get me started about the situation elsewhere in the country – especially along the Black Sea coast where the hustler cabbies have a lot more foreigners to take advantage of – and they do all the time. A very good example in hand is the recent case in which a Bulgarian cabbie slapped a drunk British girl for throwing a beer in his face after he wanted to overcharge her.
There is at least some hope for Sofia. The Sofia Municipality and the Transport Ministry recently announced that they will move to introduce a ceiling of the rate charged per km by the cabbies. It is this announcement that provoked this article.
This regulation will technically be in power in the entire country as it will be part of the national legislation but my guess is that it stands a fair chance of being properly enforced in Sofia, and little chance of being enforced in the Black Sea resorts. The price ceiling for the taxi service is still unclear as the taxi companies and the authorities will have to agree on a formula to determine it.
Until that new taxi regulation materializes, if it ever does, you should, especially if you are a foreigner arriving to Sofia, keep in mind that the decent taxi companies offer rates of about BGN 0.55-0.60 per km during the day, and of about BGN 0.70 per km at night (10 pm-6 am).
Thus, you shouldn't be asked to pay more than BGN 12-14 from the Sofia Airport to the downtown. Some of the hustler cabbies stalking their prey in front of the airport would ask for BGN 7.5/8.6 per km, which will automatically bring your 15-20-minute ride to the cost of a dinner for four in a nice Sofia restaurant.
The reasonably-priced – or cheap – services are one of Bulgaria's advantages as a tourist destination. The rogue cabs, however, are one of its disadvantages. There are about 5000-6000 legal taxis in Sofia but nobody knows how many the rogue ones are. According to the National Union of Taxi Companies, about 10% of cabs in Sofia are rogue, i.e. they will charge you the same prices as a low-cost airline.
They are essentially criminal structures, even though they usually act independently or in very small groups, which the authorities must crack down upon. There seems to be some hope that this might happen in Sofia, while this is rather unlikely in the Black Sea cities and resorts.
So if you are a foreigner in Bulgaria who has to get a taxi, your best bet is to have somebody local whom you trust pick a cab for you. Unless, of course, you don't care how much you spend, and don't care this money will end up in the hands of a nasty hustler.
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