So here I am in Belgrade – an exciting mix of old and not-so-modern. Huh? On one side of the river is Old Belgrade (dating back to the 3rd century) and on the other side is a 1970’s style model Soviet city, with wide boulevards (for the tanks), tower blocks in squares and brutalist architecture - courtesy of Yugoslavia’s dictator Tito.
I’m eager to explore, but I’m the “safety guy” so I stop at the reception desk to ask a few questions.
“Any districts I shouldn’t go to? And how bad’s the petty crime around here?”
It turns out there’s nothing for me to worry about, except for the unlicensed taxis.
“Do not take the taxi with the plain white sign on top, sir.”
Fast-forward to three nights later and a group of us are leaving a restaurant on the Belgrade waterfront. There are five of us, so we split up into two taxis.
I’m already in the back of the cab, siting in the middle seat when my friend says, “Hey Phil, these are white taxis!” but it’s too late, the doors are shut and the driver is moving.
He’s also turned the music up to ear-splitting volume so I shout, “Turn the music down and put the meter on!” The driver is dismissive, so I know we’re in deep doo-doo now.
All the way across the bridge over the Sava, I’m watching the meter and battling the sinking feeling of inevitability in my stomach. It’s only a short trip, and I’ve already done it about a dozen times, so I know the going rate is 500 Dinar (about $US4).
Pretty soon we’re at our hotel, but not at the front door, down a side road at the trades entrance… uh-oh!
As my boisterous companions spill out of the taxi I watch as the driver stops the meter and I see with my own eyes as it jumps from 700 Dinar to 20,000 Dinar!
The conversation goes like this:
Me: “Mate, I saw what happened! I was watching the meter when you did that!”
Driver: “Fare is 20,000, it’s there on the meter.”
Me: “I know what type of taxi we’re in, you know what type of taxi this is, and now you know I know. I also know the going fare is 500 Dinar, so take this.”
The driver looks at me and smirks because he knows he’s been busted.
Driver: “No, no. I don’t want it. You don’t pay.”
Me: (figuring not paying will result in police getting involved for fare evasion) “No way, here’s the 500.”
Meanwhile in the other taxi the same scenario is playing out. But this driver is telling my friend the fare is correct because then other taxi fare is the same. He gets out of the taxi.
Keep in mind that Serbia was in the middle of a war until 2001, anyone over the age of 35 has probably killed a person, or seen people die. My companions now begin to back away and melt into the shadows.
Big driver to my driver (This is obviously part of a rehearsed routine): “Tell him how much they pay you?”
My driver: (sheepishly) “500.”
Big driver throws his arms in the air, and angrily stomps back to his car. My friend tries to pass him a 500 Dinar note, which the driver refuses. My friend drops the note through his open window. It flies back out onto the road and both taxis roar off.
We all look at each other, adrenaline racing through our blood, and burst into laughter. Maybe it’s because I’m Australian, I never considered the possibility that he might be armed – my American compatriots certainly had!
At what point would I have decided my life was worth more than 20,000 Dinar ($US170)?
Inside the hotel we celebrate our good luck with another Serbian rakia. Ziveli!