Bolivian Story: Felipe Ballon

Posted on 03 April 2014

I have known Felipe Ballon since very soon after our arrival in La Paz but most of my time was spent with him in his car! Felipe is the taxi-driver hired by the NGO I used to work with, so we would frequently spend the hour long trip to/from the airport discussing Bolivia and its intriguing contradictions.  As a taxi-driver I particularly enjoyed his punctuality – even when he had to pick me up from the airport at 3 am – and as a friend I enjoyed learning from him as he shared his perspectives on Bolivian society. So, Carly and I were really happy when he accepted to spend a couple of hours with a good coffee to do this interview. Pacena/os, you will learn lots about the intricacies and politics of public transport in La Paz! 🙂

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Can you please tell us who you are?

I was born in Cota-Cota, La Paz. I’m married with two daughters. I have been working as a radiotaxi driver for 18 years. Before this I was working as a truck driver but it was pretty difficult as it involved carrying very heavy work load under the hot sun… It was easy to change to become a radiotaxi driver as I only had to buy a car and start working! It took me four years to pay back the loan I took for buying the car. Today there are lots of traffic jams in La Paz as lots of cars flooded the city. This stresses me and prevents me to stay calm. The many demonstrations like the one that happened today are also very stressful. Working at night can be better as there are much fewer cars, but there are more risks, due to insecurity – so I don’t take random passengers on the street, only those who first call the central office. Apart from my normal working hours during the week, I also work on Friday and Saturday throughout the night. It is really worth it as the salary is double or triple what I earn during a normal day, even though sometimes I am so tired that when I leave my house I immediately want to go back home!

How good are you at driving, have you ever had an accident?

I always drive carefully and with much reflection and patience. I did have a big crash many years ago when driving a truck – it fell into a ravine. Of course I have had lighter accidents too. I also drove over someone once – the person was drunk and ran in front of my car when leaving a bar. Just after it happened all of his friends wanted to lynch me, but I suggested bringing him to the hospital instead! He had a fractured arm but his family did not want him to be operated because they did not believe in modern medicine. Doing so would have cost me 10,000 Bolivianos [approx. 1430 USD] so I was relieved. Instead they asked me to bring the person (four times) to a “curandero”, a natural medicine healer and its cost me 1200 Bs [approx. 170 USD]. The reason I had to pay for the cost directly instead of my insurance doing it is because the accident happened on the 3rd of January and drivers are always late a buying their new annual insurance, doing so only after around the 10th of January… but now I always buy it in December!

You worked for 5 years as the Colombian ambassador’s driver – how did you get this job?

In contrary to other taxi drivers I always have my car tidy and I am friendly with clients. The ambassador once hailed me while in the street and because he liked seeing a clean car, he asked me to drive his daughter to school. He then proposed that I could work with the embassy and I continued to work there for nearly three years after he left but the embassy had to cut several positions when their budget was reduced. I was supposed to return working as the embassy driver once their budget would return to normal but when this happened they offered the job to my nephew instead, whom I had previously helped to get a job in the embassy as a courier!

Anyway, thanks to this job, I got known among staff from other embassies and I now have had a job as the Uruguay’s ambassador official driver for two years. But I work only at specific hours, and I use their official car. I am paid almost twice what I was paid before so even though I always have to be on call, I have got used to it.

And you are also working with the radio taxi company Servisur, right?

Yes. I work independently, but I have to pay 100 Bs [approx. 14 USD] weekly, which is a lot because I have to pay this amount even when I’m on holidays. But it would be harder to find customers without them, especially on Fridays and Saturdays.

All these radiotaxi companies work the same way but Servisur has more customers because people trust it more. The reason is that my company checks the drivers’ previous experience and to get a job there you need a reference from a driver already employed by the company.

In saying this, as taxi drivers, we work the way we want. We do not have to report to the central office each time. We register with them whenever we are looking for clients because there are times where you drive around without meeting any client.

There are also fully independent taxis but they aren’t accountable to anyone. In contrast, we can be penalised if the customer complains. In the Zona Sur [the posh area of La Paz], there are no such independent taxis because people living there are more reserved and suspicious.

I get about 40 customers per day, from anywhere and going anywhere. Of these around 10 are directed through from the radio taxi.

Sometimes taxi drivers do not want to pick up clients for different reasons. There are times that the driver does not know the price to your destination and he is too far from his central office to ask for it. There are also drivers who will not go from the city centre to the Zona Sur because they will have a hard time finding clients when driving back.

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Is it better to be a taxi driver, a trufi (a car used to transport passengers on a (theoretically) fixed route) driver, or minibus driver?

It’s better to be a taxi driver because it’s easier to keep the car clean, and also because the car is better conserved as there are less people using it. In addition, you get paid 18 Bs [2.6 USD] to drive downtown, as opposed to 15 Bs [2.1 USD] if you drive a minibus. I know some taxi drivers who switched to become minibus drivers but they didn’t stay long because they had more fights with passengers, have to go through fixed routes even when there are traffic jams, etc.

You introduced me to the concept of the ‘Bolivian hour’, can you please tell me again what it is all about?

It’s basically being one hour late to any meeting. It is accepted as part of our custom. In contrast, my dad taught me of the importance of always being on time. When I talk to my colleagues about it they understand the relevancy of being on time to meetings, and they manage to get on time once or twice but then they get tired of it. When you call a driver because he’s late and the answer is “I’m right across the corner” it really means that he is actually still far away…

Do you notice a difference when working with foreigners as opposed to Bolivians?

Yes, there are differences, especially in the tone used. Non-Bolivian Latin Americans speak differently. And foreigners are always better than Bolivians, who discriminate more, or treat me badly. There are Bolivians who get in the car and don’t even say hello because they look down on taxi drivers. Foreigners are usually nicer.

Sometimes taxi drivers charge foreigners more though. In particular at night because there is a large demand for taxis or because passengers want to go back home rapidly, or because they are drunk! So they should better understand how things work here, especially if they are new in La Paz, as probably 50% of the taxi drivers aren’t honest.

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Can you tell me more about the ‘devil’s curve’?

In Bolivia, money is linked to the devil. There is a place, located on the highway going down from El Alto to La Paz, where a rock was looking like the devil so people come there to do pagans parties. They drink a lot and pray the devil for money. They literally sell their soul to the devil. Some people adore the Virgin, other the Lord of Gran Poder [Great Power]… and some also adore the devil. Because of it I am afraid to stop at this location. Three or four years ago the municipality of La Paz moved the rock to an undisclosed place as there were so many people coming there at night that the highway would be blocked. There is a joke that says that the rock has been relocated to the Presidential palace, and this is why the President gets so much money!

How are taxi unions working?

You can’t be an independent trufi or minibus driver in La Paz. To use any route you need to pay a union and then join one of their 10 groups. They control minibuses or trufis to ensure a regular flow on a given route. There are many taxi drivers’ unions in La Paz. Before, there used to be only one, the Litoral. Slowly, they became more numerous and unions for minibuses, trufi, etc were created in every part of the city. The unions are self-administered including the routes, the hours, etc. You have to pay 500 USD to enter a union but then you can sell your share when you leave the union. You don’t receive anything from the union, but you are authorised to use their routes.

What do you think of the recent and much publicised introduction of modern buses in La Paz (the famous Puma Katari)?

Unions were convinced that they would lose clients due to the introduction of these new buses and that’s why they demonstrated against them, but it didn’t happen. I don’t think it will affect them much. Well, it did affect them in the early days of their introduction but only because the buses were free!

And how much will the introduction of the cable car network (“teleferico”) affect public transport in La Paz?

This will indeed affect public transports as the cable cars will transport lots of people from El Alto to the city, but at the same time it is said that it will be quite expensive to use on a daily basis. On another note, people will still need taxis and minibuses to move to/from the cable car stations.

I see the introduction of the Puma Katari and of the teleferico as signs of progress. People will learn how to queue to get in a public transport, how to get off only at pre-authorised bus stops, etc.

What are your dreams for the future?

I hope my two girls find a good way in life. One is now studying at university. Also, I hope to save some more money for my retirement. What I’m afraid of most is sickness. I do have a health insurance, but I’m afraid of hospitals. Lastly, because I am now 40 years old, I hope to live for another 20!

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2 responses to Bolivian Story: Felipe Ballon

  • Thank you for this interview! It really explains a lot, how things work in Bolivia:)

    [Reply]

    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    Thank you very much Bolivia in my eyes! I do find the intriguing contradictions of the Bolivian society particularly interesting!

    [Reply]

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