We had not taken more than a dozen steps inside the Tulum bus terminal when Jen realized that she was missing the small pouch that she had been using as a wallet. We quickly turned around. In front of the bus station was a solid line of white, identical looking taxicabs. It seemed like there were at least 50 of them, all small sedans with red stripes, and they were constantly coming and going. It had only been a minute or two since one of those white taxis had dropped us at the curb and pulled away.
“I had set it on my lap and it must have slid off and fell on the floor,” Jen informed me. “My credit and at ATM cards are in it.” Luckily, her passport was in her money belt.
While I waited with our backpacks, Jen (with her superior Spanish accent) went to see if she could track the taxi down. She returned moments later, looking flushed.
“Do you remember the number of the taxi?” she asked. “If we can figure out what taxi we were in, the drivers can track him down for us.”
“I don’t,” I replied.
“Well, one of the drivers will take one of us back to the hotel just in case someone there saw which taxi picked us up.”
She took her pack and introduced me to Antonio, a young guy who looked to be about ten years younger than us. We arranged that Jen would stay at the bus station just in case the taxi came back.
I climbed into the front passenger seat of Antonio’s cab. He made a u-turn across the highway and piloted us toward the hotel zone along the beach.
We rode along in silence and then he asked, “Do you remember what type of car he was driving?”
“It was small – maybe a Nissan. It was white and it had a red stripe.” I replied in my clumsy Spanish.
“All taxis in Tulum are white and have a red stripe,” Antonio replied with a smile. He slowed down as we passed a taxi.
“Was that it?” he asked.
“Um, I don’t think so.”
“Well, what did the driver look like? Was he young, was he old?”
“Um,” I said, trying to remember but I had not taken the time that morning to see the driver as a person. In my mind he was just an anonymous Mexican taxi driver.
Antonio looked over at me. Based on the heat coming off my face, I’m sure it was red.
“Don’t worry, friend, people leave stuff all the time in taxis.” He slowed down as we passed another taxi. I looked at it, but it looked just like every other taxi in the whole area.
At the hotel, Antonio hopped out and talked to the staff people in fast, rapid fire Spanish. They shook their head. We got back in the cab and drove a mile down the road. A small dirt road led a few hundred yards through the jungle to a clearing where four or five cabs were parked. The turquoise water of the ocean could be seen through the trees.
Antonio pointed to where the drivers were lounging at the side of the clearing.
“Are any of those guys him?” He asked.
“I don’t think so.” I answered.
“Can you remember anything about him?” He asked. “Was he bald? Was his hair like mine?”
I thought about it again for moment.
“I think he had a mustache,” I said weakly.
Antonio got out and talked to the other drivers.
“No luck,” he said when he returned.
We drove slowly back to the bus station, with Antonio slowing down even more as we passed each taxi and I scrutinized it for something that might look familiar.
At the bus station, Jen’s luck had been non-existent as well. Antonio suggested that we might want to go back to the taxi headquarters, where they had pictures of every single taxi driver on file. Despite having no clue of what our driver had looked like, we agreed.
The taxi headquarters (we were never sure if it was a company, union, or co-op of owner-operators) was in the second floor of a rebar and concrete building that looked half finished. We were ushered thorough a muggy reception area where a few middle aged men lounged and into a side office where a man was sitting at a desk.
Antonio spoke to the man. The man looked at us and pulled a couple of three ring binders off the shelf behind him.
We opened the first one to find it filled with Polaroid snapshots of the heads of men staring straight ahead. Their name and what must have been their cab number was written under each picture. There were hundreds of faces.
We flipped through the pages. Here there were old guys, young guys, guys that looked tired, guys that smiled at the camera, bald guys, the occasional woman, guys who shared cab numbers, and an amazing amount of guys with mustaches. It went on and on.
Jen and I finally admitted defeat. We got the email address of the guy who was sitting behind the desk just in case someone turned in her wallet and Antonio drove us back to the bus station. He pointed us to an Internet café where we could call the U.S. and suggested that we cancel the credit cards right away. We thanked Antonio for his help. A few days later, Jen emailed the taxi manager but she never heard back.
A couple of weeks later, Jen and I returned to Tulum to end our vacation with a few more days on the beach. Stepping out of the bus station, we spotted the long line of white taxi cabs. We peered up and down the block hoping to see Antonio but we didn’t spy him.
A friendly, middle-age man who was going a little bald on the top helped us load our gear into the truck of his cab. He asked us where we were going and we told him the name of the hotel and then settled into the back seat of the taxi. Taxi 214 to be exact.