December 21, 2012 7:13 pm

First Person: Mario Duran

‘I base my taxi fares on a general knowledge quiz’
Mario Durán©Nick Ballon

Bolivian taxi driver Mario Durán’s many challengers have included now-president Evo Morales

I’m a taxi driver in Bolivia, and when I pick up passengers, of course we negotiate a fare. But then I give them a chance to reduce their fare by testing me at random on general knowledge. I tell them they can test me first on any of the world’s countries – capitals, per capita income, surface area, population … anything. I give them an atlas or an almanac so they can check my answers.

For every question I get wrong I reduce the fare by $b1 (9p), which is about a tenth of the average fare. The fare never goes up, it only goes down; otherwise it would be unfair. But even if passengers don’t manage to catch me out I always give them a 50 cent coin to keep as a token.

Passengers rarely get me on geography, so after they’ve tested me I tell them they can ask me any general knowledge questions they like. This can be difficult, but I try my best. I know a lot about football teams and their positions in leagues around the world, the books of the Old and New Testaments, Bolivia’s exports in 2011, the political division of the countries of North and South America, geometry, world history and many other areas. Most recently I learnt the medals table of the London Olympics – people ask me this a lot.

I regret never having finished college and so my mission is to encourage people to study and keep learning. I want people to realise that, with some dedication, even a taxi driver can learn a lot. I don’t want young people to end up like me – I didn’t have many opportunities to do much else with my life. I want Bolivia to have good professionals because if these people progress, then so will their country.

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I think playing this game with my passengers comes from my mother. Although we were poor and she couldn’t read or write, when I was little she would offer me a small prize if I read a book in two days. Sometimes the prize was a promise to make me chips for lunch – incentives work just as well with adults; they don’t even need to be big.

To help me learn I have several notebooks and I study at least three times a week. For example, to memorise surface areas I write down the list of countries in order of size, with the distance between each entry being proportional to the difference in their size. Numbers are treacherous; if you don’t revise them they start escaping. To study I need perfect concentration, so I turn my phone off and lock the door to my room. I check my progress by timing myself down to the second. In one minute I can recite 105 pieces of information. My record in one hour is 2,319.

Back when the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, was a member of Congress he flagged me down. I recognised him and told him that he wasn’t in any ordinary taxi. I challenged him to test me to see if he could get a discount on the go. I told him to pick any country in the world – he chose China. When I dropped him off outside Parliament, he congratulated me, even though he didn’t get a discount because I got every question right. I should have told him that I knew that he was going to be president one day – maybe by now I’d be one of his advisers.

I work the night shift because I find the daytime traffic too stressful – I’m 65 years old and need to take care of my health. I may be an old man, but I can still do press-ups. I’ve never been materialistic though. Maybe this is why I’m now in financial difficulties. I need a new engine for my own car and until I can afford one I have to rent a taxi. So why do I keep driving? Because my passengers always leave happy – many of them say it’s the best taxi ride they’ve ever had.

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